Monday, 16 February 2009

[144] Comics, Continuity and Canon: Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison's Batmen

Neil Gaiman's two-part Batman story 'Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?' has been greatly anticipated since its initial announcement. However, due to general delays at DC and in the writing and drawing process (by Batman regular Andy Kubert), fans and the curious have been waiting for a few months for this issue to finally arrive. And here it is. This isn't so much a 'review', as a big monster 'essay' of reactions taken from this issue.

When I saw Gaiman at a Q+A / reading event for The Graveyard Book on Halloween last year, he was in the process of writing this issue, and described it as 'weird' - even in relation to his previous Batman story, from Batman: Black and White, which cast Batman and the Joker as actors in a television show, sharing chit-chat in between takes. In practice, 'Whatever Happened to...' certainly is weird, especially when read alongside its similarly-named Superman cousin 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' (written by Alan Moore). Even though both comics were touted as being the 'end' of their respective characters, the approach is fundamentally different. Moore wrote a touching, warm-hearted send-off for a simpler age of super-hero; Gaiman, here, writes in a metafictional , abstract mode that blurs the boundaries between content, continuity and canon. The result, as marked by many readers and bloggers is stylistically very close to Grant Morrison's run on the series, especially in his concluding two-part Final Crisis tie-in Last Rites. Nevertheless, there are themes found in both these Batman stories that contrast.

Morrison's run on Batman was rooted in one central hook, as described by the writer in an interview with Newsarama:

'What if all the Batman adventures from the 1930s until now were all part of one guy's life, and he's really gone through all this stuff, and it's happened over the space of, say, 15 years, potentially?'

This approach effectively collapses the myriad continuities, reboots and retcons into one grand absurd plot. It is fascinating in theory and bonkers in action, as he pulls references from half-forgotten stories from the 1960s and gives them crucial importance to Bruce Wayne's psychological makeup. This run culminated in the Last Rites two parter , where the history of Batman is told in a sort of sequence, incorporating stylistic shifts and tonal turns. Morrison explains it best:

'It's also nice to think that he had a period in his 20s, where he and Robin were like the Batman and Robin from the TV show, all sunny and fun and the Joker was a bit crazy, but not killing people... and then it was over and suddenly the Joker's an increasingly darker homicidal maniac again.'

So, in preparation for his Batman stint, Morrison created a timeline, hypothesising where the disparate events over the last 70 years of comics would fall in the 'real life' of the character. He essentially makes continuity, something that propels and structures series as they go along, into a long trajectory. This move is genius, as it turns one of the complications, necessities and failings of comics into a narrative device - incorporating the medium as content.

What is interesting about Neil Gaiman's 'Whatever Happened to...' story, at least from the first part, is his different approach to continuity. Like Last Rites, the comic takes an all-encompassing look at the history of the Batman character. However, Gaiman adopts a narrative framework that separates his story from accepted continuity: a wake for the hero himself. In attendance are a variety of characters from the Batman universe - Two-Face, Catwoman , The Joker, Alfred Pennyworth. This almost dreamlike setting, where billboards and road signs hint at famous comic artists and writers, hints at the world of Batman being saturated by not just continuity, but the whole 'entity' of the comic series itself.

Artist Andy Kubert does a great job of evoking different eras and styles in the presentation of these characters - very similar to Lee Garbett's equally impressive work in Last Rites - however, whereas Morrison and Garbett place their different portrayals along the timeline, Gaiman and Kubert create an almost amorphous world where characters shift in form and style from one frame to the next. This is most tellingly seen in the representation of the Joker, who first appears in classic stock form, before shifting to the stylised, angular look from the 1990s animated television series. At this wake, various guests address the assembly with differing, contradictory stories of how Batman died. These tales span continuity while existing on their own - Selina Kyle speaks of the relationship between Catwoman and Batman, touching on appearances and encounters from the series, before moving beyond, into new territory heavily inspired by Robin Hood ballads.

Equally, Alfred's story of how he created the Rogue's Gallery to keep the deluded Bruce Wayne occupied pushes at the edges of what's acceptable in mainstream comics series. This miniature story itself sheds interesting light on aspects of Batman's existence usually left untouched. It also sets up a priceless sequence of having Bruce Wayne realise his life as a vigilante is a work of fiction. However, the vocal minority of comics fans are already warming up to scream 'how does this fit in with Batman RIP? Is this Batman under the thrall of the Omega Sanction??'

Importantly, whereas Gaiman embraces the wealth of Batman adventures with as much tenderness as Morrison, he seems to reject the restrictive aspects of continuity. Instead, he sets up a Batman which is a modern story-cycle; myth and legend not in that sense of replacing gods and heroes but as exhibiting central thematic or design aspects which resonate or dominate despite context. Literature and art in the contemporary world are very 'authorised', with characters and 'canonicity' being subject to the whims of owners or creators. Gaiman projects Batman onto a plain similar to Odysseus and King Arthur, not due to great deeds or hero worship, but because he exists as an amalgamation of sources, creators and conflicting paradigms.

By having these various interpretations and representations rub up against each other, as opposed to laying them down in sequence like Morrison, Gaiman and Kubert approximate the reader's experience of Batman. They create a world where differing versions of characters can contradict yet co-exist, as there is a sufficient build-up of core themes and tropes that exist off the page. It reminds me of the classic Looney Tunes short 'Duck Amuck', which experiments with what makes Daffy Duck distinctive by morphing or removing his key features such as form, face and voice, which seeks to stress that this creation has essential character.

As it is, experience of the Batman property is not simple or unified in the way that continuity-obsessives hope, or that Morrison sublimely imagines, it is distorted and atonal. Newcomers must contend with the multitude of origin stories and decades of print, as well as the various film adaptations, in order to attain the essence of the character. Although, the simple beauty of comics characters, especially the likes of Batman and Superman, is that they are close to Robin Hood and the like in the sense that they can be evoked and defined very easily. Morrison in particular does this in the first issue of his All Star Superman series, which uses 4 panels and 8 words (and some wonderful, expressive art from Frank Quitely) to retell the Man of Steel's origin story.

To say that Gaiman is exploring untainted territory would be a stretch, as this metafictional, self-aware approach to the medium has been one of the hallmarks of the current generation of comics. Even Alan Moore's 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow' stressed its fictional form ('this is a fictional story - aren't they all?'). What is impressive, though, is his lightness of touch. Gaiman is a consummate storyteller, and these small vignettes work not only when scrutinised and analysed, but as yarns. They are effective and moving, and don't bludgeon the reader with mind-bending concepts and experimental technique, which is an accusation usually levelled at Grant Morrison's recent DC work (which, for the record, I really enjoyed regardless). The first part 'Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader' is probing and enjoyable in equal measure. I can't wait for the next issue.

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