Neil Gaiman attends the Dark Knight's funeral in Batman #686

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Batman's dead.

There's a big long backstory leading up to that, which would take a lot of summarization and lead us right up to that conclusion: Suffice it to say that events in DC's regular monthly titles have left Gotham City bereft, deprived of its protector and most famous citizen until that day when, as we all firmly expect, his demise will turn out to have been a dream, a hoax, an imaginary story or just the temporary comic-book kind of death that legendary characters eventually shrug off like a bad head cold.

But for the time being and for the foreseeable future, he's dead. That's him right there, in that coffin.

And megacreator Neil Gaiman, with artists Andy Kubert and Scott Williams, have provided us with this eulogy of sorts, Batman #686's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?," in which his friends and rogues' gallery attend his Crime Alley funeral and trade wholly contradictory stories of his life and untimely demise. Joe Chill, who some accounts paint as the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents, tends bar; a homeless man in the alley outside unwisely asks unstable attendees like Two-Face and the Joker whether they'll pay him to watch their cars.

As might be expected from the creator of Sandman, the event plays like a dream—maybe even Batman's dream, since he seems to be watching it and his confused protests sound in the background throughout the book. Attempts to reconcile the fabled tales of his death with current continuity will only irritate those who fail to see that a certain inconsistency is the very point of this particular nightmare, what with Catwoman's tale of first meeting up with the Dark Knight a couple of years before Pearl Harbor and Alfred the butler's sad confession about secretly hiring Gotham's gallery of supervillains all those years just to keep his demented employer occupied. Andy Kubert's art keeps things properly surreal, and Gotham appropriately gothic.

We know it's not real. Batman, who's watching in some way, knows it's not real. But what is it? Fever dream? Hallucination? Metatextual reverie on a classic archetype? Or just messing with our heads?

That we won't know until the conclusion in Detective Comics #853 ...