Batman 686: "Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?"
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artist: Andy Kubert
While Christopher Nolan relocated Batman to a grim, brutalising reality of glass and steel, concrete and corruption, Neil Gaiman remembers that magic walks the streets of Gotham, a city that traditionally teeters between circus and fever dream.
Gaiman’s always patrolled the more ethereal byways of the DC Universe, of course. His Sandman saga remains a resonant touchstone of comic book fantasy, a work that played with deep, abiding archetypes and the power of story itself. So it’s little surprise that his stab at Batman accentuates the character's enduring, mythic aspects.
With a title that winks at Alan Moore’s classic ‘80s tale “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?”, this collaboration with Andy Kubert is pitched as the final Batman story (as Moore said, “This is an imaginary story… Aren’t they all?”). The Dark Knight lies in state, victim of an unknown fate, and as friends and foes assemble in tribute we’re offered clashing perspectives on his dying days.
It’s a clever exercise in quantum narrative. Gaiman slides us into a shifting, paradoxical storybook realm, built from seven decades of Batman lore. This Gotham feels timelessly familiar but uncertain and strange. The cartoon show Joker shares a reality with the Green Arrow from The Dark Knight Returns. A Pearl Harbour era Catwoman collides with a Riddler who’s pure Frank Gorshin (“Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”). Witnessing it all is what may just be the shade of Batman, drifting and helpless, protesting “It never happened like this!” What gives? No one’s telling. Not yet.
Alfred and Catwoman offer two conflicting accounts of Batman’s demise in this intriguing first issue (the story concludes in Detective Comics 853). Their stories are perfect miniatures, offering two shots of resolution that the framing story so tantalisingly withholds.
And while Gaiman spins a reliably fine yarn, Kubert’s art has a real grace and charm, recalling the Silver Age appeal of the great Jim Aparo. There’s a hint of Will Eisner in there too, particularly in the ‘40s foxiness of Selina Kyle. It’s obvious how much geek-love has been poured into this project – you can sense the absolute fanboy glee in that authentic ‘50s Jokermobile or the faithful resurrection of Catwoman’s startling original costume.
As a coda to an icon, this proves a loving tribute to the generations of talent that shaped the saga of the Dark Knight. Now Gaiman and Kubert can stand proud among them.