Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight review

It’s hard, if not outright impossible, to make a definitive and comprehensive record of something that hasn’t reached a stopping point.  Even if you cover as much historical background as possible, you will never reach a true ending because… well, there will be more to tell.  Sure, you can focus on a certain timeframe or aspect of what you’re covering, but truly “covering everything” is really “covering everything up to this point.”  That’s why making a definitive chronicle of Batman’s history across multiple mediums can’t and won’t touch upon every single thing having to do with the Dark Knight’s 80 year history.

But Insight Editions are game to try, and with Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight, they have knocked it out of the park.

Right from the moment this book was announced earlier this year, it shot to the top of my list of most anticipated anything this year.  Comics, movies, does, games, this book topped them all.

And friends, it has exceeded my expectations in every way imaginable.

Written by Andrew Farago and Gina McIntire, Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond details just that: the entire history of Batman, from his introduction in 1939 up to the present day.  Touching on some of his most popular stories and some relatively obscure material alike, there’s so much Batman content here that even the most die hard of fans is likely to find something they’d never seen before.  The only notable omission is the lack of focus on toys and other merchandise, though that’s understandable; this book is more about portrayals and stories, and besides, you could write a whole other book entirely that’s solely about Batman toys.

Which… someone should.  Please.

But anyway.

Besides the amazingly detailed and designed cover, the first thing you’re bound to notice is how huge this book is.  With dimensions measuring 9.2 x 1.8 x 12.8 inches and weighing over 7 pounds, it is a true beast of a book.  The pages lay flat and it’s easy to read, but the sheer size of it means you’ll likely have to read it on a coffee table or some other large surface.  The lack of portability is about my only complaint, and even then it’s hardly valid because, hey, this is meant to be a hefty tome.

Back to that cover, though.  John Guydo’s design work is excellent, paying homage to various iterations of the Dark Knight from multiple mediums.  There’s quite a bit going on, though it doesn’t look cluttered or busy at all, with the large looming figure of the main Batman on the cover (whose chest symbol is, appropriately, the Batsignal illuminated in the sky) leading the eye toward an amalgamated Gotham City skyline.  It’s great seeing the cool fiery bat from The Dark Knight Rises in the background behind the Animated Series version of Batman, or Frank Miller’s Batman backlit by lightning while Adam West and Burt Ward scale a building next to him.

And fear not, fans of Affleck’s Batman.  He gets his due as well, so just flip the book over to see some Batfleck.

Just… be careful, because I cannot stress enough that this book is very, very heavy.

Also adding weight (haHA) are the foreword, preface, and introduction, written by Michael Keaton, Denny O’Neil, and Kevin Conroy, respectively.  Keaton’s is the briefest of the three, and in it he mainly makes a heartfelt acknowledgement about the joys of working with Tim Burton and the rest of the cast and crew on the landmark Batman film. O’Neil’s is much longer, and it’s more than welcome, as the legendary writer and editor ties Batman’s inception in with his own birth, and shows great appreciation for all the various iterations and adaptations of the Dark Knight over the years.  Conroy’s piece is similar in spirit to Keaton’s, in that he discusses how much portraying Batman has changed his life and helped him recognize how his performance can impact others.  They’re all well-written and engaging pieces, and a perfect, high-profile way to kick off the book.

From there, the book is split up into chapters, each covering a different time period or aspect of Batman’s history.  It’s pretty much a chronological record early on, with each chapter covering roughly a decade apiece.  There’s a lot of focus on comics, which I’m grateful for, though it is kind of a given in the early chapters.  Farago and McIntyre manage a pretty tricky feat: their writing is detailed and relatively dense, but nonetheless easy to read.  You could make a case that this is a sort of Batman textbook, given all the information that’s crammed into it, but it never reads like one.  The prose is warm and inviting, putting a fresh spin on even the most familiar aspects of Batman’s history.  I mean, we’re all familiar with Detective Comics #27 by now, and know a lot about what went into making the Sixties television series the cultural milestone it’s become.  Even so, I found myself engaged by the history that the writers laid out here, taking it all in as “the story of Batman” as told over these 400 pages.

Given that the vast majority of Batman material was (and still is) comics, the first dozen or so chapters walk through the different types of stories being told for the first fifty years of the Dark Knight’s history, along with the various transformations he went through along the way.  From the early vigilante influenced by The Shadow to the crazy-bananas weirdness of the Fifties to the grounded reinvention of the late Sixties and early Seventies, there’s a lot of focus on Batman’s different portrayals in Detective Comics, Batman, World’s Finest, Justice League of America, and various other titles.  Once movie serials and television series enter the picture there’s quite a bit of attention paid to those mediums, but it’s still largely about where Batman was in the comics at the time and how other portrayals responded to them.

It’s when we get to the late Eighties that the format shifts a bit, which isn’t surprising given the deluge of new content that started to come out.  Frank Miller’s two biggest Batman stories– The Dark Knight Returns and Year One— get an entire chapter to themselves, as does Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.  Considering that these works are what kicked off a Batman craze that has not died down even thirty years later, a chapter apiece sounds about right.

Now, I won’t go into too many details as the treasures this book holds should be a surprise, but these chapters contain some great examples of the supplemental material that the book has to offer.  There are countless high quality photographs and pictures throughout the volume, which would be good enough and what you would expect from such a meticulously-designed and compiled book.  But no, they didn’t just compile some nice looking behind the scenes photos and cool comic covers and called it a day (though seeing some nice Marshall Rogers and Norm Breyfogle pieces is always welcome).  There are sketches, storyboards, pieces of concept art, script pages, and so many other additional goodies that I let out multiple “oh snaps” during my initial read through.  Right from the start, when they’re discussing ‘Tec 27, do the goodies and inserts begin, and there’s some amazing bonus material right up until the inside of the back cover.  Like I said, I won’t tell you what it is, so you can see for yourself, but in many ways this is a truly interactive reading experience.

I said that this is, in essence, the story of Batman, and it’s true that it does read like a narrative.  It isn’t just Farago and McIntyre’s words that drive the story, though, as they have interviewed countless people who have taken part in Batman projects over the decades.  Anton Furst discusses designing Gotham City for Tim Burton, while Scott Snyder shares his “thesis statement” for how he launched Batman in a brand new universe, and Sefton Hill talks about Rocksteady’s goals in making a truly great Batman video game.  Because of that, this feels like the oral history of the Caped Crusader, as told by those who helped shape it.

They don’t skip over lesser eras of Batman’s history either, like when discussing some of the less successful films in the Batman canon.  Thankfully, Farago and McIntyre don’t editorialize, so when discussing a movie like Batman & Robin or Justice League they give us the facts without getting mean-spirited.  John Glover’s oft-repeated anecdote about joel Schumacher beginning each take on Batman & Robin with ‘remember; everyone, this is a cartoon!’ is cited, but soon followed up with this quote from screenwriter Akiva Goldsman: “the truth is… we loved it, and we failed it.  And that’s a terrible feeling.”  Because, really, this is a celebration of Batman, and in acknowledging the failures you can truly appreciate the successes even more.

The book retails for around $75, and while that is steep, it is worth every penny.  It’s a massive coffee table-sized tome, and each of its 400 or so pages are packed with detail.  This isn’t just a book you’ll want to read; you’ll want to show it off.  Make it the centerpiece of your coffee table or book collection so friends and family can look through it and, inevitably, want to buy a copy for themselves.  With the holidays fast approaching, it’s a fantastic gift for any and all Batman fans on your gift list, and something you won’t have a second of buyer’s remorse for if you buy it for yourself.

It will be in stores in October 29, and is available for preorder now.

Overall: Full-stop, this is a book that every Batman fan should want, and one that they need.  While I said that it might not be definitive, given that there’s not a way to cover everything, I’ll amend that statement: this book is not exhaustive, in that, no, it does not reference every single story, character, or piece of merchandise in Batman’s history.  It is, however, definitive in how meticulously detailed and researched the content is, and in how much of a joy it is to read.  Batman: The Definitive History is the best book of its kind, and one that will serve as the gold standard of Batman histories for years to come.

SCORE: 10/10
Disclaimer: Insight Editions provided a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.


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