Friday, March 22, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/22: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

There's next to nothing in comics that gets me more excited than new work from Neil Gaiman. And possibly the most excited I've ever been about new work from Neil Gaiman was when it was announced that he would be writing a two-part Batman story to sort of bridge the gap between the end of the old era of Grant Morrison's run and the new "Batman Reborn" era. Titled "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," and written with one part in Batman #686 and one in Detective Comics #853, it was the spiritual successor to the legendary last Superman story by Alan Moore, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," (aside: the titles both hearken back to a series of back up stories from the 70s that revealed the fates of Golden Age heroes) but this story was something very different from Moore's action packed and still emotional Superman story. This was a Gaiman story through and through, touching on one of the chief themes of author's work: the nature and power of stories.

The plot of the story is a simple one, a riff of sorts on the classic Canterbury Tales model. In the back room of an inn in Gotham City, a group of people have gathered to mourn the loss of Batman, telling the tale of how he died. Quickly, though, we realize that each story is different, completely different, and many are derivative (Catwoman's story, for instance, is really the death of Robin Hood). All along, the spirit of Batman is watching, talking to an unseen female figure. At the end, as Batman walks into the light, he finds the female figure is the spirit of his mother, Martha Wayne, who tells him he will be going back to relive his life as Batman, something he has done many times before and do forever, because Batman never gives up. After saying goodbye to all the things that make him Batman, he is reborn, being able to live those few peaceful, happy years before the bullets of Joe Chill change his life forever.

So, that's the entire story right there. We're done right? You're now going to all go out and read it. Oh, I guess you need a little more. This is a story that grows in the telling. The plot is simple enough, but it's how it's told that makes it spectacular. One the art side of things, each of the stories is done in a slightly different style, each evoking a different era of Batman story. Andy Kubert does a spectacular job evoking classic Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams, Bob Kane, and pieces in his own style. The panels are littered with cameos by every possible Batman character from every possible era. It's a treasure trove for the Batman fan, placing each of the characters.

The thing that makes this more than just a simple story of Batman seeing his own funeral, or another alternate reality, or Elseworlds as DC called them, tale is Gaiman's writing, and the message underlying the story itself. Gaiman is a storyteller fascinated by stories. Sandman is really as much about the power of stories as it is about anything, and one of its arcs, "World's End," is also an homage to The Canterbury Tales. His novel Anansi Boys ends with their protagonists telling a story to stop his foe and to affirm reality. Stories have power, and a story believed is a story that is true on some level. Gaiman is saying that every interpretation of Batman is as valid as another, something similar to what Grant Morrison has been doing in his run, saying that every Batman story has happened on a continuum.

The different villains and heroes who go up and eulogize Batman are all telling something about the character: something about his nobility, about his heroism, about his inability to give in. Even the saddest, possibly darkest, from and Alfred who had hired actors to pretend to be the villains a broken and Bruce Wayne fought to allow him to play at being Batman, ends with that Batman performing a true act of heroism against one of the "villains" who has come to believe in his part a little too much. Bruce Wayne is destined to be Batman, no matter what.

In the end, Batman's conversation with his mother affirms all of this. He is told the reward for being Batman, for doing that good, is to be Batman. The mind that has never given up will never allow him to rest, but will always assure he is reborn as another Batman, another version of his life to be lived as the hero. As someone who believes that Batman is a true hero, someone who does for others and who will never rest until it can not happen to anyone else, loves this interpretation, loves that Batman will always be out there. Yes there is a sadness to it, knowing he will never rest, but he's Batman! He wouldn't want to rest, not until everyone was safe.

The final pages of the second issue are one final literary homage, this time to the children's classic Good Night, Moon, with Batman closing up his life, and to paraphrase Gaiman, putting the chairs up on the tables and turning off the lights on his way out. He says good night to his friends and to his enemies, to the cave, the car, and everything else, before there is darkness, only broken by the Bat Signal, and then more light, and then the light becomes a person's face, his mother greeting the newborn Bruce. The cycle begins again at the end, bringing a new Batman into the world.

This wasn't the story everyone expected. This wasn't a great final battle between Batman and the Joker, or him saving the world one last time from Ra's al Ghul's machinations. We have Dark Knight Returns or Dark Knight Rises for those stories. This is instead a story of theme, about what it means to be a hero, to be Batman. It's smart, lyrical, and pitch perfect. If there was ever a true last batman story, this is it. I'm just glad that the cycle always begins again, and we'll never have to have that last Batman story.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? has been collected, along with a few other short Batman pieces by Neil Gaiman in one trade paperback that is available at your local comic book shop.

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