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Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Posted: Wednesday, September 9, 2009
By: Jason Sacks

Neil Gaiman
Andy Kubert plus Various
DC Comics
You might have heard that Batman is dead--but that's all right, because I'm sure he'll get better. Batman always gets better. No matter what happens, no matter the current fashion or the current take on the character, Batman always gets better. That's the nature of comics, and the nature of iconic leading characters. No matter how clear their death, the characters always come back.

That realization is both the strongest and weakest aspect of Neil Gaiman's story in this book. Gaiman celebrates the many lives of the Caped Crusader or he would if time and inclination led him there but he also undercuts any dramatic impact of the central theme of the story through his uneven presentation of the character.

This book is really separated into three separate sections:
  • The first half of the main story presents two alternative history tales of the Batman.

  • The second half of the main story is a meditation on the Batman, his history and his enemies.

  • The rest of the book is rounded out by reprints of other Batman stories written by Gaiman.
You'll notice that I separate the first and second halves of "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader" as actually being separate stories from each other. That's because every aspect of the two stories are written as being separate and distinct from each other.

While both halves of the story take place at Batman's funeral, the tone and style of each half of "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader" are entirely different from each other.

In the first half, we see an elegiac procession of friends and enemies show up at the funeral. Catwoman, Two-Face and the Joker each pull up in Crime Alley in their unique cars and have nice character moments before heading into the funeral parlor. The story then plunges into extended narrative stories from Catwoman and from Alfred. The two stories are unique interpretations of the Batman, and stand in direct opposition to each other if one sees the Batman as one continuing character. Instead, Gaiman gracefully delivers a meta-commentary on the nature of comics continuity and styles, and leaves the reader to reconcile the conflicting stories without explanation by Gaiman.

In both halves of the story, Bruce Wayne narrates the story as a disembodied spirit watching his own funeral. But in the second half of the story, both the tone of the narrative and the narrative itself changes tone dramatically.

Rather than present more extended stories, part two brings shortened pieces that seem to have their lengths chosen at random. The 1950s Bat-Girl gets a full-page flashback sequence, while the Mad Hatter gets a two-panel commentary. The Joker's tale doesn't even get a whole page, just four panels of mixed commentary and reminiscence. We then get a page from Robin, half a page from Clayface, half a page from Harvey Bullock, a full page rant from Ra's al Ghul, and most of a page from Superman.

I scratch my head at the decisions that Gaiman made about pacing if his choices were on purpose. Why would a long-forgotten character like Bat-Girl get the keynote slot in the second issue, rather than Robin or the Joker? Why do we get extended stories in the first half and extremely shortened stories in the second half? And where is the story from Two-Face, who gets an extended moment in part one of the "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader", which seemed to be foreshadowing more scenes with the character?

The story then moves into another, completely different phase, as Batman's life flashes before his eyes, before fading out with one of the moments of pure happiness in Bruce Wayne's life.

Each of these different elements work nicely on their own as individual scenes, but when put together the scenes make the story feel like a lurching, shambolic mess. In his introduction to this book, Gaiman states, "And then one day life happened, and I mostly wasn't writing comics anymore. I didn't have the time, and, mostly, didn't have the slightest inclination."

That sentence makes it clear to me why this story (and Gaiman's "Metamorpho" story in Wednesday Comics as well) feel so uneven: Gaiman is so busy these days that his comics work takes a back door to the work that really pays him big money. The royalties from even a best-selling comic like this one are tiny compared to the money he stands to make from his latest New York Times bestseller. So Gaiman follows the money and invests his most precious resource, time, where it will make him the most money.

Thus we get the bumpy, lurching pace of this story. It seems like part two features these characters because that was the order that Gaiman thought to use them. The scenes themselves are nice, but their presentation and pace are jarring next to the way they're presented in part one.

Andy Kubert's art is professional and slick, a nice presentation that does justice to the quality of work that I wish Gaiman had presented. Kubert's full-page pin-ups are especially attractive, and he does a nice job of presenting work that's reminiscent of the work of previous Batman artists.

Backing up this hardcover are four Batman stories that Gaiman wrote in the '80s and '90s.

The highlights of these stories is a wonderfully nostalgic Riddler story, illustrated by the criminally underrated Bernie Mierault, in which Gaiman celebrates the classic Dick Sprang era of Batman with a charming use of giant props and outlandish stories. Mierault's art is subtle and bold, evocative and modern, and wonderfully exciting.

I remember really enjoying the Poison Ivy strip illustrated by Mark Buckingham when I first read it, but now the very strong influence of Alan Moore's writing kind of overwhelms Gaiman's originality. And Buckingham's artwork is poorly reprinted here.

"Original Sins", a Joker story illustrated by Mike Hoffman and Kevin Nowlan, also feels dated, but has an underlying sense of humanity that shows Gaiman's evolving confidence in his writing.

And finally, "A Black and White World", illustrated by Simon Bisley, is a perfect case of a mismatch between artist and story. Gaiman presents a story that's kind of a backstage look at what the characters do between issues. It's a cute and clever story that's completely undercut by Bisley's outlandish and over-the-top artwork. This story would have been perfect in the hands of an artist who loves subtlety, but such has never been Bisley's strong point.

It's hard to remember a book that's more frustrating than this one. There are so many moments in this book that seem to show the potential for this story to be great. But when the moments are put together, readers get a story that never quite falls together. With this and "Metamorpho," it's become obvious that it's time for me to give up on Neil Gaiman's comics work. Wake me up when he gets paid to really spend time on a comics story.



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