'Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader?' That's the question Neil Gaiman challenges us to work out in a two-part, extra-length story. And at first, it seems obvious. Batman is in the Dreaming, or he's dead and with Death of the Endless.
Both these scenarios are denied as an unseen Batman questions his unknown guide. Gaiman knows we'll jump to conclusions, and tells us to think outside the box instead. Well, I don't doubt there are clues aplenty here, but I'm too dumb to work them out. (My gut guess? It's his sainted mother.)
What I do know is that as the story begins, Selina Kyle arrives at a bar tended by Joe Chill, the killer of Batman's parents. The bar is in Crime Alley, formerly Park Row, where Thomas and Martha Wayne died, and the Batman was born. It's named the Dew Drop Inn, perhaps a reference to Martha Wayne's broken string of pearls, a recurring motif in the Batman origin for many years, or maybe the tears of the boy Bruce. Selina and Chill share an intriguing moment, before she goes into the back room, joining versions of Batman's foes pulled from several continuities. They're joined by friends too, to look at his corpse, dead in a coffin. At Dick Grayson's invitation, Catwoman tells her story. It's an older Catwoman than the one we arrived at the bar with, and the tale is beautiful, romantic and chilling.
Then Alfred explains his part in the Batman's life, and it's nothing you would ever expect. It's terribly clever, but not annoyingly so, and plausible if you're looking at Batman in broad strokes. Batman as myth.
And that's why it's so appropriate that Gaiman evokes classic Batman stories from different DC Earths. The bar is in Crime Alley, which was used to best effect in 'There is no hope in Crime Alley' (Earth 1, Detective 457). In a scenario reminiscent of the serial in which the Riddler, Catwoman, the Joker and Lex Luthor told assembled villains that they, yes, they , killed the Darknight Detective (Earth 1, Batman 291-294) while the Catwoman sequence reminds us of the Earth 2 courtship of Batman and Catwoman (The Brave and the Bold 197).
While the overarching mystery is compelling, there are many incidental pleasures, such as Gaiman's presentation of Selina Kyle as Jane Austen heroine ('A young lady with no family and no prospects must make the best of what she has, so to speak, and must create her own opportunities'). Then there's Alfred's appraisal of his charge's mental health, 'as an Englishmen'; the kid who offers to watch supervillain cars, a possible nod to the rebooted origin of Jason Todd and its comic strip inspiration, Junior Tracy . . . yes, I may be reaching here, but that's a Neil Gaiman comic for you; you know he's in the habit of sprinkling subtle references, so start seeing them where they're likely not.
There was barely an off-note - I can't really see Harvey Bullock saying that Batman was needed in Gotham because of the pre-existing crazies, as so far as we know there were no costumed villains around before Bruce first donned the cape and cowl. And Commissioner Gordon sounds weird calling his daughter 'Babs'. But these are micro-moans when you're talking one of the most original Batman stories for years. This is the Neil Gaiman not of the hugely disappointing 1602 at Marvel, but of the Sandman's Dream Country sequence, weaving tales of enchantment with apparent ease.
And the art. Oh, it's good stuff. Andy Kubert, with inker Scott Williams and colourist Alex Sinclair, take us back to a Forties Gotham, and offering up classic versions of such Catwoman, Riddler (there's more to him than meets the eye, methinks), Joker and co. There's a spot of Dick Sprang here, some Jack Burnley there . . . Gaiman's script is perfectly brought to life in art that homages the past while always moving the story forward. Kubert does, though, give us a somewhat off Bruce Wayne - he and brother Adam (see Batman and the Outsiders Special review) have apparently made a Satanic pact to convince us the Batman's cowl has rubbed away his eyebrows. Behave, boys.
Never mind, it's barely February and we already have a comic bound to win a slew of awards. Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader, it's wonderfully entertaining.