Neil Gaiman’s Final Love Letter to Batman

Acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman is burying Batman, but not before he pens a final “love letter” to the Dark Knight.

Gaiman, picked by DC Comics to handle Batman’s final appearance in the publisher’s long-running monthly Detective Comics, almost didn’t take the gig. But his high regard for the 70-year-old superhero made this an opportunity he couldn’t skip.

“I found myself saying things like, ‘I don’t have time’ and ‘I have sworn to never write mainstream comics again,’” the 48-year-old literary titan told by phone from his Addams Family-style residence in Minneapolis. “But I ended up saying, ‘Of course I’m there!”

The end result — a two-part series called Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? — began with the February issue of Batman and wraps Wednesday with issue No. 853 of Detective Comics. The story line picks up where Grant Morrison’s execution of the Dark Knight in Batman R.I.P. left off.

Gaiman’s twin finales will be bound in hardcover and released this July. Taken together, they are surreal, hilarious and poignant riffs on Batman’s back story, told at light-speed by a master storyteller.

Gaiman’s extensive bibliography is filled with commercially successful comics, novels, prose, screenplays and more, and is decorated with Hugo, Nebula, Stoker and Newberry awards. As Hollywood mines comic books and fantasy favorites for the big screen, Gaiman’s imaginative works seem like a mother lode for cross-platform hits.

Earlier this year, director Henry Selick’s stunning animated adaptation of Gaiman’s 2002 novella Coraline debuted, grossing $80 million worldwide (and counting). Gaiman hopes to direct a film based on his comic book miniseries Death: The High Cost of Living, a spinoff of his groundbreaking comics series The Sandman.

I talked with Gaiman about “unfilmable” comics and their sometimes clumsy cinematic adaptations, as well as Coraline, continuity, Sturgeon’s Law, Iron Man and why writing the final issues of Batman and Detective Comics was like consummating a decades-long relationship.

So how did you become the executor of Batman’s estate, so to speak?

Neil Gaiman: The phone rang about a year ago, and it was Dan DiDio from DC Comics. He said, “Look we are going to do what we did to Superman 23 years ago, but with Batman. We are going to end his monthlies and then reboot and renumber them, so there isn’t going to be a Batman comic for a while. How would you like to write the last issue of Batman and Detective Comics in the same way that Alan [Moore] did with the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”

It was one of those strange combinations. I though that if I didn’t do it, someone else would and [they would] mess it up. But also, I really love Batman. The platonic ideal of Batman, as well as the number of specific Batmans over the years. I thought it would be really interesting.

Did you know at the time that the title of the series would so literally resemble Moore’s Superman sendoff and the Silver Age retrospectives that inspired it?

Gaiman: Well, it definitely wasn’t going to be called Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? at that point. That was what some people at DC Comics started out calling it, and eventually it stuck, but the title did take me slightly by surprise. But I also wrote two homages to Alan’s comic — one at the beginning and one at the end — but then cut one. I had a line on the first page where Batman asks if he is dreaming, and a voice says, “No it’s not a dream and it’s not an imaginary story.”

Awesome. That references Alan’s legendary Superman triple entendre: “This is an imaginary story…. Aren’t they all?”

Gaiman: Right. So I cut it, because it was too obvious. Plus, that line is one of the five amazing moments in comics.

That famous preface messes with the idea of canon and continuity. Moore’s comic is arguably outside DC Comics continuity, and so arguably is yours. Same goes for a bunch of other awesome comics. Has continuity outlived its usefulness?

Gaiman: Continuity isn’t actually something that I ever worry about. You use it where you need to, and you don’t use it where you don’t need to. It’s a given that we exist in a world where we have to live in continuity every day; no one is immune to that, in life or romance novels. By the same token, it’s not something I find terribly important.

The joy of this Batman story is that there were 70 years of Batman and I wanted to try and talk about all of it. Alan’s last Superman story is every bit as readable as it was in 1985, and it doesn’t actually matter that nobody remembers the Luthor/Brainiac team any more, or even necessarily remembers the typical Superman trope of squeezing coal into diamonds. None of that matters, because it is a glorious story.

Batman’s total story is so immense that it seems impossible to make it realistically linear.

Gaiman: What I wanted to do was write the last Batman story. What should it be? And I wanted to play very, very fair with the reader. So what I was trying to say is that it honestly doesn’t matter if it is in or out of continuity. And it doesn’t matter whichever Batman you love, whether that is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, or the Batman TV show or even the various, glorious animated series. This is the last Batman story. He’s dead, and this is what’s happening. It’s been 70 years, and it’s been wonderful, but this is the last one.

It’s a fabulous closure, especially the part where he says goodbye to all the stuff in the Batcave. “Goodnight mechanical dinosaur.” “Goodnight giant penny.” Classic!

Gaiman: [Laughs] It’s all in there. There was definitely a wonderful joy of writing those last 10 pages of the second issue. While I was doing it, I was thinking that there are people out there who will think that I’ve gone mad.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? reunited you with your Marvel 1602 collaborator, artist Andy Kubert.

Gaiman: I kept asking Andy to do things that are impossible, and because no one told him they were impossible, he did them. Normally someone asks him to draw three panels, but doesn’t ask him to draw those three panels in the style of Brian Bolland or Jerry Robinson. I loved the fact that I could ask Andy for Robin when he’s 17, off to college and still wearing the costume, the Speedo and everything, which looks kind of stupid. But I still want it to be moving. And he did it.

I loved what he did with the last panel, where the Bat-Signal turns into something I can only describe as the Star-Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Gaiman: Writing that part made me incredibly happy. In a lot of ways, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is a love letter, as was Alan’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? That was his love letter to Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger and Curt Swan and all of the guys who had worked on Superman. And it was a love letter to the Superman who lived in Alan’s heart, who wasn’t going to be around anymore. I wanted to write the same love letter to Batman.

Reading Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? one gets the idea that Batman has lived in your heart for a while.

Gaiman: When I was 5, I was in a car with my dad and he mentioned that there was this Batman TV show in America about a man who dressed up in a costume and fought crime. The only bat I ever knew was a cricket bat, so what I thought he looked like was rather odd, based on that. Months later, the series hit the U.K., and I remember watching and being affected by it. Really worrying, genuinely worrying, on a deep primal level, “Will he be OK?” That is the way it was with every deathtrap. If I missed the end of an episode, I’d get my friends to tell me he was OK.

Because of the Batman TV show, my dad picked up Smash! comics for me, which reprinted a Batman cartoon strip, which were much more about continuity than the television program. Those were my gateway drugs into Batman. Even when batman went twee in the ’60s, Neal Adams reinvented him as a long-eared, shadowy character. And when I was in my 20s, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns came out and I found myself writing my first piece of academic criticism on it.

I wanted my comic to contain all of that, from the story to the art. I wanted it to have that love in there. I wanted to write the last Batman with honor and love.

So, did you pull it off?

Gaiman: Well, since you’ve seen the actual comic, you’re actually ahead of me. I’ve only seen the PDF! [Laughs] But to your question, people used talk to me about The Sandman back when I was writing it, and my answer was that I was too close to it to know what I was doing and feeling. Decades later, I could look back and go, “Whoa, we did it!”

I remember George Harrison complaining that he had no idea what The Beatles meant to the ’60s. So the truth is, I have no idea. I look at it and say, “Andy did me proud,” but I do wonder if they’ll think I went mad at the end. Whether it works or not, I don’t know or care, but it makes me very happy. I know that if Batman ever reads it, he will know that he was my first love.

Right before you buried him?

Gaiman: [Laughs] Well, the great thing about Batman and Superman, in truth, is that they are literally transcendent. They are better than most of the stories they are in. That’s jut Sturgeon’s Law: “90 percent of everything is crap.” Can you imagine how many thousands, or millions, of words have been written on Batman? Try to read them and you’re looking at 100,000 pages, perhaps a million, and you can assume that 90 percent of it is crap. Yet the 10 percent, and even better the 1 percent of that 10 perfect, is absolutely glorious. That pays for everything.

How about they ways they transcend their medium into film, for example? Sturgeon’s Law nails that one nicely.

Gaiman: Yeah, it’s something that is missed when they’re made into movies. Marvel Comics has been much more successful than DC Comics, although DC got it right with The Dark Knight. With movies, you want that transcendent 10 percent, that mythology. The Iron Man movie fascinated me. It took a character [at the top of Marvel Comics’] second division, and did him right, so right that everyone goes, “This is why we love Iron Man.” The joy of The Dark Knight movie is, “This is what a Joker story should be like.” No one wants to see the ultimate Two-Face movie.

Gaiman: Two-Face’s car! We had too much fun with that. That’s that kind of stuff that we could have done forever. Twenty pages of bad guys riding in their cars. Iceman pulling up in an Icemobile. Same goes with the poor guy who had to watch after them, wondering whether he’s going to die with each new customer!

Speaking of comics-based movies, the unfilmable Watchmen has fallen. Is The Sandman next?

Gaiman: There is talk of an HBO Sandman, because no one quite knows what to do with it. But the truth is, if anybody is going to make a Sandman movie, it will probably be a kid in film school right now to whom The Sandman was the most important thing ever. It will take the amount of commitment, dedication and madness that Peter Jackson brought to Lord of the Rings to get it on the screen. Honestly, it could happen after I am dead.

How about Miller’s Dark Knight Returns? That one seems unfilmable for a variety of reasons, if only that no one seems quite ready to see an old Batman on screen.

Gaiman: That one is interesting. Once it was published, there was all this talk about whether Clint Eastwood could do it. If they actually made The Dark Knight Returns with Clint, I would have gritted my teeth and seen it. It probably would have been awesome.

Gaiman: I waited on Watchmen because I was also waiting for someone whose opinion I trusted to tell me to go see it. And they didn’t. They told me that I’d love the opening sequence, or that even without the squid it worked, and onward. But after three or four of those, I just said, “Why?”

I was reading photostats of Watchmen that Alan would hand me months before they hit the stands, and I would puzzle over everything, putting it all together in my head. That’s a different thing than Dark Knight Returns, where the details of the story are more malleable and simple. Batman comes out of retirement. Cute Robin arrives on the scene. Joker kills himself. Is Batman dead or not? He’s not. There’s not much to unpack. If someone cast David Bowie, as he is now, as the Joker, I think The Dark Knight Returns is doable.

The Sandman is a daunting task, given its mammoth length.

Gaiman: And because it’s not film-shaped. I had a meeting two-and-a-half years ago at Warner’s with Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov about the status of The Sandman, because they really didn’t understand the thing and directors were asking if they could make it.

So I went out to Hollywood with beautiful artwork and toys and did a presentation, talked them through the storyline. We talked about what it was and who the characters were, and how you could do it in three, four or seven movies. I got to the end, very proud of myself for encapsulating 2,000 pages of comics into a giant visual pitch, and what I got was, “Jeff and I had lunch and were talking about the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises, and we agreed that each was successful because they had a clearly defined bad guy. Does The Sandman have a clearly defined bad guy?”

I said, “No it doesn’t,” and they said, “Thanks for coming!” They know that even if it is one of the jewels in comics’ crown, it wasn’t designed to be a film.

Moore had the same problem with Watchmen.

Gaiman: I remember the first time I met Terry Gilliam in 1988 or 1989. We were talking about Watchmen and Gilliam said that the trouble with turning it into a movie is that once you condense it, you lose what made it Watchmen. It’s a superhero movie, not a commentary on superheroes. Once you finish compressing it, it’s not quite itself anymore.

Gaiman: We’re so proud of it. If it wasn’t for the Jonas Brothers spoiling our mojo, we might have been the highest-grossing stop-motion movie ever made. When their film came out, Coraline was pulled from some theaters to make space. Two weeks later, when the Jonas Brothers film made no money, we got put back into more of them. But I am so proud of what Henry [Selick] and everyone did; it also made me feel better about turning my comics into movies.

Alan and I have been friends forever, and we agree on film being bad for comics, with a difference. Alan’s theory is that films are intrinsically bad, and that it is better to keep his distance from them. Mine is that the only chance you have of getting a film made that you would like to see is by finding people that you like and trust, and making sure that the film stays theirs. That and working with them in every way you can to make it good. So that was my philosophy with Coraline.

Was it smooth sailing with Coraline?

Gaiman: There were some strange moments. I did something you’re never supposed to do: I gave a free option to Henry after his had run out. There were people from Disney sniffing around, but I went with Henry from the beginning because I wanted his movie. I wanted that film.

This article appeared at Wired