The Walrus Is Batman: A Paired Review
Superheroes die. It’s one of their best tricks – dying, tragically, to stop the Big Bad from doing whatever it is he’s doing. Luckily, another one of their best tricks is to come back from the dead – which they need to do, of course, since someone needs to star in their monthly comics, and you can’t let Jean-Paul Valley or John Henry Irons have the spotlight for all that long. (No one would stand for that.)
Batman died recently, more or less. (It’s always “more or less” when a character like Batman dies. Complication cling to them like barnacles.) And these are two of the books in which he did, or didn’t, die:
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
Written by Neil Gaiman; Pencils by Andy Kubert
DC Comics, July 2009, $24.99
Gaiman is a powerful and original writer, but he’s also drawn, again and again, to pastiches and homages, to working in the tradition or shadow of previous stories and creators. Even when he describes his original work, one will be the “Lafferty story,” or (more than once) a Lovecraftian tale. And so Gaiman’s Dead Batman story is explicitly the Dead Batman story of all of his favorite comics creators, influenced by Dick Sprang, Jack Burnley, Gardner Fox, Dennis O’Neil and everyone else. Gaiman’s introduction to the fancy-pants collected edition explains this; his very sensible starting point was that Batman will be dead and alive multiple times in his history, and that he (Gaiman) wanted to write a Dead Batman story that would transcend this particular death to be the Platonic ideal of the Dead Batman story, one that would apply to any Batman of past or future, dead or alive.
At the same time, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” was conceived to be the Batman equivalent of Alan Moore’s 1986 tombstone to the Silver Age Superman, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” – a two-issue story, published in the “last issues” of the character’s two iconic titles, before the decks were cleared for a major revamp. (Or, in Batman’s case, an extended absence due to temporary death.) But when Moore took on the end of Superman, revamps were a rarer and more tentative thing – superhero comics characters changed costumes and some life circumstances (married, team, solo, outcast, criminal, etc.), but hadn’t yet taken up the modern round of radical origin changes and multiple deaths on a seasonal basis. Moore had the benefit of novelty, and of being there at the right time – the Silver Age had ended, so he was able to eulogize it. Gaiman has no such advantages; no one would want an eulogy for the current era of mainstream comics, and it hasn’t even had the good grace to die.
But Gaiman does his best with what he has, and what he has is primarily Batman’s supporting cast. Batman has perhaps the best and most recognizable crew of villains in long-underwear comics – plus a fair number of sturdy supporters on the heroic side – and Gaiman lets each of them have their turn in the spotlight. What Gaiman has done in “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is what DC probably expected, and what Gaiman has done often – perhaps too often, as it’s getting to be a stylistic tic – to tell a story about stories, a story made up of stories, a Rashomon of comics that adds up to that Platonic Dead Batman story Gaiman was aiming for. So a Golden Age Catwoman explains how Batman died, and then Alfred tells a very different story, and then Gaiman, getting into the second half of his tale, sketches quickly the outlines of a dozen other characters’ versions of Batman’s death. It’s The Wake all over again, or yet another cry of “the King is dead; long live the King!”
Behind and above that – first as a pair of off-page narrators, and then coming onstage in the second half – is a conversation between Batman and a mysterious female figure (luckily, not the one that we immediately suspect), which leads into Gaiman’s version of the core mythology of Batman towards the end of the story. It does not quite edge into metafiction – does not exactly imply that Batman is a comic-book character who will continue to have adventures, to win and lose and die, over and over again – but Gaiman does nod in that direction. It gets rather more Moorcockian than one would have expected, but it all makes sense during the reading.
And, at the end, Gaiman once again appropriates someone else’s work of fiction – I guess I can call it fiction – though he either didn’t get permission to use it explicitly or didn’t want to be that on-the-nose with the real thing. Whatever the explanation, if you grew up in North America in the last seventy years, I expect you’ll recognize it. And so Gaiman is here attempting to tell an emotionally-based story about one seventy-year-old corporately-owned character by using a parallel with a sixty-year-old book also owned by someone else. It’s a nice conceit, reinforcing his Batman-as-Eternal-Champion motif, but it also tends to pull even tighter the Ouroboros of superhero comics – that all references, and all supposedly “new” ideas, are versions and re-imaginings of thoughts that our grandfathers had. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is an excellent Dead Batman story, but – given that Batman and his ilk will never stay dead – one does have to question why we need to keep adding to the endlessly proliferating, self-referential taxonomy of Batman Stories to begin with.
The book Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is filled out with a few sketchbook pages from Andy Kubert – I didn’t mention him above, because he’s the Grace Kelly in this book, doing everything impeccably without ever calling attention to himself, following Gaiman’s lead at all times – and with four shorter Batman stories from earlier in Gaiman’s career. Those stories don’t aim as high as “Whatever” does, and are more successful and more frivolous – a quick look at Batman and the Joker in the green room of comics, origins of Poison Ivy and the Riddler, and a framing story attached to that Riddler story. The Poison Ivy story, in particular, shows what Gaiman can do when given the freedom to invent and not hobbled by expectations and requirements.
I doubt Gaiman’s “Caped Crusader” will ever match the iconic status of Moore’s “Man of Tomorrow,” but attempts to match earlier achievements usually do fall short, so that’s only to be expected. As a classy, evergreen Dead Batman story, it’s about as good as we could expect.
Written by Grant Morrison; Pencils by Tony S. Daniel and Lee Garbett
DC Comics, February 2009, $24.99
Grant Morrison, unlike Gaiman, has spent the last two decades primarily writing comics, spending his time on the biggest, most successful franchises around. His superhero writing style – baroque and in-your-face metafictional in his early works like Animal Man and Doom Patrol – has become stripped down, almost cadaverous, smashing from one moment of high drama to another without bothering with any of the less-fraught moments in between. And on Batman R.I.P., he’s been teamed with a similarly of-the-moment artist, Tony S. Daniel, to create a streamlined modern event-comics machine, carefully designed and crafted from the ground up to be precisely what the Wednesday Comics Crowd wants, with nothing extraneous.
The comics Direct Market is a marketplace of telegraphed surprises and astonishing reversals that everyone sees coming, a place where every major plot point is explicated to consumers several months before publication. And so Batman R.I.P., inevitably, is not the story of how Batman dies – nor the story of a Batman who is already dead. It’s a major piece of Sturm und Drang, apparently the culmination of several previous arcs of Morrison high-adventure tales, coming at the end of the inevitable streak of triple reversals and dramatic posturing.
But the only thing you really have to know to read Batman R.I.P. is that Morrison is the one behind the current Myth of Batman. Batman has been a tormented near-schizophrenic, the world’s greatest detective, a master of every martial art, and several other points on the spectrum from Dick Sprang to Simon Bisley. But it was Morrison who declared the current truth of Batman: one, that Batman always wins if he’s prepared. And, two, that Batman has already prepared for everything.
Alien invasion by cheese-gobbling one-legged beaver analogues from Tau Ceti? Batman wargamed for a thousand hours on precisely that scenario. Superman’s cut hair attains sentience and begins to assassinate world leaders via high-speed dives through those leaders’ scalps? Batman distributed wigs – identical in all ways to the wearer’s own hair, but laced with lead and gold K – two weeks ago.
When Grant Morrison is writing him, Batman is, by definition, unstoppable. He already knows everything; he’s already anticipated everything. If he ever seems to be at a loss, he’s merely pretending. Perhaps he has harnessed the power of the infinite potential universes to have time to have prepared for all of those options – the details, as always, don’t matter in comics, just the dramatic moments – but he is prepared. And he always wins when he’s prepared.
So Morrison is an odd choice for a Dead Batman story; Morrison’s Batman can never die. A Morrison Batman will never age, never be injured more than temporarily, never have anything happen to him that isn’t part of his convoluted master plan to achieve his ends and bring whoever-it-is-this-time to justice.
The twists and turns of this story are stylish, and the fakes and reverse-fakes are well executed. And Morrison’s penchant for creating supremely odd minor characters is still in full force; the main villain here – the Black Glove, who claims to have a shocking connection to Batman’s past, of course – has a panoply of bizarre henchmen that are difficult to take seriously…even more so when Batman calls upon the aid of the Morrison-revived Batmen of All Nations to fight on his side.
Morrison, more than any other writer in modern mainstream comics, understands that superhero comics are a silly pose, and that the audience just wants the big standardized moments. He’s quite willing to provide the audience those moments, as long as he’s allowed to do the things that amuse him – among them, the equally silly supervillains he creates – along the way. It’s not clear if his audience fully understands the bargain they’ve entered into, but both sides seem to be enjoying themselves. For readers outside the charmed circle – those who are neither Morrison nor sensation-seeking chasers of event comics – it all can seem like too much thunder and too little lightning.
Did I forget to mention the story? OK. Batman looks like he’s losing, but then he wins. Yay! If that’s what you want to read – and close to a hundred thousand people seem to want that regularly – then Batman R.I.P. is a top-notch example of that story.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.