Heroes are great – even when they turn 80-years-old. People love to see a hero rise above adversity, best the bad guy, and save the day. It’s inspirational and awe-inspiring. But a hero is only as good as their villains.
Batman might be one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time, but his villains are some of the most memorable bad guys. Ask anybody to name some comic book villains and chances are there would be a lot of the Dark Knight’s rogues on the list; even if that person had never even picked up a comic in their life.
To honour the caped crusader’s 80th anniversary, we’ve taken a look at some of the stories that showcase how great Batman’s villains are. So whether you’re looking for an introduction to the characters on page, or are just curious as to what our favourites are, we’ve plucked out five of the best featuring some of the Dark Knight’s most notorious nemeses.
Batman’s most iconic villain, The Joker, can be portrayed in a whole lot of ways, depending on the writer. Sometime’s he funny and weird, other times he’s terrifying. However, one of the best stories that showcases the latter is Joker by the legendary team of Brian Azzarello and Lee Bemejo.
Set in a much darker, more realistic version of Gotham, the book follows the Joker after he’s newly released from Arkham Asylum. Told from the point of view of a low level thug who the Joker takes a liking to, the story shows the crazed villain starting a war with the other gang leaders in the city. Joker hardly features Batman at all, with the story caring more about watching the path of destruction the Joker makes and how he ruins one man’s life.
The book also stands out thanks to the amazing art by Bemejo. Grim and dirty, yet incredibly elegant, it showed the city and the characters in ways that we’d never seen before. Joker was also noted as the likely inspiration for Heath Ledgers look in The Dark Knight, as the designs are almost identical.
READ MORE: Batman at 80 – From the movies to the comics
Ra’s Al Ghul
Perhaps not one of Batman’s best known foes, but easily one of his deadliest. Ra’s is the leader of the League of Assassins, an international terrorist, criminal mastermind, and the grandfather to Batman’s son, Damian Wayne. Despite being one of Bruce’s oldest enemies, The Demon’s Head (as he is also known) gained notoriety with the general public after his big screen debut when Liam Neeson donned the wispy moustache in Christopher Nolan’s 2005 movie Batman Begins.
As the title suggests, writer Grant Morrison and artist Andy Kubert’s 2008 story, The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul, brought the powerful villain back from his death several years before. Ra’s had cheated death several times over the years, but this was the first book that really delved into just how much power the now-infamous Lazarus pits have.
When Batman’s son is targeted to become the host for the spirit of Ra’s, it’s up to Batman, Robin, Nightwing and the Demon Head’s daughter Talia Al Ghul to team up in order to protect the feisty pre-teen Damian. Their journey takes them across the world, to hidden cities and mystical temples, as well as pitting them against some of the deadliest assassins in the DC Universe.
Whilst part of Morrison’s sprawling Batman epic, The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul can be read as a stand alone story, one that showcases just how dangerous a foe Ra’s can be, even when dead.
READ MORE: Our top 5 Batman comics by Scott Snyder
Wearing all green and ready with a brain teaser, The Riddler is one of the most unusual foes that Batman faces. Instead of challenging Batman on a physical level, Edward Nigma forces Batman to push his mind to the limits. Whilst some readers find this to be less entertaining, due in part to Batman not getting to fight a villain, these stories go a long way to displaying why he’s known as ‘the world’s greatest detective,’ as showcased in Scott Snyder’s Zero Year/Zero City.
However, there are many stories that feature The Riddler, but none show how vicious and bloodthirsty the character can be quite like Dark Knight, Dark City, by Peter Milligan and Jim Aparo. When the Riddler discovers that an ancient ritual was performed in Gotham centuries ago, one that supposedly summoned the bat demon Barbathos, he decides to recreate this, using Batman as the sacrifice.
The story was notable for introducing some supernatural elements to the Batman mythology that would be used several times over the years, as well as creating a version of the Riddler who kills people – and even kidnaps and tortures babies to reach his goals. He’s not just Sean Lock in green spandex with a question-mark pattern, after all.
READ MORE: Batman at the movies – 1966-97
Perhaps one of the most tragic villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, Two-Face is a character that went from an ally to an enemy thanks to a vicious assault that scarred his face and broke his psyche.
A book that best showcases the tragic story of Two-Face is Batman/Two-Face: Face The Face by James Robinson. Following the Universe-shattering events of the cataclysmic Infinite Crisis, Batman hangs up his cowl for a year, leaving Gotham’s protection in the hands of a reformed Harvey Dent. Having received plastic surgery to heal his face, Dent appears to be his old self once again.
When a series of murders sweep through Gotham, the Dark Knight begins to investigate and suspects that Two-Face is reemerging. When Dent’s psyche breaks and he decides to become a villain again, he takes a bottle of acid and a scalpel to his face to transform himself, in what is still a shocking scene. Face The Face perfectly showcases the complex and tragic nature of Harvey Dent.
READ MORE: Batman at the movies – 2005-17
The talented thief and burglar, Catwoman (first appearing as the whip-snapping ‘The Cat’ in the first ever issue of Batman back in 1940) has skirted the line between hero and villain numerous times over the years. Selina Kyle has even been a member of an offshoot of the Justice League and is broadly thought of as belonging to the ‘Bat-family’ as much as she is a member of the rogues gallery. Because of this flitting between hero and villain, there are numerous stories that showcase the character. Although one of, if not the best is When in Rome – by the same team behind Batman: The Long Halloween, one of the most celebrated Batman comics ever written.
Set concurrently with another Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale book Batman: Dark Victory, the story sees Selina travel to Italy in search of information about her parents. There, she is joined in her travels by the Riddler and a hitman called Blonde. When a mob boss that Selina is due to meet is killed by Joker toxin, she gets the blame, making her a target for the rest of the crime families. Over the course of the story, Catwoman must fight not only for her life against the Italian mafia, but must also deal with a treacherous Riddler.
When In Rome showcases many facets of Catwoman’s character. She is not only a woman fighting for her life, getting into scrapes with killers and assassins, but also a woman searching for her family, trying to find her place in the world. This six-issue comic is worth every penny.