Review: Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, September 21, 2009

The important question about Neil Gaiman's Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is, does it indeed function as the "last" Batman story? Yes, it does. Gaiman offers in two issues a deconstruction of the elements of a Batman story, what it means for the Batman to die, and how perhaps so many different interpretations of the Batman can coexist. It is a story that will quickly become dated, much as Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? has, but that will likely help define Batman for future writers to come.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? might alternately been called "Batman: This is Your Life." We find Batman present here at his own wake, as allies and enemies recount the story of the death of Batman. Except, each character has a different story of Batman's death, and here the Killing Joke's Joker coexists with the Batman: The Animated Series Joker and a seemingly Golden Age Catwoman.

We find this is not the story of "our" Batman's death -- that is, his apparent Batman RIP/Final Crisis death -- but perhaps the story of "the story of Batman's death," or maybe a story about stories about Batman. Final Crisis plays no overt role here, but there's definite thematic agreement between Caped Crusader and the meta-interpretation of stories in Final Crisis.

Boiled down, the conclusion that Gaiman reaches is that, no matter how Batman dies, he dies fighting. It's true -- I can think of many instances of Batman dying (his un-death in Dark Knight Returns immediately springs to mind), but never a time that Batman gives up. And though it's something one could also say for Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and what have you, I think Batman's mortal status gives this a slight edge -- everyone might go down fighting, but Batman goes down fighting and he's "just a man."

Similarly, Gainman whittles down what it takes to make a Batman story such. He tells one imaginary tale where all of Batman's foes are simply actor friends hired by Alfred to humor the mourning Bruce Wayne -- but even this story must by rights include the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the presence of Alfred, the Bat-signal, and such. Gaiman closes the story with a terrifically offbeat take on Goodnight Moon where he checks off the requirements for a Batman story -- the Batcave, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon -- and also what might change with time -- "the Boy Wonder" (but not necessarily Dick or Tim); "the Joker and all of you" (the various rogues who come and go). It's a fantastic examination of how to write Batman, and the riff on Goodnight Moon is sweetly bizarre given Batman's status, lets not forget, as the arm-breaking scourge of villainy.

What I found most interesting was the last scene of the book, as the Bat-signal morphs into a pair of hands drawing baby Bruce Wayne from the womb to the world. As Gaiman's Death notes (here in the form of Martha Wayne), Batman's is a backward story -- rather than working hard and receiving his reward at the end of his life, Batman receives his reward first (his time with his parents), and then faces his hard work of being Batman. Only in his death and resurrection does Batman achieve what he otherwise cannot -- the return of his parents -- before he must fight for them once more. It's in this way that Batman's story is different than Superman's, moreso than their powers or secret identities, and bears, I think, additional consideration.

DC Comics pads what would otherwise be a slim volume with a couple of Batman-and-his-foes stories that Gaiman wrote over the years, including a Batman: Black & White story where Batman and the Joker are actors hired to work on the comic book panel. The included origins of Poison Ivy and the Riddler have been many times retconned since their printing; while I understand some readers found these stories to be needless filler, I liked again how they worked with the main story to talk about "stories" -- Batman stories that don't quite fit and don't quite make sense, but which are Batman stories nonetheless.

In twenty years, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? will hardly still be the "last" Batman story. I thrilled to a Jean Paul Valley Azrael cameo in one panel (Andy Kubert does a magnificent job of emulating all sorts of Batman artists), but the presence of Batman's newfound son Damian in seemingly every other crowd scene puts this story firmly in the Grant Morrison Batman era, just as Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? relates to the Silver Age Superman and not the current. But we currently exit a time when Batman was "grim and gritty" and after that a jerk, and Gaiman offers something else: the Batman who never gave up. If that sticks and defines the Batman to come, nothing wrong with that at all.

[Contains full covers, foreword by Neil Gaiman.]
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29 comments:

  1. One funny thing:

    WHTCC could also work as a Final Crisis story.

    Didn´t Darkseid´s Omega Sanction (The death that is life is it?) send it´s victim to unlimited cycles of life, each one worse than the other?

    This story could easily fit as Batman in the Omega Sanction.

    And that´s part of Gaiman´s genius.

    Still, this play (because it could work so well as a play in the theater) almost made me cry.

    Well done, Neil.

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  2. I think it's more down to Morrison and Gaiman having similar things to say about Batman stories that's caused the two vehicles by which they say them to line up quite nicely, rather than Gaiman having tried to fit this in with Final Crisis' Omega Sanction.

    But it *is* incredibly pleasing that its worked out so that it can be read that way.

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  3. Neil Gaiman's Death actually does not show up in the guise of Martha Wayne in this story. Gaiman has even stated that his Death isn't in this story.

    Also, ""the Boy Wonder" (but not necessarily Dick or Tim); "

    Uh, YEAH that's Tim. It's Tim's post Infinite Crisis costume. Dick never wore that.

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  4. Understanding, of course, that I've absolutely no factual standing, I'm going to say "bunk" -- that's Death and we all know it's Death. Neil Gaiman writes a woman taking Batman through his life and to the other side? Bunk, bunk, bunk -- it's Death.

    *grin*

    Agreed, that's Tim. But thing is, whereas the narrator says "Commissioner Gordon" and "Joker," he doesn't say Tim (or even Robin) by name, therefore not discounting any of Batman's numerous partners over the years.

    Thanks for your comments!

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  5. Yeah, this story is going to be dated quickly, but I think that might be part of the point. To me, the very theme comes off as moving forward while looking back.

    Every story becomes dated, after all. I think much of what is fun about DC these days is that it does this; moves forward while looking back. Many of the stories we now see as classic were once the "current" work of it's time. I think a lot of fans are so caught up in "OMG what happens to (insert favorite character)" that they forget to enjoy and live in the era of comics. Things change, characters die and come back, but those stories will live and be cherished forever; Hal Jordan may be the top Green Lantern now, but Kyle Rayner will likely have a day to shine again, for instance.

    I think I'm rambling.

    I guess I'm trying to say that dated comics aren't a bad thing, reflecting on them and building on them aren't bad. They are. They will be as enjoyable no matter what happens. They're stories, meant to entertain us; and it's not a bad thing to look back as we're moving forward.

    ... I'm not even sure I just made any sense whatsoever.

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  6. Great review, agree on all points.

    My question is what happened to the 2 issues before this? E.g Batman 684 and 685 and Detective 851 and 852 were not collected. I haven't read them as was waiting for collection.

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  7. That´s part of Gaiman talent, I think.

    Yes, Martha Wayne could be Death in disguise.

    But the story works in every context. This could be a story that takes place after DKSB for example. It fits every canon.

    Still, maybe it´s not death because Batman is the greatest detective in the world and he would have discovered Death in his mother´s form.

    Still, maybe he discovered.

    Now, that´s story telling!

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  8. See James Robinson's Twitter comments today, dl316bh -- I think his points agree with yours about comics building on a rich history. Nice sentiment.

    I'm getting a lot of questions about those missing Batman and Detective issues, but so far I don't see these collected anywhere. Fortunately I think you can go straight from RIP to Whatever Happened to Battle for the Cowl and you'll still be caught up.

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  9. Robinson´s comments on twitter make me laugh out loud.

    He´s funny as hell.

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  10. James Robinson may well be my hero now. He's the only guy so far that I've seen basically call Alan Moore on being a hypocrite. I love Alan Moore's work - hell, I own quite a few trades of his stuff and have no problems reccomending it as some of the best comics work around - but I have to admit the man has always come off to me like a bit of a tool. But no one really seems to say it, especially not creators.

    Alan Moore has been in many ways the pot calling the kettle black and I don't really understand why. How did a man with such talent get to be so bitter? It kind of baffles me sometimes.

    Anyways, I like the way James Robinson looks at things. His work lately has been rough (you can tell he wrote Cry for Justice back when he was just getting back into the swing of things around the Atlas arc of Superman, because damn does it read bad), but he seems to be picking up steam. I may want to forget Cry ever happened, but I hope his Justice League ends up worth it; I have to admit I'm a bit excited about some Titans moving up.

    On the missing issues of Batman and Detective, I'm not going to be surprised if we see some kind of "Last Rites" trade down the line. I actually thought that was what was going to happen - the Last Rites Batman issues by Grant, the Denny O'Neil story and the Catwoman story - before Last Rites was oddly placed at the tail end of the Batman RIP trade...

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  11. Robinson´s Starman rocked way up.

    About Moore... well there´s something strange about the guy.

    It looks like he takes himself way too seriously.

    His work, is amazing, I love it.

    Still some stuff he affirms...

    Hey, he "created" Watchmen characters because DC told him to do that, so there´s no way DC cheated him, and he keeps saying that he refuses money for that, instead of saying "This money belogns to me".

    Neither Gibbons or Lloyd have been angry at DC and they say that Moore is overreacting.

    I first read Watchmen in spanish thanks to Editorial Zinco that bought DC´s line.

    If Watchmen´s rights were in Moore´s power many people could have lost the chance to read it.

    Not many people have read From Hell in other languages than english, y´know.

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  12. He didn't even really create the Watchmen characters. He based them heavily off the Charlton characters. You know, characters like The Question and Blue Beetle. In fact, he originally wanted to use those characters.

    That fact alone cements him as the pot calling the kettle black.

    Also, I like Dave Gibbons. He's far more level headed than the "I have been wronged because things did not go EXACTLY as I demanded" approach Moore uses.

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  13. "Understanding, of course, that I've absolutely no factual standing, I'm going to say "bunk" -- that's Death and we all know it's Death. Neil Gaiman writes a woman taking Batman through his life and to the other side? Bunk, bunk, bunk -- it's Death."

    And I'm going to say Gaiman said it WASN'T his Death. In no uncertain terms. Don't believe me? Google it.

    "Agreed, that's Tim. But thing is, whereas the narrator says "Commissioner Gordon" and "Joker," he doesn't say Tim (or even Robin) by name, therefore not discounting any of Batman's numerous partners over the years."

    Yeah, the costume alone discounts that. It's Tim.

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  14. I said "created" because I know about Watchmen characters being equivalent those of Charlton Comics.

    Moore is a great writer, but he should be happy and not bitter about his work. Jezz.

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  15. I'm not sure Alan Moore is happy about anything anymore. He just seems so bitter that talking to him about almost anything would be a depressing chore. He hates his most brilliant works, he hates the mainstream, he hates Marvel, he hates DC.

    *sigh*

    Why must geniuses be so odd and/or intensely angry people? Such a shame...

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  16. Anon: Dude, chill.

    As for Moore, while his comments have irked me a little as well, I guess if I've been mistreated as often as he has over the last 20 years I'd have a chip on my shoulder as well.

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  17. I'd agree, but a lot of Alan Moore's "slights" seem more on the side of imaginary than anything else. Take, for instance, one that occured in the last four or five years. A credit was screwed up during printing of a volume of one of his works. He flipped out and left the company (of which I think he was just looking for an excuse anyways).

    Then there was the thing with the V for Vendetta film. One of the directors had said that Moore had been excited about the film; he heard this secondhand and it all really did sound like an honest mistake, but Moore had a conniption. I could swear I even remembered him claiming to have burnt all copies of the comic he had in anger.

    On some of the bigger issues, he's the only one who seems to have a problem. His artistic partners have refuted some of his claims in the past - one of such being that Moore didn't know what he was getting into in regards to a contract - on a couple different occasions. Some think he just takes everything way too seriously.

    I've no doubt Moore's been wronged in the past. It happens, especially when you're dealing with a business. But he seems to take the smallest things as personal slights against him. It only seems to get worse as the years pass. At some point, he starts losing credibility with many of his claims and I think it's gotten to the point where it's getting hard to take him seriously.

    Perhaps as he's gotten older he's just lost tolerance for anything not completely within his control. I don't really know. But I can't help being highly annoyed at the man, you know?

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  18. Moore is a genius. Likely, the best comic book writer I've ever known. I'm OK with him being bitter or taking everything way too seriously as long as he continues writting so damn well :)

    Perhaps, I could be annoyed at Moore if he were my friend or a relative, but he's just the writer I admired. I needn´t a happy and nice Alan Moore to enjoy his work...

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  19. For me, Moore might've just subscribed to "if you can't say anything nice ..." I can think of worse crimes than people keeping alive a writer's ideas (and really, isn't a great portion of comics history people keeping alive Siegel and Shuster's idea from decades ago?).

    That said, I agree with Anon that there comes a point where you have to create a distance between writer and work, else the comments of every Moore, McDuffie, Dixon, etc. would ruin swaths of trades (though again, see "if you can't say anything nice ...").

    Josh Flanagan at iFanboy has a good take on this today.

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  20. Quah: Dude, chill.

    I am okay with Moore being angry and in many cases I think it's justified.

    The angry cases I don't like are the misogynistic anger of Dave Sim or John Byrne griping about Moore's deconstuctionist works when Byrne has done anything half as good in the last 10-15 years.

    Moore for the most part chooses to stand by his principles which never seem to hurt people. It's usually others who come after Moore first such as the case of the wacko who claimed Moore wrote League of Extrodinary Gentlemen as the request of a film studio or when the producers of V for Vendetta lied about Moore's involvment when it was a well known fact Moore wanted nothing to do with Hollywood by that point.

    Alan Moore is the one writer who has never disapointed me and I don't care who publishes his next work. I will happlily buy a copy knowing it's well worth checking out.

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  21. This is something interesting about Moore.

    His moods and reactions, not everyone agrees with, but everyone (or almost) thinks is probably the best comic book writer ever.

    Maybe. Gaiman rules too.

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  22. I don't know about THE best. He's definitely done groundbreaking work. You can't discount his ability even if you don't like the man. But to say he's outright the best is really to put down the works of some truly classic creators that came before.

    On separating work from the creator, I already do that. At no point will you see me put down his work, because I don't hold his words or actions against it. But while I'll always like the man's work, as a person I don't think I much care for him anymore.

    Also, Neil Gaiman definitely does rule. I'd also put Grant Morrison in there; he's a personal favorite creator. Geoff Johns is on the rise. Pre-DKSB Frank Miller too; I enjoy his current work for what it is, but it's nowhere even remotely near the work he used to make.

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  23. Remember Miller´s Ronin; Daredevil; DKR, Year One, Born Again?

    And even Hard Boiled and Give Me Liberty were great as the first four arcs of Sin City.

    Maybe DKSB was the start of his decadence...

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  24. Well, keep in mind that the joke may be on us. For all we've made his works prior to DKSB into as far as opinion and greatness go, DKR in particular carried characterization and tone that was merely amped up in DKSB. It could have been what Frank Miller intended all along.

    I like DKSB well enough. It's definitely not what DKR was. But I thought that if you let go of your expectations it was... interesting, to say the least. Not great or anything, but readable and enjoyable in it's own way. I think the same for ASB&R.

    Wait, is it Dark Knight Strikes Again or Dark Knight Strikes Back? I keep thinking Strikes Back, but I can't remember.

    Anyways, even if he never reaches the heights he has before again, I still love Frank Millers earlier work.

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  25. Actually I´ve got to check that out because I remember on the cover you can read only DK2. lol

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  26. It's Dark Knight Strikes Again. It was kinda "eh" the first time I read it (which was only a few weeks after I read DKR for the first time in 2003), but really grew on me with multiple readings. I love it now.

    (On an aside, I have to note that the main thing that strikes me about my copy of the DKSA hardcover is that it uses stitch binding instead of the crappy glue binding DC and Marvel usually use for their hardcovers. That's practically unheard of outside of DC's Absolute books, and possibly the Archive editions. It's the sort of thing that would only interest, well, me, but still.)

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  27. Hey, Jeffrey it also interests me.

    I´ve got DKR; Arkham Asylum, V For Vendetta & Ronin in Absolute Edition (in Spanish because here it´s almost impossible to find them in english but it doesn´t matter because it´s the exact same edition except for the translation. Amazing work of Planeta Dagostini) and my next buy is DK2.

    Even though I´m not in love with that story as I am with DKR because DKR never needed a sequel.

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  28. About the four missing "Last Rites" issues, I don't think Denny O'Neill's two-parter is essential, but Dini's arc is really important because of the new status quo it sets for both Hush and Catwoman.

    I think it would be a good fit for the first Batman: Streets of Gotham TPB, since it was done by the same creative team, but I think DC should have included it in the Heart of Hush hardcover. It would have made for a nice epilogue to that collection.

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  29. I enjoyed this story, but I couldn't help but feel it looked really weak in comparison to the incredible "What the Butler Saw" two-parter than concluded the RIP trade, having such similar ideas.

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