Monday, December 27, 2010

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (comics)

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Andy Kubert
Collects: Batman #685, Detective Comics #852 plus Gaiman penned stories from Secret Origins #36, Secret Origins Special #1 and Batman: Black and White #2

I imagine that if there's one thing comic fans - myself included - never thought they'd see, it's a counterpart to Alan Moore's Superman story "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow". Love it or hate it, that work is considered one of the seminal Superman stories, so that's a tough pedigree to live up to and you'd think it would scare off most writers. But here it is; and I guess if you could get anyone to do such a story short of Alan Moore himself - which, you know, would never happen at this point - Neil Gaiman would be a pretty safe bet.

Batman is dead. To the surprise of few. Now his closest allies and fiercest villains gather at his funeral to swap stories of how the Caped Crusader died while the spirit of the man himself watches.

Gaiman isn't quite content to just ape Alan Moore. While Moore's story was something of a capstone to the Silver Age Superman - his last story, as it were - Gaiman takes a bit more timeless an approach. Everything is presented as the base ideals or concepts. It's not the literal death of the character, but the death and funeral of an iteration of Batman. It's every death of Batman in one. There isn't just one version of any character attending either; in some pages, you might spot two Jokers. All there to tell a story about the death of a Batman.

Gaiman himself notes in the foreword that this is his final Batman story, or how he would end it if this were truly to be the last Batman story. But the message of Gaimans "last Batman story" is clear. There is no final Batman story, because Batman lives forever.

It's fitting, not just because that's a point Grant Morrison had been hammering home in the regular stories at the time, but also because there's never really an end to characters like Batman. Someone always picks up the pen and tells a new tale. Even histories great characters no longer under corporate ownership - where they're sometimes brought back if only to keep copyright going - find their way into new adventures. See Dracula, for an example. One way or another, the characters are reborn, or see new life. Batman can stand among these characters, these larger than life rich fictional myths, so it feels right that the final Batman story is that there is no final Batman story.

There's still some interpretation left to the reader, though. Is the tale also an allegory for the cycles of rebirth and reinterpretation the character has gone through? In some ways, is it a musing on the nature of stories in general? A commentary on how every person has a way of telling a story, writ large? Or are we simply thinking too much about it and it's just a loving homage to a character that's lasted well over seventy years of continuous publication? It could be any of those things, or maybe not.

So overall, what Neil Gaimans written is a story that has a timeless feel. Perhaps one of an instant classic, maybe? When it's all said and done, the story doesn't vastly change how you'll look at the character or rock your world. But it feels enduring, like something that will stand the test of time. So perhaps naming it after the Alan Moore story wasn't a folly after all. It feels like something that will hold up in a similar way, relevance be damned.

If I have a problem with the story at all, it's that I felt it would have been nice to see more of the tales told of Batmans death, but that strikes me as nitpicking.

While I've given all this praise to Neil Gaiman, I have to talk some about Andy Kubert. I have my reservations. Even here, a couple panels feel a little too iffy for my liking, usually whenever we're zoomed out from a group of characters, which is a problem that cropped up in Batman & Son as well. But I am a fan of his Batman work. Aside from that problem, it feels like he's on another level here, beyond what he had already been doing.

Within, he actively apes the styles of classic Batman artists from the past, such as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang and Neal Adams to great effect. He doesn't quite achieve the chameleon effect of certain other top shelf artists, but his linework does a respectable job of it. To me, Andy Kubert fits with Batman like a glove and it makes me hope to see more of his work on the character in the future. It just works for me.

Some extra's round out the package, because the actual story was only two issues long and someone in the collected editions department clearly recognized that they needed a hell of a lot more than that to put out a hardcover or trade. These include pretty much every story Gaiman did with the Batman mythos, mostly concerning the villains. They're good reads - not sure if the Poison Ivy one or the Riddler one is my favorite of them - but not essential reading. That and I really don't think the art is the greatest for two of the three. Add some Andy Kubert sketches, stir briskly and viola.

The Score: 8.5 out of 10

Overall, this is a great read. I kind of wish it were a bit longer, but the short length works well for it. While not perfect, it's a fine package and well worth a purchase.

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