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Batman's 7 scariest comics that you should read, just in time for Halloween
If you're looking for comic book scares this Halloween, check out these spooky tales from The Dark Knight.
It's Halloween week, and if you're a fan of spooky stories, then that means there's a good chance you're packing as much horror programming as possible onto your screens and your pages. If you're a fan of atmospheric, creepy stories to read late at night with the lights off, comic books are very fertile ground for all manner of horror tales, but while some exist in the pure horror arena, others prefer to mix their scares with some superhero fun.
There are quite a few superheroes who fit right into horror narratives of course, but few fit quite as well as Batman.
DC Comics' Dark Knight, who based his entire modus operandi on the idea that being a giant bat would frighten the criminals he was hoping to tame, has mined plenty of frightening corners of Gotham for our entertainment. So if you're looking to set up a Batman horror comics binge, this is a great place to start. Here are seven of the scariest Batman comics you should check out, from vampires to Gotham City's secret occult history.
Batman and the Mad Monk
In the mid-2000s, writer and artist Matt Wagner (Mage) embarked on an effort to reimagine a couple of key early Batman stories, adapting them for modern audiences while keeping their classic, pulpy edge. That effort produced both Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk. While they're both worth reading, it's the latter book that is arguably the best vampire-related story Batman's ever been a part of.
Adapted from a story originally printed in Detective Comics #31-32, Batman and the Mad Monk follows a young Caped Crusader as he encounters the first supernatural foe in his crimefighting career, the Mad Monk, a vampire who's scheming to build his empire from a spooky manor house where he lures his prey. Built on the foundation of Wagner's stylized, adventure pulp art style, Mad Monk features an unforgettable villain, a supernatural mystery, some truly effective horror elements, and a final showdown that's among the most memorable in Batman's history.
Gothic: A Romance
Though Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is the Grant Morrison Batman story that usually gets trotted out when discussing the Dark Knight's scariest adventures, for my money Gothic is actually a stronger dose of spooky Caped Crusader fun.
Published the year after Arkham Asylum as the second arc of Legends of the Dark Knight, and drawn by the great Klaus Janson, the story plays to Morrison's strengths as Batman struggles through a psychological descent into darkness. (The story here also hints at the kind of tales Morrison would bring to their lengthy, legendary Batman run more than two decades later.)
The story begins by placing Batman at the heart of an apparent conspiracy in which Gotham's mob bosses are being killed off by a mysterious figure. From there, it then digs deep into who that killer is, why they're doing what they're doing, and how they're tied to Bruce Wayne's own childhood. Bolstered by Janson's atmospheric, often flat-out terrifying art, Morrison delivers a compelling supernatural villain while building out the story's central mythology in a way that enhances the scares and also raises the emotional stakes for Batman himself. By the time the Dark Knight gets to the heart of the case, it's grown into one of the creepiest he's ever tackled, and an essential Batman horror tale.
Dark Knight, Dark City
One of my favorite subgenres of Batman stories is "Dark Secrets in Gotham's History," and of all the great installments in that subgenre, this one might be my absolute favorite.
Written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, Dark Knight, Dark City spans Batman #452-454, and digs deep into a secret occult conspiracy tied to Gotham's early days as a once-promising city. Milligan also weaves in Thomas Jefferson's own interest in the supernatural, and The Riddler's quest to recreate the past and defeat Batman in the process.
First published in 1990, the story is worth revisiting now thanks in large part to how atmospheric and chilling the world here is, as Batman tries to unravel the mystery behind The Riddler's latest scheme. It's a wonderful exercise in dark comics craftsmanship, but it's also a glimpse at one of the more vicious versions of The Riddler, something you might be interested in if you're hoping to catch Matt Reeves' The Batman in theaters come 2022. Plus, it involves the Bat demon known as Barbatos, who was a key player in runs by both Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, so anyone obsessed with the origins of various pieces of the recent Batman canon should stop here as well.
The Black Mirror
Before he became the writer charged with bringing Batman into the New 52 era, creating the Court of Owls and a new origin with Zero Year in the process, Scott Snyder teamed up with artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla for this dark mystery that spans ten issues of Detective Comics. More than a decade after it launched, The Black Mirror ranks today as a modern Batman classic. Snyder's story embraced the classic Detective Comics casework angle, while also delivering a dark new twist on one of Gotham's most important families.
There are a number of major elements at work in the story, from a mysterious adversary known as The Dealer to Dick Grayson's struggles to continue to adapt to the lifestyle of being Batman, but the central and most horrifying piece of The Black Mirror is the arrival of James Gordon Jr. Commissioner Gordon's son has been in exile — thanks to his dark, possibly murderous tendencies — and with his tension-filled return to Gotham, he assures his father and his sister, Barbara, that he's changed. What he's actually done, though, is set in motion something monstrous that has to be read to be believed.
Laced with psychological dread and rich in mystery, The Black Mirror is an essential Batman horror story still capable of sending chills down your spine even after multiple re-reads.
Batman: The Cult
One of the great ongoing threads in the decades-old Batman narrative is his constant conflict with people who think they can solve Gotham city's crime problem better than he can. There are plenty of classics that fit this mold, but if you're looking for something scary, The Cult — from writer Jim Starlin and legendary horror artist Bernie Wrightson — will put you in the right place.
It begins with a typical Gotham City mystery, as Batman follows bloody footprints into the city's sewers. What he finds when he's down there, though, is more than he bargained for. The titular cult, led by the zealous Deacon Blackfire, is determined to help eradicate crime in Gotham by dragging criminals down into the underworld and slaughtering them, and Blackfire wants Batman to be the next convert to his cause.
What's particularly great about The Cult is how recognizable the setup is, and how far it's willing to go beyond that initial hook. We've all experienced stories where Batman runs up against other supposed crimefighters and their demented schemes, but few of them are willing to put our Dark Knight through quite as much as this one is. Plus, it's drawn by one of horror comics' great visionaries, which means every panel is steeped in dread and atmosphere.
In the years before they launched the epic event Batman: The Long Halloween, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale refined their collaboration through a trilogy of Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween specials. These stories riffed on Batman's place in the spookiest season. They're all worth reading, and they're collected in the trade paperback Haunted Knight for convenience, but of all three, "Ghosts" stands as the strangest and most rewarding.
After launching with a battle between Batman and The Penguin, "Ghosts" takes its cues, believe it or not, from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, as Bruce Wayne is visited in the night by three spirits who remind him where he came from, where he is now, and where he is going — if he's not careful. Sale's stylized faces and character designs enhanced the eerie feel of the story, and while it might seem a lot incongruous to use a classic Christmas story to tell a new Halloween tale, "Ghosts" uses a tried-and-true formula to deliver an instantly memorable new take on The Batman and his place in October.
Gotham by Gaslight
One of the first and most influential of DC Comics' "Elseworlds" stories centered on alternate versions of key heroes, Gotham by Gaslight remains a spooky classic worth nestling into every Halloween season.
Set in the Victorian era, the one-shot from writer Brian Augustyn and artist Mike Mignola follows Bruce Wayne just as he's beginning his transformation into Batman, and follows what happens when an unexpected adversary lands in the booming old world version of Gotham. Jack the Ripper has traveled across the Atlantic to continue his killing spree in North America, and it's up to Batman to bring the legendary murderer down, perhaps uncovering more than he'd like to about his own origins along the way.
"Batman vs. Jack the Ripper" is a fantastic hook, and it's executed beautifully by Augustyn and Mignola (who gets beautiful inking from the great P. Craig Russell along the way). They dive headlong into the concept with an immersive, evocative view of Gotham in the days before Batmobiles and Joker toxin. The central showdown pays off in unexpected ways, the art is gorgeous, and for extra horror fun, there's an image of an early version of The Joker tucked away in this book that will burn itself into your brain while you sleep.