[My comic book store sold out of the first one, so I am not able to participate in this whole discussion. It became part of a general "wait for the trade unless it is some prestige thing I cannot live without (A Morrison-Quitely team up, All Star Batman, Casanova)" thing.]
One of Gaiman’s strength as a writer is that he has a knack for stating the obvious in really interesting ways. All of the variations he gives here are pretty obvious ways for Batman to ‘die’; the basic two options here are, as stated in the story, he either dies in a massive gesture saving the universe/world/city or he has a quieter, occasionally ironic death. In the various recountings offered here, Gaiman hits all the beats he needs to, his relationships with The Joker, Superman, Robin etc.
There is, of course, the in-text explanation that the only possible end for Batman is that he must die (as he would not quit otherwise) but there is also the subtext of, no matter how his death is portrayed, there will be those who would say “No, it should have been this way…” So, how Gaiman gets around that problem is giving the reader several options to choose from. This also ties in to the concept of the last issue which is there are multiple versions of the Batman story (Film, Cartoon, Elseworlds, Infinite Earths) so, therefore, there are just as many ways for him to die.
I also like how, at the end, where we see Bruce being born again this addresses one of the quintessential conceits of ongoing comic stories… or any ongoing franchise where the characters never age for that matter. Of course there is the obvious implication that Batman’s story will never end; that he will always be reborn… however, if one thinks about it, since Batman has been around since 1939 yet has never aged beyond (in Grant Morrison’s calculation) about 35 then it stands to reason that, every few years, Bruce Wayne is ‘born again’ in the ever sliding time scale of comics continuity. So, it is only logical that, if we’re assuming that Batman is going to be around for another 35 years, that there must be a Bruce Wayne being born right now. The overall message of the piece? Batman is dead, long live Batman!
Geoff wanted me to comment on the negative responses to this issue a bit and I'm going to start off by saying that I don't really think it was by an means an incredible issue but that I did find what Gaiman was doing interesting and, in terms of condensing Batman's continuity, I feel he was ultimately more successful than Morrison.
Among the Criticisms:
The Good Night Moon bit- This was, in fact, hokey but it was very Gaiman and, therefore, not all that much of a surprise or an offense to me. In fact, a lot of the criticisms I'm seeing seem to be about Gaiman and, ultimately, come down to taste... if you don't like Gaiman, you won't like this story. It's a very Gaiman story, even if you like Gaiman; if you're expecting him to do a Batman story (or what you might expect from one) that's not what you're getting either.
Gaiman says nothing 'new' or gives any special 'insight' to Batman- True, but I don't feel that was the point of the story... that's been done to death over the last 20 years and the last person to really try anything different with the character was Morrison and look at how that turned out.
Batman gives up at the end- He actually doesn't give up... he decides to go back and start the whole story over again. Sure, an ending where Batman gives death the finger and charges back to the world of the living would have been great but...as I point out...no matter what ending we have it would have pissed someone off.
Also, for the record... while I didn't read Final Crisis, the death Morrison gives Batman, killing Darkseid with a gun, is the best possible scenario for the character dying that I can think of.... Gaiman just gives us a few other options to choose from.