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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (The Deluxe Edition)

Title:
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped
Crusader? (The Deluxe Edition)







ISBN:
9781401223038


Price:
$24.99


Publisher/Year:
DC,
2009


Artist: Andy Kubert, Simon Bisley, Mark Buckingham,
Mike Hoffman, Bernie Mireault


Writer:
Neil Gaiman


Collects:
Secret Origins #1, Secret Origins Special #1, Batman Black and White #2, Batman #686, Detective Comics #853





Rating:
4/5





Back
when DC Comics was overhauling and re-booting its fictional universe in the
wake of its Crisis on Infinite Earths, they commissioned an imaginary
"last Superman" story to say good-bye to the Silver Age Superman who
was, essentially, being erased from continuity -- "Whatever Happened to
the Man of Tomorrow?", written by rising star, British writer Alan Moore.





Jump
ahead two decades and DC has decided to do the same for Batman. In this case,
there has been no reality altering event (or maybe there has -- I dunno), but
in the comics Batman/Bruce Wayne had been supposedly killed off and DC was
preparing to unveil a "new" Batman (Dick Grayson, the original Robin,
assumed the pointy-eared cowl...though unlike some changes, no one is
necessarily suggesting Bruce won't be back eventually). Giving the nod to Neil
Gaiman, another British writer whose rise to fame occurred around the same time
as Moore's, and serialized across Batman's two flagship series (Batman and
Detective Comics -- just as the Superman story was serialized over Superman and
Action Comics), we are presented with a "last Batman" story. And
wisely, Gaiman keeps it isolated from continuity (even if Bruce Wayne does come
back in a few months, this story has a timelessness about it).





This
collection also includes a few short Batman pieces Gaiman has written over the
years, only one of which I've read...but it was an amusing, self-reflective one
from Batman Black and White.





The
"Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" story is a surreal affair
as Batman finds himself looking down upon a bizarre funeral for himself --
staged in back of a dingy bar, where all his old friends and foes have
assembled to pay tribute. Batman isn't sure what's going on, whether he's dead
or what -- and is further perplexed when the stories people tell about his life
-- and death -- don't match up with each other. The first issue features two
longer tales, relating the lives and deaths of two different Bruce
Waynes/Batmen, but once we get into the second issue, they're shorthand
snippets, generally focusing on different ways Batman died. It's a little as if
we're seeing a bunch of unused story ideas for various Batman Elseworlds comics
that Gaiman never got to write.





It's
a moody, quirky affair, beautifully illustrated by Andy Kubert who eschews much
of the sketchy lines or cartooniness I sometimes associate with the Kubert
clan, for a richly detailed and modeled style, nicely embellished by the inks
and colors. The faces are realistic, while also being expressive. After all
these years, Batman doesn't have a signature artist that should've been tagged
for the gig (the way Curt Swan was an obvious choice to pencil the Superman
story), so Kubert proves a nice choice. He even quirks his style here and there
for certain scenes and characters, to deliberately evoke the style of other key
Bat-artists, or to present different variations on the Bat-costume, without the
changes being too obvious or distracting.





And
throughout, the dialogue and phrasing is quite good, the lines clever, quirky,
yet not self-consciously so. And I say this as someone with no particular
affinity for Gaiman in general.





It's
interesting to contrast the Batman and Superman stories. With Moore's Superman
-- involving a final showdown with all of Supes foes, in which many friends and
enemies were dead by the end -- a violent, "big fight" tale wasn't
exactly my idea of the appropriate cap for the Superman legend. Yet Gaiman
takes Batman, the prowler of the mean streets and battler of killers and psychos...and
presents a strangely gentle, lyrical tale that, in a way, is meant to present a
sublime acceptance of mortality -- ala The Death of Captain Marvel -- rather
than a bloody final battle with an arch foe. That might seem a strange thing to
say in a story presenting multiple deaths of Batman...but it never feels
gratuitous or graphic. In fact, given how many writers like to perceive Batman
as the dark, grim, even brutal avenger, when Gaiman has Batman reflect on his
self-imposed mission, it's: "I protect the city. I rescue people. I
investigate crimes. I guard the innocent. I correct the guilty." Nothing
about "vengeance" or "punishment".





The
story itself may be intended to evoke a 1970s Batman multi-issue arc, in which
various villains recounted conflicting tales of having killed Batman. And one
of the reasons Gaiman may have avoided the "Batman vs. all his foes"
plot is simply because it's already been done, often, and often quite
effectively (albeit, with Batman surviving) -- in Detective Comics #526, Batman
#400, and Batman: Hush among others. And of course, over the years there have
probably been more than a few "imaginary" Last Batman stories, so
it's hard for Gaiman to come up with anything that isn't just one more
variation on a sub-sub-genre.





I
have some mixed reactions to the story. As often happens, the intriguing hook
of the beginning (what's happening? what is the explanation for this surreal
scenario?) is inevitably kind of let down by the explanation. And the two
longer "what if...?" stories told in the first issue are the more
developed (even if Gaiman confuses the -- very good -- 1976 movie "Robin
and Marion" with the actual Robin Hood legend). Once we get into the
second half, the stories are brief snippets, before we segue into the final act
of the story as Batman learns the answers and confronts a mysterious woman who
had been accompanying him. It can seem a bit protracted. Ironically, I had
remarked that in Moore's Superman tale he was maybe hamstrung by his limited
amount of pages...Gaiman may have been hindered by having too many pages to
fill.





But
there is a genuine power to Gaiman's tale -- even flipping through the pages, I
find myself curiously misty eyed. Gaiman walks a fine line between
sentimentality and saccharine. And he gives one of comicdoms grimmest heroes a
bittersweet sendoff that is hopeful and sad at the same time, providing the
character something he rarely had in life...a sense of peace ~ "Home is
the sailor, home from the sea...and the hunter, home from the hill". And
in the end, the point of the various tales, the different versions and faces of
the Batman with which we are presented, is to nonetheless expose a core truth
of the man, and his character -- no matter the superficial changes in the
legend.





It
tells us why he is, and always was, THE Batman.

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