There appear to be two schools of thought regarding Neil Gaiman among comics critics. One, popular ten years or so ago, is that he’s the greatest writer ever to have worked in the medium, and brings a new level of literacy and intelligence to the medium that no-one else can match up to. The other, which is increasingly popular at the moment, is that he’s a poseur – a one-trick-pony who’s mostly good at dressing in black and getting women who like Tori Amos records to swoon after him.
Ignoring the implicit sexism in the latter criticism (and a lot of the criticism of Gaiman boils down to ‘he makes comics that GIRLS like! Ewww…’) there’s a lot of truth in it – especially in his novels, Gaiman is an incredibly patchy writer, who does have a tendency to write the same storyline over and over (Coraline, Stardust, Mirrormask, Anansi Boys and Neverwhere are all so similar that I honestly think *I* could write a ‘Neil Gaiman novel’ now, and probably convince Gaiman himself he’d written it and forgotten about it), so I often tend towards the latter consensus. But then I read his *good* stuff (and some of those in the list above are actually good, but I’m thinking here especially of things like the short story collection Smoke And Mirrors) and I think that no, when he’s actually trying Gaiman is almost as good a writer as his reputation suggests. Not the very best, but up there in the top tier – around Dave Sim level, below Moore and Morrison but above Ennis and Ellis, probably around Peter Milligan level in the “British writers who became typecast as Vertigo writers” list.
The first part of Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? was very much Gaiman-by-numbers, which meant there was a certain minimal level of quality which is far ahead of most superhero comics (and certainly ahead of any Batbook not written by Grant Morrison in the last decade or more), but it was still the kind of thing that someone trying to write like Neil Gaiman would have come up with – a group of characters gather for a wake and tell stories about the departed, and none of those stories ever quite match up. The stories of Batman are more important than the man. And so on.
But what it did do, quite effectively, was match up with Morrison’s work on the title – Morrison and Gaiman actually being more alike as writers than their surface dissimilarities would suggest, both having based much of their work on the idea that ‘all stories are true’, for example, which turns up as an ordering principle in both Morrison’s run on the title and Gaiman’s two issues.
This issue, the story takes a different turn – we see a few of the many possible deaths of Batman, done in the styles of different periods of comics history, so we see an alternate ending to The Killing Joke with Batman dying of Joker venom, a Neal Adams-esque Ra’s Al Ghul, and so on. Kubert actually excels himself here, turning in pretty good Dick Sprang, Neal Adams and Brian Bolland swipes/pastiches. Unfortunately, the inking by Scott Williams treats all these pages like they were Jim Lee, and the colouring similarly doesn’t vary at all. This really, really, needed a more sympathetic inker, rather than someone who treats every page as an opportunity to show how good he is at cross-hatching.
What works surprisingly well is the big reveal, which is that all this is taking place as a conversation between Batman and his mother, in his mind, as he dies, and that for Batman, rather than an afterlife or reincarnation, he goes back and is born again as himself, to repeat the whole thing over again. It’s really the only way that the story set up in the first half could sensibly end, and the only way you could really create an ending to ‘the Batman story’.
It’s also refreshing to see Batman’s mother playing such a prominent part – for the last couple of decades, writers wanting to work out ‘daddy issues’ have concentrated on Thomas Wayne almost exclusively, barely mentioning her (if nothing else you’d think that the fact that Superman’s mother has the same first name as her would make for a Geoff Johns ten-issue cryfest). Actually, for a small boy, it would probably hurt more seeing his mother die than his father – though of course either would be horrific – and the obsession with Thomas Wayne probably has a lot to do with the sexism of the comic industry. It also makes sense narratively that it be Martha Wayne Batman talks to as he dies, since it is her he gets handed to as a baby at the end.
(Incidentally, this reminds me of a pet hypothesis of mine – nowhere in Sandman is Death ever actually named, and it’s said that you see her twice in your life, once at the beginning and once at the end. My idea is that she’s ‘really’ called Delivery/ance…)
My main problem with this is the characterisation of Batman, who comes across as trapped in his childhood, trapped in the moment his parents died. Which is a valid interpretation of the character, and one that a lot of people have used, but it doesn’t work for me – to my mind Batman has to be characterised as someone who got over his parents’ death – if nothing else because the sentence spoken by Martha Wayne in this story – “You can’t bring us back” – isn’t true in the context of the DCU, in which Batman operates. Pretty much everyone Batman knows – Superman (who appears in this story), Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Metamorpho, Jason Todd, Ra’s Al-Ghul – has died and come back to life multiple times. A Bruce Wayne who was driven to become Batman solely because he couldn’t get his parents back wouldn’t make sense in that context.
That doesn’t matter in a two-issue ‘semi-continuity’ story of course – and I can’t believe I’m complaining about ‘continuity’ at all – but this story is explicitly trying to be the story that comes at the end of every interpretation of Batman’s life, from Bob Kane to Frank Miller to Adam West to Christopher Nolan to Alan Grant to Denny O’Neil. But the decision to make Batman a viewpoint character in the story at all means that of necessity it has to be one interpretation of Batman – an actual character rather than the idea of Batman – even though the story is about the idea rather than the man (or rather, it’s about the man becoming the idea).
So, I think I have to consider this two-parter a failure overall – the parts that worked were the parts where Gaiman was on auto-pilot, and the parts that didn’t were the ones where he was trying. But Gaiman on auto-pilot is still in the top 10% or so of comic writers, and the bits that didn’t work at least didn’t work interestingly. There’s stuff to say about this comic, which is more than I can say about the vast majority of superhero comics at present, and it makes me look forward even more to the upcoming Wednesday Comics series to which Gaiman will be contributing.
I’m also looking forward to the changes in the Bat-books – Morrison & Quitely on one, J.H. Williams illustrating another, and a third with Ed Benes and Judd Winick on the same title (so they can both be quarantined away from any comics I might want to read). This summer might be a fun one for comics after all…
(BTW I will be posting something about the ‘Newniverse’ idea tomorrow evening, when my migraine’s cleared up – I’ll probably post a review of the Zombies gig from Friday tonight though, as that’s the kind of thing I can write with my brain only half-on, as is this post).
ETA I stupidly posted the link to this on twitter and used Neil Gaiman’s Twitter alias rather than his real name to save space in the description, and he only *READ IT*… his response:
@stealthmunchkin the review itself was written OK but 1st two paras read like sophomore snark, and the “ooh icky girls” stuff was just bad.
Well, I suppose that’s fair…