Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Batman and Robin: Domino

Batman and Robin intercept a car full of drug dealers. They secure Gotham City Police Headquarters when a powerful trio of metahuman circus acts try to break one of those dealers out. They stop the insidious head of the circus and bring down his operation. Later, they break in on a vigilante who has just mown down some of Gotham's organized crime bosses. All very tough stuff that only Batman and Robin could manage. But something was funny: In all four cases, someone got there first and left a taunting clue: one or more dominoes. Or so it seems.

As the first year of Batman and Robin nears its midpoint, the story is undoubtedly complex. While Morrison is providing a rigid structure to his run -- four arcs of three issues each -- the arcs seem to be bleeding into one another (at times, literally), and the complexity of the plot is bewildering. A reader might be enjoying these stories by rooting for Batman and Robin and assuming that anyone who punches back is the bad guy, but the roster of bad guys is itself a source of mystery: We have alleged bad guys who have been seen in person, other who have left evidence, others who have been referred to within the story, and yet others who have been referred to outside the story. Given the large number of villains and villain references, one puzzle is to match them and their plans up. There probably aren't enough clues to complete the puzzle yet. But we can ask: Is there one alpha villain behind the whole twelve issues? One who commands the allegiance of most of the lower-ranking villains we will see along the way? If so, is that alpha villain El Penitente, or the Domino Killer, or Doctor Hurt? Are those three different individuals or two... or one? What does Oberon Sexton have to do with it? The questions are so numerous that it's easier to start with the facts.

We know that Professor Pyg (now in custody) was a tortured soul who dealt addictive new drugs, using the Circus of the Strange and his Dollotrons as muscle. They were dealing with Russians and also seem to have had Russians working for them. That's one group of criminals.

Later, a Mexican named Santos tells us of his as-yet unseen boss, El Penitente, someone new to carrying out evil in Gotham. El Penitente's plan to addict ordinary people to drugs sounds like it might be the same as Pyg's, but is it the same plan or are they two similar plans? Santo's purple hood indicates a (real) order within the Roman Catholic Church called Los Penitentes, with a presence in Mexico and some members wearing purple hoods, with others wearing other colors to indicate their branch. Maybe Pyg was part of Penitente's organization, although they could hardly be more different in terms of style.

The Domino mystery has a logistical element to it: it's all well that a trunk that was supposed to contain cash actually contains dominoes. We can imagine the people who were supposed to leave cash leaving those instead. But the domino in Toad's hand is a real mystery: We should imagine that nobody was capable of sneaking in right before he was found dead. There are tactical possibilities: Someone invisible or otherwise "meta". Damian was on the scene, and has been in conflict with Dick since the beginning; could Dick's teasing him about detective skills have goaded Damian into faking a mystery to taunt his boss with? Or did someone sneak in and out of Toad's cell?

We have been told that there is a Domino "Killer" -- but only outside of the story, in a quotation from Grant Morrison and in the (somewhat inaccurate) solicit for #1. But Toad's case is the only murder involving a domino so far. The dominoes in the trunk accompanied no murder. The one found in Pyg's lab may have coincided with arson, but no murder. And the one found in Santos' hand took place at the scene of a multiple murder, but Santos himself was not killed. Moreover, we know exactly who assaulted Santos and the others -- it was Jason Todd.

We might imagine Jason Todd to be the one planting dominoes -- he has the ability and the anti-crime motive, even the specific opposition seen in Under the Hood to those who would deal drugs to kids. However, note that Jason was apparently never in physical contact with Santos. Jason, as the Red Hood, threw a broken glass as Santos, and the artwork seems to prohibit any opportunities for Jason to have walked over to Santos to hand him a domino.

We also have a clue from outside the story, and I mean that in more ways than one. The solicit for #1 says that Batman and Robin investigate "a child who's been abducted by the mysterious Domino Killer." It is clear that no such event takes place in #1 nor any of the issues since then. This probably indicates that Morrison tweaked his story somewhat since offering the solicit for #1; those sorts of changes happened a couple of times during his longer run on Batman, and it was potentially instructive to compare the solicit to the actual plot to try to work out Morrison's general intentions given two sets of alternative specifics. In this case, the abducted child seems almost certainly to be Sasha, who was abducted by Pyg (and by extension, by whomever Pyg worked) before going along willingly as the sidekick to Jason Todd. Again, Jason Todd seems to be mathematically alive as a suspect, but that possibility almost vanishes when you take into account another clue from outside the story. In an interview, Morrison said that the series' first arc is intertwined with a "bigger mystery, involving a character called the Domino Killer". It's hard to imagine how it would truly be a "bigger mystery" if Jason's bloody exploits, seen in detail already, also involved him leaving dominoes behind. He's been leaving business cards behind: It would be a mere redundancy if he were also leaving dominoes.

I think of the ways one can work on a mystery roughly dividing into top-down and bottom-up methods. Top-down works from the generalities -- the author's motivations and so on -- to narrow down the suspects. Bottom-up works from the clues to determine what is possible. I think the top-down approach to the identity issue, the question of who the Domino Killer is, is probably less likely at this point to bear fruit, beyond ruling out Jason Todd, than the bottom-up. So let's look at the possibilities that the clues allow:

In the most "aggressive" interpretation of the domino appearances, we might imagine a real killer who is using dominoes as taunts. Imagine that someone broke into Toad's cell and killed him (we see blood only in the "next issue" images at the end of #1) and left the domino as an omen of the killer's dreadful nature. But this pattern hasn't gone anywhere yet: No one had been found dead with the dominoes in the trunk, nor was anyone found dead with the second single domino in Pyg's lab, although a fire had been started. And then the third single domino was in Santos's hand, but we know that he was not assaulted by anyone mysterious, assuming that his facial injuries were his only ones.

At the other extreme, imagine that the "Domino Killer" is doing something quite different. Maybe the dominoes have been put into place before or beside the killing, at least in some cases. Maybe Santos was holding the domino for his own reasons -- as a good luck charm, or protection. (Clearly, he's not adverse to showing belief in the religious or supernatural.) Consider the Joker's work in his first story (Batman #1): some of his victims had already been subjected to a slow-acting poison before the Joker served notice that he was "going to" kill them. (This was used by The Dark Knight's version of the Joker as well.) Suppose the dominoes had been handed out long before the acts of violence took place. Maybe Toad was killed by some slow-acting poison. And if someone's using the Joker's original motif, are we perhaps waiting to see the Joker himself show up -- Dan Didio and Morrison have both indicated that the Joker may show up before this run is over, and his role is rarely a minor one. Consider also that if the Domino Killer is actually a passive actor, placing dominoes but not "killing" that it may be a plot cooked up by, say, Oberon Sexton, leaving dominoes where crimes take place to add an element of intrigue without actually committing the crime. He purports to be following a serial killer to Gotham. Maybe there is no killer, just a cluemaster leaving clues. And that, again, would be borrowing from the Joker, who left meaningless clues in Batman, RIP.

One key out-of-story mention of dominoes is the title of the first issue: "The Domino Effect". This phrase highlights the famous way, besides the game, in which dominoes are commonly used. When lined up and stood on end, pushing one domino over causes the next in line to fall and so on. Massive displays are created in which the toppling of one domino can cause enormous numbers to fall in a line or wave of collapses. The domino effect was historically used to refer to the way in which Communist revolutions might spread through southern Asia were South Vietnam to fall. (It proved to be partly correct: South Vietnam's two neighboring countries did become Communist, but the wave, if it was a wave, stopped there.)

This theme of criminality spreading from one person / victim to another turns up several times in Batman and Robin. Someone apparently created Pyg, and Pyg creates the Dollotrons. In particular, Pyg tells Sasha's father, just before his horrible conversion, that once he has become a Dollotron, he will help Pyg force such a fate onto his own daughter. (The Justifier helmets and other devices spread the Anti-Life Equation in Morrison's Final Crisis, with the same shock plot device used: Black Lightning puts one on Green Arrow; Green Arrow tries to put one on Black Canary.) Pyg and El Penitente both want to spread addictions (perhaps the same one), infecting as many people as possible.

Issue #5's final face on camera, Flamingo, was also created, having undergone a sort of brain surgery that turned him into a super-vicious killer (this calls to mind the forensic case of Phineas Gage and the recent Batman villain The Amygdala), although his attacks seem to end the cycle -- his victims do not become criminals themselves.

But the most direct personalization of a domino in the plot may be Sasha, who began the story as a seemingly ordinary teenager and who "fell" from the first story arc to the second. If the domino theme is being carried out with her, then we might expect to see some victim in the Red Hood arc turn into a villain for the third arc. No such victims have stood out so far, though -- Pyg persecuted the innocent while Red Hood kills the guilty.

Because we know that in some working draft of Morrison's story that the Domino Killer is who abducted Sasha, if the printed story is not too far from the draft, then either Pyg is the Domino Killer or represents him. And in fact, the remaining in-story mention of dominoes comes from Pyg as he talks to himself in captivity, saying quite directly that his victims are lined up like dominoes. If he has awareness of his putative boss's methods, he may be rambling on that topic. But then, if the person leaving dominoes is on Pyg's side, why did Pyg's henchman Toad twice end up receiving dominoes, with Pyg's lab containing another? If El Penitente is the force behind the Domino side, why did Santos end up with the domino in his hand? If all of the dominoes seen so far as part of the 12-11-10 countdown -- in Toad's hand, in Pyg's lab, and in Santos's hand were badges or good luck charms, then perhaps we haven't yet seen a domino being used as a marker of a crime, but as a sort of membership card found by people on the Domino side. But then, how is a countdown taking place if not by coincidence?

The countdown seems at least to indicate that the sequence of domino appearances has been chosen with a meaning, but it is improbable that any single agent would have foreseen the actions of Red Hood, or have known that Batman was about to corral Pyg. If we assume, therefore, that the countdown is planned and not coincidental, and that the Domino side does not control Batman and/or Red Hood, then it seems like someone must be arriving at these sites and leaving dominoes post hoc for Batman to find them. And that implies either prophecy or powers to sneak about that surpass Batman's. So while we haven't been able to pin the "killer" down, and can identify at most one killing in three appearances of a single domino, we do see that someone's got the kind of capability that could seriously test Batman if they come into open confrontation. The key question is if that test is really about "killing" or if it's a mystery first and foremost. In other words, is the Big Bad leaving silly clues while weaving a big web of evil or is someone like Sexton giving Dick Grayson a Joker/Riddler style mystery to solve and using their surprising capability just to do the clue-leaving while seeming like a killer. The blood on Toad's domino (seen only in the teaser at the end of #1) points to some real menace which is for now still well-shrouded in mystery.


  1. Hey Rikdad. :) Longtime reader of your blog, this is as great as any other!

    I have to say it is truly intriquing who the Domino KIller is. The solicititation for #7 hints that Domino Killer's identity might get more clues and the cover shows Batman in London and we know Sexton is from England so... =O

    At first i did believe Red Hood was the Domino Killer since #3 shows "Revenge of the Red Hood" title with presummably Jason's fingers pushing the dominos, but this just might be pure red herring. ^^;

  2. Enjoying your analysis but I need to take issue with a line:

    "Pyg persecuted the innocent while Red Hood kills the guilty". Sasha's father was a criminal who apparently failed the master criminal at work here, which is why Pyg went after him, his brother (Sacha's uncle) and Sasha by extension. I don't think we have the background on any of the other dollotrons to say they were in fact innocent, they may all have been criminals petty or large.

  3. So now you've got me thinking about the Joker. I was never pleased with his anti-climactic role in R.I.P. and now I'm wondering if he's still working his nearly-indecipherable-clue angle. Maybe he's completely behind the domino bit. Why? He knows Batman is not the real Batman. The dominoes are a clue that he knows Nightwing has taken over the role (Domino Mask). The CIRCUS of Strange, the Red Hood, and even the purple of Santos could all be clues. Perhaps he's planning on capturing Damian, because, well, the Joker loves to mess with Robins. Could be completely off base, but I blame you for infecting me with the whole seeing-signs-everywhere thing.

  4. What you said about the other nature of dominoes--not the game, but the one toppling the next idea--got me thinking about Damian and Sasha. That seems to be major theme: Damian's failure to save her has had a domino effect where Sasha's become a "bad guy." Perhaps Sasha will in turn do something in her new role to mess their life up, and so on and so on.

    But, yeah, lots of questions... And the Domino Killer presumably isn't even a killer! She/he should be called the Domino Leaver. :)

  5. Thanks for the great comments. For all the time I spent tinkering with this post, I left a lot out, and you all have filled in some of the gaps. Yes, there's a black-gloved finger pushing the domino in the teaser art, which could suggest Jason or the Black Glove (or, of course, be no one at all in the story). I also didn't mention the numbers on the dominoes, which are seen only incompletely for the third one, and which count DOWN in the dominoes left behind, but count UP in the teaser art.

    If there's one key question now, it would be: Did Santos already have the domino when Jason threw the glass at him, or did someone actually do that undetected? And the wild possibility I haven't mentioned: The three dominoes left behind might be the work of more than one independent agent.

  6. So Rikdad whats your opinion on Morrison's Jason Todd? You think Jason is Morrison's Rorschach? I mean red hair + akne = Walter Kovacs pretty much. >_> Ofcourse we don't know how much he got hurt from Flamingo's shot. Heck some people believe hes receiving a glasglow smile-esque scars but i doubt it. ^^; But yeah whats your thoughts on Mr. Business man Todd? :D

  7. I think it's worthwhile to try to trace where that first chest of dominoes came from and how it came into play. Toad received it in exchange for drugs. Toad was the go-between between Pyg and whoever Pyg sold his drugs to. Toad was on his way back to Pyg, to give Pyg a chest of money--obtained from the drug buyer--that turned out to be a chest of dominoes.

    So the dominoes came from whoever got Pyg's drugs.

    "El Penitente's plan to addict ordinary people to drugs sounds like it might be the same as Pyg's, but is it the same plan or are they two similar plans?"

    Or was it El Penitente (or someone in league with him) who obtained Pyg's drugs before Batman & Robin #1 opened?

    I'm not sure. I might have some things wrong since I don't have access to B&R#3 at the moment, but by the conclusion of the first arc I don't think we know anything more about who obtained the drugs from Toad, i.e. the source of the dominoes.

  8. Drazar; I don't have much feeling on a personal/fanboy level on how Jason Todd is utilized. I had read perhaps three comics featuring him during his "first life". He's a long way from Rorschach in terms of his psychology (Jason calls himself crazy and says "Heh"). I am enjoying the story so far, and as far as I'm concerned, Jason's a blank slate upon which new characterization can be written: The twenty-year gap with multiple revisions and the Lazarus Pit, etc. are enough justification for substantial changes. Imagine how much Batman changed from 1939 to 1959.

  9. DAL, it seems that Russian mobsters were the ones providing the trunk, but it's not too hard to imagine that they were pawns of someone else or themselves the victims of the switch. (And note, there were apparently Russians, therefore, on both sides of the deal.)

    There are definitely more loose variables still pending than we can hope to solve for now. Trying to see what's coming is like trying to foresee Doctor Hurt before Batman #674 -- the clues just aren't there yet.

  10. Ah, I see the Russian connection now. I've got access to my issues again. Last night I was thinking that there were Russians involved, but then I thought, "No, the Russian faction was with Sasha's father." It's funny how Morrison will put similar attributes on two sides of an issue like that.

    We pretty much know (though we'd've inferred it anyway) that the "small-time Russian gangsters" are just a small part of the puzzle. Apparently, however, the mind-control drugs Pyg sold have yet to come into play. In the first arc, Pyg only started using his own drugs as a weapon against Gotham because, according to Dick, he "finally realized the potential of what he'd created". In #4, when the underling of El Penitente speaks of his boss having "found a way to enslave and addict whole populations", it sounds as if El Penitente has procured Pyg's drugs, or drugs very similar. In #5 Sasha refers to "the people who trade these new drugs", as if they're all the same.

    Here's something to consider, though: Did Pyg perhaps WANT to be paid in dominoes? Toward the end of #3 he speaks of all his "dollies in rows like dominoes". A domino was found in his hideout. Whatever the dominoes represent, it seems likely to me that Pyg had some of these dominoes already, but wanted more. Did he give a domino to one of his circus henchmen, to put it in Toad's hand after killing him? If Pyg already owned dominoes, this explains the mystery of where two of the dominoes in the first arc came from. But if he was being sent more dominoes, then Pyg obviously isn't the source of the dominoes, and it would that the "small-time Russian gangsters" are just middle-men as well. As for the criminal who was severely injured in the second arc, who also had a domino in his hand--it seems that was the underling of El Penitente. So was he just holding a domino not because someone placed it there but because he's part of the club as well? If so, it seems that El Penitente would be the source of the dominoes and the recipient of Pyg's drugs--though, of course, he probably isn't the top of the chain, either.

  11. Hello Rikdad. My name is Ekko. I run

    I am inviting you to send me the names and a blurb of your top 1-10 comics of the decade. My site will be doing a massive post in about week, and we've gotten contributions from other bloggers and comic creators, and we'd be honored to have you be a part of it, too.

    If you're interested, please contact me ASAP at ekalett(at), because we're already planning the post for next week.

    Thanks, and keep up the great writing!

  12. You should have given more thought to the Damian angle on this. I like that you perpetuate Damian playing a literal game of mockery with Dick by including dominoes at the scene of the crime, but let's lay some facts on the actual dominoes and their appearances.

    The 12 domino was with Mr. Toad's corpse, which was locked in a cell where Damian and a bearded lady fought directly in front of.

    The 11 domino was in Pyg's lab where Damian was held hostage before escaping and beating his Dollotrons to a pulp.

    The 10 domino was held in the hand of Santos after Red Hood and Scarlet fought off Batman and Damian.

    Damian was at ALL scenes of the crime, has the ninja training to be stealthy enough to do it, AND has a penchant, if you remember, for killing scrubby villains [or in that case, beheaded them].

    We have more to see from Batman and Robin as many clues need to be found such as who exactly are El Penitente and Oberon Sexton. Oberon is from England and tracking a serial killer. Mayhaps he is tracking the "Domino Killer?" was the FIRST instinctive thought I had when I read that, knowing full well how sneaky Morrison is when it comes to seeding. El Penitente is also a little weird as his name and his lackey's hood regard him as a Roman Catholic Church equivalent of a man subdued to penance for his sins. What has Penitente done that he must seek penance for and why must he seek penance by breaking into the Gotham crime scene from afar?

    Also, I'm more worried about the Bruce Wayne, Black Glove, Flamingo, issue 666, and Damian ties that still exist out there, but seem to have dissipated.

    I mean obviously Death coming to Gotham means Flamingo is Death, which is in essence an emissary of the Underworld or the Devil himself. So, is Penitente part of the Black Glove or is he another part of the Black Glove? Only time and more Batman and Robin issues will tell us. More later though.

  13. Mr. Boo -- you add a lot of Damian-related detail that I pondered but left out: The "Toad" domino could easily have been left by Damian, but the other cases are, while not impossible, much more difficult. Three things that make Damian's candidacy especially difficult are (1) the trunk of dominoes that Toad had at the beginning; (2) the fact that Pyg mentions dominoes from his jail cell; (3) the solicit for #1 that told us that the Domino Killer had abducted a girl. Two other things that are more easily explained, but still difficult, are that the dominoes in Pyg's lab and Santos's hands were found in fight scenes were Damian ended up needing to be rescued. In a lot of circumstances, we can imagine him being considerably more skilled than those around him, but he ended up trounced twice: If he could move around the room unseen, why did he end up failing tactically in both situations?

    To keep a broad view of things, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that different dominoes came from different sources. But that would make the sequential countdown hard to explain.

    Sexton's serial killer and DK may be the same, although we don't even have evidence yet of Sexton's actually existing.

    I wouldn't be sure of anything regarding El Penitente's religious views. He may be as much of a Roman Catholic as the Joker is a stand-up comedian. Suppose, for example, if his Lord were below...

    Morrison's "Batman" run involved a hierarchy of evil, and we saw it come into view, for the most part, from the bottom up. That may or may not be the pattern here, but it's easy to imagine that the first three arcs show the minor players with the Big Players coming onstage only in the fourth arc: Doctor Hurt, Bruce Wayne, the Domino Killer, and possibly El Penitente, Oberon Sexton's real identity, and/or anyone else who turns out to be big.

  14. How close are we to another post? I very much look forward to them!

  15. A.C.K., I'll be posting tonight now that B&R #6 is out. I have some other topics worthy of posts as well, but B&R #6 has arrived, full of implications for the larger story, so I'll go there first. I'd like to get around to posts on Batman, the Flash, and... Mad Men.