Thursday, March 12, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

I was waiting to write this entry until the second half of Neil Gaiman's epitaph for Batman had been delivered, but it's been delayed until mid-April. I won't remember these ideas that long, and I'll be lucky if I have remembered them from when the first part was released until now.

In a recent Permanent Damage, Steven Grant talks about "mad ideas" being a driving force behind DC's recently completed Final Crisis ( I've read a lot of the comics that Grant uses as his examples of "mad ideas" and really enjoyed most of them; I appreciate Promethea though it really drove me nuts as it seemed to careen wildly off its original course. I'm a huge fan of American Flagg, Planetary, and Authority (well not the current Authority—what has Wildstorm done with their apocalyptic setting? I guess that's fodder for another entry down the road). And Morrison's recent run of Batman seems to come out of the school of mad ideas as well.

As a coda to Morrison's bizarre and infuriating run, Neil Gaiman offers up the two-part "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" perhaps an homage to Alan Moore's brilliant "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" from (can it really be) nearly two decades ago. Right off the top, Andy Kubert's art indicates something is not quite…normal…with Gaiman's story. Using shades of sepia and architecture from the early to mid-20th century in his panels, and an aura ethereality, Kubert suggests that the story being told is a memory, but it's not quite like any story of Batman we have seen before. And the characters attending the wake for Batman are teasingly familiar—they look right and they have the right names—but they don't quite act right. Alfred greets the foes of Batman as longtime compatriots? I particularly enjoyed the inside joke of the waif offering to watch The Joker's car for him then fearing for his life if he steals the wheels, a winking nod to the origin story of Jason Todd, who does in fact die at the hands of The Joker in normal continuity (never mind punching the walls of reality…).

But the weirdness really starts when the wake's attendees are invited to tell stories about Batman. The first belongs to Catwoman, who talks of the love that she and Batman shared, beginning with her early days as a criminal (complete with the first Catwoman costume) to her latest appearances, when she gave up crime and became a hero for his sake. But it never appears to be enough for Batman, and when he refuses to give up his own crime-fighting for her, she kills him out of spite. The wake takes this in stride, but the reader is taken aback by this revelation; it does not jibe with the still-painful recollection of Morrison's story of the death of Batman, just completed. And two shadows, their figures indistinct discuss Catwoman's story, apparently unheard by the attendees. One of them speaks for the reader, refuting the story, while the other tells the first to be patient.

Alfred then rises to tell an even more offbeat and unexpected story—that he is the mastermind behind the criminals that infest Gotham City, and that in actuality they are really just actors he has hired to appease his dull-witted boss, Bruce Wayne, who cannot see how ineffective his attempts at crime-fighting really are. To Alfred, Wayne is a lovable dullard in a stupid costume, and to protect him from harm, Alfred's actor friends keep Wayne safe away from the real criminals in Gotham City, against whom he would not stand a chance. Again, the first shadow protests and the second shadow demurs.

Gaiman's character's flashbacks do two really interesting things—first they accurately and concisely sum up years' worth of backstory about these characters in twisted and yet accurate ways. Catwoman really does love Batman. Alfred really does work to protect Bruce Wayne. But these stories also treat those characters as if they were real people. Of course a woman spurned for decades would grow so frustrated she would consider murdering her lover. Of course any sane man watching his ward put on a goofy costume and fighting criminals at night would go to extremes to protect him.

The result is an artifact that is in some ways opposite to what Grant Morrison did throughout his "R.I.P" arc. Morrison's story-telling is based on resurrecting obscure bits of Batman trivia and driving the plot with them. Without using editorial notes, he relies on the reader knowing details to move his story along. The mystery is in trying to figure out the plot points and then tie them together to figure out what's going on in the story. The story itself was fairly predictable in its broad strokes if chaotic in its minutiae. Gaiman, on the other hand, bases his mystery on why the characters are doing what they do. By genericizing the stories told at the wake, Gaiman makes his story universally approachable. By not relying on esoterica, Gaiman's story is also more satisfying, even in its incomplete state.

I ranted about "R.I.P." earlier in this blog, and perhaps the point of Morrison's story is the utter insanity of a man running around in a bat-suit. His mad idea is to deconstruct the history by over-reliance on the details, the often conflicting and never really considered in context of a person's life details, and finish off by killing off the character whose life is such a chaotic, paradoxical, unholy mess. Gaiman, on the other hand lifts up those conflicts, pointing out that such idiotic moments are exactly why readers love the characters as we do. By distilling the essence of the stories and characters down, the story allows the reader to appreciate the decades of story-telling without getting bogged down in the minutiae. And then, in what may be an ironic triumph, the one person complaining about the details, the first shadowy figure, is probably Batman himself, finding himself in the place of "reading" his own life story and disturbed because it is not the story he remembers.

There is also an ironic twist when comparing Gaiman's ideas to that of Moore. "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" sets up the framework of telling Superman's story in a way that has the fa├žade of being the story Superman always wanted to hear—a comic version of It's a Wonderful Life—assuming for a moment that Superman is unhappy and makes his wish, only to discover (as George Bailey always does) that his current life is not so bad after all. In Gaiman's story, Batman is forced to see how his life could've played out not if he could change it, but if those around him could've changed it to suit their own issues.

Of course, none of this may have any bearing on enjoying either story arc, but it does explain to me why Gaiman's story appeals more, based as it is in his implicit background as a meta-storyteller (does he think about doing these kinds of things explicitly? I know he's a smart man but that would make him scary smart). I'm really looking forward to the second half of the story and suspect that when it is collected, it will b something to recommend to non-comics fans as another example of the literariness that is potential in comics.

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