"Who are these people?" Dick Grayson asks rhetorically, after having seen too much of the Red Hood and Scarlet. He's echoing one of the catchphrases of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the prototypical buddy film. Damian, his new "buddy", doesn't have the answer, and we have just half of it. While Dick is asking only about the new pair of costumed vigilantes, he could be asking it of a much larger cast. Most all of them have some shade of red associated with them. While red is in, black and white is out: This is the first issue of the series that hasn't featured dominoes in some way.
At this point, Grant Morrison has left such a rich heritage of signs and symbols behind him that they keep popping up everywhere: Maybe it's a coincidence, but Lightning Bug's suit has a glowing yellow outline on the front which strongly resembles the one that Mister Miracle used in Final Crisis to protect himself against the Anti Life Equation. It doesn't protect him from his own life ending, however. The Red Hood and Scarlet are out to kill criminals, to "wipe the vomit off the face of Gotham once and for all." Lightning Bug gets wiped away in this issue. And isn't killing lightning bugs tempting for any nasty child?
The Red Hood is forward thinking. He sounds like the CEO of a Web 2.0 company: "cool, modern, edgy, the next level, hotter, in tune with changing times". Scarlet records their vengeance with an iPhone and posts it real-time to Twitter. Killing the past: His victim's would-be victim has a parrot that is killed for repeating Fred Flintstone's "stone age" line "Yabba dabba doo". Old cartoons are dead, long live the new. But for everything that plugs him in to 2009, he also hearkens back to 1667, leaving a calling card that paraphrases Milton's Paradise Lost:
What if the breath that kindl'd those grim fires
Awak'd should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us in the Flames? or from above
Should intermitted vengeance Arme again
His red right hand to plague us?
Red Hood's card reads: "Vengeance arms against his red right hand", and it maps to the original (Belial, one of the fallen, is speaking and refers to the red right hand of God) by making the Red Hood into a vengeful God lashing out at evil. This is the useful interpretation of the card, but you might find yourself cheering the Red Hood on to the sounds of Nick Cave.
There's clearly a mystery regarding the Red Hood's identity, and while I think the evidence (especially Grant Morrison's direct hints in interviews) comes down hard in favor of Jason Todd, the last person to wear that costume, the Joker is also AWOL and was lightly homaged in Batman and Robin's first arc with The Killing Joke's circus being Professor Pyg's home base. The Joker was the original Red Hood in Detective #168 (1951), and again in The Killing Joke, but nothing about this Red Hood reminds us of any previous incarnation of the Joker, and as Morrison said that the villain of the second arc was a character he hadn't handled before, it's hard to support the Joker as a suspect. Not to mention the fact that the Red Hood doesn't laugh. However, he's one of the few characters known to call himself crazy and Red Hood says that his story is "the revenge of one crazy man in a mask on another crazy man in a mask" and he then utters his only iota of humor: "Heh."
Long before Dick finds out who these people are, he has one of those canonical introductions that detectives so often experience at parties early in the mystery, an author of mysteries, no less, who sees the world quite literally through rouge-colored lenses, like the villain is known to. Oberon Sexton, a man whose wife was killed the same night his face was scarred, a distinction shared by the Joker in The Killing Joke's putative flashback. His last novel was about corn dollies, which sort of look like Red Hood.
We see Red Hood place red lenses (night vision) over Sasha's eyes and she sees him in green in reverse angle (and perhaps sees the dim outlines of his face). Soon thereafter, Dick uses very similar looking lenses and also sees his stake-out prey in green. These duos are not so unalike? Maybe. When Dick gives Damian some costume advice "a hood can become a blindfold", we have to wonder if Dick believes that the Red Hood's dome is his blindfold. Maybe it detaches him to be the sort of dark hero that Batman's not going to tolerate?
But we can see why the heroes might need to get up to date with the Web: In the gathering of criminals, Santo preaches to Penguin that the "new model of crime is grass roots, viral". And then all the players suddenly rush onto stage at once: The dark duo lash into the gathering of villains, bringing Batman and Robin into a confrontation with the Red Hood and Scarlet (remember, she has a score to settle with Damian, from last issue when he failed to save her). And the Red Hood comes charging at Dick with guns drawn just as Dick asks, in Philip Tan's rendering almost poignantly, "Jason?"
In the larger structure of this 12-part run, the Devil themes are brought up in a new way thanks to Milton's classic. Subtly, another of the villains of Batman #666 surfaces with the off-camera Flamingo who looks weak when Damian casually smashes him with a batarang in the future, but in the present, you have to have a grim appreciation for a villain who is called "the eater of faces". Nothing is so much an eater of faces as a mask, though, and in this issue, everyone had one, leaving a couple of those faces hidden even from us. If that is Jason Todd behind the Red Hood, he's doing what he did in Judd Winick's Under the Hood, but he's definitely doing it in a new way. And the inconclusive battle between the first and the second Robin that started in Battle For The Cowl is on again. Who more aptly than Jason Todd would start getting revenge on Dick Grayson's Batman by getting himself his own sidekick to show how in his own violent way the dynamic duo should be done right?