Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who is the Black Glove?

A year ago today, I posted to the DC Message Boards commenting on who the mystery villain of RIP was going to be with the subject "Mister Whisper" and the message "Just a thought."

It proved to be the right kind of thought, but not the right answer. Mister Whisper was the villain of Grant Morrison's 1990 story Gothic. He was seen immediately to have supernatural powers, and was soon revealed to be a medieval monk who had made a deal with "Satan".

While Morrison's run (particularly issues #666, #672, and #674) frequently echoed elements of Gothic, Mister Whisper himself did not make a reappearance (apparently, he's quite occupied in Hell) But his "business partner" did reappear.

This is a big enough topic to discuss in more than one post. Later on, I'll take a look at how fans approached the mystery, what we figured out, and when. Here, I just want to lay out the answer itself. It's a simple question: Who is the Black Glove? It's a simple answer: The Black Glove was The Devil.

This was a tricky mystery to solve, and contrasts with other kinds of mysteries in comic books and elsewhere. Frequently, a whodunit has a lone culprit who is one member of a large cast of characters. The mystery lies in figuring out which suspect had the motive and the means to commit the crime, and the author's job is to eliminate the innocent suspects while implicating the guilty, while making the whole thing un-obvious until the end, and then make it completely obvious.

That's an ideal mystery, but there are other kinds. More than one mystery that I've read/seen have a trickier answer, with two culprits. This kind of answer can be utterly impossible to solve for a reader who assumes as fact that there is just one culprit, because it may turn out that every suspect has an alibi to some part of the crime or another. There are also mysteries shrouded in obscure identity -- if someone is more (or less) than they seem to be. Twin Peaks, a clear influence on Morrison, turned out to work that way, with the body and the spirit of Laura Palmer's killer eventually revealed as two different beings.

Finally, there are unsolvable mysteries, and television's famous "Who Shot JR?" worked this way -- there were a number of suspects, but absolutely no clues allowing the viewer to exclude all of them. The only way to "solve" this mystery was to guess and be lucky. Or to interpret correctly the writers' larger motives. (Eg, there would be various costs to revealing the victim's mother to be the killer, which might eliminate a beloved character from future stories, or shock the audience in a way that hurt future ratings.)

RIP, as a mystery, did not play by the nicest possible set of rules, even though the genre was bid an homage by a reference to the groundbreaking mystery novel "Mystery of a Hansom Cab" in the first pages of RIP. At right, you can see a panel from an informational page in Batman #64 side-by-side with one of the first panels of RIP, showing Le Bossu arriving at the first Club of Villains meeting. Did Morrison read about that novel while reading old Batman stories as part of his research?

There were lots of clues given by Morrison, and at least one by Tony Daniel, in interviews, blog posts, and conference addresses. But let's stick with the story itself. Does the story actually reveal who the Black Glove is at all?

I felt that the clues closed in on the answer like a noose. By the time #674 was out, there was reason to suspect the Devil. After #676 was out, I "officially" guessed the Devil, although #676 itself gave little in the way of real clues. By the time the second-to-last issue had been printed, I thought there was essentially no way that the Devil was not the answer, although it had not been asserted as a definite fact. The last issue, though, totally locked it up -- but many readers nevertheless came to the end of it unsure who, if anyone, had been revealed as the answer.

Reality in Fiction

Because of the subtle nature of the reveal, it's useful to take a step back and consider in what ways fiction can portray truth within the world of the story. In principle, there is no absolute certainty in a narrative. Some philosophers, from East and West alike, have said the same thing about the world as a whole. Long before The Matrix was in theatres, philosophers wondered if there was any way for a person to be absolutely sure that he or she was not merely a brain in a vat, or a butterfly dreaming of being a person.

In fiction, it's trickier, because authors can and have gone out of their way to make these unlikely possibilities true. The Matrix is one example. The first scene of Morrison's run is another: We see the Joker fighting (in fact, killing) "Batman", who ends up being another man altogether, something we find out only a couple of pages later. When we see two Batman on-panel at the same time, we know that one of them's not the real deal, and it's quickly settled which is which.

Is this just Grant Morrison being unconventional and tricky? Well, consider that the same trick took place in Batman #2 way back in 1940. A Batman appeared who fought policemen, then killed one of them before being brought down in a hail of bullets. Of course, it wasn't the real Batman, but it was several pages before the story revealed that. If we consider this some sort of new-fangled unconventional storytelling, then we're almost seventy years behind the curve.

In two ways, Morrison gets a bad rap (or an incorrect rap) as an unconventional storyteller. As seen above, his "tricks" are not so unstandard. And moreover, he does stick to a pretty firm structure in his narrative. His stories (well, his Batman run, anyway) have a beginning, middle, and end. He foreshadows in a very straightforward manner. He goes for the "big" moment (his JLA run is full of such moments) and does not just build them up without delivering. He wants to write good stories. He primes you for the punchline. When he does, the punchline follows.

Clues in the Story

The first indication, however subtle, that the villain was the Devil came when Batman recalled in issue #665 that one of the replacement Batmen "sold his soul to the Devil and destroyed Gotham". At the time, that claim seemed like a throwaway (referring to a "dream"), but one issue later, when we saw a Batman who sold his soul to the Devil and tried to destroy Gotham, it brought a belated punch. Perhaps more telling in #665 was this dialogue:

Jim Gordon: Why did you have to choose an enemy that's as old as time and bigger than all of us, Batman?
Batman: Same reason you did, Jim. I figured I could take him. This isn't over.

This is not proof that the Black Glove is the Devil. No single line or panel is. This is just the beginning of the noose closing in on the answer. And it's not misleading. The case isn't over. Batman could take this enemy. And the enemy is as old as time and is bigger than all of us (besides, of course, Batman). Of course, a literal reading of that dialogue doesn't force one to conclude that the Devil is at work. On the surface, it seems to be about police corruption or something more general like "evil". But it's the first indication of the answer.

The next issue, #666, is so obviously about the Devil that it's not subject to doubt. However, since the story is set in the future, it's fair to wonder if the story is related in any way to the present-tense Batman story. And actually, the number on the cover serves to play down the connection to Bruce's enemy, because "666" is justification by itself for writing an infernally-themed story (as Kurt Busiek did in Superman, which reached the same issue number at about the same time). However, it makes a statement that Morrison was willing to put the Devil so firmly into his run at this point.

The Club of Heroes storyline actually introduces the Black Glove, and shows us something of how he operates. This, too, is just suggestive of the final answer, and I was moderately surprised to see that the setup of issue #680 matched the idea of wealthy people wagering on evil events we heard in #667-#669. It made sense to consider that the two "Black Glove" plots would be of the same kind, but it also made sense to consider misdirection. But no, Morrison is not as tricky as all that. We learned at this point that the Black Glove was a truly evil foe who seemed to use evil not as a means, but an end. This is an important clue, and immediately distinguishes the Black Glove from, say, a typical Flash villain who is willing to do evil things, but doesn't them in order to profit. The Black Glove is revealed here to be concerned, fundamentally, with Good and Evil, and to prompt wealthy people to wager on murder (among other things).

The story with Lane in #672-#674 tells us quite a bit about the enemy. Including the astonishingly frank lines: "...sent me to Hell to learn from the Devil" and "Doctor Hurt was the Devil." The natural reading of these lines, in isolation, is to consider Lane to be a deranged, wounded man who wrongly believed that his very evil tormentor was the Devil. These panels alone like what had come before led us to expect an enemy who was evil with an "e", not devil with a "d".

But at this point, four issues (in a sequence of ten) had made the assertion that the Devil was a villain in this run. For a reader picking up the issues and reading them only on release day, those four references might drift into the vague memories of the last year of one's life. But taken together, they established a clear theme of the Devil being part of the run.

There were also by this time a number of similiarities to Morrison's story Gothic:

a) Mister Whisper likes to hang his victims upside down. At the  beginning of #667, we see the Black Glove with someone (Mayhew?) hung  upside down. 

b) As the school headmaster, Mister "Winchester" kills seven  boys. Bruce was to have been his next victim, #8, but Bruce escaped  thanks to his father pulling him out of school. The demon Asmodeus  (mentioned in #663) killed seven men and the eighth escaped. Batman  is also the one winner in the Club of Heroes, which has 8 in all. 

c) When Mister Whisper and Batman get into their final confrontation,  Whisper says "Your arm first" and strikes Batman's left forearm just  where Lane tries to in #674. This is the meeting where Batman keeps  thinking "Every move is a clue." The first demon-cutter in the desert  also gestures to cut Bruce's arm. 

d) At the end of Gothic, Bruce calls Alfred and says "Gotham  Cathedral. Now. And bring a band-aid." At the end of his captivity by  Lane, Bruce calls Alfred and ends with, "Oh, and bring band-aids." 

e) In Gothic, Batman tells Whisper "You should have killed me  then. I'll make you regret that you didn't." Lane tells Batman "This  is your chance. If you kill me now, you can stop what's going to  happen." 

f) In LOTDK #7, Whisper is cornered by Batman, so he jumps off a  building, hitting the pavement below. Upon landing, he says "Oww." In  #666, Damian is shot up by the police. Kneeling on the ground  afterwards, he says "Ow." 

g) Whisper kills five mob bosses. In #666, Lane kills five mob  bosses. The Black Glove have five members. 

h) The main threat in Gothic involves roses (both the flowers and the  architectural feature) that will destroy Gotham and the main clue for  Bruce to solve is "Open the rose." The Joker's weapons in this story,  which could threaten the whole city, are roses.

Edit: (i) At the end of Gothic, Satan calls Mister Whisper his "My good and faithful servant." In RIP, Doctor Hurt uses the same line to address the Joker. This biblical phrase appears in Matthew 25. Grant Morrison also used it in The Invisibles.

So it's clear that Morrison intentionally brought up the theme of the Devil.  Just raising the theme, however, does not require the actual literal Devil to be part of the story. There was a very strong Devil theme in No Man's Land, with the "Nick Scratch" character whose name, henchmen, and language all hinted very strongly at the Devil. But there are two important differences. One, Nick Scratch had been offered a painfully standard science fiction origin. Two, and this is a factor I have excluded so far from the discussion, Morrison's interviews (as well as one by Tony Daniel) added a lot of support to the idea of there being a literal Devil in this story. This continued as the run went on. I will put interview hints and clues aside in the rest of this post because as a basis for solving the mystery, they come across more like an ad hoc declaration by the author and not like a mystery story at all. I did use them at the time to argue my solution to the mystery, but now that the story has been printed, we can find the answer in the story itself.

Two more issues followed without a lot of evidence (aside from the creation of mood) regarding the identity of the Black Glove. At that point, in late May, I posted my "official" guess that the villain was the Devil. I didn't feel that the matter had been proven (RIP had only been one-sixth printed), but that the four issues I alluded to earlier made it the best guess. I would also point to lines Batman said in DC Universe #0, that the case he was now facing was "the big one", "primal", and "fundamental". These phrases do not directly pinpoint the Devil, but do declare Morrison's intentions to make the story and the villain central in some respect. That leaves open a number of suspects -- anyone really core to Batman's career -- but had to be taken as a likely disqualification of miscellaneous Batman villains like the Riddler or a resurrected Jean-Paul Valley.

It's precisely because Morrison does adhere to structural norms that the list of suspects was so short at this point. By putting those phrases in Batman's mouth, Morrison distinguished his intentions from a typical whodunit in the DC universe. Frequently, a writer has used the whole continuity of the DCU to pick an answer that blindsides the reader because the character has appeared little or not at all in the story! This would be completely bogus in, say, an Agatha Christie novel or other standalone mystery story, but is valid in the DCU because of the ground rule of accumulated story over a span of decades and the work of hundreds of writers.

Once Morrison called the culprit "fundamental", he eliminated literally hundreds of suspects (while leaving a dozen or more).

At this point, after the publication of #676 (and just before the online preview of #677, as well as the telling Tony Daniel cover of #678, showing Batman surrounded by flames fighting demon-like gargoyle henchmen), 11 months ago today, I posted the following analysis. Note that I made use of hints that Morrison had given in interviews:

The mastermind really has to fall in one of these categories, I think:

1) Someone we've never seen before. Eg, some really rich guy with no superpowers who is evil and has been backing crime for a long time. Sort of like Sherlock Holmes's Moriarty or businessman versions of Luthor with less of a public profile. This would be almost by definition not shocking, unless you've never read a comic book or seen a James Bond movie ever before.

2) Someone we've seen before who has more to them than we've suspected. For example, if Dick Grayson or Poison Ivy either turned out to be the mastermind. This ranges from anyone we see frequently to almost never.

3) Someone who has not been in the comics basically ever, but is still shocking in his/her/their nature.

4) There is no mastermind. For this to be shocking, there has to be something really wrong with Bruce's mind to make him think there was one.

(1) is automatically ruled out. (4) definitely has something to it, but I think we'll find out that the mastermind has been behind the futzing with Bruce's head.

When we narrow it down to (2) and (3), I think very few candidates for (2) make sense, which is why my first guess was Talia, under the condition that she was actually much older than she is. On paper, that still works, as does R'as, or maybe Vandal Savage. But Morrison has come out and told us that he wanted to create a new Batman villain, so he's pretty much telling us (3), and all of the guesses to the effect of (2) almost have to be wrong. There's some wiggle room: If someone old is cast in a new light, they could be a "new" villain.

The Devil

More clues as Batman, R.I.P. Moved On

The more Doctor Hurt talked, the more we got telling clues as to the motive of the Black Glove. Here is how Doctor Hurt described Batman (audience in parentheses):

arrogant aristocrat (to COV) 
upstart idealist (to COV) 
noble human spirit (to COV) 
the ultimate noble spirit (to BG) 
usurper (to COV) 
undefeated hero (to BG) 
good (to BG) 

And here is Hurt's telling of the consequences Batman must pay:

rude awakening (to COV) 
lesson he will never forget (to COV) 
broken (to COV) 
see the error of his ways (to COV) 

This established a motive structure that was particularly focused: It all pointed to a villain who had no conventional profit at stake, and probably was not merely avenging an injury owed to Batman. This was a villain who seemed to think purely in terms of Good and Evil and moreover sided with Evil. This eliminated almost every villain who ha
dn't already been eliminated.

Moreover, the visual style kept on the pressure. Look at the panel at right showing Doctor Hurt in Batman #678.

Coming into issue #680, it certainly had to be taken seriously that the Devil was a top suspect for the Black Glove.

The Finale

Batman #680, the second-to-last issue of RIP clinched in my mind that the villain was the Devil. After all of the hints and clues and nods and winks up to this point, the story had grown very short with few other directions to go. I put down #680 thinking that Morrison had done everything to tell us that Hurt was the Devil besides put him in a baseball cap that read "I Am The Devil".

In the final forty pages of RIP (the final issue as well as the last ten pages of the issue before), the Devil is mentioned in the following ways:

a) Batman, running down the hall of Arkham, yells "Cupid and the Devil" in offering an interpretation of the Joker's card deal.

b) When someone refers to Batman's "worst enemy" (referring to the Joker), Hurt says "Speak of the Devil."

c) The Joker, who had already been told Hurt's identity, gives a rambling, poetic speech calling Hurt the Devil.

"devil is double is deuce, my dear doctor ... and joker trumps deuce"

d) Gaucho says that the makers of the Black Glove film had died because "the story is that the Devil himself put a curse on the whole thing".

e) Bruce's Black Casebook entry asks of the whole episode of his involvement with Hurt, "Did I finally reach the limits of reason? And find the Devil waiting? And was that fear in his eyes?"

How is All of That an Answer?

It's fair to ask at this point if an answer had been given at all. Hints, of course. But Hurt never sprouted horns or breathed fire.

There are two ways to see how these (and dozens of other) items transcended from hints to being an actual answer.

The key is to recognize how Morrison did use a pretty direct structure of question-and-answer, point-and-counterpoint throughout the story. It's not just that the Joker said that Hurt was the Devil. It's that the issue before built up the point that Hurt told the Joker who he was and that what the Joker heard changed how the Joker saw him in a fundamental way. That's as good as a signed contract that the answer was coming. Of course, we also have the question of the Black Glove's identity being raised as a question by Batman himself, asking "Who is the Black Glove?" in the first pages of #677 as well as #680. If we got to the end of issue #681 without finding an answer, it would be time to circle back and look harder, because the story told us that an answer was coming, and moreover that it would be "fundamental".

Let's imagine two scenarios. In one, I walk into a room and say, "I'm going to tell you who ate my cookies." Then I point at Bob and I walk out. I just told you that Bob ate my cookies.

In scenario two, I walk into the room and say, "I'm going to tell you who ate my cookies." Then I point at Bob. After a pause, I shake my head and say, "No -- Mike really ate my cookies. I was just kidding about Bob." Then I walk out. I just told you that Mike ate my cookies.

The pointing without saying anything is enough to make a statement -- if it is not superseded by a more direct statement. People rightly denounced the Devil mentions as something short of a direct statement. (Of those five mentions above only (c) was an assertion that Hurt was the Devil; the other four were uses of the word on a symbolic level, in a figure of speech, in relaying a dubious assertion, and in asking a question.) That did leave the possibility open that later in the story, someone would do what I did in blaming Mike -- pulling off a latex mask and revealing Hurt to be someone specific who is not the Devil. Except that never happened. Like in the first scenario, the pointing is enough.

And it's also key to recognize that the mystery ended. The sixth issue of RIP says "Conclusion" right on the splash page. Comics are inherently serial, but Morrison wanted to make his statement right then and there, and he said "Conclusion" to make it clear that the "No -- Mike really ate my cookies" moment was not coming. In fact, when Morrison next referenced Hurt, in Batman #683, it was for Bruce to use the phrase "Burn in Hell" as his message to Hurt.

The matter has been met with some skepticism. An issue of Wizard Magazine that I have yet to lay my hands on purportedly settles the matter with a direct statement by Morrison. But really the answer was right there in the story on the first go-around. And the interview hints made by Morrison made it more than clear before RIP even concluded. Simple question / simple answer: Who was the Black Glove? The Devil.


  1. As mentionned before, I suspected the Devil, but was skeptical due to the "paranormal" explanation. To be honest (50/50 hindsight), The Devil is the only one that fits...and I wasn't entirely sure who it could be if it wasn't him. I dismissed the "Outsider" type Alfred....Thomas Wayne seemed somewhat plausble, but unlikely...

    The hints, to me, where the similarities you listed with Gothic...which I loved in the 1990 and love more today given the context of RIP.

    I didn't want to believe you at the time, Rikdad, but your arguments were way to logical. ;)

  2. There's another reference by the Joker that I don't think I've seen you mention Rikdad ...

    I don'thave the issues in front of me, but I think it's in the same conversation with Hurt: Joker says something along the lines of "Pleased to meet you ... Love your work ..."

    When I read "Pleased to meet you ..." the first time, my brain immediately jumped to "Hope you guess my name!"

    Once again not "proof" per se, but I can't help but think the phrasing is deliberate, to tell you without teliing you ...

  3. Rob---nice catch.

    I did like the exchange between Hurt and the Joker. I kept thinking the build-up of insults towards the Joker had to lead to something..."Loyal Servant"...I'd have to say my favorite scene in RIP was in the last issue when The Joker says "Pleased to meet your work, but don't"

    The Joker beat the Devil too...The Batman/Joker dynamic is bigger than the Devil himself.

  4. Rob, I'm sure you're right, and I didn't catch that when I first read it (not sure why -- I love both the Stones' and even Blood, Sweat, and Tears versions of the song). For this blog post, I actually trimmed the full list of "Devil" clues considerably from my notes (and earlier posts to DC Boards). Suffice it to say that the volume of Devil clues is in the dozens if not hundreds, and the real point I wanted to develop was that they DO provide the answer. It can't be argued that Devil clues don't exist, but some people argued that they were just for the sake of mood (like the Nick Scratch case) and not "real". But per my example about who ate the cookies, what the clues tell us is direct.

    It's quite right that this scene is about the Joker getting the best of the Devil. It was intended to be powerful, and it was. If Hurt were just some random evil guy, then the scene would have no power; we already knew that the Joker was a big player in the world of evil. The point here is that he can beat the Devil, too -- he just can't beat Batman.

  5. "The point here is that he can beat the Devil, too -- he just can't beat Batman"

    Too right, Rikdad.

  6. I'm right there with you Rik ... No argument about either the number of clues or whether or not the answer is there. I'm *still* finding myself baffled by all those folks on the DC Boards who keep insisting that RIP is poorly written because "they have to read [some interview] to get the whole story" ... I just don't get it, because the real story is right there in the books, in it's entirety.

  7. Rob - I stopped asking myself those questions when I compared it to the movies. Some people like complicated and open-ended plotlines in their movies, other like the popcorn-action movies.

    And then sometimes we can enjoy either of them, even though its not our prefered genre.

    RIP was complicated (sorta) and multi-layered...and Battle for The Cowl is your big-dumb-action movie.

  8. Hello,

    Very nice analysis of The Black Glove/Devil.
    I was reading Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits and noticed the picture of Hurt from Batman #678 strongly resembles the very first panel the First of the Fallen appears on in Hellblazer #42. Has anyone else noticed this?

  9. My problem with Doctor Hurt being the devil sits squarely within the DC Universe version of Hell. Who is the devil? Lucifer/Beelzebub/Belial from Vertigo? Neron, Blaze, or Satanus from the DCU? Just a demon like Etrigan? We have a very set view of devils and hell in the DCU, and I don't see how Doctor Hurt fits.

    Not that I disagree with you, but that is my only hold up from being behind Hurt being THE Devil.