Let’s take a moment not to talk about an individual comic or a graphic novel, but the latest Batman encyclopedia from DK Publishing.

Batman: A Visual History

by Matthew K. Manning

Foreword by Frank Miller

Whereas I no longer have any use for a traditional encyclopedia thanks to Wikipedia, I still greatly enjoy having a genuine print encyclopedia when it comes to the fictional realm of The Dark Knight. I own a few already. The Essential Batman Encyclopedia by Robert Greenberger has been the most reliable, but lacks in the visuals department and is growing a bit dated and The Batman Files by Matthew Manning (who also wrote Batman: A Visual History), which has a really inventive way of presenting the information by posing as Bruce Wayne’s journal (including photos and faux newspaper clippings) rather than a traditional reference book.  They’re both very different and the only way I would endorse another encyclopedia is if it also came at the mythology with a different approach and that’s exactly what Batman: A Visual History does.

Rather than give us an alphabetized catalog of biographies like The Essential Batman Encyclopedia or a more narrative approach like The Batman Files, Batman: A Visual History examines the character and his world year by year, era by era from Detective Comics #27 of 1939 to Batman Eternal #1 of 2014. The book pays homage to the seminal and the obscure Batman tales of every age and is so richly detailed that you’ll begin to wonder if you are indeed as schooled in the ways of The Caped Crusader as you originally thought.

Despite a title that emphasizes the visual aspect of this over-sized book it actually stands as a fantastic source of reference for hardcore fans and casual readers alike. I honestly wasn’t expecting the book to be this informative. My first impression was that it would be a collection of blown-up pages and panels from the comics as a sort of tribute to the terrific artists who have contributed to the world of Gotham over the past 75 years, but  there is a great balance to be found between the imagery and an abundance of essays. The many captions mine deep into the history of Bruce Wayne’s war against crime. Each year is a chapter and each chapter is a salute to the most notable stories. Memorable quotes, fun facts (I particularly enjoyed “Also This Year” which put the comics in context with what was happening in the world at the time they were published), thumbnails to covers of lesser renown, enlarged pages of harrowing adventures, snapshots of historical milestones, and close-ups of groundbreaking character debuts are all accompanied by captions that sometimes extend a single paragraph while others consume the entire page. The visuals in this book are beautifully laid out and the selection on display is phenomenal, but I came away from Batman: A Visual History most impressed by how comprehensive it is in its commentary on 75 years worth of storytelling.

COVER

Outstanding cover artwork by Jason Fabok (Detective Comics, Batman Eternal). The book comes with a large case with wrap-around illustration that showcases multiple characters and great moments in Bat-history featured in a beautiful mural within The Dark Knight’s cape, which billows out in a winged shape that touches the very edges of the case. In the image, Fabok pays tribute to Knightfall, Hush, Court of Owls, and more.

The real cover, hidden behind the case is an iconic, black and white depiction of Batman in a heroic pose before a cloud of bats that fly around the spine and explode across a bat signal on the back cover.

together with the large case, Batman: A Visual History weighs about six pounds.

EXTRAS

  • Most notably is a foreword by Frank Miller in which he talks about how he first intended to kill Batman at the end of The Dark Knight Returns and he gets poetic, comparing Batman to a diamond much like he did at SDCC this year.
  • Jason Fabok artwork — 2 included prints of the wrap-around case cover and the black and white Batman cover.

PRICE

Cover price is $50, but after browsing around the web for a few seconds I managed to find it at a few different online retailers for around $30 bucks. Truthfully, I think it’s worth full price. Had it been mostly pictures and no substantial info I would’ve scoffed at a $50 price tag, but these tomes are dense with interesting facts as well as the jaw-dropping visuals you’d expect.

POSITIVES

  • Foreword by Frank Miller
  • Includes 2 Jason Fabok art prints
  • Covers all the important beats of Batman comics history
  • As fun to flip through the pictures casually as it is to take your time with the engaging and informative captions
  • Despite the tight binding of this heavy book, none of the visuals are lost to the spine as is so often the case with New 52 hardcover graphic novels

NEGATIVES

  • Small font size may be difficult for some to read
  • It’s slightly disappointing that the films and TV shows were not covered as well

 DC Comics: A Visual History

By Alan Cowsill, Alex Irvine, Matthew K. Manning, Michael McAvennie, and Daniel Wallace

Foreword by Paul Levitz

I’ll also talk  briefly about this other encyclopedia made in the same vein as Batman: A Visual History. In fact, it’s actually an update to an older edition. The newest incarnation of DC Comics: A Visual History features 16 new pages that cover events from 2010-2014, a new slip case, and a foreward by former DC Comics president, Paul Levitz.

I loved the cover artwork by Ryan Sook (the actual cover, not the slip cover) which was a real feast for the eyes with hundreds of DC characters exploding across the front and back of the book. The visuals inside are just as incredible and I quickly noticed that the DC encyclopedia featured far more two-page spreads than the Batman book, many of them vertical so you hold the book on its end. It causes you to look at some pages in a whole new way, which is pretty exciting.

It’s entertaining and the artwork will most certainly inspire, but as far as being informative, DC Comics: A Visual History tries to squeeze all of DC history into a book the same size as Batman’s history book so as you can imagine there will be quite a few omissions and it’s perhaps best used for getting a brief synopsis of when certain heroes and villains debuted or when certain comics were first released. Still, it’s most impressive how much is packed into under 400 pages and the book is just as, if not more stylish than the Batman book. DC Comics: A Visual History traces DC’s history as far back as National Allied Publications in 1934 and offers commentary for each year up through August, 2014.

OVERALL

These are awesome books with beautifully presented artwork and a plethora of information regarding the history of your favorite characters. Batman: A Visual History is definitely the superior of the two because it’s obviously going to be a lot more comprehensive when you consider it’s focused on one section of comics mythology whereas the other is trying to cover the full breadth of the DC Universe, but they’re both great reads. It seems like we get a new Batman encyclopedia every year, but Batman: A Visual History might be my new favorite and I’ll be leaving it out on the coffee table from here on out.