"Batman: Whatever Happened..." is meant to be analogous to the Superman story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? That was the last adventure of the pre-Crisis Earth One Superman, and something of a counterpoint to Supergirl's death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. The current story follows Grant Morrison's polarizing "Batman: RIP" epic and Batman's transparently temporary death in Final Crisis. But it's a different situation. Wild Tyme makes a compare and contrast.
When I saw Gaiman at a Q+A / reading event for The Graveyard Book on Halloween last year, he was in the process of writing this issue, and described it as 'weird' - even in relation to his previous Batman story, from Batman: Black and White, which cast Batman and the Joker as actors in a television show, sharing chit-chat in between takes. In practice, 'Whatever Happened to...' certainly is weird, especially when read alongside its similarly-named Superman cousin 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' (written by Alan Moore). Even though both comics were touted as being the 'end' of their respective characters, the approach is fundamentally different. Moore wrote a touching, warm-hearted send-off for a simpler age of super-hero; Gaiman, here, writes in a metafictional , abstract mode that blurs the boundaries between content, continuity and canon. The result, as marked by many readers and bloggers is stylistically very close to Grant Morrison's run on the series, especially in his concluding two-part Final Crisis tie-in Last Rites. Nevertheless, there are themes found in both these Batman stories that contrast.
Even though Gaiman has befriended Moore, and learned comics writing from him, the type of talent is quite different in the two stories. Moore was a hot talent, a game-changer, and a couple of years from falling hard out of love with mainstream comics. Gaiman is a mature creator now, successful in several media. Moore teamed up with artist Curt Swan, then the definitive Superman artist for three decades. Gaiman is working with Adam Kubert, who hadn't drawn Bats much until Morrison took over as writer a couple of years back. So where the Superman story was written by a young man working both with and on an idol of his childhood, the Batman story is written by an established man consciously writing against the grain.
As WT says, Moore's story was a sendoff to a more innocent era. Gaiman isn't doing that, because that innocence has been gone a long time. In fact the stories he pays homage to--while gently and subtly warping them--in many cases precede his birth.
The frustrating thing about reading superhero comics is the gap between what they could be and what--in the vast majority of cases--they are. There's a potential to reinvent reality on the fly, to celebrate difference and initiative. The medium has, if anything, gotten further from that kind of ideal as it has tried to function as a part of the big-event entertainment industry. Superhero comics now are mostly soapy potboilers involving people with powers. They're too locked into a pattern to really connect to anything else.
Gaiman and Kubert break this pattern, in part by reviving the conventions of Batman comics in the forties. Of course there are some twists, potentially disorienting. Catwoman arrives at the bar where Batman's wake is being held as a sleek young woman. When she gets up to give her eulogy, there's a considerable amount of grey in her hair. Then there's Alfred's tale, which deconstructs the Caped Crusader's entire career, and which also contains a grimly funny parody of Frank Miller's "I'm the goddamn Batman" bit.
In all it's done with good style and with good heart. The sad thing is that as popular as Gaiman is, others are not likely to follow him here. Oh well, you enjoy what you can while it's there.