Oct 26, 2012

Retrospective: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

In July 2008, it was announced that Neil Gaiman would be doing a Batman story entitled Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The announcement was apparently so big that there was at least one audible gasp from the audience. Coming off the heels of Batman RIP and Final Crisis, where Batman was left dead for a while, WHTTCC (as I will call it now) had all the makings of an evergreen book: Neil Gaiman, arguably the one creator whose name moves the most comics among the non-comic-book-reading crowd; his 1602 collaborator Andy Kubert; the most popular superhero in the world today in Batman; a thematical and nominal connection to another evergreen book, Alan Moore and Curt Swan's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, which was a goodbye to the Man of Steel circa 1986 after Crisis on Infinite Earths; and a theme that should put butts in seats (figuratively speaking), the death of Batman.

But it's now four years later, and maybe it sells newer readers, but it's not really the subject of much conversation among hardcore comic fans, Batman fans (there's a difference), or even Gaiman fans the way other Batman stories—such as Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, or The Killing Joke—and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? are. You'd be hardpressed to find it on a lot of top 10 lists (I just Googled it, and of the first three results, it makes one top 25 list at number 12 and doesn't make the other two lists at all.), and why is that? What's missing?

WHTTCC was two issues long, and the concept was simplee nough. It's Batman's wake, but instead of your standard guests, Batman's are composed of his villains and supporting cast members. Each one is giving a eulogy, their own specific tale of how Batman died. And it's clear from the get-go that these guys are all from different incarnations of the Batman universe.

The first chapter, originally published in Batman #686, shows the wake, and then two eulogies: one featuring the Golden Age Catwoman (with Batman's death resembling Robin Hood's) and one featuring a version where Batman's career is a sham perpetuated by his butler, Alfred Pennyworth. The framing sequence—the wake—shows Batman narrating while speaking to a woman he can't quite figure out the identity of.

The first "death" narrated involves the Golden Age Catwoman.

The two stories given in the first issue are pretty complete. The second chapter, originally published in Detective Comics #853, speeds that up and shows only snippets of the other "deaths," each one harkening to a specific incarnation of Batman. By the middle of the issue, Batman figures out the woman he's talking to is his mom, Martha, and it's a near-death experience. He then spends several splash pages talking about the nature of Batman—how he's a hero who never gives up—then goes off into a Goodnight Moon riff where Batman says "good night" to every significant element of his life. (Go read it. I'll wait.)

Some people have pointed to DC's then-continuity for the story's being overlooked.  After two much-ballyhooed storylines written by Grant Morrison, and what with Batman not being really dead, WHTTCC seemed almost like an afterthought. I have to say that I don't really buy that explanation. I wasn't collecting Batman at the time (I had very little interest), but I bought both issues off the stands when they first came out, and I remember loving the first issue.

But never once did I think it had to tie into Final Crisis or Batman RIP. To me, it stood alone as a story, just as WHTTMOT stood alone as a story, and the very concept of the story, with the different Batman deaths, certainly lent itself to any story where Batman "ends" or "dies." Further, in the trade paperback and hardcover graphic novel market, its placement in continuity isn't even a selling point. The book is packaged and marketed to stand on its own. It can go anywhere.

However, the format itself may have been a problem. As I mentioned, I loved the first issue. I went on the internet to talk about it right away, I thought the concept was brilliant, and it not only had the Jokermobile and the Catmobile, but it also had a Two-Facemobile. I loved the first one so much that I couldn't wait for the second one (I actually don't remember the delays for it, but every time I look it up, it says there was a huge delay in between issues, so, clearly, I have other things occupying my brainspace), but the second issue was kind of disappointing. Granted, I really enjoyed the inventiveness of Gaiman's two short stories in chapter 1, and understood that he had to wrap up the entire main story in chapter 2, but it ended up being anticlimactic. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise considering anticlimax is a Gaiman trademark, but it felt, in this case, like a let-down. Then I read it again and, knowing what was coming, loved it, and then again and didn't like it. It's very much a mood thing.

Does anyone else feel cheated whenever
a hero is defined by "He never gives up"?
Of course they don't; they're superheroes.
Which superheroes give up?
Isn't Quasar notable for having
"defeatist" as a main characteristic?)
But the two chapters are such a drastic shift in pace and tone that I imagine they don't read very smoothly in a collected edition. The story shifts from a slow buildup with two complete short stories to a breakneck pace where the stories only consisted of six panels or less. To compound that, the moment it's revealed that the woman Batman is talking to is his mom, the story shifts pace yet again, turning into a bunch of splash pages where Batman narrates what he's all about.

Beyond having jarring transitions between the main story beats, possibly making the story lose cohesion when read in a collected edition, I think one of the reasons it hasn't gained the traction that a "Gaiman writes a last Batman" story would be expected to get is that it's almost not really a story. It's a collection of cool moments tied together by a meditation on the nature of Batman as a character. WHTTMOT was a story that ended a particular version of Superman, but Gaiman wanted WHTTCC to be a story that would theoretically end any and all versions of Batman, without focusing on the one. That's difficult to wrap up in any other way, but it lacks that one big visual moment that defines the entire series the way that some moments in the other stories do, like Batman kicking Superman down in DKR, Batman intruding on Gotham's mobsters in Year One, Joker shooting Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, or pretty much any moment (seriously, flip to a random page of it) of WHTTMOT. There is no one moment that shows us what this story is all about, just the one speech Batman makes that tells us what Batman is all about. In a visual medium, it's just not as effective.

Is it also possible that fans want, as much as WHTTMOT was about the end of one version of Superman, the end of just one version of Batman? Of Batman's many strengths as a character, arguably the biggest has been his adaptability to any given situation. There are more versions of Batman in terms of tone and approach than probably any other character, but do fans really appreciate that? Most fans of Batman I've met really just love that one version of Batman—the Dark Knight who never smiles and can beat anyone at any time, who really came into prominence in the 90s and was really highlighted in Grant Morrison's now-seven-year run on the character. Do Batman fans really appreciate what Gaiman did, or do they really just like their Batman, their version of the character? I don't have an answer to that question. That would require a mass psychoanalysis of fandom and the paying market.

Perhaps another reason as well is the metafictional nature of the story. It's a story about stories, which Gaiman is famous for, but in this case it's a Batman story about Batman stories, so it's full of little jokes that those who haven't been reading Batman religiously wouldn't get it. If you haven't read The Killing Joke, for example, would you get that this was an homage to Brian Bolland's version?

No, right? But that's what gives the scene its power. I'm not saying it's not effective if you don't have that knowledge, as it does work in moving the story forward and emphasizing the theme, but it does lose its poignancy.

Or perhaps it's because we already have an "end of Batman" story that's lauded and is an important part in "comic book canon" in DKR and a different "end of Batman" story in the RIP/Final Crisis combination while this is the story of a wake, and wakes never really match the deaths they follow, do they, when they are great deaths (sorry, Superman)? Okay, that's a gross exaggeration and oversimplification. There have been some great wakes in comics, and Gaiman's responsible for one of them in the last volume of Sandman. And maybe that too was a problem.

Gaiman's name carries with it certain expectations (the theme of stories being among them), and he made his name on DC Comics' Sandman series, which featured the Endless, anthropomorphic representations of fundamental forces in the universe. One of them is a perky girl named Death, arguably the series' most popular character, who tends to just show up when someone's dying and then those people talk about the nature of life and death with her.

I remember after the first issue, the Internet blew up with speculation on who the woman Bruce was talking to was. Popular theory was that it was his mom, who it ended up being, but there was a faction of fans who just insisted that it was Death. And I thought, "No way. There's no way Neil would undercut his big Batman story by having Death of the Endless steal the show, because she would steal the show, just by showing up." But the whole story ended up being a bit too Gaiman, and it almost feels, structurally and emotionally, like an Endless story anyway.

So there's a what if for you guys: What if Neil Gaiman used Death of the Endless in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Would it have been more powerful? Would it have had more of an impact? Or would it have overshadowed Batman? I don't have an answer to that, but it's certainly fun to ponder.

So why does WHTTCC not seem to get the kind of traction that a Gaiman-written end of Batman story should probably get? It's probably a combination of all the factors listed above, along with heightened expectations. Still, despite all that, it's a pretty good story, full of nice little moments and shoutouts to Batfans everywhere and everywhen. I still like it a lot, and I'll always appreciate the effort. And I'll always appreciate the Two-Facemobile.

1 comment:

JV said...

I think the expectations were way too high because of Alan Moore's WHTTMOT. It was a real story with a definitive conflict. Not to mention, it heralded the end of the Silver Age era Superman. Gaiman's story was ambitious in that he was depicting all the various ends to the different iterations of Batman but like you said it was all very metafictional. There just wasn't any real drama to it. It felt more like an essay with pictures, discussing why Batman as a fictional character endures. It doesn't resonate as much as The Dark Knight Returns, Year One or Killing Joke is because it doesn't say anything new about the character.

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