Along with Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Neil Gaiman's Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? gets the Deluxe Edition treatment from DC, with a similar black hardcover--this time imprinted with the Batman logo--and a similar design of dustcover, making it all but irresistible to buy this 2009 effort along with Alan Moore's classic from the 1986.
Gaiman's work follows the same idea, conceptually, as Man of Tomorrow. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is designed as a sort of "what if" scenario, giving readers Batman in his final days. But from there, Gaiman departs, making the idea his own for the Dark Knight.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? plays like an out-of-body experience for Batman. During the opening panels, Batman is confused about his whereabouts, but is reassured he's in Gotham. Then he's looking down on what appears to be, but cannot possibly be, his own funeral.
Unlike Moore's "imaginary story," which somehow feels a bit more "realistic" in the comparison to Gaiman's take, Caped Crusader is somewhat based in the continuity of Batman. It takes place shortly after Batman's psychological breakdown in Grant Morrison's Batman R.I.P. run, and following the hero's fate in Final Crisis. Gaiman uses this psychological breakdown and questions of his death to set the stage for Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
The wake takes place at the small Gotham City bar called the Dew Drop. As the story opens, classic villains like Catwoman, Two-Face, and The Joker park their vehicles in the alley. They enter the back room of the bar to find several other villains already enjoying the free refreshments, and the other side of the room filled with Batman's less questionable company.
At the front of the room is a casket, and in it is the Batman. But despite the series being tied to recent events, he's not necessarily the Batman from the current continuity, but one who spans roughly 70 years of Batman history. It's in this that Gaiman's work is a success. Both the villains and fellow heroes stand at the wake over the course of the two-part story to tell tales of Batman and his ultimate demise, but each story, each conclusion to the tale of Batman, is different save for a few common elements.
Andy Kubert's art plays into these conflicting tales in a big way. The pages are big, colorful, and glossy, and Kubert's own touch is present throughout. But he somehow also manages to evoke the styles of Batman artists throughout the character's history, tracing all the way back to creator Bob Kane. It helps enhance each contradictory recounting of Batman's final moments, and also serves as great fan service in what is designed as a farewell to the Caped Crusader. And Gaiman and Kubert succeed in this tribute without tying themselves helplessly to the history. In it, they find an original tale.
But it's hard not to think the purpose of Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is slightly lost in the mix. It is teetering somewhere between high concept and keeping it simple for the readers. And while its conclusion ultimately works, it's hard not to think it is a bit ham-fisted, for Gaiman at least. The book also seemingly suffers from its ties to recent events. What made Moore's Superman work particularly special is that in being an "imaginary story" it found separation and the ability to work outside of current continuity. The Caped Crusader doesn't have that luxury, but Gaiman still finds a way to make it, at the very least, a hell of a lot of fun.
The Deluxe Hardcover also includes pages from Kubert's sketchbook, alternate covers and four other Batman stories written by Gaiman during different eras. The gem of the bunch is "A Black and White World," treating Batman like a stage play, in which the actors playing the Batman and The Joker talk backstage while waiting to go on in the comic to do their parts.
-- William Jones