Sunday, 3 February 2013

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Deciding what’s real in DC’s fictional Universe is a tricky proposition at the best of times. No matter how many crises are created or line-wide reboots are initiated the past is always there with its numerous iterations of the company’s main characters co-existing, starring in stories that blissfully contradict each other yet at the same time have to be made to work in a seamless stream of continuity.

This problem is never more glaring than when discussing Batman. Is he a detective, a vigilante, a superhero, a psychopath or all of the above? Each writer focuses on these aspects of the character, and his supporting cast of cops and villains, differently. He’s all of these things, but sometimes he’s one more than the others.

This is the idea that Neil Gaiman explored with Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? With Grant Morrison having killed off ‘The Dark Knight’ in what constituted his “real” monthly adventures Gaiman was drafted in to produce the quintessential final tale of Batman. Every interpretation, version, and variation of Batman. Death of the Batmen, if you like.

Gaiman was given free rein to construct whatever story he felt appropriate. Unsurprisingly he delved into the character’s weighty history. While this means that there’s plenty in the two issues that sails over the heads of all but the most knowledgeable fan it’s not a move that isolates. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Batman will be able to follow the plot in its broadest terms. As this is supposed to be a celebration of the character it makes sense to revel in everything that’s gone before.

That said the first issue would be odd for anyone, even the character’s biggest fan, on a first reading. Stories are told of Batman’s death that contradict each other as well as the story told over in Morrison’s canonical run. Selina Kyle talks of how she fell in love with ‘The Caped Crusader’ before retiring to run a pet shop. Years passed before Batman approached her out of the blue, bleeding from a gunshot wound. She tied the unconscious hero to a couch and let him die.

Alfred Pennyworth relates the tale of Bruce Wayne coming out of his shell following the death of his parents only when he was fighting crime. The young Batman sought bigger and bigger highs, prompting Alfred, a former actor, to hire acquaintances to play the part of villains. His pal Eddie starts by becoming the Riddler, with Catwoman, Penguin and, presumably, others following suit.

Alfred eventually became the Joker, revealing that he would face off with Batman once or twice a month. The story culminates, once again, with Batman’s death. This time it comes at the hands of Eddie, who has gone mad and insists he is the Riddler.

Over all of this a conversation occurs between Batman and an originally unidentified character. Batman notes that the stories aren’t true and contradict each other, also pointing out that Alfred couldn’t have been Joker because the Joker is sat listening to the story. The idea of the first issue is that every story is true, no matter whether it makes sense or not. It all happens somewhere.

This is a nice enough way of addressing DC’s frenetic and schizophrenic approach to their own continuity issues but it doesn’t exactly feel like the send-off Batman deserves. The subdued pace and lack of action is not what the character has become known for. While focusing on the history of the character is the right thing to do in context it’s taken way too far by the author. It feels more like an exploration of continuity more than the celebration we were told it would be.

The second half switches tack slightly, with tales of death appearing across panels rather than pages. It allows Gaiman to continue establishing the idea of each Batman being real while the ghost Batman listens and works out what’s going on.

I’ve already given away a fair chunk of what happens in the story so I shan’t announce the final revelation. Not because it’s particularly creative (it’s not) but because it’s something that deserves to be read without foreknowledge. I liked it and thought it was a clever way of addressing the reality issues I mentioned above. It’s not just about the mantle of Batman being passed on to a successor, or the man behind the mask dying. How could it be? We all know that Bruce Wayne is Batman and he always will be.

In terms of artwork Andy Kubert does a lovely job of subtly depicting the different eras of Batman. I shan’t pretend I know enough about the character’s history to have noticed every detail he included, but I did enjoy the visual nods to Arkham Asylum, the better 90s films, and the Adam West TV show. As Gaiman’s writing made very clear, all are just as much the real Batman as the rest.

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