From the moment he made his first cover appearance, Batman had a clear sense for the dramatic that has made for some stunning comic book covers over the years. Comic book artists have been especially able to work well with shadows with the character, as his distinctive looks really pops when it is in silhouette. Of course, for many years, Batman covers were as bright as any other comic book heroes, but as the 1970s rolled around, the covers became dark and more distinctive again.
Here, we count down Batman’s most iconic comic book covers. Let us stress that this does not mean best covers. While many of these covers are excellent covers, we’re talking iconic, which is a mix between recognizability and historic importance. Without any further ado, here are the covers!
15. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT FALLS
After making a triumphant return in the earliest issues of the prestige format series, “Batman: The Dark Knight” (the series is now best known by the title that they used for the collected edition, which was the name of the first book, “The Dark Knight Returns,” but initially, each of the four books got its own title), Batman headed into the final book in more trouble with the government than he had ever been in before. The government then called in Superman to take Batman down.
The powerful use of silhouetted figures (while still making the Superman logo show through) by artist Frank Miller in setting up this final showdown between old friends is magnificent and makes for one of the go-to images when considering Batman and Superman’s many fights over the years. The angled set-up of their fight, with Superman almost lording over Batman, gives Batman even more of an underdog feel to him on the cover.
14. BATMAN #497
Kelley Jones came to the “Batman” titles in 1991 when he did the acclaimed graphic novel, “Red Rain,” with Doug Moench (it told the story of Batman versus Dracula). His over-the-top, horror-infused drawings were found to be ideal by DC for “Batman” covers, so they soon hired him as the regular cover artist for “Detective Comics.” By 1993, he had moved over to the main “Batman” series (while continuing sporadically on “Detective Comics,” as well). When the famous “Knightfall” storyline began, Jones was given the assignment of drawing the main covers for each part of the crossover.
Thus, his was the first image people saw on “Batman” #497, where Bane broke Batman’s back. The absurdly muscular Bane bending Batman beyond the realm of sanity on the cover of the issue made it stand out, even without taking into account DC’s novel cover approach for the issue, where part of it was obscured by a cardboard half-cover over Jones’ drawing, with the text, “You thought it could never happen… The Breaking of the Batman.”
13. DARK KNIGHT TRIUMPHANT
One of the first topics at hand in the second book of “Batman: The Dark Knight” was how well the older Batman (he had been retired for 10 years before being pulled back into crimefighting) could respond to the crooks of the future. For the most part, Batman avoided the subject by using technology to keep himself above the fray, including his grotesquely large new Batmobile (which was more like a Bat-tank).
However, when it came to handling the out-of-control modern gang known as the Mutants, Batman knew he couldn’t just lock them up, he had to break them. To do so, he had to get out of the safety of his tank and actually mix it up with the much younger, much stronger leader of the Mutants. This brilliant Frank Miller cover perfectly captures the savagery of what Batman had to do, while also catching the sheer joy in Batman’s face as he gets dirty again — the fight might kill him, but it also sure as heck invigorates him.
12. BATMAN #156
Sculpted by the legendary artist known as Michelangelo, The Pietà is a sculpture currently housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus in her arms. The shot of a superhero more or less re-enacting the Pieta has become one of the most iconic comic book cover tropes in comic book history, and one of the very earliest examples of this type of cover was “Batman” #156 by Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris.
The story in that comic, by the way, was later one of the main inspirations to Grant Morrison’s “Batman” run, as the concept behind the cover is that Batman has been placed into a simulator to see if he could test the rigors of space that astronauts might have to face. The simulation causes Batman to hallucinate Robin’s death. When he comes to, Batman is so haunted by the image of Robin’s death that he retires. Robin keeps fighting crime by himself, and when he is captured and almost killed for real, Batman snaps out of it and returns to crimefighting, saving his partner just in time.
11. DETECTIVE COMICS #476
In 1976, Steve Englehart planned an exit from comic book writing, and for a farewell, he wrote out a sort of mini-opus of a Batman run. Artists Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin were given the scripts and the run became a highly acclaimed series of stories in “Detective Comics,” where Englehart introduced one of Batman’s greatest love interests, Silver St. Cloud, as well as putting Batman through the paces by having him fight most of his famous rogues (as well as facing off against a newly redesigned Deadshot).
In the Joker story, Englehart, Rogers and Austin continued upon Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ famed revitalization of the Joker earlier in the decade by having the Joker try to kill some copyright officials because he wanted to copyright fish with the Joker grin on them (after he contaminated Gotham’s fishing supply). The final issue in Englehart and Rogers’ run was marked by this stellar Joker cover.
10. BATMAN #9
As Batman’s popularity was booming in the early 1940s, Bob Kane could not keep up with all of the artwork needed, even with his mini-factory system where he would pencil the book, Jerry Robinson would ink everything (and sometimes do additional penciling work on the stories) and George Roussos would draw the backgrounds. That system managed to put out all “Batman” material through the first three years of Batman’s existence, but with “Batman” #8, a new name was brought in, with National Comics (later known as DC Comics) artist Fred Ray handling the cover to “Batman” #8.
Ray had already become the cover artist on “World’s Finest Comics,” which featured Batman and Superman in it, and had become one of the main “Superman” and “Action Comics” cover artists, as well. Thus, he was one of National Comics’ top talents, and that is obvious with his stunning cover to “Batman” #9 (Ray was inked by Jerry Robinson), which came up with an iconic spotlight framing of Batman and Robin that would be mimicked by other artists for decades.
9. BATMAN #1
In the early days of comic books, anthologies were the name of the game. Each comic book would be filled to the brim with multiple stories starring different characters; after all, who knew which characters were any given reader’s favorite? The earliest issues of “Action Comics” weren’t even all Superman covers (nor did Batman automatically get regular cover billing on “Detective Comics”). Therefore, the sign that you really made it as a character was when the company was willing to devote an entire comic book just to you, and that’s what happened to Batman in late 1939, with “Batman” #1.
The iconic imagery of Batman and Robin swinging into action by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson is also a matter of great timing, as Robin had just been introduced into the Batman mythos, and he managed to get on to the cover of the first issue of the “Batman” ongoing issue (an issue that also happened to introduce the Joker and Catwoman).
8. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
After becoming a sensation in the early 1980s after his fantastically realistic artwork on “Camelot 3000” (bringing a level of detail that few comic book fans were used to at the time), Brian Bolland more or less had his pick of assignments, and he wanted to do a “Batman” project. So, he and Alan Moore got to working on a special project that took a number of years to come into focus. The end result was the chilling one-shot, “Batman: The Killing Joke,” where the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon and then tortures Jim Gordon, all while taking photographs of the whole ordeal.
The disturbing concept of the series burns into your mind with the powerful cover by Bolland. Rarely has Joker’s twisted smile ever been given such excruciating detail before. An interesting change to the cover when it was later reprinted is that the Joker’s chilling “Smile” was changed to “Smile!” We think that the original, emotion-less, command was far more disturbing.
7. DETECTIVE COMICS #38
This one is a tricky one to place on the list. It is clearly the most iconic Dick Grayson comic book cover of all-time (and you can see that for yourself on this list), but how does it place on a Batman list? We think pretty darn high, but maybe it gets a little bit of a demerit for not being Batman-focused (the same reason some of the Joker covers on the list are not higher). Still, when it comes to iconic imagery, few covers have this Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson cover beat.
The bold claim of how great Robin is, the spotlight of the new character, these were all ideas that other comic book artists began to copy almost immediately (Black Canary made her cover debut on a cover that was a riff of this one, complete with the hoop). In addition, of course, the introduction of Batman’s partner makes this a very historic cover, adding to the iconic nature of it all.
6. BATMAN #244
In the early 1970s, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were on fire as they helped to re-define Batman for a modern era. In a lot of ways, their approach was to spotlight the darkness of Batman, but in another area, they also broadened Batman’s style of stories to also add a whole new “bare-chested international man of mystery” vibe to his adventures. This was most famously shown in the storyline that introduced the evil Ra’s Al Ghul, a James Bond villain through the lenses of “Batman” comics. As a result, Batman had to be a bit like James Bond to stop him.
This ended with a bare-chested sword duel in the desert, a duel that was interrupted by Batman seemingly being killed by a poisoning scorpion. Instead, Al Ghul’s daughter, Talia, saved Batman’s life with an anti-venom and Batman took Al Ghul down. Notice something weird about Adams’ cover? Batman has two pairs of pants on the cover! Editor Julius Schwartz worried that the Comics Code would balk at Batman being without his pants, so Adams had to draw him with a pair of pants despite Ra’s also having his whole costume in his hands.
5. DETECTIVE COMICS #31
In the earliest years of the Batman’s existence, he was very much both a creature of the night as well as a guy you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. This was way before the days of Batman running around smiling while teamed up with a little kid in a bright costume. This was practically “Dracula” levels here. One of the covers that perfectly embodied that early approach to the Dark Knight (emphasis on the dark) was Bob Kane’s cover for “Detective Comics” #31.
The haunting visage of Batman over the castle of the evil Monk (who actually turned out to literally be a vampire) looks like it would not be out of place on the cover of a gothic prose novel, which was heady praise for an artist like Bob Kane who was not always known for great designs. In the 1970s, when the “Batman” titles were re-embracing the darkness of the past, Neal Adams homaged this cover, as a sort of spiritual completion of a circle — Batman was now back to where he started!
4. BATMAN #251
One of the other areas where O’Neil and Adams returned the “Batman” comics to their roots was with regards to the famous Batman Rogues Gallery. After too many decades of being sanitized by the Comics Code (but really, even before the Comics Code, National Comics had already begun to self-censor their work), Batman’s villains were once again allowed to be true villains. The first classic villain that O’Neil and Adams set their sights on revitalizing was the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker.
The Joker was introduced as a psychotic serial killer, but over the years, he became just another zany crook. In “Batman” #251, O’Neil and Adams brought the Joker back (with a new look by Adams) to his murderous ways. With such a major change, they knew they needed a cover to make a big splash, and that’s just what they got with Adams’ cover for the issue, featuring an oversized Joker tormenting Batman tied to a playing card.
3. DETECTIVE COMICS #27
In the early days of science fiction and fantasy comic strips and then the advent of superhero comic books, there was a code that comic artists lived by, which was “Steal everything!” Comic books were being thrown together so quickly that practically every artist copied from other, more acclaimed comic artists. The two most acclaimed artists of the period were clearly Hal Foster (“Tarzan” and “Prince Valiant”) and Alex Raymond (“Flash Gordon”), with Foster being especially influential (Jack Kirby would later speak of how much his early work “cannibalized” Hal Foster’s work). Thus, it should come as little surprise that the Batman drawing on the cover of his first appearance was a Bob Kane “swipe” of an Alex Raymond “Flash Gordon” drawing (don’t worry, Kane swiped Foster inside the comic).
However, even as a swipe, the cover is an iconic piece of comic book history. Right from that first cover, Batman stood out as a different type of comic book character, even if he was heavily influenced by multiple sources (like the Shadow, most famously).
2. BATMAN #404
While it seems hard to believe for most modern comic book readers, there was a time when the death of Batman’s parents wasn’t quite the significant event that it has become today. Don’t get us wrong, it was always there as a motivator, and Batman would bring it up on occasion (like when he found Joe Chill, the killer of his parents!), but it was really not until the mid-1980s when Frank Miller spent a lot of time on the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne in “The Dark Knight Returns” that the simple origin of the Batman from “Detective Comics” #33 became an almost all-consuming aspect of Batman’s stories.
This was best summarized by the beautifully haunting David Mazzucchelli cover to “Batman” #404, the first part of the historic re-telling of Batman’s origins by Frank Miller and Mazzucchelli known as “Year One.” The imagery of young Bruce surrounded by his dead parents has become as burned into the minds of “Batman” readers as it has been into the memory of Batman himself.
1. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS
In many ways, the history of Batman could best be summarized by splitting it all into two categories, BDKR and ADKR, namely “Before ‘Dark Knight Returns'” and “After ‘Dark Knight Returns,'” as that is how much of a defining moment in the history of the character that the legendary 1986 Frank Miller and Klaus Janson prestige miniseries was for Batman. It was the moment when Batman became cool for adults to like. It was the moment that eventually led to the parade of successful “Batman” films and television shows. It was the moment when Batman became “grim and gritty” forever.
So to celebrate such a momentous occasion, it is only right that Frank Miller’s cover to “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” be recognized as phenomenal, and as one of the most iconic comic book covers period, let alone “Batman” comics. The use of the silhouette and the lightning was breathtaking. Zack Snyder literally put that cover into “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” at one point — that’s how brilliant the imagery was! Only a rarefied group of covers would ever be considered iconic enough to homage within a blockbuster move. This is one of them.
What is your favorite “Batman” cover? Let us know in the comments section!