Alternate Cover: Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader

Neil Gaiman writing a Batman story? That'll do for starters. So what does James make of it?

Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?

This week, the first issue of the two-part Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader was released, ostensibly capping off the current era of Batman following the character’s “death” in Final Crisis (which as about as final as his “death” in Batman:RIP let’s not forget.)

Whatever you think of the rather inconclusive way Bats was shuffled off this mortal coil, there’s one thing that is certain: Neil Gaiman writing a Batman story isn’t something any superhero fan wants to miss.

Now that the first half of the story has been released – the question is: What do we make of it? Despite the familarity of the title, the story appears to bear little resemblance to Alan Moore’s Superman send-off “Whatever happened to the man of tomorrow?”, and is undoubtedly its own beast. It isn’t, however, an in-continuity story despite appearing in the main Batman title, so we can conclude that the intention is for it to stand alone.

Except, of course, for the nagging feelings generated by the framing device. The issue is partly narrated by Batman/Bruce Wayne, in conversation with a female figure, as revealed in shadow at the close of the story. The potential guesses as to who he’s interacting with are virtually limitless, and the suggestion that it might be Gaiman’s own character, Death of the Endless, is even dealt with, though in such a way as to discount it – the female character wryly commenting to Wayne that “I don’t think Death is a person.” The top contender is surely Wayne’s mother, a character given substantially less focus of late with all the suggestions that Bruce’s father was about to return.

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Whether or not this is in-continuity, it does dutifully perform its thematic function, laying to rest several ‘versions’ of Batman, with more surely to follow in part two. Artist Andy Kubert’s attempts at aping various classic Batman artists is appreciated, although for the most part it’s hard to see anything other than Kubert himself. Not unwelcome, but a pity in that it loses some of the intended nuance.

Gaiman’s writing is the real star of the book, though. Whether it’s the way he manages to use a one-panel cameo of Harley Quinn to make her an instantly endearing character, or how he knowingly weaves together several conflicting versions of Catwoman into a consistent character, suggesting how they might reconcile with one another.

The second story interests me most, however, as Gaiman has Alfred tell his version of how Batman died, fighting the “Riddler” – a former actor turned actual villain who was a creation of Alfred and his theatre troupe designed to keep Bruce sane. It’s a nice little “elseworld” on its own, but reading slightly deeper, you can spot what might be some of Gaiman’s trademark metafiction at work.

Alfred appears to represent the various writers who, all in service of Batman, have dutifully created villains for the character the fight. Along the way, the character has demonstrated vast extremes of emotion, from the happy-go-lucky absurdist TV series, to the scarred, psychologically-damaged 80s and 90s incarnations. It’s fitting, then, that the character meets his end at the hand of a formerly camp villain turned grimly realistic, representing the current era of superhero storytelling, capped off with an explicit reference to modern Batman stories – “I’m the goddamn Riddler!”, he shouts, referencing one of Frank Miller’s more recent moments of Bat-insanity.

Admittedly, there’s room for interpretation in any story, but it’s important that we remember exactly what we’re dealing with – it’s Neil Gaiman. If you just read it as straightforward superheroics, you’re going to be missing out! We’ll find out just whether there’s anything more to the series when the second half of the story comes out, but for now, superhero fans should put this one straight to the top of their “to buy” list – I don’t even buy Batman regularly, but when Neil Gaiman takes a stab at a character this iconic, only a fool would pass up the chance to see what he does with it.

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.

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