The Death of a Legend (Again)

DC Comics has released two beautiful hardcover editions as a pair, the recent Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? from Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert, billed as the last Batman story, and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s classic work from 1986, intended to be the end of the Silver Age Superman before the Superman and Action Comics titles were relaunched and renumbered from issue one. The two hardcovers are a beautiful compliment to each other, make a gorgeous pair, each contain more than just the title stories, and doubtless jointly form an essential part of any complete graphic novel library. I’m certainly glad I have them. But it’s a bit of a disservice to the one to pair it with the other.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (which I’ll talk about in a later review) is a complex, stand-alone narrative, that tells a story with a beginning, middle and end. One that would, in fact, make a hell of a movie, and would have been a much better film than the last one the Man of Steel got at the hands of Bryan Singer. But if I’m going to stick to cinematic metaphors, than Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is more of a clip show, something that would make a great season finale at the end of a Dark Knight television series, but which isn’t necessarily a “story” in the same way, and thus suffers by the pairing. In his introduction, Neil Gaiman says that in his head the story was called “Batman: The End,” but that DC’s people kept referring to it as Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? and the name stuck. And I am undecided if it should have.

That being said, what Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is, is gorgeous. Andy Kubert may just about be my current favorite Batman artist, or favorite current Batman artist (possibly tied with Jim Lee?), and so these pages, in which we see homages and pastiches of Bob Kane and Dick Sprang and Carmine Infantino and Neal Adams and Dick Giordano and Brian Bolland and David Mazzucchelli—as well as Kubert being his wonderful self—are just extraordinary. As someone who has been reading Batman since around 1976 (when my parents gave me the hardcover Batman from the 30s to the 70s, published by Carmine Infantino at Bonanza Books—anybody remember that?), this was really a joy. It’s simply a treasure trove of visual allusions to every kind of Batman tale, from the zany technicolor camp of the Batman TV series (my first introduction to the character) to the sophistication of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Visually stunning.

Now, when I say that Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? isn’t a story in the same way that the Alan Moore tale is, let’s qualify that. To begin with, we don’t need a final Batman story. There already was one; it was called The Dark Knight Returns. It was meant to be the eventual end of the legend, and it’s so deep into our cultural past that it’s been both relegated to an alternate “Frank Miller” continuity and completely undone in a lame sequel. When Alan Moore wrote Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, major superhero characters weren’t being reimagined and killed and resurrected every other year like they are now. It really was a farewell to an entire continuity and the launch of a new one. But these days, continuity is a mess, the multiverse has already been destroyed and reassembled, and even the death of a hero as famous as the Dark Knight just isn’t the event that it would have been even a decade ago. In fact, if I can have an aside, I love the zero issue of Geoff Johns’ Blackest Night for the scene in which the Barry Allen Flash and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern—both of whom have themselves been killed and resurrected—stand at Batman’s grave speculating as to whether he’s really gone and acknowledge that for costumed crime-fighters, “Death isn’t necessarily the end. Not in this line of work.” Nobody believes Batman is really dead, or even if he is, that he won’t be resurrected or rebooted or retconned back into existence in a year or two. In fact, it will be surprising if they can hold off more than a year, two at most, before this happens. So what Gaiman is doing is acknowledging this obvious concession and writing a Batman story that will, in his own words, “survive Batman’s current death or disappearance, something that would still be the last Batman story in twenty years, or a hundred.”

And he’s done a fine job of that. Gaiman and I are near the same age (he’s older!), and for those of our generation, “the glorious thing about Batman was the way he kept pace with me as I grew up.” My son, who is still too young for comics, already knows there are different versions of Batman, from “silly Batman” (i.e. the Adam West television series) to “scary Batman” (the new Christopher Nolan films) to “stupid Batman” (care to guess which films those are?). He can distinguish between the Batman of The Animated Series and later The Batman cartoons. It’s available for him all at once. As this graphic novel will be available for him, alongside The Dark Knight Returns, and Killing Joke, and Year One, and The Long Halloween and Year 100. Continuity won’t, and can’t, mean for him what it means for me. His experience will be richer—I can point him to all the best stories at once, whereas I had to wait through the years, even decades, between them—but none of it will have the sense of permanence that reading The Dark Knight Returns conveyed in 1986.

Gaiman’s tale understands all this. It’s written as much for the Batman fan of today as the Batman fan of 1966. The structure is one in which Batman’s ghost hovers over his body, while friends and foes—even multiple versions of friends and foes—come to pay their respects. So the Joker of the 1950s sits in the pews alongside the Joker of The Killing Joke, each as real (or unreal) as the other. Some of the eulogies given relate full stories in their own right—my favorite is one in which Alfred Pennyworth reveals that he concocted the idea of supervillains as a way to cheer up a despondent Bruce Wayne and was himself the Joker in theatrical makeup (that one could be story all its own, or a great hour of TV!) Other eulogies are just snippets and one-liners. They all serve to communicate the enduring nature of and need for a Batman, whatever the era or continuity, and come fast and furious until the shade of the Caped Crusader himself muses that “I know that I’m Batman. But I don’t remember quite which Batman I am any longer.”

The rest of the hardcover is filled out with three other tales Gaiman wrote in 1989 and and 1996. I read his Secret Origins tale of Poison Ivy when it came out, and his Secret Origins Special on the Riddler, the Batman Black and White tale was new to me. It’s interesting how influential the first two have proved in hindsight in reinterpreting those characters (Gaiman’s take on the Riddler especially). It’s also interesting how his Riddler tale and his Black and White (in which Batman and the Joker are actors waiting in the greenroom reading magazines and making small talk before they get to play their scenes) are already evidencing his metafictional take on Batman. What Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? brings new to the table is the idea that all these continuities exist alongside each other, are all equally real, and that the Batman is a sort of Moorcockian Eternal Champion, who actually lives all these lives in succession in an eternal cycle of reincarnation. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before in quite this way, and its brilliance (a bit like that of the recent Star Trek film), is it’s ability to chunk its continuity cake and eat it too. I don’t have to choose anymore between the 60s Batman or the 90s Batman or whatever Batman comes next. They’re all the same Batman.

I mentioned my son, and I know Gaiman has children. The ending, which I won’t spoil any more than to say that every parent will recognize the allusion to Goodnight Moon, probably wouldn’t have affected me nearly so much if I weren’t a parent with small children. As it was—and I can think of no higher praise with which to evaluate a story’s effectiveness—it left me in tears when I read it, again when I related it to my wife, and now when I am finishing off this review. In light of this, with all the Batman comics and movies and cartoons waiting to be shared with my son at each stage of his own life, I think I know when the best time to share Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? with him will be, and that’s after he has his own kids. I certainly wish for my children a happier life than the one Bruce Wayne lived, but it’s a source of great pleasure that my son is proving to be the Batmaniac his father is. I just wish someone would publish an updated Batman from the 30s to the (20)10s for me to gift him. But if they don’t, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? will be a pretty good alternative.

Lou Anders is the three-time Hugo-nominated editor of Pyr books, as well as the editor of seven critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest being Fast Forward 2 and Sideways in Crime. He recently won a Chesley Award for Best Art Director, and is pretty chuffed about that too. Visit him online at his blog, Bowing to the Future.


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