> but a lot of what I've read ends up being marvel because every time I try to get into DC I get absolutely lost on trying to find a continuity.
What if I told you that some DC readers say the EXACT SAME THING about Marvel? Marvel has had pretty much the same continuity since the 1960s. DC had 2 major reboots that let readers start fresh, post-Crisis (1985) and New 52 (2011). But none of that matters. How are you getting "absolutely lost"? Are you hyper-focusing on overall continuity before having read many of the important stories? Don't do that. That's a skill that should have been learned from reading Marvel too. Let it all come together over time. These companies aren't doing anything DRASTICALLY different from each other storytelling-wise. They are both decades-old superhero shared-universes with thousands of characters with ongoing continuity published in monthly/bi-weekly installments and the occasional crossover/event.
> I read batman year one, long Halloween and so on, but all the reading order lists make absolutely no sense and prompt you to read things like the death in the family right after
Why/how does that make no sense? Is it because you didn't read Jason Todd's "origin story" in Batman: Second Chances (which takes place in the issues surrounding Year One)? Does that mean you'd want to read Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying for Tim Drake too? Are you just saying that YOU, personally, require more backstory than those lists suggest? What's wrong with ComicBookHerald's Batman Reading Order? Is that too much backstory? How are they/we supposed to know the exact amount of "important" backstory you're looking for? You should list examples that you've encountered.
> Why do no lists have this and how am I supposed to know what's going on?
Because there's so much of it, it's not all good, and it can usually be explained in a single sentence: Batman steers street hoodlum away from life of crime by training him to be Robin. I mean, how have others been managing to get it? Likely by understanding that comics don't follow a perfect story through-line unless you read everything (not recommended either). You can either (1) wiki the missing information or (2) ride along. Some people don't even recommend reading Death in the Family. The well-written, self-contained, Batman-centric story arcs are much more interesting than his continuity/Bat-family, imo.
> I'm not asking for a grand list where they all fit, just a skeleton of important stories that don't jump around.
Those two lists are not as different as you think. You want (1) no jumping around and (2) just a "skeleton". That's still a long list with plenty of subjective input about which stories are considered "important". For example, are every story about each Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, GCPD chars, Detective Comics characters, rogues, etc. important to BATMAN's story? What if Batman isn't Bruce Wayne anymore?
There's also an approach to comics that involves reading just the popular/acclaimed stories and ONLY reading all of the in-between stories if you're interested. For example, you might not care about one of the 4 Robins enough to read more about them. There might be enough recaps/re-tellings that make the original story redundant/unnecessary.
Keep in mind, this is just ONE character at ONE publisher. You might spend years reading most of Batman's stories. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of series about other characters or even from other publishers yet to be discovered that you might like even more.
These are the "modern essentials" I recommend to new readers (Black bold titles were added to flesh the original list out for you):
How to Get Into Comic Books (13:40) | Patrick Willems
Consider your intent/commitment. Think about your favorite shows, movies, books, etc. Do you seek quality storytelling or encyclopedic superhero knowledge? Plan to collect? Do you have the time/money to read 50 or 500 comics per character?
Don’t try to read everything at once. There’s too much. Forget about catching up, continuity, universes, etc. for now. Think of it like solving a jigsaw puzzle one small piece at a time until you finally start to see the big picture. Older comics can be an acquired taste for modern audiences, so they aren’t always ideal starting points. Creative teams change often, characters get re-worked, and origins are re-told.
Pick an interesting character/team and seek their most popular/acclaimed stories. Focus on self-contained/complete stories. You will encounter unexplained references/characters/events—just keep reading or Wiki. Don
Modern DC characters/teams:
You can skip to the recent DC Universe: Rebirth event and then pick any interesting Rebirth series #1. Check out the /r/DCcomics sidebar for more info.
Modern DC events/crossovers:
DC also has separate universes (imprints e.g. Vertigo) for varied-genre, creator-owned comics usually targeting mature readers:
Let me know if you're interested in specific character recommendations.
It's be easer to personalize recommendations if we new what characters or types of stories you are interested in. What are your favorite movies, TV shows, games, books, etc.? You mentioned a few characters in other replies, so here are some modern essentials:
> what's the true order?
Whatever order you want. If you can't decide, then read only the highly recommended stuff in release order.
> The true batman?
Whatever Batman you want. These comics have been ongoing since the 1930s. Hopefully, you can understand how it'd be impossible to maintain the same writers/artists for that long, how difficult it is to keep the stories fresh/unique, and how many times you'd have to "creatively" keep Batman at an age that made sense. A part of the fun in reading classic characters like this is to be able to say stuff like "Morrison's crazy Batman is my favorite" or "Snyder's Batman was fun and I preferred the Zero Year origin story". One writer's version of Batman might be "canon" for 10 years until another writer tweaks or completely rewrites it, making the old version "non-canon". Honestly, this is the kind of thing you only want to worry about AFTER having read a lot of comics primarily for enjoyment. If your goal is to just be a full-on encyclopedic DC knowledge nerd, then reading wikis is much more efficient than the actual comics.
> What line of Batman comics is chronologically correct?
I'm not sure what you are asking here. Every "line" of Batman comics can be chronologically correct. If you're asking about a definitive reading order for "canon" Batman comics then... good luck. That kind of thing is very subjective and constantly changing.
> What is considered the definitive series of Batman comics
Again, it's better to discard the idea of only one "true" or "definitive" Batman. Find your own favorite writer/artist combo. Think about the movies. There's Tim Burton's Batman, Schumacher's Batman, Nolan's Batman, Zack Snyder's Batman, etc. There's no need for there to be just one.
Also, I don't recommend reading things just because they're "canon". You don't want to miss out on critically acclaimed or popular stories just because they are alternate universes or non-canon. That'd be like not watching Nolan's Batman because it's not a part of the new DCEU movies. Conversely, it'd be a shame to feel FORCED to read something very poorly reviewed JUST BECAUSE it has some plot point that changes Batman status quo for a few years—just wiki that information instead.
To make it easier, here's a list of modern "essential" Batman comics. Batman is one of the most consistently well-written/drawn superheroes so this is just a small sample of the "good stuff":
I can't emphasize this enough: JUST START READING. All the preparation and over-analysis will just make everything seem MORE confusing. Think of it like solving a jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time. With every comic you read, the overarching/cross-series themes, plots, continuities, timelines, character interactions, events, etc. will start to make more sense until you've read "enough" to see the big picture.