Out this week is the first part of Neil Gaiman's highly anticipated Batman storyline called "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?", which many expected to be a recap of the Dark Knight's whole story. What we got instead is something altogether different, but it's already earning comparisons to Gaiman's previous work in Sandman, specifically "The Wake" (it is a funeral too, after all) and "World's End" (both stories are a gathering of people that tell stories). To me, however, this story reminds and evokes some of the themes that Gaiman presented during "A Game of You", probably one of the least liked (although not exactly disliked) Sandman stories.
It is easy to see why some readers do not like "A Game of You", as I was one of them when I first read the story: on the surface, the plot is basically a fairy tale about a Princess coming back to her land after being gone for a long time, and much has changed. The dream land is filled with magical creatures and fantastical places, but Morpheus and the overreaching plot-line of Sandman plays a very small role for this story (other than the introduction of Thessaly). It feels that Gaiman was more interested in exploring the nature of dreams, how they are affected by our worldview and personality and vice versa, which is a theme that is touched upon many times during the entirety of Sandman. The main character in "A Game of You" is a woman called Barbie that was briefly introduced during the previous storyline as having very vivid and colorful dreams of a fantasy land, and a real life personality to match. After going through a separation with her husband (Ken), Barbie's life becomes exponentially weirder and her attitude and personality go through a drastic change. As a result of this, she no longer dreams and the land she used to visit on a nightly basis goes through unbelievable trials and tribulations. Once Barbie comes back to the dream world, she tries to fix matters with the aid of a handful of anthropomorphic animals, finally facing the adversary that had taken over the land. As the story reaches the end, we learn that while Barbie did not create this dream world (it was Orpheus who did) she did populate it with a mixture of her imagination and memories: the animals, for example, were all childhood toys and the enemy's base was her grandparents summer house.
As I mentioned above, I originally did not like this storyline, but upon a second reading I found it surprisingly more interesting. Some of the stuff that Gaiman describes, such as dreams being a mixture of our memories and completely original notions, rings very close to home for me. I happen to have very vivid (and at times fantastical or weird) dreams, sometimes with recurring themes and places, and I usually remember what happens in them. For example there is a mall or group of shops that I remember being more than once in my dreams but not really an actual memory, even though it has aspects of places I really have been in. Another time, although I do not recall specifics, I remembered in a dream something else that had happened in another dream but had never occurred to me in real life. A couple of years ago I visited Key West and saw a huge fossil jaw of a prehistoric shark, and days later in one of my dreams I was swallowed whole by a shark just like that (I was rescued and survived to tell the tale too). And there's a couple of dreams where I have super powers, I admit it is kind of embarrassing that a grown man has dreams where he finds himself web-slinging like Spider-Man through a city (one of my favorite dreams I've had). What I am trying to say is that Gaiman understands very well how dreams work, and because of that I find "A Game of You" to be very appealing. I understand, as well, that not everyone dreams in the same way and I probably expect that those people did not enjoy this particular story as much as I did.
How does this all relate to Batman again? Maybe this is Gaiman portraying Batman's dreams, which are at points based on reality but quickly evolve into something that we know is not true, to explore the character and all of his history. Dreams do not need to make sense, or abide by the laws of reality, which would explain the conflicting reports of Batman's demise. It is not a very explored aspect of Bruce Wayne's life, and one imagines his dreams to be dreary and painful, while at the same time he lives in a world full of colorful characters, maybe his dreams are equally vivid. I guess I will have to wait to see if this is a dream, but all signs point to "not bloody likely": Batman is talking to a woman, which means it is not Dream of the Endless. The woman, if she is one of Gaiman's Endless, could be either Death, Desire, or Delirium. My money, if it is not Dream somehow having gone through a sex change, is on Delirium. Hopefully we will find out next month when the second part of this story is slated to be released.