Neil Gaiman has made a deserved place for himself in the world of fantasy fiction, cutting his teeth with the phenomenal Sandman series. While this was rooted in the universe of DC Comics’ superheroes, it wasn’t in the least bit about superheroes. Instead it was about dreams, mythology, humanity and the telling of stories. These are Neil Gaiman’s obsessions and the themes that have pervaded much of his work since.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader collects together a number of Gaiman-penned Batman stories, including the two-part main event that gives the book its name. It also contains four more stories, which Gaiman crafted between 1989 and 1996, before his prose career took off.
The main story tells the tale of the funeral of Batman. Lying in state in a building on Crime Alley – the street where his parents were shot and Batman first came into being – Batman’s friends, associates and enemies take it in turns to say a few words about the man, the superhero, and how he died. The main thrust of the piece is the implication that Batman has died hundreds if not thousands of times; that he was a different person to everyone he encountered; and that some elements of his work as a superhero succeeded, while others did not. There are some interesting moments, which we won’t spoil, particularly about the origins and endings of some of the villains.
It’s a timeless piece, not particularly tied to any element of Batman’s official chronology. It’s more a celebration of his life, of the writers and illustrators who’ve worked on the comics, and the shifting emphasis of the character’s personality. In short, it reads like an entertaining but essentially quite learned docudrama, somehow lacking in soul.
The remaining stories also work hard to break down the concept of who or what Batman is. One sees Batman and Joker chatting in their dressing room before going on stage to act out their lines. Another sees a TV production company trying to expose Batman as a public menace by interviewing people whose lives he’s had an impact on. Then there’s a story in which Poison Ivy is visited by a prison psychologist in an attempt to work out whether this dangerous plant-based supervillain should be released, detained or institutionalised.
All carry a typically Gaiman-esque air of depth and intelligence to them, though the ones that break down the fourth wall – the ‘screen’ that effectively separates the reader from the characters – are a bit tiresome, perhaps because they’re so similar and collected together here, when originally they would have been published with a greater distance between them.
Gaiman is a masterful writer but these Batman stories aren’t amongst his best pieces of work and the nature of this collection makes it feel doubly hollow – only half the book is taken up with the main story and the rest is filler. These extra Batman stories may be of passing interest, but the fact that they’re written by Gaiman isn’t really enough to justify their inclusion here.
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