Category Archives: Shannon Suggests

Whatever happened to… on Batman, on Gaiman, on Superman, on Moore

I’m taking a break from Splinter of the Mind’s Eye for reasons I’ll get into when I finish reviewing it here. Today I’m going to address Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The book, even beyond its title, invites comparisons with Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? So, before I address the work on its own, I’ll make the comparisons.

Gaiman points them out in his introduction to the collected volume. Basically, both stories want to be a pause in the on-going story lines of these continuously-published comic book heroes.  And both are.  The Superman story was much more than a pause, coming as it did in relation to Crisis on Infinite Earths and Man of Steel.  It buttoned up an especially comic book-y era, one which had lasted for well more than thirty years, and was a story of a very Superman style.

The Batman story is a pause between writers, in an era when comic books, especially DC titles, are very strange.  Writers, especially good writers, especially with iconic characters, often come into the titles with a story in mind, and a plan for THE BIGGEST THING EVER.  And this writer will do what needs doing, and there will be a couple of issues with a guest writer, and then the new writer will do a story culminating in THE BIGGEST THING EVER.

Now, imagine that Grant Morrison has written the THE BIGGEST THING EVER to happen to Batman.  Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, since you can read them in Batman numbers 655 to 685.  And then it’s followed up with Gaiman.  So you have Morrison doing his Morrison thing for thirty or so issues, deconstructing the Batman back story, culminating with a storyline titled “Batman R.I.P.”  Then this thing from Gaiman, with Gaiman doing his Gaiman thing deconstructing the Batman back story.

When Moore deconstructs, he adds a level of psychological realism, dark and gritty when the story calls for it, but mainly something along the lines of, “what if these characters were real people?  What would cause them to act like this, and what would be the spiritual fall-out of that sort of thing?”

When Morrison deconstructs, he asking something along the lines of, “given that this is a comic book, in what way can we understand all of these tales as having happened to the same character, and what happens when the character really tries to make sense of all these events–some of them flatly contradictory?”

When Gaiman deconstructs, he’s asking something like, “it’s a given that these are stories, and these characters are before us primarily for our enjoyment and for us to make some sense of the world we live in, so what’s the essence of the story, and what’s the angle on the story that shines light on facets of life?”

There are lots of places to get a summary of the story of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” so I’m not really keen to spend a lot of time on that.  But I don’t think I can address it very well without looking at the plot, which is primarily in the form of a series of eulogies for Batman.  It’s a very Gaiman-y story.  It reminds me of that other Gaiman comic book–in its over-all form, it specifically reminds me of “The Wake” and particularly the one issue where everyone in the world goes to Morpheus’s funeral.  There’s a detail from that issue, one or two frames where Batman and Superman are talking about the strange dreams they sometimes have, referencing some of the stranger Silver-Age adventures.  The Martian Manhunter is there, too.  As I recall, Batman says something like, “but the strangest ones are the ones where I have my own TV show; do you ever have those?”  And Superman says, “who doesn’t?”  And the Martian Manhunter says, “I don’t.” (Note: as of CW’s Supergirl, Martian Manhunter an at least join a conversation like that. SM Jan. 7, 2018)

It also reminds me of the finale of “The Season of Mists.”  In that issue, Morpheus give a woman he wronged (wronged very badly, out of love–so he thought) the option to move on after spending ten thousand years in Hell.  She could move on to whatever comes next, or return to life as a new-born, not remembering all that came before, but always welcome in the Dreaming.

Finally, it reminds me of Death, who does not make an appearance in this story, despite it being a story about the funeral of Batman, and despite the story being carried forward not by the eulogies presented by those who knew Batman but rather by the disembodied conversation between Bruce and… some woman, who (in a Gaiman story in the DC universe) we might naturally assume is Death.  Actually, it is between Bruce and his mother Martha.  Some might like to argue that it’s not really Martha, but is, in fact, Death taking Martha’s form, and bending the rules for Bruce.  Death has been known to bend the rules before.  But I don’t think so.  Death always appears as Death when Gaiman is writing the character; I think it’s partly a respect thing–Death does not deceive.  Death would not claim to be Martha Wayne.

Also, despite reminding me of the end of “The Season of Mists,” the end of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is not reincarnation event.  Bruce is not reborn as someone else.  He is reborn as himself with a new life, or, at least, a new life in its details.  In its essentials, it will be the same life–Bruce will witness his parents’ murder, and will be Batman, and will die as Batman.

It is a strange Batman story, but one that rewards the reader able to look beyond the disjointed narrative, the ambiguous characterizations, the unexplained references, and the atemporal conclusion. It will also reward the reader able to separate it from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” with its unabashed Superman adventure, Superman continuity, and Silver-Age knowingness. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is also whatever happened to the dark knight, the world’s greatest detective, the man who took in Dick Grayson as his ward and adopted Jason Todd–making them both into sidekicks named Robin, and whatever happened to all the other characterizations of Batman that had been published to that point? And what, despite the differences, makes them all the same–Batman?

What do you call half a Splinter?

I’m about halfway through Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. It’s pretty OK. I’ve wanted to read it since, I suppose, it was first released. I was in… um… second grade, I think. The question that’s always bugged me about Star Wars is this: how, years before The Empire Strikes Back, did that kid in elementary school know about the volcano?

I always figured the answer was in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

This probably isn’t true, though it might be. I’m half way through the novel at this point. Luke and Leia are running around on a bog planet, evading some local Imperial entanglements, and have accidentally gotten themselves drawn into a search for the Kaiburr crystal. The crystal is a thing that focuses the Force for a Force-sensitive user. They are running around with a couple of hairy grunting creatures, which I imagine look like really, really big aardvarks.

There’s also an old woman who’s Force-sensitive, and who’s been hiding out from the Empire for the last 40 years. The novel came out in 1978, shortly after the original movie, and–though it’s still considered in continuity–it’s best not to think too hard about the details. (Note: very little of this novel is probably considered in-continuity these days, SM Jan. 7, 2018.)

Anyway.

I’m about half way through, and our heroes are being chased, albeit slowly, across the face of the planet, and, despite the promise of the cover, there’s no evidence of Darth Vader yet. The writing is OK. The plot is OK. The adventure aspects are pretty good, actually. Lots of running around and fighting and blowing things up, monsters, and falling down deep holes. There’s a lot of attention paid to things like charging the weapons and having food and water.

But it feels like kind of a lot of filler. Maybe that’s because I’m looking for that other thing about Darth Vader, and I’m just not taking the time to stop and smell the roses. Or the bog gas. There’s some back story about why the characters are the ones they are, and the setting is the way it is, and stuff, over at Wookiepeedia’s page on the book. I found it interesting, since I also remember getting into an argument with some other kid about what the sequel movie was going to be called in the early 1980’s when Empire was in production.

I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished reading the book.

On “Hell is the Absence of God”

Here’s a story that made me feel strange, keeping, on the whole, the promise of the slipstream anthology it’s in.

The premise is that the popular idea of Christianity is correct. Not, mind you, that there is anything explicitly Christian about the world the author, Ted Chaing, presents. There’s no talk of the death and Resurrection, and there’s no talk about the trinity, for instance. What there is, though, is a lot of talking about the necessity of loving God, the absolute presence of Heaven and Hell, and the visitations of angels.

There’s no debate about these things. They are not a matter of faith. They are just part of the world. Like trees, for instance. Angelic visitations are accompanied by brief glimpses of Heaven. And they result in miraculous changes in the lives of some witnesses. Often positive changes, but not always. And, on occasion, there are glimpses of Hell, where–sometimes–people who are known to have died are seen. When people die, you even see them go to Heaven or to Hell. All you have to do to get into Heaven is love God.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Even in our world, where these things are not common as dirt, that’s the big one. Love God. Everything flows from that. How much easier it must be in the world of the story where all doubts are removed. These things literally happen, and pilgrimages to places where they happen pretty often are commonplace.

Anyway, that’s the background. The story is mainly about one guy, and his search to… Well, his search. He intersects with a couple of other people out in a desert location where angelic visitations happen fairly often. And his search comes to an end. And it all made me feel pretty strange. Highly recommended.

Slip-slippin into the future…

I’m a good chunk of the way into Feeling Very Strange, and… it doesn’t make me feel all that strange. The stories are good, quite good, on the whole, and worth reading, but the slipperiness of the idea of slipstream is leaving me a little cold on the category.

The only story that’s made me feel strange at all is the first one in the collection, and I’m not even sure what it’s called. I think it’s called “Al,” which is to say like some guy’s name, like the guy who owned “Arnold’s” in Happy Days. Which is just to give a reference, since what’s ambiguous about the title isn’t that it might be a reference to a 1970’s sit-com (it isn’t), but that the “L” in the Al, might actually be a 1, the digit.

Anyway, it made be feel strange because it was clearly the same story told from two different points of view, but… what they were describing, while the same, can’t be reconciled. It’s not that one POV is sane and the other isn’t. It’s not that one POV is a child and the other is an adult. It’s more like one POV is a woodland fairy and the other is a technocrat, and while they experience the same events in the same space at the same time, the space they occupy is actually quite different from one another.

Anyway. I’ll wrap up this post, because I’m about half-way through another story in the collection which is making me feel strange. I’ll write about that one next.

Not science fiction, gay fiction, but really just good fiction.

Bottom line. People who wonder about what it’s like when people make the uncomfortable discovery that they’re gay despite expectation and acculturation should read this novel.

So should people who want a good laugh at stupid and obnoxious people, and there are plenty of these people in the book.

We know where this novel is going to end up from the title and the back cover. So as readers we’re not too lost even though the first couple of chapters–basically before we get to California–feel a little vague. They meander, getting Our Hero, Andy, from his college dorm life, back to his parent’s house and the listlessness of summer jobdom for a conventional type of college student in 1989, and on his way to a Life Changing Trip to California There are some amusing set pieces at the beginning, and a highlight of the entire novel is a juvenile but still funny prank Andy plays on a neighbor lady. It would be great to see more of that relationship at work.

Andy’s lack of self-awareness, and his gradual realization that he doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks he does drives the plot. Once we get to California, Andy gets pulled from event to event, sucked along and barely in control of what’s going on, and only able to influence outcomes to the degree that other people are swayed by his smart-assery. Which usually means that Andy’s influence works against his hoped-for outcome. After repeated encounters with a distant relative of uncertain relation, Andy begins to become more assertive about the flow of events, but he remains largely unaware.

His slowly dawning self-realization allows for the character-driven scenes as well as the character developments. This growth in Andy’s self-knowledge carries the reader through some of the rougher patches of prose, which can sometimes be a little heavy on the smart-assery, and can sometimes veer toward after school special territory. If, that is, your after school specials were unambiguous and up-front about dealing with gay people, and watching everyone squirm through uncomfortable social situations made worse by constantly tripping over the gaps in their self-awareness. Which is a pretty good after school special.

 

(Note: this review originally appeared on my blog Interstellar Gas, in a slightly longer form. I have edited it to tighten it up, and to fix a broken buy link. IG was a science-fiction-focused blog, hence the title of this post. SM-Jan. 5, 2019.)