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The Batbooks To Keep In Your Utility Belt...

With the opening of Batman Begins, we always have the hope that interested moviegoers will wander into a comic book store or a website with links to Amazon looking for "the good stuff," Batman comics or collections that will recapture the buzz the movie gave them.

For monthlies, DC has a wide variety of titles that feature Batman. Perhaps the best right now is the actual Batman, written by Judd Winick with art by Doug Mahnke. The two deal with Batman in the most mainstream superhero interpretation, with last month's issue featuring a cameo by Superman. Over in Detective Comics, David Lapham has been telling a dark and gritty crime tale that may take casual readers aback.

But if you are a casual reader, you want to pick up something self-contained, and you don't want to gamble. You want the best of Batman that a store can offer. Fortunately, we can help. Following are some good places to start if you want to enjoy the graphic adventures of the Dark Knight.

Batman: Year One
Writer/artist Frank Miller (Sin City) had earlier wowed fans with a look at the end of Batman's career. It wasn't that big a stretch, then, for him to examine the beginnings. With artist David Mazzucchelli, Miller spun a tale that barely features the Bat, instead focusing on the man. Young Bruce Wayne (specified as 25 here) may have anger issues towards criminals, but he isn't yet the fearsome creature of the night that keeps Gotham safe.

A few elements of Batman Begins originate here, including a younger Lieutenant James Gordon. Until Miller, nobody had really thought to explore Gordon's humble beginnings.

The filmmakers also nod toward this work with Wayne first donning a ski mask and being a little overconfident in his ability to leap from rooftop to rooftop. If the straight-up superheroism of Batman makes you uncomfortable, this book is your best bet.

Batman: The Killing Joke
Some people consider this the single best Batman story ever written. Coming from the mind of Alan Moore, definitely one of the best comic book writers ever, this tale pits Batman against his greatest enemy, The Joker.

At the same time, it offers a tremendous character study of both. Those who consider Batman insane love this book for making the point that he and the Clown Prince of Crime have more in common than not.

Aside from beautiful art by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke also had a lasting impact on continuity. Just for kicks and to tick off Batman, The Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon, the daughter of the Commissioner.

What he didn't know was that Barbara was also Batgirl, thus ending one phase of her career as a crimefighter. (The failed WB series Birds of Prey even used the scene.) For its time, it was a shocking moment, and though Barbara recovered and has become the information broker known as Oracle, fans can point to this as the moment that Batman passed into a darker era, albeit one he may have originally started out in.

Batman: The Long Halloween
Though Batman is obviously known for his weird villains, he can be just as effective facing the evil that ordinary men can do. In this collection, originally a year-long series, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale chart Batman's first year of struggles with the mobs of Gotham City, while also trying to capture a serial killer calling himself "Holiday."

Dark, moody and gripping, this book puts mob boss Carmine Falcone in the spotlight, a character David S. Goyer could not forget for Batman Begins. He also paid tribute to this story by naming the movie's Commissioner after Loeb, who teamed with Sale on a follow-up, Dark Victory, that provides the rationale for Gotham's underworld to have become so colorful and outright nuts.

Other important contributions from Loeb to the Bat-mythos include the creation of the villain "Hush."

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Often credited as the graphic novel that got people talking about Batman again, this story features a Bruce Wayne that has long been retired. Sick of his culture's decline, he dons cape and cowl once more. Unfortunately, that attracts the attention of his old foes, and one very ticked off Superman. When they mix it up, bad things happen.

Frank Miller wrote and drew this, making his career and saving Batman's. In recent years, Miller returned for a sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, that veered into more overtly satirical waters than the first book. Of the two, The Dark Knight Returns is the stronger work, and absolutely worth your attention.

Batman: War on Crime
Or "Alex Ross' Vision of Batman." The second of six over-sized editions designed to show off Ross' incredible painting, War On Crime features a very human Batman facing the root causes of the misery in the poorer sections of Gotham City. The text gets lost in the sweep of the art, but at least one of writer Paul Dini's ideas echo in Batman Begins as Bruce Wayne learns early on to have some sense of mercy toward those who are as much victims as criminals themselves.

Batman Archives, Vol. 1
Goyer and Director Christopher Nolan went back to these stories as their base. Though the character is credited to Bob Kane, the young artist actually contracted a stable of creators to flesh out his basic idea, so let's credit the work of writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson as well. This book collects the first year or so of Batman's appearances in Detective Comics, with many elements that will surprise you.

Though obviously crude by today's standards, the stories still have energy, and can be read in quick bursts. Go back to the beginning and marvel at how this 1939 creation can still be so fresh in 2005.

If you're intrigued by villain R'as al Ghul, played by Ken Watanabe in the film, DC has several books available. The best of these still in print would be Batman: Son of the Demon, which puts a unique spin on the rivalry between the immortal madman and the hero he calls only "Detective." Though Batman Begins never mentions it, it has been accepted comic book lore that the name "R'as al Ghul" means "The Demon's Head" in a proto-Arabic language. Son of the Demon is actually part of an unofficial trilogy; if you can find them, the other titles are Bride of the Demon and Birth of the Demon.

The earliest appearances of R'as al Ghul have also been collected in Batman: Tales of the Demon, mostly in tales written by the character's creator Dennis O'Neill.

DC has also released the first issues of two mini-series focusing on R'as and The Scarecrow, but again, these are serials. If you're venturing into a comic book store for the first time, you're going to have to come back to find out how the story ends. Of course, we hope you would anyway, especially after reading one of the above recommendations.

Derek McCaw

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