Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (The Deluxe Edition) by Neil Gaiman
Book Review
By Jeffrey Kieviet

Batman: The End

Batman cover 2

Neil Gaiman originally wanted to call this story “Batman: The End,” as stated in his introduction to the book. But since the publishers were kicking the idea around as Batman’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” the title kind of stuck. Neil is a big Batman fan, he talks about the Bat being his first introduction to comics, so without the Dark Knight, there wouldn’t be any Sandman and today’s comics would have missed out on the influence of one of our greatest authors.  I’m also a Batman fan, as seen in my review of the Arkham City video game, and I find it oddly fitting that my first Batman comic review is similarly about Batman’s last adventure.

To further pimp my previous work, I wrote about how I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman from the library and getting hooked on his characters and immersed in his world. The last time I went to the library, they didn’t have the next sequential Sandman book (even though they don’t really need to be read in order, I’m a little OCD when it comes to fictional chronology), so I picked up another comic by the author I just can’t put down.

I haven’t read a Batman comic in quite some time, and I was struck by an idea for my next blog post: writing in real time. As opposed to reviewing a film after it’s been watched, write while watching. Let that first experience translate to the page. I mean, blogging is whatever we want it to be, and I never set out to “review” a piece with the intention of giving the pros and cons but to work on my style as a writer, improve my prose, and become more dedicated in the habit. So a book is a little different than a film, it’s hard to read and write at the same time, but as I read, when something that I want to express comes to mind, I’ll put the book down and hit the keyboard. To be fair, I’ll end up going back to edit this so this sentence may not make it to the final draft, but as everything else in life is an experiment, I may as well be honest with this one.

Here we go, I’ve finished the introduction, now to part one of  Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

So right off the bat, we’re deep in the weird. Cars are pulling up at Batman (not Bruce Wayne, Batman)’s funeral and it seems like everyone has a “-mobile:” Cat-mobile, Two-Face-mobile, Joker-mobile. And there are two different color caption bubbles discussing what’s going on. Clearly Batman and an unknown, either God or Death, or maybe Batman’s talking to himself, but there he is, laid out in a casket. And Joe Chill is working bar the front room, which hides the funeral out back. Joe Chill is one of the many incarnations of the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. So within the first few pages, there are years of Bat-lore loaded into the details. The Riddler even mentions “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel,” and I’m sure there are dozens more that I’m missing because I’ve never been able to achieve the level of Nerd I strive for, but then again we can’t all be Walt Flannigan.

Alfred acknowledges that he’s Bruce Wayne’s butler but Mr. Wayne will not be attending the funeral, so clearly the secret identity is still safe. But all of the villains, the “Rouges Gallery” if you will, are being very kind and courteous to each other. And then Catwoman comes up to give her eulogy, her last memories of the Bat, and she says she met him before Pearl Harbor. Silver lines her hair, giving her an aged but not enough to be well past her 60s. This story takes place beyond time, in a realm where the golden & silver ages meet with the hero of today.

In her story, Catwoman first appears with an actual cat’s face. The mask falls as she jumps from rooftop to rooftop but the image is reminiscent of Bast from Sandman. Batman’s thought caption, listening to the story, acknowledges that all of this happened, but this wasn’t the way it did. This is either a story from the Cat’s point of view, or that same strange mix of fact and fiction that the over arching story holds. Catwoman, in love with Batman, tries to clean up the city, she goes “straight,” or at least her version of it, and she’s willing to break laws to get the job done right. She does the same thing Batman does, only with different guidelines, and she does a better job of it. This begs the question: do the ends justify the means? Batman isn’t a cop, he doesn’t have a detective license, so he breaks and bends rules too. Why is his way the right way? People have died because of him. If he used Catwoman’s rules, the Joker would be gone and Jason Todd could have lived. Barbara Gordon would still be able to walk. Joker always points out, every time Batman lets him get away, that all the blood he spills is on Batman’s hands too.

One night, Batman comes to the now retired Selina Kyle. She opened a pet shop (dealing exclusively with felines). Batman’s been shot, he’s losing a lot of blood, he’s dying. So Catwoman takes him into her shop, ties him up, and lets him pass into the next world. She says she wanted to end her own life afterwards, but instead she came here, to the funeral. Did you ever see that TV show Lost? I’m starting to think this funeral takes place in the same church in that series finale. Batman’s dead thoughts comment that this is the story of Robin Hood, not Batman. I haven’t read any actual Robin Hood tales. I saw the Disney cartoon and a few more modern interpretations, but if Maid Marian just lets the emerald archer die tied up in her pet shop, that’s a pretty dark ending to such an inspiring tale. And I totally used the same plot devise in short play about Greek Mythology that I was working on: Paris of Troy gets shot and his old fiancé (simplified summary) lets him die in her arms instead of saving him. Anyway, back to the book. Now Alfred is going to eugugalize (the person who gives the eulogy).

So Alfred was an actor before he was a butler, and based on the art, his costars look a lot like Catwoman and the Penguin. B-T-Dubs, the artist of this book is awesome. I guess he tried to homage a lot of the classic artists who have drawn Batman over the years so his style flourishes with hints of classic imagery. Now Alfred begins to take care of the recently orphaned Bruce, he begins to love the boy, and would do anything to bring him happiness. So when he first goes out to fight crime dressed as a bat, it is seen as a little eccentric. But Batman can only fail so many times, can only come after the crime and have to be vengeance instead of protection; that the line between insanity and eccentricity begin to blur. Alfred gets the bright idea to get his old acting friends to play larger than life villains to keep Batman going, to keep him entertained so he can feel like he’s fighting the good fight. And then he himself, Alfred, decides to play his greatest nemesis.

It gets even weirder when Bruce finally confronts the Joker/Alfred, and tells him he knows everything. That his friend, failed actor turned comedian, is the Riddler, that it’s all been lies. But what if there’s a world out there where it isn’t lies, where the city needs Batman. It’s all very Meta and kind of strange for strangeness’s sake, but when Batman confronts the Riddler, they’ve played the parts too long to know when to stop, and he shoots Batman in the face. Back at the funeral, Alfred finishes his story and walks out. Clearly his story cannot be true, the Joker is sitting in the audience. Alfred couldn’t have been the Joker. And on the wall is the shadow of Batman, talking to the silhouette of a woman,; they are the two thought bubbles/captions that have been narrating. And she challenges him to figure out what’s going on, to detect as only the world’s greatest detective can. Here ends part one of two, Batman #686, before DC rebooted everything to start again at #1.

Detective Comics #853: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader; Part II, and I’m getting worried that this story is going to end with “and it was all just a dream. Aunt Em & Toto too.”

Everyone is coming out of the woodworks: Robin, Clayface, Mad Hatter. And they’re all telling about the Batman they knew, the Batman that saved them, the Batman they killed. All of them can’t be true. But in the captions and narration, Batman is beginning to figure something out. I, on the other hand, am completely lost. Either it’s not supposed to make sense, and he’s under the influence of Scarecrow toxins and is just going mad, hallucinating his funeral in a way that makes sense to his insane mind, or I’m just dense.

Side note: I don’t want to be, but I’m super excited about the new Superman movie. I feel it’s better to feel like it’s going to suck and be surprised that it doesn’t, because now I’m hoping it’s good and if it fails it will be that much worse. But I’m glad they changed the costume. Out of everything in this book, when Superman appears to eulogize, he just looks ridiculous. Red underwear? On the outside? C’mon.

Now it’s revealed who the woman is. Who she’s always been. Why he’s Batman. Why he fights, why he won’t ever give up. And it makes sense. He’s a boy who was destroyed by the death of his parents. Now, in our world, he would be heavily medicated and in a psych-ward somewhere, talking about killer clowns & penguins with Tommy guns. But Bruce Wayne turned it into a force for… good? As good as he saw fit anyway. Even if he saved just one life, his was worth it. And in his last dying moments, this is how he looks back on his life. His many lives, whichever ones were true, and some that never could have been. Crisis on Infinite Earths comes to mind.

The story ends, the only way it could have ended. In a macabre, poetic, Neil Gaiman kind of way. The narrative is circular, the story goes on, the story ends. The only thing I can compare it too, is a Buddhist Schrödinger’s cat. Derek, you’re not the only one who will get that metaphor, but I think you’ll appreciate it the most.

Sincerely,

Alfred Pennyworth – Seriously, the Alfred eulogy is pretty sweet, I think it’s the story Neil Gaiman wanted to tell and this was his only opportunity to take the caped crusader that far into surreality.

Now I love comic books. I didn’t get into them until my early teens because we didn’t have a comic book shop nearby so it wasn’t really until I was driving and making my own money that I really picked up the habit. And it’s an expensive habit. I have friends who currently drop $100 a week on comics and don’t feel too bad about it. I never got that hooked, but if I had all the money I put into comic books over the years, I’d have a solid down payment on a stylish Jeff-mobile. So when things began to get out of control, I started just doing graphic novels. They hold the complete story without usually having to go through 18 other comics because it crosses through so many different titles: Amazing Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, etc.

And this comic has some sketches and notes from the creators that help give a little insight into the story & creative process (kind of like what I’m giving you now). There are also a few other Batman stories written by Gaiman. Like the following single issue of Batman Black and White.

A Black and White World is a short one-shot examining the life of the “people” who portray characters in comic books. A very interesting choice for a character who lives mostly in the black. The artist is brilliant, the Joker looks like a cross between a zombie clown and Frankenstein’s monster, and for some reason is wearing a Nazi arm-band. They run their lines in the green room, discuss their family back home (mother never thought this was a good career, how are the kids, etc.) and are then called to panel. They run their lines just as rehearsed, and Joker laments about how he never gets the big action shot; it’s always Batman who gets to crash through the window in a rain of glass shards. But Batman never gets good dialogue because he’s the strong silent type. Not much of a story, but a cool little vignette in Neil Gaiman’s super-Meta style.

The last two (three?) issues are from the Secret Origins run. Pavane (a dance term) is an origin story for Poison Ivy. An inspector for a shady government organization is trying to get a file on Pamela Isley, red lines border every panel, and they are all squares or long rectangles, very standard comic book except for the red.

Poison Ivy is clearly crazy but this is a side I haven’t seen. Sure, the hippy, earth-mother vibe turned her into a psychotic murderer, but what about the little girl who just wanted to play with flowers? I’ve never thought of her as much of a villain. DC’s standard “black widow.” Her kisses kill & her touch burns, but aside from a woman obsessed with weeds, she never sparked much of my interest. And while Uma Thurman rocked in Kill Bill and isn’t technically an ugly woman, Ivy’s turns in film and TV were always used to expand the female audience. But her comment about always wanting to work with flowers, “Well, not always, not really. Sometimes I wanted to be a rock and roll star, and sometimes I wanted to be a movie star or a model…” Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a movie star. And as I awoke from that dream I decided I’d be happy with an after-work-habit in theater, because let’s face it, no one wants to stand around all day under hot lights and buzzing microphones to pretend to emote for 6 seconds of film and one day in the can. So what else do I love? Is there anything, like flowers, that I can become so passionate about I could develop an unhealthy obsession leading to mutant super-powers and an uncontrollable God-complex? I could turn into Comic-Book Guy from the Simpsons!

Aside from a poster on Ivy’s college dorm room walls, Batman isn’t even in this issue.

And I’m guessing he’s not going to be in this next one much either. He pops in real quick, first page or two, to warn a documentary film crew that they shouldn’t be trying to talk to his villains. Trying to find, interview, and humanize the Joker or Two-Face is a bad idea, dangerous. Not for Batman or his rouges, but for the people who want to talk to them face-to-face. Is there a Two-Face pun in there somewhere?

As the film crew meets up for their main interview with the Riddler, “Original Sins” becomes “When Is a Door,” reminding me of Sandman’s “Brief Lives,” where issues had twelve titles within them and you never knew when one part of the story ended and the next began. I guess they never did, they just kind of run together like real life stories. Seriously, Gaiman & Derek could be the Super-Meta Duo. Meant to be a compliment, not a jab. Anyway, I’ve never understood the need for both the Joker & the Riddler. They kind of have the same gimmick, it’s like you take away the insanity and homicide and you’re left with a more wordy clown without a punch line. But a general note, I forget the guy’s name (Todd Klein), but Gaiman always has the best letterer. The words and thought bubbles are characters unto themselves, and I’m sure Gaiman has a fair amount of input. I was stoked to see the monetary word written as “Buck$”

But the in-jokes are everywhere. Little references to this & that. Maybe they’re not so subtle to some, but Bill Finger co-created the Joker (& it’s argued Batman as well) so they end up in Finger Yard (of course, this could just be a dirty joke). Or the conspiracy theorist is wearing an illuminati shirt, or John Constantine says “no comment.” I like to feel like I’m on the inside of a story.

It ends with… the guy dies from Joker venom. No reason, just end it with a dead guy smiling. And at the end of the story, all the stories collected in this book, actually, the story is kind of moot. It’s not what happens over the course of a few pages, but the way it’s executed, with Neil Gaiman’s distinct voice, with beautiful pictures from a handful of talented artists, and characters we know and love or are just meeting for the first time. A little snapshot out of their fictional life. Or death.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
DC Comics
Published 2009

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3 Comments on Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

  1. Jeff, I’ve got all the trades of Sandman, as well as the Endless Nights book and the Death trades. I’ve read through them all several times apiece and would be happy to loan them to you. Gaiman is like crack for comic books. His novels aren’t bad either but he hit a sweet spot with Sandman he’s yet to match anywhere else.

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