Neil Gaiman. On Batman. Just consider those words for a moment. You can’t say DC haven’t been putting their all into this franchise – although going from Morrison and then Gaiman to Tony Daniel for Battle for the Cowl download abandoned does seem, no disrespect to the erstwhile artist, something of a downgrading. Nevertheless, as an A-list name to deal with the aftermath of Batman’s apparent “death”… well, it doesn’t get more A-list than Gaiman without being Alan Moore, frankly. Am I right in thinking, though, that this is the first time he’s written an issue of the actual main title of a proper, top-line Marvel or DC character?
If so, it’s a strange place to start, because this couldn’t really be called “in-continuity” by any stretch of the imagination – although the question probably still hangs over the issue’s outer framing device (that is, not the “funeral”, but the outer level of Batman and a mysterious other party – who I’m trying to shake the feeling might be Gaiman’s Death, which of course she won’t because that would exceed all government-regulated levels of mindblowing – observing proceedings). As a trip through the entire, varied history of Batman, though, it’s absolutely glorious – although the very fact that it is that makes you wonder why they even bothered with Morrison’s two-part “Last Rites” story, because the two share incredibly similar subject matter.
As you’d expect from a Gaiman book, it’s elegantly constructed, littered with lots of lovely moments, touches and details – from the major (a truly brilliant Joker cameo) to the small (such as Kirk Langstrom being invited to choose which “side” to sit on). There are at least two nods to what is, if I recall correctly, the only other Batman story Gaiman has done – the absolutely wonderful Secret Origins vignette “When Is A Door?” – with both the Riddler making reference to the Adam West TV series, and a giant typewriter billboard. There’s due consideration given to just about every era of Batman history – whether it’s Kubert’s well-rendered versions of a variety of Batman “looks” (although of course, he’s far from the first to explore that one), or the appearances of characters such as the Dark Knight Returns version of Oliver Queen – or even lines such as “I’m the goddamn Riddler”. There’s also a great moment when the Joker, having previously appeared looking like his original Kane incarnation (albeit with the Dick Sprang Jokermobile), suddenly becomes the Dini/Timm animated version when seated next to Harley Quinn (who herself arrives with Poison Ivy in a nod to her more recent continuity, before then reverting to her original form by calling the Joker “puddin'”).
The main framing device houses two individual vignettes, each telling a different story of how Batman “died”. The first is more straightforward, and is the part of the issue most akin to Morrison’s “Last Rites” issues, in that it takes an “everything in the history of Batman continuity is actually a part of Batman continuity” approach to the relationship between Batman and Catwoman (“I was Sadie Kelowski when I was a kid,” says Selina, before we see her first appearance in the short-lived cat face mask). But it’s the second one that really thrills – a completely bonkers story about how the entirety of Batman’s fabled rogues gallery were members of Alfred’s old acting troupe, with Alfred himself as the Joker. It’s a terrific Elseworldsy kind of tale, but I just wonder what its point is in the context of a story that’s supposedly a reflection on the Batman’s many lives.
But then, I don’t think we’ll really get anything like the true context and meaning of what’s going on with this story until we know first of all what happens in the second half, and secondly whether it is indeed the “last” issue of both titles (before some kind of full-on relaunch when Morrison returns in June). It’s unclear whether Gaiman is drawing on specific elements of Morrison’s run or the events of Final Crisis, or whether he’s ploughing his own furrow – I mean, how much of DC’s output has he actually read, if any, over the last decade or so? That’s not intended as a slight, and I’m sure he’ll have meticulously researched whatever he felt he needed to, he just doesn’t seem like someone who’d be rooted in DC fanboyism at this point in time. Nevertheless, though, right now it’s a charming little tale – hardly at all comparable with its namealike Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? in terms of impact or intent, nor with Morrison’s run in terms of style and tone, but every bit as carefully-crafted and downright readable as you’d expect a Gaiman comic to be. He’s been wallowing in prose, movies and disappointing Marvel miniseries for too long, frankly – speaking selfishly as a DC fan for a moment, it’s great to have him back where he belongs.