In the world of DC Comics, they call Batman the world’s greatest detective. The publisher created him for Detective Comics, after all. But often, his live-action films gloss over this sleuthing skills for big action. But in the comics, and in animation, we’ve had our fair share of great Batman stories that show off his crime solving skills. Here are but ten of the very best ones. And a few might surprise you.
10. “Beware the Gray Ghost,” Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
This story is not from the comics, but from the world of Batman: The Animated Series. And it’s a love letter to the pulp heroes who inspired the creation of Batman, like the Shadow. Not to mention, it’s also an homage to the Batman ’66 “Bright Knight” himself, Adam West. Not only is this thought of as a great Batman detective story, it’s widely considered one of the best B:TAS episodes, period.
When a mysterious “Mad Bomber” starts terrorizing Gotham City, Bruce Wayne realizes this string of crimes resembles those seen on his favorite TV show as a kid, “ The Gray Ghost.” Batman must figure out the connection between this new criminal and his childhood hero, (voiced by Adam West), now a down-on-his-luck actor. This tight, twenty-minute tale is a memorable Batman mystery that doesn’t get nearly enough love. Sometimes, short and sweet is best.
9. “Gothic,” from Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10, by Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson. (1990)
This Batman mystery isn’t as celebrated today as it should be, despite the fact that it’s an early storyline in one of the best-selling Bat comics of all time, Legends of the Dark Knight. And it’s written by Grant Morrison, who at the time was a young up and comer. “ Gothic” is an unusual detective story for Batman, as it has a supernatural bent to it all. Canonically, it’s Batman’s first real brush with the otherworldly.
When several Mafia heads start being picked off one by one, they turn to their enemy the Batman to solve the case (and save their necks). But a younger, less experienced Batman discovers that some mysteries don’t have Earthly answers to them. And that there’s a much wilder world in Gotham City than he ever suspected. The murderer in question also has a twisted connection to Bruce’s childhood. This story features artwork by Klaus Janson, who inked Frank Miller’s pencils on The Dark Knight Returns.
8. “The Black Mirror” from Detective Comics #871-881, by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla (2011)
One of the earliest Batman stories by Scott Snyder, “ The Black Mirror” is the only story on the list where Batman is not Bruce Wayne under the cowl. Instead, it’s former Nightwing/Robin Dick Grayson, who became the Bat when Bruce was semi-retired. Dick had to figure out who is selling weapons to various supervillains in an underground black market. But that mystery was just the tip of the iceberg, leading him down a darker path.
Somehow, this all ties in together with the return of the psychotic James Gordon Jr., the son of Commissioner Gordon, and brother to Barbara (Batgirl). And Dick has to put all the detective skills he learned from Bruce Wayne to use in order to figure out the answer to this ongoing mystery. He finds that James Jr., as the son of the heroic Commissioner Gordon, was his own “black mirror,” as he is the son (in a way) of Batman.
7. “New World Order” from JLA #1-4, by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter (1997)
This story isn’t a story from a Batman comic. However, it’s a perfect showcase for his skill’s as the world’s greatest detective. Grant Morrison’s first arc of the ’90s Justice League, simply called JLA, showed a new group of heroes come to Earth from another world. The Hyperclan seemed like versions of Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, but they all promised to do more than prevent catastrophes. They promised to fix humanity’s problems like famine and war. But soon, it became clear to the JLA that they had another agenda — global domination.
But since the Hyperclan had all the same powers as the League, and were far more ruthless, they defeated them. All but the one they overlooked — the “he’s just an ordinary human” Batman. Thanks to his methodical mind, the Dark Knight realized that the power set of the Hyperclan matched those of his teammate, J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Using his detective skills, he discovers that they are White Martians in disguise. And just like his friend J’onn, these Martians have one weakness — fire. Thanks to some good old detective work, he is able to save his super-powered friends in the League, along with humanity. Not bad for the Leaguer with no powers.
6. “Hush” from Batman #608-619 (2002-2003)
Written by Jeph Loeb with art by the incomparable Jim Lee, “ Hush” is another fan-favorite Batman mystery story. A mysterious new villain named Hush has emerged in Gotham City, and he orchestrates a plot to manipulate all of Batman’s most notorious enemies. But who is this bandaged-face villain Hush? This is the big question that ran through this year-long storyline.
Batman, with the help of his allies, had to uncover the identity of this latest villain, and find out what his personal connection is to Bruce Wayne. Not only does nearly every major Batman rogue appear in “Hush,” but so do Bat-buddies like Nightwing, Huntress, Superman, and more. All drawn in spectacular fashion by Jim Lee, no less. Paul Dini’s sequel story, “ The Heart of Hush,” was also another detective banger of a story. And which sadly never got nearly as much attention.
5. Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales (2004)
Like the JLA entry, this is technically not a Batman story, but a Justice League/DC universe story. But the Dark Knight and his detective skills were central to the plot. In writer Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis, someone murders Sue Dibny, wife of JLA member Elongated Man. This leads to the revelation that years prior, the JLA, via the sorceress Zatanna, magically altered the personality of Dr. Light, a villain who once assaulted Sue. Later, the League performed the same spell on many of their worst villains against their will.
When Batman discovers this fact, his fellow heroes mind-wipe him with the very same magic. Years later, after Sue is murdered, it is Batman who identifies her killer. And his later detective work forces him to contend with the fact that his League teammates messed with his mind as well. As one can imagine, he didn’t take that lightly. The fallout of this story from Batman’s perspective played out in the pages of JLA #116-119, “ Crisis of Conscience,” which we also recommend.
4. Gotham By Gaslight, by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola (1989)
This 1989 one-shot was the very first Elseworlds story from DC. It’s set in an alternate 1889, where Batman and his villains were operating out of a Victorian-era Gotham City. We see many longtime Batman favorites reinvented for a Steampunk universe. In this world, Jack the Ripper leaves the streets of Whitechapel in England, and continues his murder spree in Gotham.
The Dark Knight Detective has to figure out who Red Jack is before more killing continues. But not before they frame Bruce Wayne himself for the crimes, and then arrested him for the Ripper murders. Written by the late Brian Augustyn, this story also featured fantastic artwork from future Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. There is an animated adaptation, but it simply didn’t do the original graphic novel justice, and made too many changes to the narrative. Best to stick with the comics.
3. “The Court of Owls,” by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, from Batman (Vol. 2) #1-7 (2011)
DC’s New 52 era, which began in 2011, was quite divisive. The publisher removed ten years off of their heroes’ timelines, in order to make them seem younger and attract new readers. This met with a mixed response. But nearly everyone loved one aspect of the New 52 — Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman. They began their epic collaboration with a story called “ The Court of Owls.” In this tale, Batman uncovers the truth about a mystery that had been plaguing Gotham City for generations.
This mystery surrounds a shadowy organization called the Court of Owls, a secret society that has done its best to keep its existence hidden. Most Batman mysteries had him solving riddles that are fresh; a new crime, a new murder, and so on. But “Court of Owls” had him solving a riddle that is over a century old. What Batman discovers changes his whole perspective on the city he has sworn to defend. This led to the equally great “ Night of Owls” story. And the titular Court became the most significant new villainous creation added to the Batman mythos since the ’90s.
2. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Most big-screen Batman adventures sidestep the detective aspects of the character, and focus on big action set pieces. Except for one — the animated Mask of the Phantasm. Released a year after the debut of Batman: The Animated Series, this film focused on a mysterious wraith-like killer who was targeting Gotham’s crime bosses. Dressed as the Grim Reaper, criminals kept falling to the blade of the Phantasm.
The Dark Knight uses all his sleuthing skills to discover the identity of this masked killer, and ultimately finds out they have a rather intimate connection. Not only is this a great mystery story, as Phantasm’s identity is a giant looming question over the proceedings, but it provided insight into Batman’s formative years. And it makes it clear that Bruce Wayne would have had a much happier life without the cape and cowl. Oh, and it’s got another all-time great Joker performance by Mark Hamill. One can’t overlook that.
1. Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (1996)
This is the king-daddy-emperor of Batman detective stories. In Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s thirteen-part epic, (later collected as a graphic novel), a serial killer nick-named Holiday murders a series of prominent Gotham City citizens on each month’s respective holiday. Starting on Halloween one year, and ending on the next. Batman must figure out who it is and stop the endless bloodshed, all while learning how to be Batman (this story takes place in year two of his career).
Filled with incredible twists and turns, this story not only features almost every prominent Bat-rogue, but also serves as the modern-day origin story for Two-Face. Its sequel, Dark Victory, is also a worthy follow-up. The Long Halloween was a big influence on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and reportedly, the upcoming The Batman as well. Along with a compelling murder mystery, it also chronicles how Gotham City went from mob rule to the rule of costumed freaks. If you read one Batman detective story in your life, we think that this one should probably be it.