Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert, Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853 (DC Comics, 2009). $3.99, each.
By Alex Boney
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon
And the red balloon
I’ve been reading Goodnight Moon (written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd) to my 15-month-old son for the last year, much as other parents have been doing for the last 50 years. It’s a quiet book—the platonic definition of a bedtime story. It methodically points to all the bits of clutter in a child’s bedroom—things like a balloon, wall pictures, kittens and mittens, a mouse and a toy house, a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush—and quietly puts all of these objects away for the day. At the end, the lights are turned out and the child is peacefully asleep in the dark, quiet room. Goodnight Moon seems a stark contrast to the dark mythology of Batman, but Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert use the children’s book as the basis for their recently-completed “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” The result is a lyrically elegant, touching story that portrays Batman’s psychological vulnerabilities more clearly and more effectively than anything written in at least two decades.
“Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”—told in Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853—is an homage/companion piece to a story first published more than 20 years ago. The structure of the story is loosely patterned on “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?,” a two-part story published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583 (1986). Written by Alan Moore, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” tells the last story of Superman. In 1986, after the conclusion of the 12-issue maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics decided to streamline and re-launch many of its flagship characters in an attempt to make those characters more accessible to a general readership. Almost five decades of Superman’s story continuity had to be scrapped in order to make way for John Byrne’s high-profile relaunch. To provide this transition, senior editor Julius Schwartz asked Alan Moore to script a “what-if” last story of Superman that resolved many of the character and story issues that had been building for nearly 50 years.
The title and structure of Moore’s story is about where its similarity to Gaiman’s begins and ends. For one thing, Moore’s two issues can be read almost independently of one another while Gaiman’s two-parter is written as a smooth, continuous whole. And while Moore’s Superman story contains elements of pathos and tragedy, Gaiman uses the somber occasion of a funeral (Batman’s) to have numerous characters tell the story of Batman’s death. Batman recently “died” in Final Crisis #6. Although “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader” doesn’t rely on an understanding of Grant Morrison’s “Batman: R.I.P.” storyline, Gaiman’s tale provides a timely elegy for one of comics’ earliest and most-enduring superheroes. It also provides a fitting anniversary tale for a character that was created 70 years ago this year (Detective Comics #27, May 1939).
The first issue of “Whatever Happened” makes it clear that something’s not quite right about the circumstances of Batman’s funeral. The heroes, villains, and supporting characters at the funeral all seem to be pulled from different eras in Batman’s comic book history, and they don’t appear to know each other very well. Beginning with the first page of Batman #686 (which references legendary Batman artists Jim Aparo and Bill Finger), Gaiman and Kubert deftly synthesize the artists, tones, and styles of 70 years of Batman history. The rest of the issue introduces iconic versions of Batman’s supporting cast and allows Catwoman and Alfred (Batman’s butler) to tell two of many “death of the Batman” stories to come.
By the time we reach Detective Comics #853, it becomes clear that each of the stories told by the guests at Batman’s funeral is a possible “imaginary story” that concludes with Batman’s death. Many of the stories are familiar and some are not, though it ultimately doesn’t matter. As Batman says, “I’ve learned…that it doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change. Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are. Because they’re talking about Batman. The Batman doesn’t compromise. I keep this city safe…even if it’s safe by just one person…and I do not ever give in or give up” (p. 12). Through it all, narrative captions provide commentary and response. Blue-tinted caption panels clearly provide Batman’s thoughts while looking at his own funeral scene, but the gray-tinted panels are unattributed until nine pages into Detective #853. When Bruce Wayne’s mother, Martha Wayne, emerges from the shadows to talk to her son, the story shifts significantly.
The majority of Detective Comics #853 reads like a modern visual/lyrical adaptation of Achilleus’ shield. While Batman focuses on his mission—his war on crime through which he hopes to avenge the murders of his family—his mother calls his attention to the costs of war and the reasons why men fight wars to begin with. One of the most touching scenes occurs when, after Batman has given a resolute mission statement about his role as the caped crusader, his mother provides a reality check that he’s needed to hear his entire life: “That’s right, Bruce. You fight until you die. And then you die. When they can find a body, they…they put you in a coffin. Until then you keep fighting. Because you can’t stop it from happening again. Because, no matter how many lives you save, you can’t bring us back” (p. 15). The next page shifts into a scene from Bruce’s childhood in which his mother reads to him from The Goodnight Book (obviously a version of Goodnight Moon). The rest of the story quietly pulls apart the chaotic, disparate elements of Batman’s vast history and quietly puts each of them to sleep.
Ultimately, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is not at all like “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”—or any other superhero story, for that matter. It is far more similar to The Sandman #56—the last issue of Gaiman’s “World’s End” storyline, in which characters gather round, tell tales, and witness the passing of a legendary figure. But “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is more than a simple, beautiful elegy (though it certainly is that, too); it’s a philosophical exploration of one of the most complex psychologies in comic book history. Batman has always thought he’s fighting to avenge the deaths of his parents, and he has given little thought to reward or the afterlife. But his mother provides a jarring clarity when she tells him that “You don’t get Heaven, or Hell. Do you know the only reward you get for being Batman? You get to be Batman. And—when you’re a child—you get a handful of years of real happiness, with your father, with me. It’s more than some people get” (19). This doesn’t change Batman’s mission (in any of his possible lives), but it does add a tragicomic element to the Batman mythos that has always been there under the surface but never so clear—as Alexander Pope said, “what was oft thought/but ne’er so well expressed.”
When the story slipped into its denouement (an extended echo of Goodnight Moon), I teared up. And I couldn’t talk for a while after I’d finished. Perhaps this is because I have a son to whom I read a variation of this story every other day. But after talking with several other people (parents and non-parents) who have read this story, I have to imagine that Gaiman and Kubert have touched a more universal nerve with their treatment of this character and this story. All these things—these various pieces of this recognizable character’s life—are tinged with an air of tragedy. Putting them to bed provides a rest that Batman can never take of his own accord during his life. Peace and rest are the true antagonists to the Batman we’ve always known, and it’s genuinely moving to see them finally win a battle—even if this is only an imaginary story.