Despite the success that they've brought their publisher, it seems as if DC Comics is very eager to celebrate the end of both Superman and Batman, given the care and attention lavished on two hardcover goodbyes to the characters.
To be fair, the new "deluxe editions" of Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow and Batman: Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader owe as much to their writers - Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, respectively - as the fates of their central characters. In fact, both books are somewhat misnamed; both books are as much "The Complete Works Of This Big Name Writer On This Big Name Character" as they are about the central story; in fact, the Moore/Superman book has more non-Whatever Happened To material than it has of the title story - which is one of its saving graces - but doesn't Whatever Happened To... just sound better?
Neither books hang together especially well as collections; Moore's Superman stories work well individually, but there's no real theme to them beyond "Hey, it's some Superman stories." The same is true of Gaiman's Batman books only to an even greater extent, as his non-Whatever Happened stories don't even feature Batman, but are "Secret Origins" of Batman villains - or, in one case, an incomplete framing sequence for two other, not-included (non-Gaiman) stories. Yes, there's something to be said for indulging the completist mentality, but at the same time, there's surely just as much to be said for fulfilling reading experiences.
Of the two Whatever Happened tales themselves, Moore's Superman send-off is by far the superior - For one thing, it works as a story outside of a celebration of the character's history, something that Gaiman's overlong Batman farewell feels like it's lacking all too often. It's interesting to compare the tone of the two; Moore's 1986 classic seems like a mean-spirited preview of Watchmen's genre deconstruction at times, especially compared to Gaiman's more recent sentimental trip down memory lane; there's a sense in Moore's take of not only revisiting old characters, but of gaining a new perspective on them as well as a sense of closure. Gaiman's story, on the other hand, replaces plot with nostalgia and an oddly upbeat ending where the execution undercuts what I'm sure was meant to be a much more ambiguous atmosphere (Moore, too, gives Superman a happy ending, but he's Superman; you kind of want that for him).
As I said before, the extra material in Moore's book is a saving grace; it includes the wonderful collaboration with his Watchmen partner Dave Gibbons, "For The Man Who Has Everything" - much more fun than the lead story, in my opinion - as well as a team-up with Swamp Thing, the character with which Moore made his name in the US. The Gaiman book, on the other hand, feels astonishingly slim. Part of this is because Gaiman's back-ups were almost intentionally more throwaway, having originally appeared in the recap-friendly Secret Origins title, and another part is that they're from early enough on in Gaiman's career that you can still see him finding his own voice between the lines. That uncertainty adds value in the same sense as the book has value as a curiosity piece for Gaiman fans, but for the casual reader, it leaves the book the lesser of the two by some distance.
If you're wondering whether to pick either release up, it depends less on your feelings about the characters than the writers. If you're a fan of Moore and don't already own these stories - they've been reprinted many times - then, yes, you should run to your store and pick this up; even if you don't dig Superman stories normally, the humor and inventiveness is classic, if early, Moore. But if you're a Gaiman fan, it's harder to recommend the Caped Crusader, because it'll only really succeed for you if you're also a big enough Batman fan to care about Dick Sprang tributes or catch the amazingly subtle Joe Chill cameo... and how big is that crossover audience?
Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow is available now, and Batman: Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader is released to comic stores this Wednesday, both published by DC Comics.