Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.
One of the greatest Superman stories of all time is Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? Published in 1986, the Alan Moore-penned love letter said “goodbye” to the Golden and Silver Age versions of Superman before John Byrne rebooted the character after Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Batman didn’t require the same overhaul as Superman, so a retrospective exploration wasn’t necessary. However, he eventually received one in 2009 when it was thought the Dark Knight had “died” at the hands of Darkseid in Final Crisis. But who do you get to write such a tale? Neil Gaiman, of course, with art by Andy Kubert.
Titled Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?, the story followed the structure of the Superman tale by being serialised in two parts over the flagship titles. While the Superman story was told through Superman #423 and Action Comics #583, this was published in Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853. From there, Gaiman doesn’t try to ape the 1986 classic but instead tells his own love letter.
The story is set at Batman’s funeral, which is attended by an array of allies and villains. As Batman’s body lays lifeless at the front, everyone gets a chance to go up and say their piece. They delve into what Batman means to them, how he inspired them, and what the hero stood for. However, things start to seem odd as the funeral goes on. The tales begin to contradict one another and describe impossible scenarios. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s all explained.
A brief aside for those who’re concerned about continuity. While this is set after Batman’s “death” is the Final Crisis comic book event, it has been written in a way that doesn’t reference that story. It could be read any time and align with whatever you have in your headcanon.
Showing these conflicting events and scenarios allows the creative team to include as many retrospective elements as possible. This comes through the stories shared, littering subtle and not-so-subtle references to classic tales and ideas from over the decades. For those familiar with Batman’s publication history, it’s a treasure-trove of references to spot.
It goes even further on the visual side, with Kubert referencing Batman artists throughout the decades. Batman is the most obvious of these, with homages to dozens of iconic interpretations. Some of these include tributes to the square-jawed Batman of Dick Sprang, Kelly Jones’s elongated approach, David Mazzucchelli’s short-eared version, and the bulky Batman of Frank Miller, to name a few.
Allies and villains are the same. For those with minor appearances, a well-loved design is chosen, such as the Jack Burnley Penguin design or Neil Adam’s design for Ra’s Al Ghul. More involved appearances, such as The Joker, show multiple versions like Jerry Robinson from the 1940s to Brian Bolland‘s interpretation from The Killing Joke.
Alex Sinclair continues the trend by referencing specific colour palettes of famous stories. While much of it is in Sinclair’s style – soft gradients and fluorescent hues – there are times when it’s adapted to homage to other colourists. One that really stands out is Sinclair’s use of red to reference Richmond Lewis’ colour work from Batman: Year One.
With so many designs floating around, there was the possibility that it would end up being a mish-mash of visual styles. However, Kubert makes it work by approaching it in his style first and reference second. He would explain his approach to Neil Gaiman as so: “I didn’t try to draw like them. I tried to draw as if the artists you were talking about were trying to draw like me.” This is the best way to go as it allows for a consistent visual identity – carried through and solidified by inker Scott Williams – while still allowing for the various homages.
Don’t stress if you don’t understand all of the references. By seeing the various styles of Batman, readers can find and reflect on “their Batman” – whether that tone is light, gritty, or somewhere in between. It also shows how malleable the character is and how there’s a take for every kind of fan.
The overall reflective nature of Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? overlaps with another piece of Neil Gaiman’s work – The Sandman. While there isn’t any direct crossover – apart from a subtle reference to the character Death – the stories share some thematic elements.
While The Sandman is many things over its 75-issue run, one through-line is the exploration of stories. Gaiman examined their power, purpose, and what they mean on a personal level. Other times they were used as a story device to develop characters. For Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? stories are just as important. Through the eulogies at the funeral, they explore the different interpretations of Batman throughout the decades and examine what he stood for.
Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? is an excellent love letter to Batman. It’s a retrospective exploration, rich with references, but new readers can find value even if they’re unfamiliar. This is because, at its core, it’s a celebration of his adventures, in addition to what Batman means to the fictional world he lives in and the reader personally.