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Sunday Slugfest: Detective Comics #853

Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009
By: Thom Young

Neil Gaiman
Andy Kubert (p), Scott Williams (i), and Alex Sinclair (colors)
DC Comics
”Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” Part 2

Batman’s friends and foes continue to recount his many deaths as the man himself watches with his ghostly companion.

Thom Young:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Charles Webb:
Dave Wallace:

Thom Young:

I gave the first half of ”Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” (which appeared nine weeks ago in Batman #686) a rating of five bullets, and I claimed: “The overall effect of the Boccaccio- and/or Chaucer-inspired narrative coupled with the fluidic quality of the legendary tales of Batman’s demise work together to reveal the mythic nature of Batman.” The conclusion of the story this week in Detective Comics #853 not only maintains the idea of “the fluidic quality” of the Batman mythos, but Neil Gaiman actually makes it a point to hit his readers over their heads with the concept to make certain we get it.

In other words, this issue lacks subtlety. In case any of his readers are too dense to interpret the story sufficiently to understand his intended meaning, Gaiman has Batman tell us exactly what he has “learned” from watching his own Giovanni Boccaccio-inspired fluidic memorial service--and, thus, what the readers should “learn” from this story as well. Gaiman’s writing is so heavy-handed in this concluding chapter that it immediately soured me on the entire two-part story.

That souring actually began with the first page of this issue and the awkward exposition that Gaiman wrote there. Rather than provide us with a “previously in Batman” summary the way Marvel does in their books, we are greeted by some embarrassingly bad narration from Batman himself.

He seems to be talking directly to us, but I suppose his narrative could just as easily be an internal monolog. Either way, it’s an example of graceless writing:
“I am attending . . .

“I seem to be attending . . .

“My own funeral. And they are telling each other stories about me. . . .

“It’s like a dream, but it’s not a dream. I don’t know what it is.

“And I am not alone.

“There’s someone in here with me. A woman. I can’t see her. It’s as if she’s standing just beside me, or all around me, talking to me . . .

“She says I’m not dead.

“I’m not certain I believe her.”
I hope the opening page of part two is dropped from the collected edition that DC is putting out in July. It’s a page of clumsy exposition now-- nine weeks after the first part came out--but it’s going to be even more awkward in a collected edition where the time between part two and part one will be the duration of turning from one page to the next. Oh, and by the way, Batman, you’re not attending your own “funeral”; this is a memorial service that is taking place in the back room of a bar. The funeral comes later at the cemetery--semantics, I know.

I would have been willing to forgive that opening page if the rest of the issue was as engaging as part one had been--but it isn’t. In contrast to the complete “tales within the tale” that we were given in part one (told by Selina Kyle and Alfred Pennyworth), this issue only provides us with several abbreviated tales:
  • One page by Betty “Bat-Girl” Kane

  • Two panels by Jervis “Mad Hatter” Tetch

  • Four panels by the 1980s version of the Joker

  • A full page by the 1960s/1970s version of Dick “Robin” Grayson

  • Three panels by Matt “Clayface II” Hagen (circa 2000, I’m guessing)

  • Three panels by Harvey Bullock (also circa 2000)

  • A full page by Ras al Ghul

  • And a full page by Superman
In other words, we get enough to continue with the idea from the previous issue that everyone in attendance is telling his or her own story about “the Death of Batman,” but we don’t get their full tales.

What’s worse, in contrast to part one, the “tales” in part two consist mostly of the teller talking; we don’t get to see the actions that accompany each tale. I understand that it makes sense thematically to have the tales “told” to us rather than shown--the way it would be if we were actually at the memorial service ourselves (and the speakers are drawn so that they appear to be directly addressing the reader). However, this issue isn’t as interesting visually as part one was.

I don’t believe it’s Andy Kubert’s fault that the issue lacks visual dynamics. He appears to have done the best he could with what he was assigned to draw. In fact, it’s his work--as un-dynamic as it is--that caused me to give this issue a three-bullet rating. Without Kubert’s efforts, I would have given this issue only two bullets (Kubert does some pleasant tricks with panel designs, even though they don’t necessarily work in concert with Gaiman’s story).

Anyway, the abbreviated tales indicate the obvious flaw in Gaiman having attempted in two regular-sized comic book issues a narrative modeled after Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron or Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There simply isn’t enough space to do the concept justice. For instance, Gaiman attempted a similar undertaking in his Sandman: World’s End arc 15 years ago, and he used six issues to execute the concept there (even then I recall the sense that it should have been longer to the concept justice).

The purpose of all these tales of Batman’s death are eventually made explicitly clear. Gaiman’s not interested in letting the readers figure out the “meaning” for themselves. After all, some readers might interpret it differently than how Gaiman intended the collection of tales to be taken. Others, I suppose, wouldn’t be able to interpret Gaiman’s meaning from the collection at all, and so they would dismiss the two-part story completely.

To fend off misinterpretations and unwanted criticism, Gaiman has Batman explain what he “learned” from hearing the various tales of his death told at his memorial service:
“I’ve learned . . . that it doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change.

“Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are.

“Because they’re talking about Batman. . . . “
Doesn’t he sound like Dorothy talking to Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, after Professor Marvel has sailed away in his hot-air balloon near the end of the Wizard of Oz? I suppose that was deliberate, but it sure sounds funny to hear Dorothy Gale being channeled by Batman.

Anyway, back to my complaints . . . In other words, after 70 years of publication history, there have been numerous interpretations of the character. Each of these versions of Batman have “died” at some point during the 70-year history, but a new interpretation of the character has always immediately followed.

That view of Batman’s many “lives” (and, thus, many “deaths”) is a wonderful concept, and I’m sure if Gaiman could have taken the time (and the cut in pay) to develop it over several issues of Boccaccio-inspired “death tales” that are woven together with allusions to (not overt declarations about) the ever-changing nature of myths and legends, then “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” could have been the classic Batman story I thought it was going to be after I had finished part one.

It not only would have been a worthy companion to Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? it could have surpassed it. Instead, Gaiman gave us a story too great to be contained in 56 pages (approximately). Additionally, Gaiman is a very busy writer who only has small windows in his schedule to devote to comic book stories--especially since they don’t pay anywhere near as well as the money he makes from his novels.

One final note: Margaret Wise Brown is my all-time favorite children’s author, and the homage in Detective #853 to her Goodnight Moon was something I appreciated on one level. However, those pages would have been more powerful if there had been a real sense that Bruce Wayne had actually died in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis.

I don’t know if any longtime readers of mainstream superhero comic books truly believe in any character’s death anymore--what with the recent resurrections of Oliver Queen, Hal Jordan, Bucky Barnes, Barry Allen, et cetera, et cetera. However, even the false sense of “permanent death” that Marvel has pulled off with Steve Rogers could have made Gaiman’s Goodnight Moon homage more emotionally charged.

Unfortunately, the revelation in Final Crisis that Bruce Wayne is still alive (just displaced in time) drained Gaiman’s homage of the emotional resonance and energy that it otherwise might have had.

Paul Brian McCoy:

I guess I've just got a rock for a heart or something, because Detective Comics #853 didn't do a damn thing for me. Rather than being an interesting story in itself, or ultimately even an interesting story about stories, it just seems overly reverential and lacking in any real insight or imagination. It isn't poorly written, even if it does hinge everything on clichés. It's just kind of boring.

I'm not a fan of Batman, but I am a fan of Neil Gaiman--which is the only reason I even bought this. In the end I realized that I'm not really that big of a fan of Gaiman anymore. He's not a bad writer or anything like that, but I just don't have any kind of connection to the stories he writes these days.

I prefer looser writers--those who take more chances with characterization and structure. Or writers who just tell entertaining and exciting stories. Or writers who show me things in their stories that are new to me, or that I couldn't have imagined on my own.

It seems that Gaiman's storytelling goals are not ones that interest me anymore. He crafts a good story, but the elements of fantasy that were new to me when he wrote Sandman just don't do anything for me anymore. The weaving of all of Batman's varied history into this diversion doesn't interest me. Mainly because he doesn't actually weave the histories together.

It's only the presentation that's tangled together, and it's an affectation rather than an innovation. It's a conglomeration of ghosts telling the same story over and over again, just with different costumes--all to get the rather singular point across that Batman never gives up until he dies. Then his reward is to be reborn/rebooted to do it all over again.

It's not inspiring. It comes across as empty and meaningless and makes me want to go read Camus again in order to see what this story is missing. Gaiman fails to really get across what makes Batman's lives and deaths meaningful, instead focusing on the grind of going on. He's only happy as a child, and then it's push, push, push that boulder until you die. With no narrative devoted to creating his meaning--his value--it just seems pointless. I guess he's supposed to be heroic, but it doesn't work for me.

After a strong start with the previous issue, this one just kind of winds down into inane boredom.

The art is functional. Some panels are very nice, capturing the artistic styles of the eras Gaiman is referencing in the narration. There are some nice layouts as we move from the "reality" of the memorial to the more ethereal interactions between Batman and his mystery guest. I also don't think I'll ever be able to see the Bat-Signal the same way ever again.

Other panels, though, are just awful. What's up with the depiction of Superman? Is that intentionally bad as an homage to some other bad art? I definitely don't think the art made this worth the wait, whatever the "production error" was.

I don't know what to tell you. If you love Batman, this will probably resonate with you. Maybe the notion of finding meaning, sans happiness, in just going on and never giving up is enough for you. It's not a bad lesson for this fairy tale, but it's not a very good lesson either. In fact, it's a pretty damn forgettable story all around.

Charles Webb:

Is it time to retire the concept of superhero as mythic ideal? Or at the very least is it time to let narrative about the same fade away? Increasingly, I find that attempts to sidestep the actual telling of stories by telling stories about the nature of stories has grown a bit stale--at least in this milieu.

Detective Comics #853 is not a very good story. Worse still, it falls into the trap of being more of a one-sided conversation about ideas and heroic ideals. Compare this story--what should be the apotheosis of a character’s death--with Morrison’s All-Star Superman, which in itself was the apotheosis of that character’s life (and ultimately heroic sacrifice).

Morrison’s story convincingly argued why Superman is the heroic ideal. In confronting Superman with his doubles and crises borne from his own DNA, All-Star Superman showed that something essential about this character would rise to action, even when deprived of his abilities.

Here, then is Gaiman’s “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”--a more esoteric thing springing from Morrison’s own idea that all Batman stories are equal and true. That’s’ the thrust of this issue, not so much intimated as outright told to us by Batman’s ghostly companion--and that’s the problem for me: These are ideas handed to us with no layer of narrative (or else one that is much too thin).

Everyone Batman has ever known shows up to talk about how he died--sometimes heroically, and sometimes ironically, but each and every instance true with Batman (and his ghostly companion) describing the cyclical nature of this character in a serial narrative.

As it stands, it’s just an essay (and unpersuasive at that) given to hyperbolic prose. My breaking point was the Silver-Age Robin describing Batman as “Holy” in a cutaway to his favorite catchphrase. This story is all the more disappointing because Gaiman has often done these deconstructions of stories before and better (what is Sandman if not an unraveling of the creative process).

Here it all feels very literate, but also terribly antiseptic--a corporate-ized attempt at legitimizing product in a false-emotive way (for instance, the last page just feels very Hallmark-y).

If there is something to be commended in all of this it’s the work of Andy Kubert, who draws the hell out of this book. His work here is so good that a part of me is almost angry that he hasn’t been around consistently on the Bat-books over the last couple of years.

His style is fluid, blending the styles of artists past (here’s Sprang, there’s Adams, and I think even a bit of McKean) to reflect the many iterations of Batman, his villains, and friends. His work is thematically on-point where the actual story fails to convince.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

Dave Wallace:

The second part of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader” is in some ways a lot more straightforward than the first, providing answers to the mysteries established in the first issue, and spelling out the meaning of the story more explicitly.

Whilst this issue continues to show us the memorial service of the caped crusader, the pacing of the scene is accelerated. Having established the story’s central premise in the first issue, Gaiman trusts readers to keep up with these further variations on the death of Batman, briskly capturing their essence (often within the space of a single page) without feeling the need to give us all the details.

I still love the premise of these apocryphal stories as they demonstrate the ultimate irrelevance of whether a story is considered “real” or not in a very tangible way. Regardless of their authenticity, they all distil the essence of Batman into a single heroic moment, with so many variations on the same basic story serving to reinforce the character’s legendary and mythical status.

However, the issue soon moves away from these stories, slowing the pace considerably and revealing the identity of the first issue’s mysterious co-narrator to be that of Bruce’s mother, Martha Wayne. Surprisingly, Gaiman eschews the opportunity to have Bruce reconnect with this vision of his mother on an emotional level, choosing instead to have Batman discuss the meaning of his deaths with her in a fairly dispassionate manner--which leads to a sequence that feels like an extended version of the closing pages of Grant Morrison’s “Last Rites” story: A defining statement on the heroic, never-say-die attitude of Batman, and a reflection of his iconic nature as a superhero.

As the book draws to a close, it again revisits familiar territory--this time reprising the story of the death of Bruce’s parents, but not before showing his final moments of innocence with his mother as they read a children’s book that becomes a template for Batman’s own farewell to many different elements of his life. In all honesty, I found the final sequence to be a little overlong and lacking in the emotional weight that I was expecting--though that may be because the reference to Goodnight Moon is a little lost on me since it isn’t a well-known and well-loved children’s book in the UK in the same way that it is in the USA.

Still, I enjoyed the manner in which Gaiman brings the mythology of Batman full circle--making the childhood innocence that Bruce constantly strives to recapture its own reward for a lifetime of fighting injustice.

Ironically, despite acknowledging that the entirety of the story takes place in Bruce’s mind, this issue doesn’t exhibit quite the same dreamlike quality that was captured in the first part. I probably would have preferred Gaiman to not spell things out quite so explicitly as some of the dialogue is so direct and unambiguous that it leaves little room for doubt or multiple different readings (particularly during the section that sees Martha Wayne and Bruce discuss exactly what Bruce’s visions are, and what they mean).

Still, there is some room for interpretation as readers can choose whether to see this as the definitive “final Batman story” or whether to read it as just another possible end for the Caped Crusader--and, for those readers more obsessed with forcing stories into continuity, it’s even possible to read this as the response of Bruce Wayne’s mind to Darkseid’s Omega Sanction in Final Crisis (although I seriously doubt that that was the intention).

The issue’s art is again provided by Andy Kubert, who matches his outstanding work in the first chapter with an equally strong conclusion. As with the first issue, it’s enjoyable to recognise the subtle fluctuations in character design, environment, and even Kubert’s penciling style that enable the story to reflect the many different eras of Batman’s publishing history. It’s also fun to pick up on some of the smaller details in the artwork (such as the Mad Hatter’s “Hats don’t kill people” badge, which changes to “People in hats kill people” in the next panel). I’m sure that I’ll notice more of these smaller touches the more I reread the story.

Kubert’s layouts are also impressive. He’s given a little more room to experiment with the composition of the pages in this issue than in the previous chapter, with some particularly impressive pages that house a sequence of panels or a montage of images within a silhouette of Batman’s cape and cowl. I also enjoyed the closing sequence in which the bat-symbol gradually transforms into a pair of hands reaching out to deliver a baby.

There are also plenty of direct visual references to Batman stories of old (including an appearance from Bane of the “Knightfall” saga, an imitation of Dave McKean’s Joker from “Arkham Asylum,” and a great riff on David Mazzuchelli’s work from his Year One story with Frank Miller). It’s interesting to read this story in the wake of Grant Morrison’s Batman run, which also sought to integrate all of Batman’s past adventures into a single story--but did so in a less elegant (albeit arguably more logical) manner.

Finally, and to the book’s credit, I’m far happier with the two-part format now that I’ve read this concluding chapter. What appeared from the first issue to be a single tale, arbitrarily chopped in half for commercial reasons, has turned out to be two slightly different (yet closely connected) stories, both of which celebrate the rich history and legendary status of the iconic figure that is Batman. It might not be quite the five-bullet experience that I was hoping for from the first issue (although maybe the two of them will read better in one sitting) but it comes close.

What did you think of this book?
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