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Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (Review/Retrospective)

I guess… I guess I always knew that this was how it was going to end. That we didn’t have him forever. That one day someone would say, ‘Hey, Jim. Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader?’ I’d tell them. ‘Pretty much what you’d expect. He’s dead.’

I just didn’t think it would be today.

- Commissioner James Gordon

I actually quite enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, even if I wasn’t overly in love with it. The prospect of doing a final, definitive Batman story – one not anchored in a particular event, but designed to encapsulate the history of the Dark Knight – must be daunting. Even Alan Moore’s sensational Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? served as a fond farewell to one particular iteration of the Man of Steel. Gaiman’s “last ever” Batman story is a tad more ambitious, bidding goodbye to alliterations of the character. I’m not entirely convinced that it succeeds, although it makes a more than valiant effort.

Clowning around!

In fairness, it makes sense. Batman is a character who has undergone near continuous reinvention over the seven decades since his initial creation. He has been Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale. He’s been the grim noir anti-hero, the bright and cheerful social crusader, the hairy-chested love god and everything in between. No matter what your taste, if you look hard enough you should be able to find some iteration of the title character who speaks to you.

It’s clear from his introduction that Neil Gaiman didn’t want to simply write a “tie-in” to Batman’s “death” in Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis. He intended to do something a bit grander in scope. “If I were going to tell the last Batman story,” he explains in his introduction, “it would have to be something that would survive Batman’s current death or disappearance, something that would still be the last Batman story in twenty years, or a hundred.”

I hope there isn’t a Dent in it…

Weirdly, this actually allows Gaiman’s story to fit neatly within the confines of Grant Morrison’s over-arching Batman narrative, albeit in an entirely coincidental way. Morrison’s Batman run has been about reconciling every aspect of the character, and so Neil Gaiman’s multi-continuity-spanning funeral feels like an expansion of that theme. Not only has everything ever published in a Batman comic happened to the title character, regardless of DC’s continuity shake-ups, everything outside those comics has also happened. While Morrison suggests that every Batman comic is equally valid, Neil Gaiman goes one step further and suggests every story is equally valid.

(Of course, that’s really just common sense – fans tend to get a bit too hung up on matters of internal continuity. I’ve never liked continuity as an artificial construct – partly because it locks readers out, but also because it attempts to rigidly structure something that should celebrate boundless imagination. Nolan’s Batman is just as valid as Miller’s. Bruce Timm’s Batman is just as definitive as Scott Snyder’s. It’s up to the reader to find the one that suits them, and the character is shaped by sources inside and outside the comic.)

Some Joker…

In fact, the device of allowing Bruce to attend his own funeral and witness countless deaths feels like an affectionate riff on the character’s fate in Final Crisis. Hit by Darkseid’s “Omega Sanction”, Bruce was cursed with “the death that is life”, cursed to a cycle of death and rebirth and death. It seems quite similar to the version of events seen here, where Batman dies only to be reborn as Batman to begin the story and die again. His mother, Martha, explains, “You don’t get heaven or hell. Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman? You get to be Batman.”

In a way, it establishes something implicit in Morrison’s Batman run. Morrison suggested that the Joker was “the clown at midnight”, stuck in a perpetual cycle of reinvention – becoming a new character for a new era. Morrison implied the same was true of Batman, as the character went through various phases. In contrast, Gaiman explicitly makes it part of the story. Some iterations of Batman are lighter because their world is lighter, others are darker because the world around them is darker. And yet, despite this, there are some aspects of the character that stand firm amid these changes.

No feet of clay here…

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. The Batman doesn’t compromise. I keep this city safe… Even if it’s safer by just one person… And I do not ever give in or give up.

Sometimes I fall in battle. Sometimes I die hugely, bravely, saving the city from something that would destroy it. Sometimes it’s a small, ironic, unnoticed death — I die rescuing a child from a fire or tackling a frightened pickpocket.

Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Every friend betrays me, sooner or later, and every enemy becomes a lover or a friend, but that’s the one thing that doesn’t change: I don’t ever give up. I can’t ever give up.

- Bruce sums it up

This is the best aspect of Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, the boldly ambitious way that he draws all these different takes on the character together.

A Ghul-ish fiend…

The funeral is attended by characters who are all the same, and yet somehow different. Frank Gorshin’s iconic Riddler converses with the Golden Age Catwoman, lamenting the grim state of affairs. “It doesn’t happen like this!” Eddie observes. “Everybody knows. You put him in a death trap, he pulls something outta his utility belt, and he’s away. Same bat time, same bat channel.” Of course, the two characters don’t recognise each other, despite attending the same funeral. On hearing her name, he states, “Listen, I know a Selina Kyle. Ay-kay-ay Catwoman. Mee-ow.” She responds, “I’m afraid, sir, that I do not know you.”

The funeral is attended by no less than three iterations of the Joker. The Dick Sprang Joker shows up in a Joker-mobile, somewhat surprised at the dread he inspires in an alley kid. “Kid,” he tries to console the worried young man, “I’m the Joker. I don’t just randomly kill people. I kill people when it’s funny. What would conceivably be funny about killing you?” Later, we see Mark Hamill’s Joker sitting with Harley while she remarks, “I can’t believe he’s dead, puddin’.” The Joker from The Killing Joke even delivers a eulogy, recounting how he failed to beat Batman. (“Smile, damn you, why don’t you smile?!”)

“Love that Joker!”

That said, I find it interesting how Gaiman tends to focus a quite heavily on the Silver Age and Golden Age iterations of these characters. The rogues seem like gentlemen. At one point, the Mad Hatter spots the Penguin, and asks, “Oswald? Sit here. Next to me. For old time’s sake.” The Penguin is flattered. “My dear Jervis, very kind of you.” (We do see a brief shot of Azrael, but we don’t hear his story.) While immigrants from the Animated Series like Montoya or Harley are present, modern villains like Bane or Hush are mostly absent. (Though the Gentleman Ghost, of all people, is conspicuously present.)

A lot of major events for modern Batman are relegated to space on the final closing pages. Year One, Knightfall, Son of the Demon and Arkham Asylum are all relegated to a single-page spread. I know that many people regard the modern age of Batman as an excessively grim and dark time, but it feels like Gaiman glosses over that period to emphasise that Silver Age. I am, however, very glad that the Animated Series is so wonderfully represented at this particular funeral.

This version of Batman is the bomb…

Gaiman is very lucky to have Andy Kubert drawing Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Kubert is an amazing artist in his own right, but what really distinguishes his work here is to mimic any number of iconic and distinctive Batman and Detective Comics artists. You know whether Andy Kubert is illustrating Dick Sprang’s Joker, or Brian Bolland’s Joker, or Bruce Timm’s Joker. More than that, though, Kubert finds a way – almost impossibly – for all these elements to coexist within the same setting. It’s one thing to homage a variety of respected artists, but it’s another to suddenly make them all fit together within a single scene.

In many ways, Kubert’s art channels the best of Gaiman’s writing here – all of Batman coexisting simultaneously against all odds. It’s absolutely beautiful, and easily one of the most beautiful Batman stories I have ever seen. Kubert brings out the very best in Gaiman’s script, and there’s absolutely no way that the story would work as well without Kubert’s pencils to bring it all together. I mean, just look at some of the art here!

Funeral for a friend…

That said, I do have some problems with Gaiman’s story. While I love his concept, and I think that the second issue is one of the best Batman single issues I have ever read, I am less convinced by the decision to open the story with two accounts of the death of Batman. I understand that Gaiman is establishing the nature of this reality, that such things are malleable, but the short snippets of eulogies in the second half do it better. I’m not convinced that Gaiman’s two full-length stories, The Cat-Woman’s Tale and The Gentleman’s Gentleman’s Tale, encapsulate anything especially unique about Batman.

In particular, The Cat-Woman’s Tale just feels exceptionally morbid. It details – as you can imagine – the relationship between Bruce and Selina. Naturally, it doesn’t have a happy ending. However, I have to admit being a bit cold to the idea of Selina mercy-killing Bruce because she realises he’ll never find peace. “I let you die because I love you,”she states, rather coldly. It’s morbid and creepy, and it seems like an act of psychopathy instead of one of understanding. More than that, it portrays Selina as an especially petty female character – the story seems to suggest that if she can’t have Bruce, nobody else will.

I think we know who is the real “man of steel” here…

I get that Gaiman is essentialling riffing on the death of Robin Hood. I know it’s a pretty smart way of exploring the “superhero as legend” theme, particularly because Alan Moore argued that superheroes can’t be a modern mythology because they don’t have endings. In an introduction The Dark Knight Returns, he even specifically cited Robin Hood as a folk tale with an ending elevated to myth. So I can see what Gaiman is trying to do here, and I appreciate that’s clever, but it just feels a little forced and awkward.

(Incidentally, I find it interesting that Gaiman firmly defines Golden Age Catwoman as a villain, with Alfred rather pointedly seating her to the left of the aisle with the Jokers, the Penguin, Ra’s Al Ghul and other characters. I know this iteration did kill Batman, but it feels a little pointed when Kirk Langstrom, the scientist with a tendency to turn himself into a giant Man-Bat – gets to choose on which side he would prefer to sit.)

Cat and mouse games…

I’m really quite cold to The Cat-Woman’s Tale, even if I do like the introduction to it and the meditations on the meta-fictional nature of the story itself and way it explores the conflict inherent in Batman. “I enjoy being a criminal just as much as you do,” Selina tell Bruce. “If you wanted to enforce the law, you’d be a cop. Not a man in a mask on the rooftops.” As Bruce dies, Selina seems aware that the story around her is ending, and she’s just a supporting character. “I thought… I thought I was going to end it all afterwards,” she confesses. “But I didn’t. I came here… and that’s all.”

I’ll admit that The Gentleman’s Gentleman’s Tale is much better, but it only really serves to encapsulate themes dealt with better in Gaiman’s work. As one of his stories collected at the end of this deluxe edition, the Riddler is treated as a symbol of the innocence of Batman’s adventures. After all, you know that the Silver Age is well and truly over when Edward produces a pistol and starts threatening children.

Riddle me this!

I do like the idea the life as Batman was something like the childhood Bruce had never allowed himself to have. Alfred explains, “The black moods that had started when his parents were killed receded. He smiled, sometimes.” (I also like the sly reference to Batman’s twice-monthly schedule in Batman and Detective Comics, as Alfred scheduled his games. “Once or twice a month was enough to keep him interested and awake and alive.”)

However, the story really exists to hammer home the idea that all iterations of Batman are inherently heroic, even the ones who don’t play for the major stakes, even the camp or the silly ones. It’s an endearing defence of the lighter interpretations of Batman as Alfred assures Bruce, “If you believed that you were fighting evil, then you were indeed fighting evil.” When confronted with a real crisis, even this pretender Batman rises to the challenge, “Even if there never was a Batman, I’m still Batman.” It’s a sentiment quite similar to Grant Morrison’s “if Superman didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.” Despite everything, even this version of Alfred concedes, “I do not believe the Batman would ever lie down and die.”

By Gordon!

I think the second half is much stronger. I like the multitude of alternative versions of Batman. To the television show’s Robin, he was “holy.” To version of Clayface, “He sssaved the city, yes… but he dies sssaving me. I sssaid, ‘I’m not worth it.’ He said, ‘Everyone’s worth it.'” Ultimately, to Superman himself, “He said, ‘And while they’re trying to kill me, they aren’t killing innocents. Now take me home.'”

These are short and snappy ideas that capture the wealth of Batman’s experience, to the point where I think they work much better than either of Gaiman’s extended introductory narratives. There are stories of big and important deaths (like that witnessed by Batwoman), but also small and futile ones as well (as recounted by Ra’s Al Ghul). It’s small touches, like the well-worn poster for The Bat Whispers, the 1930 film that influenced Bob Kane’s creation of Batman (at least according to his autobiography Batman & Me).

Keeping her eye on the kitty…

I do like the fact that Bruce’s spiritual companion on this journey is not his father, but his mother. There a wealth of stories focused on the dynamic between Bruce and his father, but Martha Wayne is a relatively unexplored character in the Batman mythos (reduced to an extra in Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman Begins). It’s a great to see some focus on Bruce’s mother, who is often overlooked in Batman tales.

The goodies packaged with the Deluxe Edition are equally pleasant, if not jaw-droppingly awesome. Gaiman is not a Batman writer in the same way that Alan Moore is a Superman writer, so there’s no equivalent of For the Man Who Has Everything to be found tucked away in the back of the book. In fact, the best extra isn’t really a Batman story at all. It’s the weird dream/fantasy-esque short A Black and White World, which follows Batman and The Joker between panels. The two show up for the making of a comic, exchange light banter between ‘recording’ their scene and wonder why extras steal all the good food at the staff canteen (because they finish earlier). It’s the bizarre fantasy that Gaiman is the undisputed master of, but it could work with any two iconic comic book characters.

Mamma mia!

There are two rather ‘meh’ extras – a retelling of Poison Ivy’s origin which isn’t really definitive or particularly interesting and a framing story for an anthology of Batman villain origins – thrown in for good measure. The Poison Ivy story doesn’t really reveal anything of the character and doesn’t give her any shading or moral complexity. It harks back to her Golden Age crush on Batman, but never gives us a how or a why we should care about. The framing story is empty fluff, which makes little sense to include out of context from the anthology.

There is a neat and tiny little bonus included, which is Gaiman’s contribution to said anthology: an interview with The Riddler, who is retired and holed-up in a scrapyard for those giant advertising gimmicks. As with the Poison Ivy story, it doesn’t offer us a definitive Riddler origin – I remember reading a better one years ago – but it reveals much of how Gaiman sees the world of Batman. Clearly written in the late eighties (there’s a reference to the events of A Death in the Family), the story paints the Riddler as an archaic and out-of-touch rogue who is far too soft for the Modern Age of comic books. He bemoans the current brutality of Batman’s villains (“The Joker’s killing people, for God’s sake!”) and playfully skips around the colourful graveyard gleefully avoiding making sense.

A literal killing joke…

It’s a neat foreshadowing of the reconstructionist trends we’re currently seeing in comics – a desire to create a new Silver Age – and it reveals a lot of Gaiman’s views. In his own introduction he explains the piece as expressing “everything I thought about the loss of one kind of story”. It’s a short story and one that doesn’t offer much but the ghost of Batman past, but isn’t that what a retrospective farewell book is supposed to do? The artwork is also suitably chaotic.

I’m not sure I’d consider Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? to be an unqualified success, but it is a worthy attempt to sum up seventy-odd years of history for a pop culture icon. It’s a sincere and affectionate reflection on the history of Batman. And that feels perfectly appropriate.

The end of the story of Batman is, he’s dead. Because, in the end, the Batman dies. What else am I going to do? Retire and play golf? It doesn’t work that way. It can’t.

- Bruce lays it out to us

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2 Responses

  1. I don’t remember, but I read this excert from a comic wherein *spoilers, maybe*

    Alfred reveals that he’s the Joker, to give Batman something to do. Would this be the comic that story’s from?

    • It is indeed. I liked that story. Especially the revelation that you know the dream is over when the Riddler starts killing people, which is a very Gaiman little plot element to use (he’s fond of the Riddler as an innocent silver Age villain).

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