A Wing and a Prayer

"They tell stories about us, you know."
— Eddie Nigma, a.k.a. The Riddler, "When Is a Door"

Cover to Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The Deluxe Edition © 2009
DC Comics. Pencils, Inks: Andy Kubert. Colors: Alex Sinclair. Typography: Unknown.

Last May brought the 70th anniversary of Batman's debut in Detective Comics #27, as I wrote around the time of the actual event. DC Comics marked the occasion by killing him during a storyline called RIP. Or, actually, it didn't.

I say that for three reasons:

(A) The 70th anniversary wasn't really "marked" at all, to my knowledge. I'm only a casual reader of comics these days, true, as opposed to the die-hard fan turned self-appointed scholar and journalist that I was for the middle 15-20 years of my life. So it's possible that at conventions and in industry magazines DC was promoting writer Grant Morrison's run, which has included the latest passing of the mantle from Bruce Wayne to Dick Grayson, as explicitly celebrating the character's seven decades of existence — Morrison has been referencing Batman history right and left. One might also argue that 70 isn't as ballyhooed a birthday as golden or diamond jubilees when it comes to pop-culture properties. Yet DC failed to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of its marquee band of superheroes, The Justice League of America, earlier this year. It also let many months lapse after the 75th anniversary of the very first proto-DC publication before addressing the issue (no pun intended) with so much as a designer icon.

(2) Bruce Wayne didn't die during RIP, the storyline that ran in DC's main Batman series — and had its logo branded upon affiliated monthlies (Robin, Detective Comics, Nightwing) — but in the pages of Final Crisis, a line-wide DC Universe crossover also written by Morrison. RIP as a title doesn't guarantee that an actual demise is involved, of course; heck, even stories billed "The Death of..." very rarely feature in-continuity, for-real deaths of the character in question. We did see Darkseid's omega beams strike Batman in Final Crisis #7, though, and while the beams have been known to teleport or outright vaporize living beings (who can later be reconstituted at Darkseid's whim) we also saw Superman holding Batman's skeletal remains, which were later briefly animated in another DC Universe crossover called Blackest Night. Many readers were upset by this, not so much because they didn't want Bruce Wayne gone — nobody truly believed he'd be taking a permanent dirt nap — but because it felt like a bad-faith bait and switch to kill him off (however temporarily, given serialized superherodom) in another series when something called RIP was coming to a head in the pages of Batman itself, especially since RIP was the culmination of a set of sprawling, often daring, occasionally gripping Morrison Batman arcs and Final Crisis was just, well, sprawling.

(C) Notwithstanding what it says in those last couple of sentences, Bruce Wayne apparently didn't really die at all. And I don't mean that in the sense of him merely being a fictional character, although oddly enough that very fact is an enjoyably meta aspect of Morrison's overarching Batman stint as well as the non-Morrison book I'm about to review. I mean that it's been confirmed that the character seen sitting in a cave at the end of Final Crisis is indeed Bruce Wayne, skeleton be darned — and that he's currently fighting his way through the timestream back to modern-day Gotham City in yet another Morrison-written homage to some of the goofier tales of yesteryear called The Return of Bruce Wayne. That limited series is running parallel to the ongoing Batman, Batman and Robin, and Batman: Streets of Gotham, among other series, which feature a new Dynamic Duo consisting of Dick Grayson (the first Robin, ward and then adopted son of Bruce Wayne, later known as Nightwing) and Damian Wayne (Batman's possibly biological and possibly cloned son, or so my fuzzy recall of Morrison's Batman and Son storyline has it, based on a tryst with Ra's al Ghul's daughter Talia in a graphic novel long considered to be out of DC Universe continuity).

Double-page spread from "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" © 2008 DC Comics.
Script: Neil Gaiman. Pencils: Andy Kubert. Inks: Scott Williams. Colors: Alex Sinclair.

I'm afraid that I may have scared off "civilians" with the above, something I'm loathe to do when recommending accessible graphic novels. Since the Neil Gaiman stories (drawn by a variety of artists) collected in Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? aren't all that accessible, though, no worries there. It's not nearly as dependent on knowledge of current continuity as something like Final Crisis or Blackest Night, and requires no particular familiarity with recent Batman stories at all, including Grant Morrison's ambitious tapestry of the past few years. But I don't think that the tales reprinted in Whatever, released by DC Comics as a $14.99 trade paperback [ISBN 978-1-4012-2724-1] last month in the wake of a so-called Deluxe Edition $24.99 hardcover [ISBN 978-1-4012-2303-8] last year, will be rewarding to newcomers to the Dark Knight mythos. The title story depends on not just affection for the character and recognition of his various, often contradictory interpretations since 1939, but ideally affection for his having various, often contradictory interpretations, while the older entries that round out the volume push different yet similar buttons.

A much more satisfying first taste of Batman comics, which frankly will never quite be surpassed, can be found in 1987's Batman: Year One, written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli & Richmond Lewis, re-released a few years back in a gorgeous 20th-anniversary edition. The softcover [ISBN 978-1-4012-0752-6] is still in print at $14.99 — a bargain at retail and worth patronizing your local comics shop for, a veritable steal for the ten bucks 'n' change showing up right now online. You can also get the Whatever Happened... TPB at the latter price, and for more-Batman-aware readers with a soft spot for milestones or metafiction I can't exactly not recommend it; I just wish it had been better.

While the current DC Universe was adapting to a world without Bruce Wayne thanks to Morrison's grand plans, Neil Gaiman was asked to, in essence, deliver the eulogy — not one given "in continuity" but one for the fans. Gaiman and Morrison were both part of the late-'80s British Invasion of DC Comics sparked by the success of Alan Moore; they made their bones Stateside reviving or revitalizing such features as, respectively, The Sandman and Doom Patrol. Morrison's Animal Man was a brilliant, sometimes frustrating, ultimately touching piece of self-consciousness that broke the fourth wall, as his Doom Patrol merely broke taboos telling adventure stories about a surrogate-family team of misfit superhumans. Sandman has had the most acclaim outside traditional American comics readership among that era's like efforts, including Moore's pivotal Swamp Thing, but at the time I distinctly remember debating with one good friend in particular the merits of Morrison vs. Gaiman, naming Gaiman the more consistently satisfying writer and Morrison's work perhaps more ambitious but ultimately less satisfying narratively between his undeniably delicious spikes of genius. Their output in the intervening decades hasn't disabused me of that broad judgment.

Panels from Page 7 of "Whatever Happened to the
Part 2
© 2008
DC Comics. Credits as below.

Moore wrote the justifiably legendary two-parter "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" for the September 1986 issues of Superman and Action Comics, homaging decades of Superman lore that was being put in storage after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Unlike his cousin Supergirl or the contemporary Flash, Superman hadn't even apparently died during that Crisis, as Batman did in early 2009; there was, however, a clean (all right, jagged) break between the pre- and post-Crisis continuities in 1986, whereas Final Crisis took place within ongoing continuity. Gaiman therefore chose to tell a tale set outside the DC Universe and paying respect to periods past in more metaphysical fashion than did Moore. That the title "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" references Moore's story isn't necessarily inappropriate, but they're different animals.

Panels from Page 4 of "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" Part 1 © 2008 DC Comics.
Script: Neil Gaiman. Pencils: Andy Kubert. Inks: Scott Williams. Colors: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher.

Gaiman's story opens with both scripted and visual clues that we're not in Gotham anymore — well, in fact, we are ostensibly in Gotham, but a dreamlike one closer to a melancholy Oz than to Kansas, even if the captioned dialogue indicates that we're not exactly observing a dream. The dialogue, a two-person conversation in boxes of blue and gray, suggests that at least one of the speakers is Batman. Panel-to-panel illustrations, meanwhile, show us a raven-haired beauty parking her Catmobile in front of a total dive, greeting bartender Joe Chill, and predictably being referred to in turn as Miss Kyle when the word balloons commence. Things only get stranger after the ever-stoic Alfred Pennyworth leads her towards an open casket which a double-page spread confirms is cradling the Dark Knight, as a blue caption protests, "... That's me." It's then that the scope of this story's surreality is made clear, with characters from multiple eras of Batman mythology mingling — among them both a Joker modeled after the 1950s Dick Sprang version and one who stepped out of the 1990s animated series, within mere panels of one another, although Gaiman and penciler Andy Kubert are careful never to have alternate avatars of a given character interact. My favorite lines are in the small talk, full of winks that generally avoid the precious, as when Alfred tells Kirk Langstrom at the service that he may sit on "either side of the aisle."

Panels from Page 2 of "Whatever Happened to the Caped
Part 2 © 2008 DC Comics.
Credits as above.

Surreality is a particularly apt description, in fact, since the tale essentially takes place on a plane above the standard comics reality that it supplanted for a month when it first ran in April 2009's Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853 (edited by Mike Marts with Janelle Siegel). The reader becomes witness, along with Batman and his mysterious companion, to a series of testimonials from the Dark Knight's friends and foes as to what kind of man he was and how he died. First comes Selina Kyle's, and it references her 1940 debut as The Cat (later The Cat-Woman, then Catwoman) in Batman #1 and 1983's classic "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" from The Brave and the Bold #197 (featuring the Earth-Two incarnations of Gotham's star-crossed couple) before veering into Elseworlds territory and a disturbing conclusion. Much more disturbing to me, however, is Alfred's account of Bruce Wayne's life and death; even if it's supposed to be an ad absurdum commentary on interpreting Batman as insane or an indictment of portraying him too realistically, it's too much of that topic to be remotely enjoyable.

Panels from Page 4 of "Whatever Happened to the Caped
Part 2 © 2008 DC Comics.
Credits as above.

Kubert and inker Scott Williams shift styles to reflect the moods and, if applicable, the times or even specific stories invoked, echoing Sprang, creator Bob Kane, Neal Adams, Brian Bolland, David Mazzucchelli, and more. It's unfortunate that I prefer Kubert's tributes to his own style; his layouts are accomplished, but I've never really warmed to his rendering. I'd have enjoyed the story much more if the baseline art were more in the bolder, simpler vein of his references to Year One's Mazzucchelli and "Autobiography" artist Joe Staton — both of whose work, somewhat curiously although with no complaints from me, are largely used as stand-ins for Kane, Jerry Robinson, and Sprang in the Catwoman vignette; I would almost swear that in one shot Kubert et al. are homaging Dave Gibbons doing a gloss on the Carmine Infantino & Murphy Anderson look as swiped from a Staton panel. Alex Sinclair's colors, meanwhile, are over-rendered in the fashion typical of the past dozen-plus years, working against the attempted evocation of period and against the clarity of the art in general.

The panel referred to in the previous paragraph, as published in
to the Caped Crusader?"
, together with its
penciled and inked incarnations
© 2008 DC Comics.
Script: Neil Gaiman.
Pencils: Andy
Inks: Scott Williams. Colors: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Stacking: Me.

The ending to "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" has struck readers as variously trite and profound, not unlike the recent conclusion to a certain long-running network television show. One huge difference between the two endings, of course, is that both Gaiman and his readers knew that his tale was taking place off to the side, at once timeless and fleeting, as the Batman saga (or sagas) blasted full steam ahead in the mainstream DC Universe, a feature-film franchise, a Saturday-morning cartoon, and myriad other venues. I didn't mind the ending in concept, but in execution it precariously straddled the line between showing us the child that still lived inside Bruce Wayne and infantilizing him; I was also distanced from the story at what should have been the height of its emotional impact by the reference to a specific book by another name, presumably for legal reasons, when the title could have been sidestepped altogether by thoughtful dialogue. And
the story would have benefitted from a higher page count. While a four-issue run on the order of the 1970s storyline collected last year in The Strange Deaths of Batman (in which various villains narrated their supposed murders of the hero) might have been seen as pandering, "Whatever Happened..." is already as much fan service as it is metatextual insight — neither unexpected nor an inherently bad thing. Both the middle and the ending deserved more room to breathe.

Coincidence or the author's own proclivities, if not both, find the earlier Gaiman stories likewise invoking different eras of Dark Knight lore while commenting on the storytelling process. Reprinted are "A Black and White World" from 1996's Batman Black and White #2, illustrated by Simon Bisley; "Pavane" from 1988's Secret Origins #36, drawn by Mark Buckingham and colored by Nansi Hoolahan; "Original Sins" from 1989's Secret Origins Special #1, penciled by Mike Hoffman, inked by Kevin Nowlan, and colored by Tom McCraw; and "When Is a Door" from that same Special, penciled by Bernie Mireault, inked by Matt Wagner, and colored by Joe Matt. The source anthologies were overseen by top-flight editors (Mark Chiarello and Scott Peterson on Batman Black and White, Mark Waid on Secret Origins) whom Gaiman was as fortunate to have aboard as they were to have him.

Bisley's maniacal art stands in hilarious contrast to the workaday conversation in "A Black and White World", which shows Batman and The Joker running lines in the green room before performing a scene for the comics. In "Pavane" Buckingham apes the Sheldon Moldoff & Joe Giella pairing for a brief flashback to Poison Ivy's 1966 debut in Batman #188, also evoking various eras through Batman memorabilia, as Ivy toys with a federal agent visiting her cell. The more realistically drawn "Original Sins" was initially a framing sequence for three origins of Batman villains, one of which is this collection's delightfully odd "When Is a Door". "Sins" opens with the Dark Knight cautioning a visiting television crew against filming a documentary on Gotham City's costumed criminals; in "When Is a Door" the crew interviews a rather mature Eddie Nigma, whom Gaiman and Mireault have outfitted in a three-piece suit and bowler hat like those worn during Frank Gorshin's 1966-67 portrayal of The Riddler opposite Adam West, while Nigma scampers through a warehouse full of the giant props that were a trademark of Batman co-creator Bill Finger. Neither "Pavane" nor "When Is a Door" are actually origins; Ivy and Riddler each only make the merest mention of their previously told backstories, calling into question both the validity of the tales and their own reliability as narrators in the process. Nigma reveals that the title of "When Is a Door" is not necessarily the start of a riddle but a statement unto itself.

The entirety of Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is essentially a set of stories in which stories are told, their content often a matter of time and perspective, a favorite motif of Gaiman's and of mine. And like the title tale, the others supplement their observations of the human condition with choice dialogue. Batman asks for a copy of Newsweek while he waits for his call in "A Black and White World", but it's "company policy" to only keep Time on hand (DC Comics being a corporate cousin to the magazine). In what would have been a surefire groaner if delivered as a punch line, Poison Ivy asks slyly, "Who can keep up with their family tree these days?" After The Riddler caps his nostalgic walk through his past exploits with a ridiculously sublime anecdote, interviewer Steve Jones asks, "Is that true?"; The Riddler replies, "Does it matter?" They are, as Alan Moore reminded us, all imaginary stories.

Covers to Batman #686 © 2008 DC Comics. Cover A Pencils, Inks: Andy Kubert.
Cover A Colors: Alex Sinclair. Cover B Pencils, Painting: Alex Ross. Typography: Unknown.

Filling out the omnibus are cover reproductions from the title tale's original issues, minus trade dress, and a sketchbook section. The standout among the covers is Alex Ross' contribution to Batman #686. Andy Kubert and Alex Sinclair's other cover to that issue is solid, as well as more specific to the story, but the pair's efforts on Detective Comics #853 again suffer from over-rendering (plus my personal Batman peeve, the dreaded blue cape). Kubert's sketchbook, however, spotlights everything that I like about his work until the final stages of the penciled pages done in his usual style; the character designs adapting his style to earlier artists' and a page from the Catwoman vignette reinforce my thoughts of what might have been.

Covers to Detective Comics #853, the first homaging Batman's debut
on the cover of Detective
Comics #27, © 2008 DC Comics. Pencils, Inks: Andy Kubert.
Colors: Alex Sinclair. Typography: Unknown.

1 comment:

Arben said...

Whoa. For a book you didn't particularly like, Blam, you sure had a lot say about it. ; )

I would almost swear that in one shot Kubert et al. are homaging Dave Gibbons doing a gloss on the Carmine Infantino & Murphy Anderson look as swiped from a Staton panel.

Am I crazy to see what you mean?

The ending to "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" has struck readers as variously trite and profound,

I think I geeked out to this story more than you did, but at the end, to quote Dorothy Parker, "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Nice idea, maybe; poor execution.

Nigma reveals that the title of "When Is a Door" is not necessarily the start of a riddle but a statement unto itself.

I never noticed this before. You're absolutely right and it's fricking brilliant. How did I never notice this before?

Really looking forward to more comics stuff, especially if it's as insightful as this, and sorry for not having the time for the comments you deserve. Maybe soon.