NB: This post has quite a number of references to what may be (to many readers) fairly obscure characters and elements of the Batman and Superman comic books of the Silver and Bronze Age. While I have tried to include links to Wikipedia and other sites that provide insight and information about these when I can, it was just impossible to explain or give context for all of it. While not exactly the deep-dive into continuity that is possible in covering this material, there are probably more unexplained references than usual, so for that I apologize in advance. If the links don’t help, feel free to pop a question in the comments. On the other side of the coin, I know there are countless details about these characters I do not mention in exploring the stories below, so don’t assume I don’t know them just because they didn’t make the cut. I will admit, however, that I am not nearly as conversant in the milieu of DC Comics as I am Marvel, so if there is something you think is relevant to this discussion that I didn’t hit on, again, please bring it up in the comments.
The Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice film to come out this spring suggests there is little sign of the superhero film fad going away anytime soon. Even though there have been several successful Batman movies and a few attempts at Superman movies (with different degrees of success), it still feels as if Warner Brothers is playing catch up when it comes to superhero cinema when compared to the web of narratives the Marvel films are weaving (and while Fox’s X-Men films are distinct from the Marvel studios movies, their move towards retconning and combining and expanding their X-franchises is also an example of being out in front of any DC Comics counterparts). This “beginning” of a larger DC film universe focusing on the World’s Finest superhero team-up got me thinking about putting two imagined “final” stories about the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight into conversation. What can we learn about these characters and their stories putting the “last” Superman story and the “last” Batman story (both written by acclaimed British comics writers) into an arena to duke it out?
While the BvS film conflict relies on that ole “Who would win in a fight?” impetus—the childish energy of playground arguments, or the influence of adolescent skepticism regarding Superman’s earnestness that makes Gotham’s shadows and madmen more appealing and “realistic” in comparison to Metropolis’s bright colors, crusading journalists and uncritical hero worship, the two stories I want to explore here emerge from a different question, “Whatever happened to…?” In other words, they rely on an adult nostalgia ostensibly looking back at a better time fondly remembered, and considering what changed to bring us—the readers—to a heroless world.
This comparison began soon after I undertook my New Year’s tradition of going through my short boxes to find comics I can winnow out of my collection—stuff to sell on eBay, and if I can’t sell it on eBay, I give it away or donate it. In some cases the choice is easy. I looked at a stack of 13 issues of Grant Morrison’s second volume of Batman Inc. and I didn’t have to think twice. Chris Burnham’s art is fantastic, to be sure, but thinking back on the series I realized that like in much of Morrison’s recent work, there is no there there. So much of his work is a practiced gesture, tilling well-worn soil for winking pastiche, strip-mining subtext until all that remains is a thin veneer of meaning. When it came to the two-issue “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” “last Batman story” by Neil Gaiman from 2009, however, I had to read it again before deciding. I remembered being unimpressed, but wasn’t sure why. Surely there was a reason I’d kept it going on 7 years.
“Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is a send-off marking the end of one era of DC superhero comics after Morrison’s Final Crisis—well, kinda…with the frequency of recurring “crises” in the DC Universe it is hard to keep track. I sold off Final Crisis years ago, so I must’ve not liked it very much. At the end of Final Crisis Batman is apparently killed by Darkseid, but really he is sent plummeting through time. While Gaiman’s take on the “last” Batman story does not directly reference Final Crisis, Batman’s apparent death (and the inevitable rebirth) provide a narrative space for Gaiman to consider the longevity of the Batman franchise and what makes it apparently timeless, immortal. Thus, as the character comes loose in time he also comes loose in the broad possibilities that emerge from his varied depictions over the years, highlighting the elasticity of the Batman meta-text itself. Batman is not only free of the confines and consequences of time, but very free in terms of the possible manipulation of the basic aspects of the character while remaining an identifiable Batman story.
The story’s title is an obvious reference to Alan Moore’s 1986 two-issue “last” Superman story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” That story is spread over the final pre-Crisis issues of Superman’s two main books, Action Comics and Superman, much like Gaiman’s Batman version is spread over Batman and Detective Comics. It imagines an end for Superman before he would be re-born in the post-Crisis pages of John Byrne’s Man of Steel series. It is because the Batman story references Moore’s final Superman tale that a comparison of the two stories become inevitable. If Alan Moore was imagining an end for the DC character that defined the lightness of the Silver Age, then Neil Gaiman was being brought in to explore Batman’s death by imagining and promoting a never-ending-ness to a Batman mythos with a trajectory defined by a veneer of grim violence and trauma made to cover up for the absurdity of a billionaire in a bat suit beating up on criminals. Despite this difference, the Gaiman story is marred from inception as a derivative work due to this allusion, a feeling compounded by the corporate demands of the line-wide crossover events that call for sales-spiking character deaths and superficial changes in status quo. Sure, Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was also the result of a company-wide reboot event, but Crisis of Infinite Earths is an urtext. In its time, without access to knowledge of superhero comic books’ future obsession with cosmic meta-narratives, the original Crisis was a novel experiment, not part of a recurring gimmick with diminishing returns. In fact, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is evidence how much those returns diminished in the intervening 23 years.
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is a pretty critically-acclaimed story, the kind of thing that allowed Moore the creative reach to create something like 1987’s Watchmen, or then to move away from the Big Two altogether and still draw an audience of fans and praiseful critics. Moore’s opening narration explains that his is “an imaginary story.” The narration actually makes this point twice, the second time appending “aren’t they all [imaginary stories]?” As Geoff Klock contends in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why (2002), “Moore recognized the absurdity of delineating between ‘real’ fictional stories and ‘imaginary’ ones. Klock describes this as “a defense against the changes” to come to Superman comics, which promised a more streamlined and thus less absurd continuity. In other words, Moore’s “final” Superman tale challenges that claim (and history would prove him right), and in presenting the shape of the story from the outset—explaining how Superman would break his oath and die, how despite our occasional look to the sky from now on it would only ever be a bird or a plane we saw, the caveat of the story’s ending wink—suggests that it is moral stakes along with a cultural desire for idealized incarnations of those values that defines superheroes. Thus, how a writer puts the rich tradition of convoluted superhero narratives to work in his story matters more than avoiding the contradictions and vulnerability to changing tastes. Moore’s use of some of Superman’s silliest aspects in this acclaimed story enacts that perspective on serialized comic storytelling.
“Man of Tomorrow” is framed with a reporter visiting Lois Lane ten years after the disappearance and apparent death of Superman to interview her about the Man of Steel’s last days. The dark direction of the story begins immediately, as Lois describes a homicidal Bizarro who ends up also killing himself as to be the “perfect imperfect [Superman] duplicate.” As Lois explains, it doesn’t make much sense “even by Bizarro standards.” Next Clark Kent’s identity is revealed when the information is tortured out of Superman’s childhood friend Pete Ross by the Prankster and Toyman, villains who had only been “nuisances” before becoming killers. I can’t say that Alan Moore knew for sure the direction superhero comics would go in in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, but certainly the evidence was there in the 15 years of stories building on things like the death of Gwen Stacy and Speedy as junkie, moving superhero comics into supposedly more “mature” directions. In that light, the homicidal turn of silly characters like Bizarro and Toyman, and even the story’s end which reveals the magical interdimensional trickster Mr. Mxyzptlk as the murderous mastermind behind the carnage depicted in the two issues, provides the reader with a warning of where superhero comics were headed—where torture and death became the foremost motivations for emotional engagement. The “joke” of Kal-El just combing his hair and wearing glasses to hide his identity, the cast of supporting characters to rotate in and out of jeopardy that always falls just short of fatal, the Fortress of Solitude with its immense golden key, Krypto the Super Dog, a time-displaced Supergirl hanging out with the 30th Century’s Legion of Superheroes unaware of her own recent death in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, the Kryptonite Man, a Brainiac-possessed Lex Luthor, and even callbacks to all those wacky shenanigans in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane, all of these elements are drawn together by Moore’s narrative and one by one they are lost. Despite the terrible fate that befalls Superman and his friends, however, the story still ends on a positive note—the wink mentioned at the story’s opening is Clark himself looking out at the reader in his guise as Lois Lane’s future husband, Jordan Elliot, having given up his superpowers (using gold kryptonite) to live in obscurity. In the final story Moore crafts for America’s first and best known superhero, the real “ending” of the comic narrative is not death, but domesticity. How better to signify the end of the adolescent possibilities of comic book kid stuff, than the wife and child, the home, the quibbling about coffee? The final scene has Lois and her husband planning an amorous evening after their son is asleep, Lois is even depicted slipping off her dress, as if to say that Superman’s sexual latency has also come to an end. He has moved on from “silly” adventures to adult interests, and maybe it is time for his fans to do the same.
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” wraps nearly 50 years of Superman adventures (at that point) with the child’s vision of heteronormative completeness, and it makes sense that it does. Ultimately, Silver Age Superman does not belong in the world of Miller’s Batman: Year One or the forever unconscionable Identity Crisis. A Superman that must kill, as he does to Mr. Mxyzptlk near the conclusion of Moore’s story, is no longer that “Superman,” and as such this story truly is “final” because that Superman can never exist again. The relative success of Warner Bros’ Man of Steel is evidence that DC/Warner Bros does not believe the world would accept the Superman we see giving up his powers rather than kill again. Shit, even Superman in the otherwise excellent Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series is paranoid, suspicious and impulsive. It is easy to see a trajectory between that Superman and the Superman of Zack Snyder’s film. (In fact, I’ve considered writing a blog post about this very topic).
If Moore’s “last” Superman story bring us to his “grown up” end, then Gaiman’s “last” Batman story reassures readers that there can be no end to Batman, just a cyclical state of arrested development. Sure, every version of Batman must end with his death, or at least that is what Gaiman would have us believe, but the Batman myth lives on. Batman is always reborn.
Personally, I’d prefer more radical and queer ending to the Batman story, since death in superhero comics is never really an end. And, it’d serve as a counterpoint to the hegemonic heteronormativity of Moore’s tale, but alas…
The first issue of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader” (Batman #686) bring us to the backroom of a Crime Alley bar where a wake is being held for Batman, who is laid out in a coffin. The wake is a kind of crossroads for every possible version of Batman. Members of his rogue’s gallery, his supporting cast and allies, arrive to tell their own stories of how Batman lived and died, and each version is so fundamentally incompatible with the others, this can be no Rashemon-style tale. Each version relies on recognizable features of the Batman story, but none of them is any specific iteration of Batman we know from 70 years of comic book stories. Sure, Andy Kubert does a great job of evoking various versions of these characters—Golden Age Catwoman, Barbara Gordon as Oracle, Brian Bolland’s Joker from The Killing Joke, silly things like the Jokermobile—but again it is just pastiche. The tales we get in full, like Catwoman’s and Alfred’s, take place in alternate versions of Gotham. The doomed romance of Batman and Catwoman is covered in “The Cat-Woman’s Tale.” In it she gives up crime and crime-fighting for him, opens a pet store(!), but he still cannot let go being Batman. Her version of Batman’s death is a re-imagining of the death of Robin Hood, with Selina Kyle tying up a wounded Batman to let him bleed out. He’d never give up being Batman despite loving her, so Selina ends it for him. In Alfred’s tale, Batman’s rogue’s gallery are all actors under pay of the butler to entertain his deeply disturbed charge who cannot stop grieving for his parents. In it, Alfred himself takes on the role of the Joker to provide “a Moriarty to [Batman’s] Holmes,” a “Moby Dick for his Ahab.” This ruse leads to Batman’s death when after finally learning the truth doesn’t expect one of the actor to lose his mind and take his role a bit too seriously. Some washed up comedian playing the Riddler ends up accidentally shooting Batman in the face.
Just when it seems that Gaiman is going to give us a Chaucerian range of tales at the wake (which I guess would have been too much like the World’s End Inn from Sandman) we get no more tales in full. Gaiman trusts his reader to fill in the gaps for the rest. Unfortunately, the result of this, despite the comic’s claim of the importance of stories, is that none of these stories feel particularly significant. The second issue (Detective Comics #853) opens with panel after panel suggesting that other characters are coming up to tell their own “death of Batman” stories: Poison Ivy, Azrael, the original Bat-Girl, and then Mad Hatter and the Joker. Of these truncated versions—Clayface’s, Ra’s Al-Ghul’s, Superman’s—it is Robin that has the heaviest allusion via his Batman TV show catchphrase, “Holy…, Batman!” He literally refers to Batman as “holy,” as dying “for us” and “pull[ing] off miracles.” In others words, Batman as “Dark Jesus.” Yes, he dies for “us,” and lives again, but then again and again in many versions—tragedy without redemption. The Jesus allusion is just another way to envision the character. Rather than spend much time with any one version of Batman (and it doesn’t really spend time with any recognizable definitive versions), the narrative narrows Batman down to one feature regardless of version, he “doesn’t ever give up.”
I am just going to come out and say that it a pretty weak aspect of the Batman character for Gaiman to settle on as a core feature. As a review on the Collected Editions blog explains, how does that quality differentiate Batman from Spider-Man or Superman or Wonder Woman? It doesn’t.
No, what makes a Batman story a Batman story is a range of possible features interacting together. Check out Will Brooker’s excellent book, Batman Unmasked (2000), for an in-depth exploration on variations possible for a continuous and recognizable Batman. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” makes its own case (perhaps inadvertently) for what might be necessary to make a given version of Batman actually recognizable as Batman. It does this through a clever take on Goodnight Moon. The spirit of Martha Wayne (Batman’s mother) shows the spirit of the dying Batman a vision of her reading young Bruce his favorite childhood book, counting off some of the elements that make a Batman story—some more important than others. The spirit of Batman and the memory of being read to collapse into the book itself. So he bids goodnight to the mechanical dinosaur and giant penny in the Batcave, goodnight to the Batmobile (this one is 1960s TV iteration), goodnight to Alfred, goodnight to the “boy wonder” (the version depicted is Tim Drake, but could easily be Dick Grayson or Jason Todd), goodnight to the Joker, and to Gotham, and Commissioner Gordon. Finally, he bids goodnight to the Bat-signal shining large and bright like a full moon in the night sky, which, in subsequent panel, morphs into a pair of hands pulling baby Bruce Wayne from the womb to be born into Batman anew. As Martha Wayne explains, the reward for being Batman is getting to be Batman again. Batman cannot die. All that can happen is that one incarnation dies and then the elements of the Bat-story are rearranged and re-imagined to make a new Batman, whether that version be the one first found in Detective Comics #27, or Adam West on TV, in the issues of Batman in the 1970s fighting Ra’s Al-Ghul, or Dark Knight Returns, or Gotham by Gaslight or the version from Earth 2, or the New 52, or…or…or… The notion of being Batman is its own reward—the goddamned Batman, who is a law unto himself and forever badass while doing it—is a central part of his appeal. In other words, the eternal recurrence of the Batman figure reinforces the vicarious thrill of the reader imagining themselves as the hyper-competent superhero who is nevertheless “just a man.” Rather than the adolescent power fantasy put behind us for the pleasures and responsibilities of adulthood, we get a loophole by which to identify with the sociopathic individualist who believes in the rightness of his actions above all others, because as he explains in narration over a montage of scenes from decades of Batman stories—his back broken, shirtless in the desert but still wearing a cowl, making out with Talia al-Ghul, face-to-face with Man-Bat—eventually “every friend betrays me…and every enemy becomes a lover or a friend.” He cannot count on anyone else. Batman is his own moral center.
Moore’s story benefits from the historical moment, the closing of a chapter and the choice of Curt Swan’s classic Superman look for the art. It rewards the dedicated reader of Superman comics with its references and use of characters, while constructing a recognizable Superman story, even for those less familiar with his mythology, through emotional beats and rising tension. The Batman story is more abstract—a sketch of the generic and malleable “Batman” rather than a particular Batman. As Gaiman explained in a 2009 interview with Wired, “it honestly doesn’t matter if [the story] is in or out of continuity. And it doesn’t matter whichever Batman you love, whether that is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, or the Batman TV show or even the various, glorious animated series.” And maybe that makes this story a success in an era in which the trope is ascendant, when recognizable iterations of the sign stand in for any significance beneath them. It might explain why “Caped Crusader” is the perfect cap to Grant Morrison’s long and popular run on Batman comics. And don’t get me wrong I love a degree of play with the structures of the Batman narrative. There is something pleasing about a Derridian shifting of the narrative center that make free-floating structures of meaning cohere. Concurrent multi-threaded serialized fiction, of which superhero comic books are perhaps the best and most ranging and complex example, allow for a playful difference within a site of recognition built upon an accretion of increasingly contradictory events, and some of the best comics take advantage of this. However, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” disappears into its own Bathole with its unfocused contemplation of the eternal Batman. I get that the story is about Batman stories, and this is something that is in Gaiman’s field of interest, given that Sandman, widely considered his best work, concerns itself with the permutations of stories, but ultimately it falls flat due to its own insular and circular cleverness. If Moore’s final Superman story functions both because and despite being a love letter to the Silver Age Superman of Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger and even his collaborator Curt Swan, then Gaiman’s last Batman story is so generic as to lack the cultural resonance that a character like Batman should have, because it doesn’t understand that each version is tied to a historical moment.
Ultimately, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” takes two issues to do what “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” does in just that opening narration. It wants to tell us about all these possibilities, but never has enough substance to explore why any of those might matter. Moore’s story gives us the last gasp of an era that pretended superheroes were for kids in the form of sharp and incongruous violence, while Gaiman’s shows us what we’ve lost with that youthful energy by being an example of their bleak and philosophical turn. So, will I keep these two issues? Probably, but only because in the big picture two thin individual issues don’t take up much space, and it I may need to return to their sad evidence someday.