Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?

Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?

But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.” -Neil Gaiman

No one writes a Neil Gaiman story quite like Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a protean writer, chameleon-like in his versatility, an adroit storyteller with a thousand styles at his disposal. But there is always something distinctly Gaiman-esque about his writing; no matter the forms his stories take, they always feature a telltale marker giving away the writer’s identity.

In 2009, Gaiman wrote Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, a two-part eulogy to the death and passing of Batman. The story is prototypically Gaiman: meta-fictional, dreamlike, painted with the palette of Sandman and Stardust: it is a story about stories, a thoughtful homage to the legacy of Batman, and a reflection on who Batman becomes when he puts on that mask. Like so many of Gaiman’s stories, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is about mythology. But here, Gaiman isn’t rewriting Beowulf, or playing with Norse and Egyptian pantheons as in American Gods.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is about a myth of our own making—not the death of the Batman, but his apotheosis into a part of our modern pantheon.

This is where Gaiman’s story diverges from the tropes of comic book deaths. There is no singular, devastating arc that culminates in the corpse of Bruce Wayne, no shocking final panel. There is no Doomsday to deliver the last mortal blow, no close-up shot of Captain America bleeding out on the steps. Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader is an unconventional story, and Gaiman is doing something much more subtle.


 

The story takes place in a strange, interstitial zone where Batman’s closest friends and lifelong enemies gather to pay their respects—the back room of the Dew Drop Inn, a small, private gathering where everyone from the Joker to Superman share a few words about Batman’s life, and inevitably, his death. Consequently, Whatever Happened operates like a framed narrative, Decameron-esque, with different storytellers sharing different versions of Batman’s life and death, all of which are special to them, all of which show some side of Batman—and all of which are true.

Selina Kyle is the first to share her story. Her Batman is a star-crossed lover, the other half of a destructive relationship. “We conducted our courtship on rooftops and fire escapes,” she says, “a strange flirtation, a hide and seek, a game of cat and mouse.” Selina’s Batman is romanticized and tragic, their adversity and rivalry rendered in the smoky colors of a noir love story. Her version of Batman dies bleeding out on her couch. Her Batman died the way he lived: righteous, determined, and stubborn until the very end.

It is not until Alfred’s story that we begin to see that something strange is at play here—something a little magical—as if Gaiman is occasionally peeking over the fourth wall and smiling mysteriously at us. Alfred’s Story shows us a version of the eponymous butler as an eternal caretaker and loyal retainer. Alfred’s Batman is a broken, troubled young man, unable to cope with the death of his parents, seeking refuge in his vigilantism. His version of Batman is an escapism, a way for Bruce to run away from his own pain.

Alfred’s Batman dies in a macabre rehearsal of Thomas Wayne’s own death: shot, while trying to negotiate with a neurotic gunman.

Joker’s Batman dies from an overdose of Joker venom. He goes down without ever cracking a smile.

Clayface’s Batman dies saving him. “Everyone’s worth it,” are his last words.

Harvey Bullock’s Batman dies saving a child from a flood.

Ra’s Al Ghul’s Batman dies after turning down immortality.

“Sometimes I fall in battle. Sometimes I die hugely, saving the city from something that would destroy it. Sometimes it’s a small, ironic, unnoticed death—I die rescuing a child, from a fire, or tackling a frightened pickpocket. Every friend betrays me, sooner or later. Every enemy becomes a lover or a friend. But that’s the one thing that doesn’t change. I don’t ever give up. I can’t give up.”

How do you kill a character like Batman? What death could possibly suit a man like him?

The question is impossible to answer. After seventy years, the story of Batman has been told through countless pages, rendered in the imaginations of countless writers and artists and fans. Every eulogy delivered in that back room of the Dew Drop Inn is a story that might have appeared in some issue of Detective Comics, or in some fan fiction, or on DC’s editorial cutting-room-floor. They are all valid; they all spring from the same collective imagination. There have been other stories about the demise of Batman before Neil Gaiman, and there will be more stories about Batman’s death after Neil Gaiman.

Therefore, Gaiman’s story is perhaps the most logical, sensible, and honorable way to explore the death of Batman. Whatever Happened  honors Batman and his legacy.

The details of Batman’s death differ from speaker to speaker, story to story. His attitude, his style, even his costume, change from one speaker to another. Batman is the protean superhero. He adapts to the story. He is romantic, driven, tortured, adventurous, grim, righteous, delusional, selfless. He may be all of these things, or none, or as many as his storyteller wants.

But one thing never changes about him. Batman never gives up. He never surrenders. He never relents. He walks along that crepuscular line that divides light from darkness without ever falling over—because he is that line.

“Because in the end, Batman dies. What else am I going to do? Retire and play golf? It doesn’t work that way. It can’t. I fight until I drop, and one day, I will drop.”

Gaiman’s rendition of death is characteristic of his writing style. There are shades of Sandman’s Death in the way Batman watches his own funeral, the way he comes to terms with the many versions of his own life. Consequently, Gaiman handles death with reverence and respect—Batman can never be killed off any more than we can kill off a mythological character. He belongs to a modern day pantheon of superheroes, and he lives as long as his stories live.

The idea of Batman as an icon, rather than a mortal, is strangely comforting. Batman can die, and has before, and will again—but never forever; we can never truly lose him. We remake the character with every new story. He finds immortality in repetition. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is perhaps the only fitting way to talk about Batman’s death. Metafiction has always been Gaiman’s wheelhouse, and Whatever Happened is quintessentially Gaiman:  a story about stories: not just the story of Batman, but the story of those of us who remember him, and the way we remember him.


 


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