“Whatever Happened to the Caper Crusader?
Part 1 of 2: The Beginning of the End”
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Pencils: Andy Kubert
Inks: Scott Williams
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover artists: Andy Kubert and Alex Ross
Editor: Mike Marts
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US
I’m honestly surprised that this two-part story from comics scribe-turned-acclaimed novelist Neil Gaiman has been marketed more heavily outside of the comics industry. Gaiman’s the brains behind a popular and lauded animated film still in theatres and the recent winner of a prestigious literary award, and he’s become quite the star in the world of prose, known to audiences beside those who frequent comic-book shops on a regular basis. In his eulogies for the Dark Knight, Gaiman essentially pays tribute to the history of the Batman, and I would have expected that to be of interest to pop-culture journalists across the spectrum. In any case, Gaiman offers some strong, entertaining and novel examinations of the title character with a script that’s sufficiently surreal so as to offer an atmosphere that’s somewhat consistent with the weird, stream-of-consciousness scripting that Grant Morrison offered up over the course of “Batman R.I.P.” I don’t know if that was by design or coincidence, but it works, as “Whatever Happened to…?” works nicely as a quiet, thematic epilogue to the excesses and madness of “R.I.P.”
The Batman is dead. There he is, laid out in a coffin in a run-down room in Crime Alley where Gotham’s greatest and most gruesome have gathered to pay their respects. One by one, each of the mourners rises and offers some words about the Caped Crusader, about who he was and how he died. And one by one, their stories differ. Somewhere, the Batman watches and listens, confused by the stories how the lives of his friends and foes seem to have been altered. A voice — a soothing, kind voice — urges him to be quiet and simply to observe.
This may be some of the most impressive work I’ve seen from Andy Kubert, and the reason is simple: a strong display of versatility. Gaiman’s script elicits memories of different eras and interpretations of the Batman, and Kubert matches those variations with homages to the designs and styles established by artists in decades gone by. Despite incorporating simpler styles into the visual side of the storytelling, Kubert nevertheless maintains a meticulous level of detail, especially when it comes to the backgrounds. Alex Sinclair’s colors also serve the story well, maintaining a melancholy mood despite the simpler, sillier elements that play important roles in Gaiman’s odd but interesting plot.
While the nature of the plot and atmosphere are radically different, the structure of “Whatever Happened to…?” reminds me a great deal of a classic four-part Batman story — “Who Killed the Batman” from Batman #s 291-294 from the 1970s. During the course of that story, different Batman foes step before a jury of their peers to lay claim to the title of Batman’s murderer, detailing how they committed the crime and why. I can’t help but think Gaiman read those comics and was influenced by them when he crafted this one.
The first real “wow” moment to come along in this comic book is the ending of the opening Catwoman sequence, in which her story and the Batman’s comes to a haunting, creepy and tragic conclusion. The Batman’s “final” pose in Selina’s story packs a real impact. The other novel and entertaining concept is Gaiman’s second premise for the Batman’s life, revolving around Alfred Pennyworth. Sadly, the Batman’s adventures as illusions crafted by his family caretaker is an easier concept to swallow than an actual Batman, and the devotion at the heart of that premise is as touching as the pathetic vision of an orphaned son futilely trying to protect people who never really needed protecting in the first place.
The title of this story is meant to put us in mind of Alan Moore’s classic “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” two-part Superman story from 1986. As a result, some will be tempted to compare the two, but it isn’t merited. Gaiman’s taken a much different approach in his construction of a “final” Batman story. There’s a surreal, fluid and impermanent tone at play rather than an authoritative, climactic one. It seems pretty clear to me that Gaiman is taking something of a Frank Capra-esque approach to the subject matter, walking the title character through possibilities and alternate visions of his own life and times. As his guide, I’m guessing he’s got Death, the popular Endless character Gaiman created for Sandman #8 a couple of decades ago. The tone of the Batman’s guide’s narration, coupled with the silhouette at the end of the book, would seem to me to make it obvious Gaiman has incorporated his cute goth vision of the Grim Reaper into this story. In fact, it’s so obvious, I can’t help but wonder if Gaiman is playing at some misdirection. We’ll find out next month, I suppose, when the second and concluding chapter is offered up in Detective Comics #853. 8/10