Despite Christopher Nolan’s successful attempts to keep his Batman movies based in the real world, it’s never been hard to see which comics he used to inspire the plot spines of his films. Batman Begins was based pretty thoroughly on Batman: Year One; The Dark Knight has heavy elements of The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween; and The Dark Knight Rises juggles an unprecedented three comic arcs, managing to include Knightfall, No Man’s Land, and The Dark Knight Returns. If you enjoyed the movies (and, if the box office numbers are any indication, you have), you should check out all of those comics. But if you’re looking for new stories to fill the Christian Bale-shaped hole in your heart, take a look at these books.
If you liked the flamboyant villains, you’ll love…
One of the most memorable and oft-mentioned aspects of Nolan’s Batman films is the way the villains take up the whole screen, flexing and squirming their way off the cellulose and into your nightmares. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow was delightfully sleazy and deranged, Tom Hardy’s Bane was a Victorian dandy trapped inside a professional wrestler’s body, and there is literally nothing that can be said about Heath Ledger’s Joker that hasn’t already been said a hundred times. Imagine a movie where those three guys ran around and got to have gloriously brutal misadventures, and you’re pretty close to Gail Simone’s Secret Six.
At its core, Secret Six is about allowing taking lesser-known DC villains and making them scary again. She took joke villains from the ’60s, sons and daughters of obscure Golden Age baddies, and an unnamed alien footsoldier and injected them with new life as a team of amoral, badass mercenaries. Along the way, she took the time to craft a surprisingly funny and heartfelt narrative about, of all things, family, although it’s less Brady than it is Manson.
“Narrative about family” isn’t exactly a resounding recommendation for someone looking for 22 pages of Joker’s pencil trick, but the appearance of Bane makes this essential reading for a fan of the Nolanverse. It’s easy to hear Hardy’s muffled rumblings in Simone’s Bane, but don’t worry: this Bane would no sooner shed a single tear than he would leave a spine unbroken. Simone redeemed Bane from his disastrous portrayal in Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, and she did it four years before Nolan.
If you liked the cop drama, you’ll love…
What would it be like to be a police officer in Gotham City? How would having a billionaire ninja vigilante roaming the streets affect the way you did your job? How hard would it be to punch in every morning, knowing that at any minute, a woman who can control plants might hold the city hostage?
All of those questions, and more, are at the forefront of Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central, a police procedural set in Gotham City. Both Rucka and Brubaker are well-known in the comics community for writing gritty, street-level crime dramas, exactly the kind of stories Christopher Nolan told in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (less so in Batman Begins, which revolved around ninjas putting fear gas in the water mains). Rather than write another Batman story, Rucka and Brubaker focus on the normal men and women of Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, the people tasked with stopping and solving crimes that include the words “Joker toxin,” “freeze gun,” and “the kind of mob activity that hasn’t been seen in America since prohibition.”
With a sprawling, fully-realized cast of incredibly human characters, Rucka and Brubaker accomplish what many before Nolan thought was impossible: make a story that simultaneously respects the inherent silliness of the Batman mythos while creating realistic, gritty, believable stories. And by the way, bonus for fans of The Dark Knight: there’s an interrogation scene in the second collected volume that will look very familiar to you.
If you liked the political themes, you’ll love…
Ex Machina has a deceptively simple premise: There’s only one superhero in the world, and after he stops the second plane from hitting the World Trade Center, he (successfully) runs for mayor of New York City. But beyond that, it’s an introspective investigation on the nature of freedom versus privacy, the rights of the individual to resist the government, the merits of vigilante justice, and the virtues of heroes wearing masks.
Structured in such a way that every story arc divides its time equally between modern-day Mayor Mitchell Hundred and flashbacks to his days as “the Great Machine,” Ex Machina is a politically-minded superhero tale that never steps over the line into polemic. Considering that author Brian K. Vaughan wrote Ex Machina as a personal response to the September 11 attacks, that’s no small feat. But Vaughan and series artist Tony Harris always keep their feet on the ground, humanizing even the worst criminals and making it difficult not to sympathize with even conflicting characters.
From the first issue to the massive surprise at the end, the entire series is a thrill-ride, with jetpacks, ray guns, and physics going hand in hand with First, Second, and Fourth Amendment debates. Ex Machina combines “ripped from the headlines” with “superhero comics” in a way that no one has pulled off since…well, Christopher Nolan.
If you liked the realistic hardware, you’ll love…
I recognize there’s a certain Batman-heavy bent to this list, and for that I apologize. But when you like Batman, there’s always just so much more Batman to recommend. Take, for example, Batwoman, which sees a redheaded lesbian ex-West Pointer steal high-tech military hardware to punch crime in the face.
(Justly) praised for its intelligent and well-researched handling of both queer and military life, Batwoman is a trip to the candy store for everyone who looked forward to those scenes in the movies where Lucius Fox showed off his toys to Bruce Wayne. Each weapon and gadget that Kate Kane uses is accompanied by an explanation of its capabilities and purpose, and it always seems reasonable (even when shapeshifters hijack a plane to deliver a chemical weapon payload).
Like Nolan’s films, Batwoman strives always to be grounded, devoting huge chunks of its story to explaining both why and how a “normal” person can have both the means and the desire to dress like a bat and fight crime. You never question the fact that Kate Kane has devoted her life to this cause, just like you never question Christian “Swallowing razor blades” Bale’s Batman.
Ross is a freelance writer and not-so-freelance barista operating out of middle Georgia. He has a Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing from Mercer University, where he worked as a teaching assistant, writing instructor, and press house editor. He currently divides his time between throwing empty whiskey bottles at his English degree and writing Wu-Tang Clan fanfiction. If you want to read more of Ross’s writing, you can check out his blog, Later I Will Destroy This Earth!, or Planet Ivy, where he pretends to be British. If you want to follow someone on Twitter who doesn’t have a lot to say, check him out on Twitter @AtomicSleepwalk. He knows more about the Atomic Knights than anyone else on the internet.
Ross dropped some knowledge on you previously with Things Your Teacher Wants You to Know. –>