> 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:
> 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):
Recommendations matching these criteria:
NOTE: Ratings are IRL reading group averages, subjective, rounded, in flux, and require 2+ opinions. " - " = unrated but worth mention.
Suggestions to improve this list are welcome.
Alternatively, you can skip to the recent Rebirth re-launch by reading the DC Universe: Rebirth event and then any Rebirth series #1. /r/DCcomics sidebar for more info.
Batman Essentials (some are not as dark as you may like):
You might also be interested in:
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: