Whether they’re clashing over ideologies, teaming-up for the benefit of humanity, or immersed in their own separate adventures, Batman and Superman have given us over 75 years of comics worthy of our interest and examination. These figures, whether drawn to mythic heights, or sketched as identifiably human-figures have been interpreted and re-interpreted time and time again, making it unlikely for most of us to agree on one single best take on these characters. Lucky for us, AE doesn’t put much stake into agreeing because where’s the fun in that? But whichever take on these characters you prefer, we guarantee that each of the following stories is well worth reading and appreciating, not only for an overall knowledge and enjoyment of the characters, but also for expanding the context in which we view these superheroes. With thousands of stories to choose from, these are the ones that define each of the characters for us. So here are our favorite Batman and Superman stories:

Superman: Birthright (Richard Newby)

Leinil Francis Yu (DC Comics)

Leinil Francis Yu (DC Comics)

Since 1986, John Byrne’s miniseries The Man of Steel, was considered by most to be the definitive origin of Superman. But in 2003, DC Comics decided we were in need of an update in light of the growing popularity of the WB’s Smallville, and our changing definition of the role of a superhero in a post-9/11 world. Enter famed comic book writer and historian Mark Waid, and stylish artist Leinil Francis Yu, who’d reach superstardom just a few years later. Together they crafted a 12-issue maxi-series that still defines Superman for me to this day. Superman: Birthright maintains the core concepts and characters of Superman, but differs in its decision to look at the world as it is, a world of paranoia, terrorist attacks, fear-mongering. It is in this seemingly hopeless world that Clark Kent delivers hope. While Clark Kent had been depicted as bland or cartoonish on multiple occasions, Waid and Yu gave Kent new life, presenting him as a man with his own insecurities who wore his heart on his sleeve. They let Clark travel the world and get to know the people he would eventually save. Ultimately, he made Clark Kent the man just as interesting as the Superman.

The first Act of the book takes place in Africa with Clark, a journalist pre-Daily Planet, exploring tribal prejudices and learning what it means to be a symbol to people through a young West African political activist. This in turn had a major effect on my view of Superman. In the 21st century, a hero who only stood for the American way, who was only familiar with one culture, just didn’t do it for me in the grand scheme of things. I’d always liked Superman but frequently questioned his effectiveness. But to have a Superman who not only traveled the world, but who embedded himself in different cultures, and learned numerous languages, and social and political plights was a character worth investing in. Birthright takes its time to explore Clark’s relationships and provides him with an incomparable level of empathy. Part of this empathy comes from a new power that allows Clark to see people’s auras, their souls made up of colors we humans can’t see, and it is this that gives him such a zeal for life and keeping that color in the world. It’s a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking conceptualization of what makes Superman special.

For the first time in comic book print, Superman actually felt like a young man, a person looking for his place in the world, one who didn’t always agree with his parents, one who’d grown distant from childhood friends, and one who wasn’t always sure what the right decision was. In pitting Clark against his former friend turned enemy Lex Luthor, Waid and Yu defined Superman through isolation and fear and his ability to rise above it. There is no better Superman story in any medium than Superman: Birthright because even when anchored by a massive emotional weight, Superman flies, and I believe in every ounce of loneliness, anger, and love.

Batman: The Long Halloween (Richard Newby)

Tim Sale (DC Comics)

Tim Sale (DC Comics)

Frank Miller’s Batman origin story Batman: Year One is not only considered to be, if not the greatest Batman story, then definitely the most influential. It is a great comic to be certain, but Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s follow-up, Batman: The Long Halloween, is where the fun of Batman’s revised origins begins. The 1996-1997 13-issue series takes place during the entire second year of Batman’s career. Gotham city is still home to crime families, and while the majority of Batman’s most famous rogues have already turned up, they’ve yet to claim Gotham for their own. Backed by Captain James Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent, Batman tries to reclaim the city before it gets worse. But when an unknown serial killer begins killing prominent Gothamites on holidays, their war grows beyond their ability to combat.

As much as I love the experienced, crazier, and all-around more jerk of a Batman, he can sometimes feel stagnant especially without the benefit of seeing his progression. In The Long Halloween, the brooding, violent Batman is still a key part of the character, but he also hasn’t entirely given up on Bruce Wayne yet. The series opens with Bruce Wayne proclaiming “I believe in Gotham City” and it is this belief, this optimism that defines his crusade, not the vengeance, paranoia, and suicide-drive that defines his later career. But like a great Shakespearean work, The Long Halloween is a tragedy, a horror story about how optimism and goodness can be corrupted. Batman’s loosening grip on his city (and with the benefit of hindsight, his sanity) is mirrored by Gordon’s crumbling marriage, and Dent’s compromised belief in the law which eventually leads to his origins as Two-Face during the half-way point in this story. This isn’t just a story about Bruce Wayne. It’s just as much the story of the police force, the mob, and the villains, and each one is given compelling reasons for their actions. Gotham is treated as a breeding ground where anything could happen.

Tim Sale’s art for the series could be best be described as a nightmarish take on film-noir and Coppola’s The Godfather. His heavy use of shadow gives the entire series a cinematic look that separates it from any of its contemporaries and remains unmatched to this day in its originality. No matter how much Batman you’ve seen, you’ve never seen his world depicted like this. Abandoning the realistic and grounded approach of Miller’s series, Loeb and Sale embrace the fantastical elements of Gotham, allowing proportions to be defined by the characters instead of rules of physiology.

While Batman’s superheroics never go utilized in any story, many forget that it is his skills as a detective that differentiate him from so many other characters. Loeb takes advantage of this by creating a mystery that allows Batman to do actual detective work and keep the audience guessing. The numerous twists and reveals help make The Long Halloween one of the most memorable journeys for the character. With appearances from all of Batman’s major villains, iconic lines of dialogue, and a final reveal that will lead you through the story time and time again, Batman: The Long Halloween is everything you could want from the character.

All-Star Superman (Sean W. Fallon)

Frank Quitely (DC Comics)

Frank Quitely (DC Comics)

Imagine someone took all of the material ever written about Superman- every comic book, audio book, movie,video game, TV show, and good fanfic. They take all this material and lock it in a vault that isn’t opened for a thousand years. The opener of the vault reads, watches, and listens to all of it and taking the best bits, creates a Herodotus style history of the Man from Tomorrow. That work of art, crafted with a love and reverence of the character and its history, would be Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. All-Star is like a greatest hits album of Superman comics. It is a love letter to the Golden, Silver, and Modern age takes on the character. It is a primer for new Superman fans and a reminder of the character’s potential for lapsed Superman fans. Everyone from Superman’s OG fans to people who have only read a single comic arc have something to love about this book. It’s art, by the super-humanly talented Frank Quitely, is like reading a book in which every panel could be hung in the Louvre. It’s plot, by the mind-warpingly good Grant Morrison, is an author at the top of his comic book writing game, (further reading: Morrison’s Batman run, written around the same time) writing as though tomorrow Superman will cease to exist. He manages to write about Superman’s origin (in eight words), his love for Lois, his relationship with Jimmy Olsen, his feelings towards Lex, and the legacy of this parents all within a single story. Morrison also finds time for Doomsday, time travel, encounters with pompous strongmen, an entire planet of Bizarros, Superman turning bad because of black Kryptonite, a renegade sun, the creation of a universe, the bottled city of Kandor, a prison riot in which Clark Kent must hide his identity while saving the day, and much more.

Morrison and Quitely also manage to solve two things that have always annoyed Superman fans. First, how does no one see that Kent and Superman are the same person? Because Quitely’s artwork is so good that Kent and Superman, through posture alone, can transform from a tall, stocky man to superhero made out of steel, ready to save the world. And finally, how can you enjoy a character who is so powerful that nothing seems likely to phase him? Simple, you make him more powerful and give him a death sentence. In the end, if you only could read one Superman story it should be All-Star Superman. Why? Because it has it all, and if you’re a Superman fan, lapsed or entrenched in the mythos, then this book will remind you that a man can fly.

Batman: The Black Mirror (Sean W. Fallon)

Jock (DC Comics)

Jock (DC Comics)

Scott Snyder is a liar. He says he makes comic books but he doesn’t. He makes horror movies that just happen to be on paper. Looking at his bibliography shows a hit-list of titles that could easily be written by Stephen King or John Carpenter. American Vampire, Severed, The Wake, and Wytches are all by a writer who knows how to mix tension and the grotesque in equal measured amount. He knows which artists to work with, when to hold back, and most importantly, when to make you a blubbering mess reading a comic book in a puddle of your own terror piss. As good as these other books are, and they’re all outstanding, he saves the best stuff for his Batman work. His Joker work in The Death of the Family and Endgame is without equal. He doesn’t mess around trying to explain the Joker or give his actions any sane reasoning. He just lets the monster run around. Possibly the most incredible thing about Black Mirror is that The Joker, who appears in two issues, is not the biggest monster on show. At its centre Black Mirror is a story about fathers and sons. Dick Grayson is Batman in Gotham while Bruce Wayne is off creating Batman Inc (read this series as well). He is working in his father’s footsteps as a new kind of Batman. Grayson is, in this author’s opinion, the best Batman. He has the angst and darkness of Batman but also a sense of fun and play that makes him more enjoyable to read a lot of the time. He is also still starting out in the role and finds himself making mistakes, but on the whole he is a more fun Batman. The other story that runs concurrent with Grayson’s story until they violently collide is another father and son story between Commissioner Gordon and his son, James Gordon Jr. James Jr’s previous role in Batman was as a baby who Gordon worries about (see Batman: Year One), but who is never really a character, especially not in the way his daughter, Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon is. Snyder takes the blank slate of a character and fashions something truly terrifying from it. First, he is a dead-eyed psychopath. He is not in a green suit bedecked with question marks or a facially disfigured attorney. He is a normal person, at least psychically and fashion-wise. He is the kind of man who gets found with a dozen bodies in his refrigerator and the neighbours say, “But he was such a pleasant young man” when actually he is a devil in a human suit. The slow burn method that Snyder employs keeps the reader guessing as to whether or not James Jr has reformed as he says he has, while also showing his youth through the eyes of Commissioner Gordon, which is off putting and unnerving. Each time we think we have a hold on who he is Snyder pulls the rug away until a reveal comes that is as horrific as it is enlightening. This sort of quiet, subtlety is not something we expect from comic books and the fact that villain doesn’t have a permanent grin or a penchant for umbrellas, but in fact could be anyone on the street is more powerful and terrifying than a man turning into a giant monster bat, which also happens in this book, because this book is awesome.

Superman: For the Man Who Has Everything (Ryan MacLean)

Dave Gibbons (DC Comics)

Dave Gibbons (DC Comics)

Not only is Alan Moore’s For the Man Who Had Everything one of the greatest Superman stories ever told, it is also one of the most flawlessly crafted superhero stories in the history of the medium, DC Comics or otherwise. First published as Superman Annual #11, the story almost presents itself as a “What If” scenario. Similarly exploratory, out-of-continuity storylines aren’t exactly uncommon in comics, but Moore decided to take this one step further. Rather than story presenting the “What if Krypton never blew up” as purely hypothetical, this tale of a planet that survived and a Kal-El that lived his entire life on Krypton happens entirely within Superman’s own imagination. Meanwhile a very real struggle involving Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman occurs around Superman’s currently comatose body with his own life in the balance. It is quite frankly a brilliant way for him to play around the dark, kind of disturbing alternate Krypton while still maintaining very real stakes in the real world.

Here, Superman finds himself at the mercy of some kind of strange alien plant life (a trope that Alan Moore always works well with if you remember one of his other classic stories, The Jungle Line) known as the Black Mercy which the issue’s villain, Mongul, describes as “something between a plant and an intelligent fungus.” The Black mercy forms a kind of symbiotic relationship with Superman, placing him in a convincing simulation of sorts that presents him with his heart’s greatest desire. The majority of the issue is spent with Kal-El trapped in this fantasy world as he eventually begins to reject his dream. He doesn’t do this by fighting or punching his way out of the Black Mercy’s control, instead it’s the result of his slow and heartbreaking realization that something just isn’t right with his would-be idyllic life. There are a number of emotional gut punches to be found as Superman shakes off the effects of the Black Mercy.

When Superman is finally released from his fantasy, he doesn’t take it well and releases all of his understandable fury on Mongul. It’s a side of the character we don’t get to see often. A well-written Superman is a level-headed guy who, even in action, remains calm and rarely resorts to full on violence. In this case, Superman perceives himself as having lived for decades with his family on Krypton. He even had children, only to have it all ripped away from him once again. The issue brilliantly explores Superman and develops a contrast between the peace-keeping, ass-kicking superhuman on the outside and the fragile, very mortal human soul that lies within him. It is this dynamic that makes For the Man Who Had Everything the finest and most definitive Superman story ever told.

Batman: Hush (Ryan MacLean)

Jim Lee (DC Comics)

Jim Lee (DC Comics)

As Batman comic fans, we should consider ourselves a pretty lucky bunch. There is a staggering number of incredible and iconic Batman stories to choose from. So many that picking just one favorite is no easy task. However, for my money, Jeph Loeb’s Hush storyline immediately comes to mind. On top of developing one hell of a great mystery for the world’s greatest detective to solve and remaining one of the most wildly entertaining and visually striking storylines to ever grace the medium, Hush just so happens to be, in my humble opinion, the definitive Batman arc of the 2000s.

The twelve-issue storyline, which began in 2002, is something of a crime thriller that focuses on a mysterious, unknown stalker who is hell bent on sabotaging Batman’s life at every turn. This stalker isn’t working alone either, having manipulated a surprisingly large number of Batman’s enemies and allies alike into working within the larger scheme that is at play. Everyone from an unstoppable Superman, the Joker, to a virus-infected Killer Croc become a part of the mystery and the plan to destroy Batman’s life. Aside from the physical and mental stress of dealing with his saboteur, a large part of the story hinges on the developing romantic relationship between Batman and Catwoman. Likewise Hush dives into Bruce’s childhood, introducing Thomas “Tommy” Elliot, an old friend of Bruce’s who has grown up to become a highly skilled doctor. So who is the shadowy saboteur and what does he hope to gain? It’s all part of the awesome mystery that Loeb has spun with Hush.

This isn’t exactly high-minded stuff. At its heart, Hush is a lot of pulpy genre-based fun. What elevates it to something greater than the popcorn entertainment that it very much is would be the incredibly high quality of the visual design. Artist Jim Lee’s drawings, combined with the coloring work of Alex Sinclair and Scott Williams’ inking, make for so truly stunning artistry. You won’t be able to go more than a few pages without something striking in the visuals catching your eye and implanting itself in your memory forever. Whether it be Batman brutally uppercutting Superman or Batman’s rooftop kiss with Catwoman or any number of other iconic moments from the arc. It is without a doubt one of the best-looking stories you will ever find. The artwork is nothing short of breathtaking.

But in my opinion, what makes Hush one of the most definitive Batman stories of all time is the way it is equally rewarding to all readers, both old and new alike. Let’s be honest, jumping into comics for the first time can be a daunting experience. Sometimes you just don’t know where to start, especially with a character as storied as Batman. But with Hush, you could very easily jump in having no previous experience with the character and still fully comprehend the characters and story as a whole. The story is welcoming without tons of exposition and therefore doesn’t alienate longtime fans either. It is the best of both sides. Loeb has a perfect understanding of each and every one of these characters and is able to use his knowledge of the ensemble to craft a rich and fully satisfying mystery for any reader.

Superman: The Race Between Superman & Flash! (Diego Crespo)

superman199frontrawfn

Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson (DC Comics)

Comics are a great medium for exploring literature in a manner that can’t be done with traditional text books. From Alan Moore to Frank Miller, they’re many handiworks breakdown structures meant to tell specifically mature stories that young children should not spend time reading them until they reach the appropriate age. But let’s not forget that superheroes and comic books were created for children. Superman is the best superhero because he’s the ideal superhero for when you’re growing up. Truth, justice, the American way, and wearing undies on the outside of your pants.

In The Race Between Superman & Flash the heroes go toe to toe in a race to see who, like the title suggests, is truly the fastest man alive. The race is more than just an ego competition as it’s a race for charity to help the United Nations. The race involves the heroes helping one another in the race around the globe as well as citizens in need. Unfortunately, some devious crime syndicates (a superstitious, cowardly lot) attempt to thwart the event for personal gain. How is either member of the Justice League supposed to win when either victory is purported loss? This comic goes to show you don’t need superheroes to always go to fisticuffs against villains to act like heroes. Sometimes it’s just as simple as letting the best man win. In this case, they’re both pretty great.

Bonus points for having the entire Justice League taking time out from actual responsibilities to watch and cheer on Superman and the Flash.

Batman: Zero Year (Diego Crespo)

Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, Fco Plascencia, Guillem March (DC Comics)

Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, Fco Plascencia (DC Comics)

On the most superficial level, I’m just glad to have a Batman comic not drowning in a color palette primarily drenched with brown, black, grey, and blue. This is the most vibrant comic since Alan Moore’s terribly-aged The Killing Joke and without any of the issues that make it an uncomfortable read now, Scott Snyder’s run of Batman peaked with a comic that took us back to rewrite an origin for The Dark Knight. When I initially heard this development I was disappointed. Another iteration of the Batman origin after the sincerely fucked up events of Death of the Family that shattered the bonds of the Batfamily with a devastating cliffhanger? Not only that but it would rewrite my favorite Batman story “Year One” in a universe reboot I already wasn’t crazy about? Woe was me.

Then I read the damn thing and felt the waves of creative genius rush over me like a tidal wave.

In Snyder’s mini-trilogy of a Batman prequel, he reintroduces concepts with untapped potential and transforms them into something distinct and personal. It’s more than just a flashy reboot. It’s a deeper exploration of the ideology behind Batman and what this character means to Gotham City. Furthermore, it’s a testament to what Batman means to Bruce Wayne. Many stories featuring Batman focus on how Batman will never allow Bruce to be a happy man, or a whole person. Snyder touches on that idea but the ultimate decision to be Batman, to help people, to save his city, to honor his family name: these are what eventually drive Bruce to be a great man, a great father, and a great hero.

Some of Your Favorites

 

Featured Image: Alex Ross (DC Comics)