Sunday, May 03, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

"Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"
(Batman #686 / Detective Comics #853)

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Penciller: Andy Kubert
Inker: Scott Williams
Colourist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: Jared Fletcher
Editor: Mike Marts

Neil Gaiman has never been entirely at home with superheroes. True, some of them show up in Sandman, but for the most part their roots are downplayed. When he ventures wholesale into the superhero genre, you get stuff like 1602 and Eternals, neither of which is among his more interesting work.

But Batman suits him a little better - particularly where, as here, he isn't asked to write a story so much as a eulogy. The term "iconic", as applied to superheroes, is much abused and much overused. The Martian Manhunter is not iconic, he's just been around a while. But there are a handful of characters, like Batman (and Superman, and the Hulk), who really have made the leap to being universally known, and have stayed that way for decades. Of course, only the broad strokes are really known to everyone, which is why they're so susceptible to reinterpretation; but a fair case can be made that Batman has become as embedded in the popular consciousness as, say, Sherlock Holmes.

This makes Batman more suited to a Neil Gaiman treatment. And what he gives us, as I say, isn't really a story at all. With Batman recently despatched in Some Crossover Or Other #whatever, these two issues consist of him (as narrator) watching his own funeral, as supporting characters and villains show up in turn to recount their dealings with different, and vastly incompatible, versions of Batman. Just in case you hadn't got the point that Batman is modern folklore open to multiple interpretation, one of them even dies in the style of Robin Hood, and the story makes sure to point that out.

Mind you, they're universally serious versions of Batman. True, there's a passing acknowledgement of the recent animated incarnations, and there's a twisted dark comedy version, but there's no space here for the sixties camp interpretation. Partly, that's because Gaiman wants to make the point that Batman, at his essence, is always the implacable hero who never gives up; the only way his story can end is with heroic death in battle, as it's impossible to imagine a retired Batman.

But I wonder if he's being overly selective in order to get there. I don't really see the Adam West Batman dying in action; there's no death in his world. That version surely lived out a pleasant retirement in the Bat Nursing Home before ascending peacefully to the great Batcave in the sky. You can make a case that he's not really Batman, so much as a parody... but I wonder. I think he's too prominent to be ignored if you're trying to make a point about the Core of the Many Versions of Batman.

Andy Kubert is somewhat miscast on this book. The nature of the story doesn't play to his strengths. It's not primarily an action story, and worse yet, it seems to call for him to imitate the styles of Batman artists of yore. Kubert is not a chameleon, and the style shifts end up on the periphery. And there's a bit of dramatic posing going on, which doesn't seem quite at home. That said, though, he pulls off the closing sequence quite well, his Gotham is well designed, and he does a good stoic Batman. A lot of it's rather good; it just lacks a certain delicacy at times.

Anyhow, when all is said and done, it's two issues of Gaiman telling us about the essence of Batman. There's a somewhat cryptic finish, but chances are it's nothing more than a reminder that as one version of Batman finishes, another one begins. It's basically fine for what it is, but it's nothing revelatory - in fact, having decided to try and get to the core of Batman, it was hardly going to be, because that's what most Batman writers try to do at some point. That's the inherent limitation here; Batman can be used in new ways, and placed in new contexts, and pitted against new villains, and his stories can be told in new styles, but there's not much more to be said about the core premise itself. Gaiman is spelling out a largely familiar subtext, which is often only slightly "sub" to begin with. It is what it is; it's not a classic, and it isn't Sandman, but on its own terms it's likeable enough.

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