Goddamn: this site just got even more fun to write for. Welcome, Wave Three! I'd be very surprised if the title of "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"--the story that begins in BATMAN #686--had been created any way other than editorial fiat, as a companion to "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (Whoever came up with this one apparently failed to notice that there was a joke in Alan Moore's title.) So I agree with Brian and David: points to Neil Gaiman for coming up with a different way to spin it. (More beneath the cut.)
As David pointed out, Gaiman's got a habit, these days, of making sure that we know he's Telling Stories, For He Is a Teller of Tales. A lot of Morrison's parts of Final Crisis were about stories-as-told too, but its narrators provided the surface of the story, or emerged from and sank into its surface (like the false and true Alfreds in 682/683). Here, there's a distinct frame for a pair of embedded stories, and I assume the second half is going to have a couple more. "WHttCC" seems to be about the ways in which the seventy-year Batman narrative might have been unsustainable but wasn't--as a tragic romance (Gaiman kind of gives the game away by citing "The Death of Robin Hood" by name), or a horrible lie (although "the Joker was really Alfred" is a less scary/nagging version of the "the Black Glove is really the guy with the white gloves" payoff that Morrison feinted toward throughout his run).
Still, that's a fun idea for a piece of meta-ish fiction, and it sits fairly gracefully on the page thanks to the updated '40s vibe of Andy Kubert's artwork. (Gaiman barely suggests the period he's dealing with in the dialogue--really just Catwoman's line about "listen[ing] to George and Gracie on the radio.") I like the little circular panel Kubert threw in on one page--you don't see those much in post-1955 comics; I like his designs for everybody's cars, too, especially Two-Face's, and the way he riffs on early Batman artists' designs. Interestingly, Kubert's sketches and pencilled page, seen at the back, are prettier and more interesting than the inked artwork--that Jack Burnley-style sketch of the Penguin has so much life and playfulness in it.
It's an OKAY comic--probably better than that on its own--but something is disconcerting about the way it works within the seventy-year narrative it's addressing. Mostly, it makes me think about how DC's squandered a resource nobody even thought it had until it was gone: the capacity for any kind of actual dramatic closure.
It was once the case that one version of a character could pass on his trademark to another, or even die, and it could be more or less expected to stick. (Was anyone in the '60s demanding that THE FLASH should be turned over full-time to Jay Garrick, the "real" Flash?) But now the DCU has an official mandate that Green Lantern is really Hal, that the Flash is really Barry, that the Legion is really the Levitz-era Legion. No threat of change can be effective any more; the gravitational force of How It Was in '83 is impossible to escape, and growing stronger all the time. Any change, any breakup, any death, any exploded planet will revert to its early-'80s form sooner rather than later. Superman says "pray for a resurrection"; we know one's coming--the only question is when. It seems like some kind of backfiring corporate-psyche-repression that DC's most interesting villain of the moment is literally a furious, bitter fanboy who wants everything to go back to the way it was when he was reading DC superhero comics in the mid-'80s.
This time, there was briefly the pretense--the scantiest veil imaginable--that Batman was ending. (The return of the Batman family of titles was officially announced before this issue even appeared, but it was never even faintly in doubt.) Morrison's "Butler" two-parter was one kind of "final Batman story," and Gaiman's is another. (The O'Neil and Dini stories between them: less so.) THE SANDMAN had a fine string of closing fanfares; why not BATMAN, too?
Because it's not ending--even in the way that the pre-Byrne Superman ended. This story acts like a conclusion, and in fact it'd be a lot more effective if it were the final Batman story: a last curtain call, with all the old favorites coming out for a bow to the audience before it's time to go home. This is a curtain call with all the old favorites coming out for a bow to the audience before they leap back into position for the next scene of the play that never ends.
Where Batman ends--the only way Batman ends--is where you stop reading Batman, which is how Batman has actually had hundreds of thousands of endings: dissatisfaction or boredom, walking out of the theater (past a dark alley?), cutting losses and wondering if it would've gotten better again. That's not what I'm doing yet; I'm already psyched for Morrison's return in June, and the Quitely rumors make me more enthusiastic, and those Rucka/Williams DETECTIVE pages look fantastic. But I also long, a little bit, for the kind of genuine conclusion Gaiman is pantomiming here but is forbidden to give us for real.