Death is not welcomed in DC, but occasionally, and fortunately, an opportunity arises to talk about death and its greater significance in the DC timeline. In the introduction to Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, Neil Gaiman noted that Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow was the final farewell to the Silver Age Man of Steel. From then on, the creative powers at DC could stake their own ground each numbering their issues with the coveted, “#1” embossed on the glossy cover. Gaiman’s own take on Batman is no different, admitting to jumping on the opportunity instinctively, just as he tells the story of Moore physically arresting the attention of Julie Schwartz: “[He] would not let him go until Julie had agreed that Alan could write Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow.” Alan denies the account, but it wouldn’t seem too far from the truth. Death is a powerful literary device, and though it is continually mocked and transgressed, as depicted in The Death of Superman, there is a beautiful simplicity in the ability to say, “it is finished.” This is no common feat in DC either. Superman returned from death as quickly as he left, and Hal Jordan was revitalized by the Spectre, conveniently awaiting a “preserved” body. Even when Gaiman wrote Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, it was immediately transgressed by Morrison, who reveals that Batman was sent back in time by Darkseid during Final Crisis. Clearly, the archetypes that populate DC are more tenacious than once thought, or perhaps it is simply impossible to extinguish the ideals that the respective characters represent as they have become more abstract in the subsequent years. Nevertheless Gaiman’s work is about mortality in the face of the Batman’s endurance. What becomes of an ideal when it dies? Can it die? Here, Gaiman offers a momentous achievement in comics as he deconstructs Batman’s identity through metaphysical constructions of the vigilante archetype via frame narrative.
At stake here is the subject of categories, specifically the category of vigilante. What defines this category? Vigilantes are subversive elements in society because they bypass steps of procedure. They are also characterized by a heightened moral imperative, one that rationalizes their mission as necessary to achieving the end result. This can, of course, manifest its way from simple civil disobedience all the way to Machiavellian tactics, involving furtherance of the mission by any means necessary. The frame narrative, established in a wake for the fallen Batman, initiates this clarification of categories with Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. Her pericope is intentionally deconstructive, as it intends to analyze Batman’s role as a vigilante, which reveals her disillusionment and bitterness harbored against Batman. This is because she inappropriately designates Batman as a vigilante, a category he thoroughly transgresses. Vigilantes are grounded in the physical, whereas Batman is a metaphysical entity representative of idealized retribution. When Superman’s eulogy emphasizes the traditional role of the Silver Age hero, his words grind against Batman’s philosophy of the perpetual conflict. Batman is Gotham, and Gotham is Batman. He is the watchful knight that fights on behalf of the city for their freedom against the invasive pandemic of crime. Catwoman’s arc also deconstructs the idealized nature of the vigilante. Bruce Wayne’s cowl is a selfish undertaking, a right reserved only for the Batman, or those inducted into his private army. The mission to avenge his parents’ killer has enslaved him to a war he cannot win. In the end Catwoman commits murder to free Batman of his charge, and in death he finds peace.
The very nature of Gaiman’s work interacts with the jarring reality that the work undertaken in life will ultimately be meaningless in the face of death. In this subtext, Gaiman asks, “what is the relationship between mortality and the archetype?” Much of Alfred Pennyworth’s narrative addresses this internal debate. The immediate introduction into the theatrical nature of the Batman mythos can hardly be a mere coincidence. Theatricality suggests falsehood and staging, acting under a facade to illicit a contrived emotion or response from an observing audience. Under this guise, Gaiman critiques the Golden Age, asserting that vigilantism amounts to a coping mechanism for Batman’s internalized grief for being powerless to stop the death of his parents. Like a drug, the self-actualizing high plateaus, requiring more specialized villains to differentiate from the common thug, and even these specialized criminals only amount to being subversive elements to the vigilante. When the Joker is conceived by Alfred it becomes clear that to make a true difference, one must become more than a mere vigilante but an incorruptible ideal. Until this point in Batman’s prototype career, Bruce Wayne’s entitlement to vengeance was the motivating factor in Batman’s crusade. In the face of incalculable odds, Batman must be more than a man, lest he succumb to pure madness and mental breakdown. This is finally articulated, when Bruce discovers the Joker makeup. But the significance of this even cannot be lost on the reader. The Batman’s fight for Bruce Wayne’s vindication inevitably reveals the crusade for what it is: a lie. The imposed therapy and rehabilitation via vigilantism is truly hollow without the significance of the ideal mission. What can be said about Batman’s death in this arc is dubious. His death was carried out in devotion to his ideal of perfect justice, and itself reflects the breaking away from vigilante motive. It is clear, however, the conundrum that results from this. Batman still dies, and the crusade along with it.
Batman’s fluidity is then the true issue at stake here. Since the introduction of the multiverse, DC has been subject to many discontinuous timelines. Much to the chagrin of their editing staff, this has only led to the flourishing of a variety of continuum, all as fascinating as they are creative. If one were to read Red Son, The Nail, Superman: Earth One, and Kingdom Come back to back, they would find a plethora of intriguing reimaginings that paint a diversely, well rounded Kal-El. This is not so with Batman, for what is one to do with the Caped Crusader? Even in the New 52 Batman still has his cave, his crusade, and even his well honed detective sense. The issue with Batman’s fluidity is that he has none! Every death, some grandiose and laudable, others insubstantial and sudden, constructs a catalog to the expansive network of eternal Batman stories. The only defining standard of all of them is Batman’s resolve and tenacity. In this regard, Batman’s death is only an inevitable event horizon that forces the reader back to his origins, to read it all again, and reengage the mythology in earnest. Gaiman’s existentially Eastern ending, with Batman never realizing his victory over evil and cursed to the eternal Samsara of The Batman, further condenses the reality of Batman’s eras of rebirth, evident in the final frame where Batman is born into a modern hospital, with sprawling metropolis-like buildings in the window pane, fully removed from his hard-boiled detective fiction background. Though the ending is peaceful and replete with finality, behind it all one has but to pause and realize Batman’s sorry cycle, bound to never move on from his imposed identity.
Like Superman, Batman endures the stretches of time, manifesting the sum total of characteristics that have brought him from the Silver Age to the Modern unscathed to fight another day. What was meant to be a final issue, bookending Batman: RIP and Final Crisis respectively, Batman continues to thrive onward towards the future without looking back. His endearing qualities epitomize the resourcefulness of the idealized man: complete physical perfection, abductive reasoning, technological savvy, and indomitable will. His uncanny success also draws upon the purity of his mission. Marvel’s take on the vigilante is an individual starved for the need to exact justice, generally motivated by personal reasons. Evident in the denouement, however, Batman is told that no matter how hard he works, he’ll never undo the evil done to his life. Batman’s mission thus becomes a living monument to the memory of his parents, and Gotham, a towering mausoleum. But this is what makes Batman truly Batman. Had he been anything else, Bruce Wayne would only be another man, limited by his own physicality. If Superman is the Jesus Christ of DC, Batman would be Paul, serving as an articulate mediator between the divine metahumans of the Justice League and the common man. When people ask “Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader?”, one has only to say, “he isn’t going anywhere.”