Wednesday, April 28, 2010

2010 Hugo nominee: Graphic Fiction: Batman: "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" Written by Neil Gaiman; Pencilled by Andy Kubert (DC Comics)

I hope you’re sitting down for this. Ready? In 2009, Batman died. He bit the big one. No more Bruce Wayne.

You okay?

Well, this being superhero comics, he didn’t actually, really, die. He just kind of died. Last I checked, Bruce Wayne was trapped in prehistoric time, and Dick Grayson, the original Robin, was Batman. And he’s coming back soon. So, Batman didn’t really die, but DC let Neil Gaiman write a send-off for him anyway, following in the footsteps of Alan Moore’s farewell to the Silver Age Superman, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (a classic from the late ‘80s). These comics are great because they get to do the one thing that superhero comics almost never get to do: end.

Gaiman sets the story at a surreal back alley funeral for Batman, attended by his allies and enemies. Different characters tell widely different versions of his life and death. The best, by far, comes from his trusted butler Alfred. As we know, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed, and he started to dress up as a bat and beat up criminals. Alfred’s twist is that the colorful supervillains that Batman fights are Alfred’s friends, who commit kooky crimes to keep Batman busy and out of real trouble. Alfred himself plays Batman’s arch-enemy, the Joker. It’s such a perfect little twist on the mythos.

In the second half of the story (it was originally published as two issues – Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853), we learn exactly what is going on, and it does actually make some sense before Gaiman speeds us to a very appropriate and actually somewhat moving finale. This is a very thoughtful meditation on the nature of Batman’s mythology of the sort you would expect from Neil Gaiman. It is, however, short and rather abstract. It’s really a meditation to the exclusion of telling a single story. Also, the artist, Adam Kubert, is not my favorite.

So, it's a mixed bag, but I'd say it's worthwhile for Gaiman fans and essential for Batman fans.

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