The Dark Knight Rises is about to break records at the box office, so it seems only fitting that I share my Top 5 graphic novels starring Gotham’s protector: The Batman.

It’s the summer of the superhero. Read our list of top Spider-Man graphic books.

Batman: Knightfall, Vol. 1

From the comic boom of the ’90s, when everyone and their cousin was suddenly interested in collecting comics, comes Knightfall, a multi-issue story arc now contained in a DC Comics graphic novel.

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Bane, criminal mastermind who uses the Venom serum to increase his physical strength beyond any normal human, knows there is only one obstacle between him and his utter dominance of the Gotham underworld: Batman. Aware that he cannot defeat Batman one-on-one, Bane hatches a plan to weaken the Bat before confronting him. He frees a top 10 list of Batman’s greatest foes from Arkham, including the Joker, Mad Hatter, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow and Victor Zsasz. 

This leads to an eventual confrontation with Bane after Batman has spent every waking hour trying to put all the criminals back into Arkham, and a cover that has become an iconic image in the Batman story—the breaking of the Bat.

darkknight The Dark Knight Returns

If we look at the Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton Batman flicks as being dark, even harsh, in their portrayal of Batman, we aren’t wrong. A far cry from the campy days of Adam West running around in the cape and cowl, these films have had a mood and tone that at least partially comes from my next pick, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

Set in Batman’s future, Bruce Wayne is 55 years old, retired, and Gotham is a very different place without him. Superheroes are all but gone, and crime is mostly unchecked.  When Two-Face returns, Wayne puts on the cape and cowl once more, but finds Gotham and the world, unwelcoming to his brand of vigilante justice. The Gotham PD hunt him relentlessly, the American government sees him as a threat to their authority. Worse, Batman alive and well brings the Joker back, and he is deadlier than ever.

Now a classic, The Dark Knight Returns introduced so much to the Batman mythos including a female Robin, 13-year-old Carrie Kelley, and Batman squaring off to fight Superman. But it is not for everyone. Violence and murder abounds, so be fair warned.

batmanyearone Batman: Year One

Everyone has to start somewhere. For Batman, all the training and dedication he put himself through, had to be tested in the field sooner or later. Enter Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.

There are moments in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins that feel very much like they were pulled from the pages of Batman: Year One. Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after 12 years of training abroad, ready to begin fighting crime. Meanwhile, a new detective has joined the Gotham PD, one James Gordon.

In the book, we see Bruce become Batman while Gordon, faced with corruption unlike anything he was prepared for, strives to clean up the police force. We also meet Selina Kyle, a dominatrix, who, when she witnesses Batman fighting crime, decides to create a costume of her own and become The Catwoman.

Standout moments, in addition to those above, include Batman being trapped by a S.W.A.T. team and using a sonic device to attract hundreds of bats so he can escape, and in the end, Gordon meeting with the Batman to ask if he will look into a strange new criminal who calls himself “the Joker.” And there are so many more.

Definitely a book any Batman fan should own.

batmandeath Batman: A Death in the Family

This one might surprise some people. Really, I picked it because the image of Batman cradling Robin in his arms has stuck with me since the moment I first saw it staring back from the wall of the comic book store.

I don’t know of any character in all of comics who inspired so much distaste, hatred and vitriol as the second Robin, Jason Todd. From the moment he was introduced, fans of the original Robin, Dick Grayson, were unhappy. Jason was so different from Dick in every way, and why wouldn’t he be? The writers of Batman didn’t want a clone of Dick, they wanted someone who could be a character in his own right. 

For whatever reason, Jason did not resonate with readers. It went so far that DC offered readers the chance to influence what would happen to Jason following a cliffhanger ending—would he live or die? That end is detailed in Batman: A Death in the Family, a moment that changed comics and the Batman forever.

asylum Batman: Arkham Asylum

Long before the wildly popular Rocksteady Studio game Batman: Arkham Asylum exploded onto consoles everywhere, there was Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, now packaged in a TPB under the title Batman: Arkham Asylum. Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, this was one of the most artful comics I had ever seen to date. Equal parts disturbing and gorgeous, every pane feels like it belongs framed on the wall.

The story centers around Arkham Asylum, home to Gotham’s criminally insane. For April Fool’s Day, Joker and a slew of others, take control of Arkham and demand that Batman exchange himself for their prisoners. Once inside, Batman must fight several of his greatest enemies to save the hostages while enduring physical and mental tortures that threaten his own sanity.

Sounds a lot like the game, right?

The Dark Knight Rises opens tomorrow, July 20, in theaters nationwide.

Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and Hugo-nominated Podcast producer/host who lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast is nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award. He writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal and Functional Nerds.