One day, my copy of Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? will be completely unreadable due to the unquantifiable amount of tears I’ve shed on its pages. It’s impossible for me to read this comic without ugly-crying – no, I’m not talking silent weeping or a single tear. I make an absolute ass of myself while reading this story, howls and sniffles and all. As a fan of Batman – the character, the franchise, and the icon – the story cuts deep, but it’s so much more than that. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? has its fingers on the pulse of what it means to be a hero, to believe in the idea of living your life with the intention of leaving behind a better world. Beyond even the wild concept of summing up the entire concept of heroism in comics down to a statement in two issues, this story – this “final” Batman story – bridges the divide between life and the cloaked, dark, mysterious thing waiting for us on the other side: death itself.
Neil Gaiman is better known for his game-changing run on Sandman, which redefined not only Vertigo as an imprint, but in some ways comic book writing as an art. Or perhaps more folks know Neil as a novelist, a kind, eccentric, staggeringly creative fellow who writes his prose longhand. Though I admire everything he’s done, it’s Whatever Happened…? that stands as my favorite work. Gaiman is unquestionably a master of his craft, and one of the best to ever write comics. What he brings to Batman is more than just his best work but a definitive and fitting end to a story designed to go on forever. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is much like Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, in that its designed to act as an “imaginary story” (aren’t they all?) that acts as a true finale to Batman’s legacy. Years before, Moore’s story was a final Superman story – and while Gaiman’s final Batman story riffs off Moore’s title, the story is completely and utterly unique.
The first chapter acts as a mystery, with an unseen Batman watching his own funeral. Characters from different versions and time periods of Batman’s history tell conflicting stories about his life and death, showcased by glorious illustrations by Andy Kubert (along with inker Scott Williams, colorist Alex Sinclaire, and letterer Jared K. Fletcher), who takes us on a visual tour of the various and iconic ways that the Caped Crusader was depicted over the years. As Bruce questions how he could have lived these various lives through different time periods, and examines how they don’t match up with each other – much like readers who have read the various eras of Batman comics by DC might wonder – we, along with Batman himself, solve the last case of the World’s Greatest Detective.
Batman, in one of the most heart-wrenching sequence I’ve ever read in comics, is reunited with his mother as he dies. He looks back on the many versions of his life that could have been, and settles on the last moment that he was truly happy: reading Goodnight Moon with his mother. As the life fades from him, Goodnight Moon, this story within a story about a story, bleeds into the narrative. Batman bids goodnight to his friends and foes and then, in a stunning display of visuals that can only – only – be achieved in this glorious art of comics, the Bat-Signal, which looks decidedly lunar here, becomes hands reaching out to deliver a baby named Bruce. As death reaches out, dark and inviting, to give birth to new life, it becomes clear that Gaiman and Kubert’s final word of this final Batman story seems to affirm what we knew all along about the Caped Crusader.
His story will never end.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Hell Child, Anonymously Yours, Family Pets), novels (Charmed for HarperCollins) and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). He lives in Long Island with his girlfriend Amy and their cats, all of whom he posts incessantly about on social media @Pat Shand.