> It’s so confusing, why shouldn’t I just be able to follow his story from beginning to present?
> (I’m using Batman as an example but really I’d like help understanding how to follow comics in general as they’re all laid out this way, with overlapping arcs and timelines and such)
This isn't entirely how comics work. In general, it's not the only way other mediums work either. The REQUIREMENT that everything follows a strict, traditional/conventional 3-act structure (beginning, middle, end) is self-imposed and not necessary for good story-telling. The "beginning" of comics happened decades ago and the "end" is nowhere in sight; comics are perpetually stuck in the "middle".
You're already used to non-traditional narrative structure; it's used very often in other mediums. Why does Star Wars get a pass but not superhero comics? Did you see how Darth Vader "became" Darth Vader before he was introduced for the first time? Do you refuse to watch/read/play anything that will potentially have a prequel and ruin your "sense" of chronology? Did Memento or even Pulp Fiction melt your mind? When you go watch Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, there aren't going to be in-depth introductions for every character.
It's OK to embrace your preferences. Most people like following stories from beginning to end. Now that there is 70+ years of comic history to explore, third parties have attempted ordering it all in some subjective, complicated chronology. It's not really possible, though. How do you handle flashbacks, especially when they're embedded in another story? Do you have to change the chronology to per-panel precision? What about simultaneous story releases? Alternate universes/timelines that are fully/partially "canon" and/or merged/retconned later? Varieties of characterization by multiple writers/artists?
Most of what made these superheroes "cool" in the first place was very topical. What powers do they have? What does their costume look like? Their backstories and character growth/development were fleshed out over the coming decades, more specifically in the "modern" age of comics when the demographic started transitioning to include adults.
There's no "perfect" or "definitive" sequence of events that Batman's story occurred in. That severely limits creators from writing new stories for the character without requiring hard continuity reboots. If you start solidifying that Batman grew up in X, met character Y, fought character Z, in a strict order that can't be changed, then you can't write stories that occur in between those moments. If you plan out Batman's entire chronology to fit a realistic calendar where Bane broke his back on Wednesday and the Court of Owls revealed themselves on Friday, then you (1) will find it won't make sense (because that's not how comics are made) and (2) are stripping all of the "magic" of comics away. Keep in mind: 70+ year old shared universes are an unprecedented achievement of storytelling. No other medium has accomplished something of this scale for this long. You should expect to think of something unique like that a little differently than you might be used to.
I think it's easier to get into comics when you drop the "need" to read EVERYTHING, IN ORDER. You should just read self-contained stories and treat them like separate stories. Think of it like a jigsaw picture puzzle that you're solving one piece at a time. You won't see the big picture (continuity) until you manually piece random pieces of it together over time. You even start to develop your own "methodology" (head-canon, community discussion, etc.) of putting those pieces together (reading comics) in a way that makes sense to you personally. Comics should feel more like self-discovery/exploration than procedure/work.
This is (roughly) how I got into Batman and what I suggest to new readers:
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:
DC also publishes varied-genre, creator-owned comics for “mature readers” under separate imprints (e.g. Vertigo):
Alternatively, you can skip to the recent Rebirth re-launch by reading the DC Universe: Rebirth event and then any Rebirth series #1. Check out the /r/DCcomics sidebar for more info.
Modern DC events/crossovers:
Batman Essentials (some are not as dark as you may like):
You might also be interested in:
> 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.