11 May 2010

What Doesn’t Happen in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Back in July 2008, when DC Comics started to promote its upcoming storyline about Bruce Wayne’s death, one of the company’s big projects was a two-issue story by Neil Gaiman, with art by Andy Kubert. Dates on Kubert’s sketches indicate he started working on character designs just the month before, and the issues appeared in print in early 2009.

Those special (i.e., heavily promoted) issues of Batman and Detective have now been collected with Gaiman’s older Batman-related tales in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The collection was nominated for a Hugo Award.

Gaiman writes in his foreword to Whatever Happened…?, not for the first time, about his childhood love for Batman, starting with the TV show and flowering with American comic books. Born in 1960, he was at elementary-school age for the TV show, and entered adolescence as Batman became serious again. Gaiman was in his later teens when DC published “Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?” (discussed yesterday), and I think he must have read that storyline.

“Where Were You…?” and Whatever Happened…? have a great deal in common. In both series, Gotham is buzzing with rumors that Batman is dead. In both, a coterie of villains and other characters gather to tell stories about how he died. Gaiman adds Alfred, Bat-Girl, and other allies to the Catwoman, Riddler, Joker, and other villains in the earlier series.

Naturally, there are differences. “Where Were You…?” takes the form of a coroner’s inquest. Whatever Happened…? is a surreal funeral, with Bruce Wayne’s spirit apparently watching and narrating; the story soon takes off into a mystical dimension. But fundamentally both comics are a series of conflicting, competing tales of Batman’s death. One is unabashedly schlocky entertainment, and the other is supposed to be a meditation about the power of stories and the evolution of a mythic character.

However, Gaiman was working with only two issues and today’s “decompressed” storytelling style. As a result, I don’t think his version develops much narrative momentum. The best character moments occur early on, outside the funeral, as an alley waif tries to park villains’ cars. But we never see the end of that story, so the moments don’t add up to anything.

Similarly, the different characters’ versions of Batman’s death don’t braid together. Each narrative thread floats free, not tied to anything else. Bruce Wayne ends up leaving and conversing with his mother. This might have meant more to me if I’d cared for Goodnight Moon, the book that provides the literary backdrop for the final panels. (As I’ve said before, I always preferred The Runaway Bunny.)

Andy Kubert’s artwork in Whatever Happened…? is frequently stunning. In addition to magnificent panels in his own style, Gaiman had him pack in visual references to other eras of Batman history. Even so, the issues don’t seem to offer enough space to develop all the team’s ideas. Why, for instance, are there two Jokers in the funeral crowd?

Finally, the treatment of Robins is perfunctory, almost obligatory. In one panel, Dick Grayson welcomes people to Batman’s funeral, apparently blowing the whole secret-identity thing. On another page, he appears as the Robin of the mid-1960s—mask tied around his whole head, rather than magically stuck to his eyes—and laments Batman’s passing. Damian Wayne appears silently in two images, and Tim Drake silently (but acknowledged with one caption) in two more. Betty Kane, the original Bat-Girl, actually gets more characterization, and once again I thought that vignette was cut off before it could develop.

To my surprise, I found The Strange Deaths of Batman collection more entertaining.

No comments: