Batman has appeared in untold thousands of comic books over the decades. You could pretty much spend the rest of your life reading about Batman. But some of the coolest and most interesting Batman stories aren't at your local bookstore, on the big shelf of hardcover and paperback collections. They're only available in the mysterious and bewildering world known as... the back issue bin.
It's hard to believe, but not every Batman story has been compiled into collected editions. Here are a bunch of harder to find Batman comics that are straight-up classics.
Top image: Batman by Mike Mignola, from Legends of the Dark Knight #54.
To help compile this list, we turned to the indispensible Will Brooker, aka Dr. Batman — the author of Batman Unmasked and the newly released book Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman. (Brooker also wrote two Batman articles for us, which you can read here and here.)
Note: We double-checked as best we could to make sure these stories aren't available in collected editions — but we might have missed something. If you've seen a TPB collection that includes any of these comics, let us know.
"There's Nothing So Savage... As A Man Destroying Himself" (Batman #402-403)
Max Allan Collins is a great mystery author, and also the long-time writer of the Dick Tracy comics. So when he came on board as writer of the Batman comics, many people probably expected greatness. Sadly, Collins got tangled up in revamping the origin of Jason Todd, the second Robin, to make him more "street." But he did manage to create this fascinating two-issue story arc where a rogue cop steals a Batsuit and becomes a different version of Batman... one who kills criminals who escaped justice on a technicality.
"The Wall" and "Dead Letter Office" (Batman #431-432)
James Owsley, who had a great Power Man & Iron Fist run and went on to co-create Quantum and Woody as Priest, wrote a couple of amazing issues of Batman back in the day. In one, Batman investigates a mob murder case — which leads him back to the League of Assassins and one of the men who trained him. Batman leaves Gotham and travels around the world to a snowy temple reminiscent of the one in Batman Begins, for a final confrontation. And in "Dead Letter Office," Batman investigates an old case of an abducted child — only to find that a crucial witness has been relocated by the FBI, which will do anything to stop Batman finding him.
The Many Deaths of the Batman (Batman #433-435)
Jim Aparo's late-80s art style looks dated now, but this John Byrne-written story boldly adds to Batman's mythos, detailing a small army of experts who trained him in poisons, explosives, gymnastics and disguise. Episodes 2 and 3 focus on the Dark Knight as detective, but the first episode is startling, especially for its time: there's only one line of dialogue. The series also inspired Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio's classic academic anthology, The Many Lives of the Batman, of 1991. — Will Brooker
The Doom That Came To Gotham
We can sum the awesome appeal of this one in one sentence: Hellboy creator Mike Mignola tells a story of Batman in the H.P. Lovecraft universe. Mignola reinvents all of the Batman mythos in a Lovecraftian context. And he throws in lots of shout-outs to Lovecraft's classic texts, including Charles Dexter Ward and Nameless City. And we discover that the founders of Gotham City made a deal with something... eldritch... to ensure their city's prosperity. The individual issues of this three-part miniseries are going for up to $30 on Amazon.
Back in the 1990s, the idea of seeing a superhero universe from the viewpoint of ordinary people going about their lives captured everyone's imagination — Kurt Busiek achieved a lot of great stuff with this notion. But one of the coolest looks at people's everyday struggles in a world of costumed action was John Ostrander and Mary Mitchell's Gotham Nights. The miniseries follows six random people who witness Batman in action, all of whom are dealing with personal life decisions, including what to do about a terminal illness. And whether to return to a life of crime. Gotham City is often a character in the best Batman stories, but few stories make Gotham come to life the way this does. Sadly, the followup miniseries, Gotham Nights II, isn't nearly as good.
Dark Knight, Dark City
Batman was having a bit of a renaissance around 1990, with Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle regularly turning out some wonderfully strange comics. But even more amazing was the run that Peter Milligan had on Batman, including stories about a Jewish golem created by a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, and a Batman who's lost his identity. But the greatest story in that run was probably the three-issue Dark Knight, Dark City, in which the Riddler attempts to waken a sleeping demon under Gotham — and he tricks Batman into performing terrible rituals, including doing an emergency tracheotomy on a baby. Actually, Dark Knight, Dark City was reissued last year as a DC Comics Presents deal, but that's already hard to find. The good news? The original issues are cheap.
"A Bullet for Bullock" (Detective Comics #651)
Chuck Dixon was the regular writer of Detective for a long time, and had some fun stories here and there — but few were as fun as this one-shot, in which someone is trying to kill Harvey Bullock. Really worthwhile for the interactions between Batman and Gotham's meanest cop, who regularly refers to Bats as the "Bat-freak." And there's a cute final twist as to who's trying to kill Bullock, which I won't spoil here. As with the "identity crisis" issue that Milligan wrote (see above), you can tell that this is a standout issue — because it was turned into an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. That's like the ultimate seal of quality.
"Faces" (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #28-30)
Matt Wagner draws a Batman straight out of Miller and Mazzucchelli's Year One — athletic, fluid, an acrobatic figure in a gray bodysuit, rather than the armoured one-man-military of recent comics and movies. His Batman/Grendel crossover is one of the lesser-known highlights of 1990s Dark Knight history (it's reprinted in trade paperback.) And this harder-to-find Two-Face story is in similar style; elegant, noirish, subdued, with a tastefully European feel. — Will Brooker
Run Riddler Run
Edward Nigma has often had a raw deal in comics – perhaps because he inspired the 1960s TV show, and appeared in the first episode, he's rarely taken seriously, and at best treated like a poor man's Joker. Here he gets room to develop in a three-part prestige format story that deals, unusually for Batman, with street-level social justice and urban protests. Writer Gerard Jones and artist Mark Badger show that it's precisely because everyone underrates the Riddler that he can pose a real threat. — Will Brooker
Batman Adventures #13-36
Not only was Batman: The Animated Series a thing of true beauty — but its tie-in comic was amazingly high quality as well. Mostly written by Kelley Puckett and drawn by the late, great Mike Parobeck, with occasional assists by Ty Templeton, this comic was not just a great kid-friendly take on Batman. It was also a genuinely clever comic, which frequently told a complex story in just one issue. Including an issue where Commissioner Gordon goes into Gotham's underworld seeking a missing undercover cop. And an issue where Batman teams up with Talia Al-Ghul to find her missing father Ra's Al-Ghul. Plus "Natural Born Loser" (issue #30), where a small-time crook breaks out three master criminals... who are too smart for their own good. The first 12 issues of this comic were collected in trades (along with the classic tie-in comic, Mad Love) but you'll need to be a master detective to find the rest of this run.
"Freakout" (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #91-93)
Garth Ennis writes this completely batshit (so to speak) story in which an evil hippie called Dr. Freak creates a superstrong version of LSD called DSC 2000, which gives you superstrength. Dr. Freak bathes in a pool of the blood of people who've used DSC 2000 and becomes an unstoppable foe. The covers are really luridly beautiful, and the art by Will Simpson is pretty great.
"Stories" (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #94)
Terrorists capture a group of Gothamites in an elevator, in this one-shot by Michael Gilbert. While they wait for rescue, they swap tales of the Batman. Elderly Julie Madison remembers a dashing, gothic hero from 1939. A middle aged guy recalls a Silver Age story from 1952, packed with puns; a hippy tells the story of Batman versus ‘Age O'Quarious', in Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams style. Finally, after a kid has told them they're all wrong, and that Batman looks like a 1990s bad-ass in Azrael armour, the real Batman appears... and they all see him according to their expectations. — Will Brooker
Batman 1 Million
The main DC 1 Million story arc has been reprinted, but the Batman of the far future, and his sidekicks, appeared in several other titles during this DC event, all of them dated from the year 85,271. "Don't tell me Gotham still needs a Batman in the 853rd century," says Bruce. His future counterpart replies "where I live is... a little more intense": he's based on Pluto. The adventures of this science fiction orphan, Robin, the Toy Wonder, and the supporting cast range across Catwoman, Nightwing, Detective and Shadow of the Bat during the crossover month — and they deserve to be collected in a single trade format: Batman 1 Million recently reappeared in Grant Morrison's Batman #700, and thus is confirmed (before the 52 reboot at least) as part of future DC Universe continuity. — Will Brooker
Tangent: The Batman #1 and Amalgam: Legends of the Dark Claw #1
The Tangent series took the names of major DC characters and spun them off in new directions, while Amalgam crossed DC heroes with their closest Marvel counterparts. So here, we have a Dark Knight in armour, mourning his lady love from King Arthur's court, with script by Dan Jurgens and art by Klaus Janson. And Larry Hama and Jim Balent give us the Dark Claw — armed with Wolverine blades and battling Hyena, with a girl called Sparrow as sidekick. Both are silly, entertaining experiments: the Tangent Batman talks like the Mighty Thor, and Dark Claw spun off into an animated-style Dark Claw Adventures. These comics would work well together, in an Elseworlds trade paperback. — Will Brooker
And finally, you should also try and track down all of the various comics where Batman and Deadshot cross paths, including Batman's guest spots in Suicide Squad and Secret Six, plus the final issue of Legends of the Dark Knight that deals with their relationship. A Batman/Deadshot trade paperback would be the bomb.