Monday, April 27, 2009

REVIEW :: Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?

written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Adam Kubert and Scott Williams

I am going to make the assumption that virtually all of you have read these two issues. This is the kind of book everyone buys even if they do not regularly read Batman. Just in case: I need to post the words SPOILER ALERT, because this review has to examine the ending of the story.

My initial reaction to the story was one of complete disappointment. From what I’ve been reading in blogs and hearing from customers in the store, the general consensus seems to agree with my initial assessment.

It is impossible to read this story without comparing it to the final Mort Weisinger/Julius Schwartz era Superman tale, “Whatever Happened to Man of Tomorrow?” The Alan Moore story was an instant classic. It was the end of an antiquated era that sorely needed to be put to rest. Because of it, the story was able to evoke deep emotions in the reader as it it treated its subject matter as if it was the death of a very dear old friend.

Therefore this two-part Batman story--with its title, timing and the use of the literate British superstar writer --begs for comparison to the well established Superman classic. It would be impossible for any story to come close to Alan Moore’s triumph from 20-odd years ago. Thus my initial reaction to the story was a complete let down.

I felt the two issues led me too far in too many directions and culminated in an unsatisfactory finale. It left me feeling cold and almost angry. But I had this nagging feeling that I must be missing something. I am not a blind faith fan of Neil Gaiman; but I cannot deny that he is a very clever writer and he has a huge reputation to uphold. So even though I was disappointed upon my initial reading, I had to assume that there is more to the story than originally met my eye.

And sure enough; a second reading proved to be quite rich and satisfying. The plot is simple: Bruce Wayne/Batman is watching his own wake with a mystery woman whom we were all either hoping or dreading will be revealed as Death from Gaiman’s Sandman. We learn in the second issue, it is Bruce Wayne’s mother who has been assigned the role of his spiritual guide.
The story ends with Bruce Wayne coming to the understanding that he is Batman, he is destined to be Batman and the only way Batman’s story can ever end is with his death. But…. the story can never end.

Regardless of how many times you re-invent the character, one thing will always remain: Batman is at heart a boy’s revenge fantasy. He must always succeed because he is stronger and smarter than every other human. He can overcome any adversity and win the day for the greater good--just like a hero should.

Gaiman uses the wake to delightful and rather inspiring ends. Admit it, any of the one and two page stories of Batman’s demise would have made an incredibly fitting coda to Bruce Wayne’s four color life--Batgirl and the Bomb, Harvey Bullock and the kid, the final physical and mental victory over the Joker. There are several more within the story’s framework and each one comes close to affecting the reader in the same satisfying manner as the special moments within Moore’s final Superman tale.

The two stories that get the majority of page-time show that Batman could never settle down and receive that well deserved happy ending. Catwoman’s tale shows us the Batman’s life is tragic and cannot withstand a romantic relationship. This is a very moving, chilling and perverse tale of obsession. It is a terrific tale and climaxes in a surprising way.

Even better is the story of Alfred and the role(s) he plays in Batman's life. This is a very clever tale that shows above all that Batman’s story will continue to be twisted and manipulated away from the original boy’s revenge fantasy concept into something else, either silly and antiquated—like the Caped Crusader from the 40’s to the 60s—or something violent and “realistic", like the Dark Knight of the 70s to the present. Batman will be nothing but a pawn of the actors and writers who pull his strings and the audience who determines the extent of his popularity.

The story’s wrap-up is a bit of a challenge. The shape of the Bat signal morphing into the hands of a new born is absolutely inspired and the final image of a new mother’s joy upon looking at her infant son successfully masks --for the briefest moment --the true “reality” of the Batman character. But Gaiman makes it clear that this is not going have a happy ending. Batman will not retire to suburbia like Superman. Martha Wayne’s joy cannot equal Superman’s wink; hence the original feeling of anger and disappointment.

But Gaiman is reaching for something more, something richer, something darker and something that is NOT happy. Batman is the absolute dark reflection of the Christ figure. Instead of dying for our sins—which the previous 40 odd pages publically offered the readers—Bruce Wayne is destined to remain alive in tragedy and torment to entertain us over and over and over.
No matter who is drawing him, no matter who is writing him, no matter who fights temporally for the right to wear the cowl, Bruce Wayne will always be the little boy kneeling in a filthy alley surrounded by blood and bodies and a broken strain of pearls. Forever.

Bruce Wayne is in hell and God help us, as readers of his exploits, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is truly an excellent comic book and deserves multiple readings. I wish we could have scheduled this book as a future discussion group, but with the convention coming up quickly, I have to use the Review as our forum in its stead.

Do you disagree with this assessment? Please respond and let us hear about it. Thanks for reading!


d. morris said...

I'm glad that I'm not the only who felt slightly disappointed upon the first reading of this story. I was frustrated that the story was a eulogy and not the celebration I had been expecting akin to "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?".

Yet I also felt that something else was going on and the more I thought about this story, the more I got the feeling that this story was really a very clever satire of the state of modern superhero comics. Gaiman makes a lot of jabs at modern superhero stories especially the ending which I feel highlights the inanity of the mantra of "This changes everything forever" for an industry that whose basis is long running narrative stories. It really is a story that you have to reread multiple times to really appreciate.

Andy Mansell said...

I've always felt that Superman elicits an emotional response-- Truth, Justice and the American Way, the primary colors, the outsider etc and Batman elicits an intellectual response. Why is he doing it? Is he crazier than the villians he faces, should he be raising a child? etc.

Both Moore and Gaiman knew this and approached their subject matters differently, but very effectively

Brian said...

I felt the story fell somewhat flat for me and the reasons for the story can go fly a kite...(family blog)

But the art in both parts of this tale by Kurbert are the best I think I've seen from him. And for that I feel like I still got my money worth.

Brian L. Martin said...

I must be in the minority of people who really appreciated the overall story after my initial reading. I never expected Batman to get the happy ending Superman got, because that's just not the character Batman is. The only logical happy ending for Batman is to go down doing what he always does. Superman may fight a metaphorical "never-ending battle," but Batman's is much more literal.

I think that ending the story with Martha looking down at her newborn son is as much a happy ending as Batman could ever get. He gets a few more years with his parents in the midst of a never-ending war on crime. Is this ending comparable to the finale of "Man of Tomorrow"? Only in the sense that it's all at once a suitable companion piece and a complete antithesis. Which, considering the characters we're talking about, seems perfectly appropriate.

Also, the incredibly inventive use of the Bat symbol in the final pages of the story really resonated with me. Brilliant.

Brandon said...

I wanted to pick this up, but alas, I have to conserve resources somehow and this ended up on my "I'll read it someday" list. I also have to admit that I do not keep up with Batman, but all of the stuff I've been hearing about his death and the Battle for the Cowl has left me a bit indifferent. I love Grant Morrison's work, but his first couple of Batman arcs just fell flat for me. I know Gaiman is a capable writer, but his recent work in comics has been less than entertaining.