This shares a similar title to that of the subject of my last review because they both have a similar concept in that their lead character is dead, and we’re about to find out why. However, that’s as far as similarities go. Although the intention was certainly to do something like Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, Neil Gaiman, the author behind the stories in this book, makes it very clear in his introduction that he had no plan, when asked to write this final Batman story, to end the Dark Knight’s tale in the manner of celebration. Indeed, it isn’t really a happy ending per se, where we find out the hero’s actually all well and good – as Gaiman, who calls this introduction a love letter, points out: “Batman stories don’t end with smiles and winks”. That’s not to say it still isn’t a happy ending of sorts. In fact, I’d say it’s far better than Alan Moore’s story, and more clever to boot. Then again, this could just be because, like Gaiman, I fucking love Batman.
Whereas he remembers quite clearly how he came to fall in love with the character, I’m not actually sure of my own origins. My dad had a collection of graphic novels from when he was a kid and then a teenager, which are sitting on the shelf above me even now, but I’m not sure if it was the likes of those I read I first; if my first introduction to the character was of the old Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns, or the inept young man of Year One; or if it was a different medium entirely in which I first met Batman, namely Tim Burton’s fantastic film. All I know is that I’ve never bought any other Batman comics, having always stuck with my dad’s small collection until my shopping spree earlier this year. Which you couldn’t entirely blame me for because my dad chose wisely, by which I mean those he bought are still found on “Top Ten Batman Stories” lists. Besides, I was content. As I’ve grown up, I’ve obviously gone through the good and bad Batman films of the 90s; and then there was the animated series, which is pretty fantastic; and then there was Christopher Nolan blowing everyone’s minds with his rather fantastic trilogy. But probably my own favourite was Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Man, that was a special game, wasn’t it? The game already had me hooked by the time I got to this point, but the first time I really went, “Holy shit!” and had a fangasm was when I deciphered the first clue left behind by Amadeus Arkham which was a direct quotation from Grant Morrison’s amazing graphic novel. I tell you, man, I nearly fucking died with happiness.
All to say, this book made me feel the same way. You see, the way Neil Gaiman presents the reader with Batman’s death is by taking us to the place where it all started: Crime Alley, where young Bruce watched as his parents were killed before him, and where the Bruce Wayne of this tale now joins them. Friends attend his funeral, of course, but so do the villains too, and both share their tales of how they believe Batman died. Which would be interesting enough itself because some of the stories here are very clever indeed, particularly ol’ Alfred’s which puts quite the spin on things. But here’s the ridiculously awesome thing: the friends and foes that turn up aren’t of the one universe. Nope, you’ve got the Joker from the animated series, and then a version of Brian Bolland’s from “The Killing Joke”; Batman as he’s seen in Year One, but later on the one from Tim Burton’s film. As regards both examples and the appearances of other characters – of which there’s too many to talk about, although I will point out that even Joe Chill gets an appearance as a bartender – Gaiman does point out something cool that Andy Kubert, the artist on the story, did, which was to attempt to draw the likes of Brian Bolland’s Joker through what Gaiman describes to be an “Andy Kubert filter” and, by jove, does it work!
Seriously, both the writing and artistic talent on display here is utterly incredible. In the second half of the story Gaiman finally explains just what the hell’s going on…sort of. Actually, he takes a more philosophical approach towards what the death of Batman means and, I have to say, it was quite unexpected. But, again, it works because what it allows him to do – and this is straying into spoiler territory, so stop now and skip to the next paragraph if you wish – is to explore the history of Batman as we’ve read it, the stuff that’s been brought in and out of continuity; just the stories we’ve enjoyed over the years as readers, big fans or small. So, as the story moves towards its conclusion, we’re presented by images of these stories, only drawn by Andy Kubert in the style of those tales’ artists. We see the Batman of Year One hiding under a staircase; we see Dave McKean’s Joker of Arkham Asylum tower over the small, dark figure of Batman; we see Bane break Batman’s spine in Knightfall; etc., etc. Only there’s a twist after these pages, a twist that I of course won’t spoil, but can assure you is quite amazing. Unlike Alan Moore’s take on what a final story of Superman might look like, Gaiman states in his introduction to this tale that he purposefully went out of his way to make sure that his version of how Batman dies is the version; the one that encompasses everything. The other thing he said, that I mentioned above, was that this wouldn’t be a celebration like Moore’s tale. Will the story forever be the definitive one? Probably not. As is partly the point behind the last few pages here, someone else will come along one day and do it differently, which is perfectly goddamn fine.
But is it really not a celebration? Certainly, it’s no joyous ending or anything, but I doubt I’m the only one who read those last three pages and smiled, genuinely smiled because they love this character as much as Gaiman does, Gaiman who decides he’s not just going to write about his death here but do so much more in such a small amount of time. The story as a whole is quite clever, like I said, but, man, those lost three pages – hell, make it those last nine amazing pages – I tell you, man, I nearly fucking died with happiness.
The Other Stories
But wait, we’re not done! As well as the fantastic little sketchbook of Andy Kubert that immediately follow this story, we have four more stories written by Neil Gaiman and presented by other artists, of which I’ll briefly talk about. The first of these stories is “A Black and White World”, which I imagine must be from Batman: Black and White, a series that I still think’s being printed in TPB. It may actually be the first Batman story I’ve read that has no colour now that I think about it, but that’s alright – the artist for this story is the rather amazing Simon Bisley. I’ve never seen how he draws the Joker before and it is indeed a little weird, but I think I like it. I certainly still like his buffed up Batman – his version of him looks bloody terrifying, perhaps actually more so than usual with the lack of colour. And his angry looking Batman is the perfect choice for this little story because it’s unexpectedly hilarious. The idea is that the Batman and Joker are rehearsing for a scene in the comic itself as actual comic book characters, and it’s bloody brilliant with witty dialogue and funny art. If you ever wondered what the Joker would look like dressed as a Nazi in one of these great leather trenchcoats, now you know. But that’s the only thing I’ll spoil. For eight pages, this is a surprisingly brilliant little story and, as it happens, so are the following ones.
The next story is “Pavane”, and the one after that is in two parts: “Original Sin”, then “When Is A Door?”. The first is a Poison Ivy origin story and pretty good for what it is; the second is a Riddler origin tale and even better. I might as well mention at this point that the artwork for these remaining stories, though coming from different artists, is supposed to look like the kind of thing you’d find in ye olde comics of the past. That goes for the character designs too, I suppose, and it’s pretty neat. Likewise, I think Neil Gaiman wrote both of these stories in a purposefully cheesy fashion, again reflecting the typical stories of the past. It works though, especially in the Riddler’s story which even pokes fun at the fact that he isn’t explored very much as a character. But, oddly, neither of these stories follow the theme of Batman’s death, like the Superman collection that I last reviewed did. All three are like commentary on comics themselves, I suppose. Still, you might argue that they’re unnecessary filler material, and I don’t suppose you’d be wrong. But, hell, they’re good for what they are, and the addition of any extra length to a short book like this is fine by me. Even if they weren’t here, I’d still recommend this book for the titular story alone. In fact, one thing I neglected to mention is that it followed Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis in which I’m to understand Batman sort of dies somehow, and I’m to understand that the way Gaiman wrote this story means it could actually be interpreted as part of Morrison’s run, which is quite cool if intentional. So I might read it again at that point. If not, it’s still a book I’d gladly pick up and read in the future. It’s a fantastic little story brimming with nostalgia, and the other stories were short joys too. Well bloody done, Neil Gaiman – you did well.
Next we’re onto Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which I’ll have a bit to talk about, like I said. After that comes Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s four Batman graphic novels, starting with Haunted Knight. Incidentally, my copy of Hush, also written by Jeph Loeb and following the similar theme of a year in Batman’s life, arrived a few days ago. I may read that after I’ve finished the Tim Sale stuff, though I’m not sure if I’ll just be too keen to dive into Grant Morrison’s run at that point. We’ll see, we’ll see.