Posted by: on April 28, 2009
“Well, it definitely wasn’t going to be called Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? at that point. That was what some people at DC Comics started out calling it, and eventually it stuck, but the title did take me slightly by surprise.” – Neil Gaiman
I had some of this review prepared before this little piece of news hit, but first I just want to address the recent Mark Waid interview posted at Ain’t It Cool News, which is pretty much the balls-out closet-opening light-shining festival on the perceived insanity behind DiDio’s DC that I’ve been waiting for, also containing a few incredibly choice (and very humorously put) words for Crossgen’s Mark Alessi and former Marvel head honcho Bill Jemas. I think it’s must-reading for anyone with an interest in the superhero comics industry at all, and especially for anyone who enjoys Waid’s work. What’s striking from it, though, is just how callously it seems the current DiDio office at DC treats its star talent – and make no mistake, Waid is star talent – when they don’t fall in lockstep with their agenda. Some of the cirumstances around Waid’s recent tenure at DC didn’t fall into place due to the Siegel lawsuit, like reuniting Superman with the Legion of Super-Heroes, but there’s no denying that Waid’s account of his recent tenure, especially with Legion of Super-Heroes and Superman: Birthright, paints it as going something like this:
(Image courteously provided from my joking suggestion by the incredibly talented Adam Rosenlund)
So it’s pretty interesting when DC actually pulls out a creator-driven comic that doesn’t involve an almost-forgotten property (R.E.B.E.L.S. (I realize it’s not completely off to the side), War That Time Forgot, Warlord). Thus, the second half of the much-reviewed, on this site and others, Neil Gaiman/Andy Kubert/Scott Williams/Alex Sinclair ostensible magnum opus “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”, named, as the starting quote indicates, largely by editorial.
So what we get here is DC somehow managing to turn even a title that’s billed as being creator-driven into an editorial mandate, which was basically “hey, popular British dude, write something as timeless as that Alan Moore story about Superman so we can make it really clear that we are turning. the. fucking. page. on this era of Batman.” Which isn’t very creator-driven at all, and it sure as hell shows in the final product, since the only thing I can imagine producing this comic is pure, unbridled perseverence to get through this assignment. Gaiman didn’t give up, and even though near the end he fairly clearly just went for broke and started asking Andy Kubert to draw crazy shit that he layered boilerplate Gaiman narration about the cyclical nature of stories over, he turned in this assignment. And that, apparently, is what he admires most about Batman.
I’m not especially versed in mixed martial arts, but even after watching a little bit you tend to notice some of the background details – like the clothing guys come out with before they get into the ring, especially the label and credo of a lot of the more religious Christian fighters – “Jesus Didn’t Tap.” Reading Detective Comics #853, all I could imagine in my head was Neil Gaiman, walking up to the UFC cage of wrassling ridiculously-conceived work for hire assignments, clad in a sweaty black hoodie featuring the motto “BATMAN DIDN’T TAP.”
I enjoyed the supernatural detective story Gaiman was setting up in the first chapter a hell of a lot more than this denouement for a number of reasons. I realize this is going to be the third review for this thing in a row, after Brian and Graeme, but for some reason I still really want to talk about it since more than anything I’m bothered by just how unimaginably trite the resolution was – it turns out that the common thread between all of the stories of Batman’s death is the fact that – surprise! – he doesn’t give up! Batman does not tap out, he gets up and goes forward and solves the mystery and does his job, or he dies trying. But really, not only was this aspect of the character just illustrated in a far more interesting (if perhaps apparently less easily digestible) manner in Grant Morrison’s recent Batman R.I.P., but despite his superhuman amounts of resolve, focusing on it as the character’s most important driving force doesn’t really make him all that different from the regular world’s everyday heroes, and certainly doesn’t provide anything near the sort of encapsulating vision of a character that Alan Moore’s story this is so clearly based on did.
I realize that comparing this to one of the most well-constructed and popularly affecting Superman stories may seem unfair, but this is what everybody involved in this production set themselves up for with the title and placement in the character’s career. And really, to be honest, there was no way this was going to work – Alan Moore’s story was pitched to Julie Schwartz fairly passionately as a story he very much wanted to tell (ref. the introduction to the collected edition), while Gaiman’s is, as previously stated, an offered assignment with a very specific editorial goal and some sort of grand, delusional plan that if you hire good talent and give something the right title you’ll get a classic o’ the medium and genre. The fact of the matter is, though, you won’t.
Instead, you’ll get Gaiman wrestling the concept down to the mat and not giving up, producing a 60 (I think?)-page brilliantly-drawn mystical meditation about how Batman doesn’t give up and can’t die and keeps coming back as a baby with a huge bellybutton after being delivered by a doctor whose hands are formed out of a Bat-Signal in space, shortly after a grown man reads “Goodnight Moon” with his mother to the gigantic underground proverbial treehouse he built underneath his mansion. It’s suitably ridiculous, and on first read tugs the heartstrings and kind of reminds you of all the juxtaposition of the deadly serious and utterly ludicrous that defines Batman stories so much, but subsequent investigations just show that past “BATMAN DOESN’T TAP,” there just isn’t much there. So while there’s something to be said for Gaiman giving this assignment his all and seeing it through, I just don’t see anything remotely novel on subsequent readings and as a result I’ve regrettably got to give this fairly cynical cash-and-Eisner-grab an EH.