Sunday, December 20, 2009

Batman and Robin: The Big Bad


In Grant Morrison's sprawling run in Batman, a series of minor threats proved ultimately to have been directed at the Caped Crusader by one central cause, a villain whose plan spanned many years and many comic book issues. As the run progressed, many smaller things were eventually revealed to be joined in a towering hierarchy of evil topped by Doctor Hurt, the Devil.

From the first issue of Morrison's current run in Batman and Robin, we've known that the story here would also unfold in the form of several, shorter arcs, and that a culminating event -- as seen in a one-panel preview -- would be the return of Doctor Hurt, who was seen proudly holding the keys to Wayne Manor. Let there be no doubt: This series is also building to a crescendo, with the same villain waiting, maybe not much longer, in the wings.

Besides the preview showing Doctor Hurt, we also have a Newsarama interview with Morrison telling us quite directly that he "will be making a comeback to finish what he started." And if you think that this run on Batman and Robin is more literal, less full of symbols and hidden meaning, than Morrison's run on Batman, look at the panel from Batman and Robin #3, presented at right. Behind the flames of Professor Pyg's lab, we see a very obvious Devil face, partly obscured by flames, with two bats flying over it (and a third, partially seen, by the real Batman's foot). Do the three bats stand for Bruce, Dick, and Damian? Does their position over the Devil indicate victory? Is this a symbol that Dick will prevail in his coming confrontation with El Penitente? It's hard to know how to read into the image, but it's a sure thing that bats flying over the Devil is not a haphazard detail.

Roll Call

In only six issues, the number of potential villains to consider has been daunting. All the more so given that Jason Todd, the front-and-center villain of the second arc, is probably not part of the bigger picture. But we have the following entities, some of whom are probably the same. Others are surely just background figures of no great importance (particularly those whom Jason Todd killed).

Mr. Toad
Professor Pyg
Phosphorus Rex, Big Top, and Siam
Lightning Bug
Sasha, her father, and her uncle
Jason Todd in his Red Hood guise
Tony Li, Bullet Nose Dmitri, High Rise Romero, Gentleman-G Merriwether, Aitch-Eyes, Rodney Fidget
The Penguin
El Penitente
Le Bossu
Oberon Sexton
The "globetrotting serial killer" that Sexton is allegedly tracking
Whoever killed Cardinal Maggi
The Domino Killer
Doctor Hurt
The Joker

That's a lot of suspects in only six issues.

Why do I mention the Joker? Both Morrison and Dan Didio have said that the Joker is going to emerge in the story. Morrison also said that Talia would return, and she was referenced at the end of #6.

So how does this all fit together?

El Penitente surely is Doctor Hurt. Even if the metaphysics are strange, they somehow or other represent the same entity. And he's at the top of a huge hierarchy that comprises much of what Batman is up against. Because some escapades in the story are linked to the Doctor Hurt identity and some to El Penitente, I use both names separately in the discussion below, but that they are one entity is presumed from here on out.

Given the match between Professor Pyg's contagious addiction and what Santos said about El Penitente's plan, it seems clear that Professor Pyg is an agent of El Penitente. We even know that Pyg's addition is a virus and Santos says that El Pentitente believes that the new model of crime is viral. Moreover, we have been told that both Pyg and Flamingo were essentially made -- Pyg through some sort of harrowing psychological programming, Flamingo through brain surgery. And they have opposite fascinations: Pyg adds false faces to his victims, while Flamingo removes their actual face. The importance of faces and masks is a likely metatextual comment on the superhero genre as a whole. The notion of a mastermind creating villains out of good people is a known part of Doctor Hurt's repertoire -- he did so with the three Gotham policemen who became the Replacement Batmen. We know that this merry band turns on itself in the future, with the Replacement Batman Lane killing Pyg and Phosphorus Rex in Batman #666, but recruiting Flamingo as a would-be weapon against Damian.

Oberon Sexton is almost surely opposed to El Penitente, or would like to be. He receives the menacing phone call in Batman and Robin #6 that indicates that while El Penitente expects to have Sexton's help, it's not coming voluntarily. I mentioned in a previous post that this is all consistent with the past interaction between Hurt and Mangrove Pierce seen in Batman #667. It is worth retrieving a quotation from Batman #681, when Gaucho says that everyone involved with the Black Glove film had been "murdered, gone mad, or vanished". Mangrove Pierce was the star of the film, so which was he? We know that he was framed for a crime he didn't commit, that doesn't necessarily match any of those three outcomes that Gaucho mentions. Did Pierce end up murdered in the events of Mayhew's attack on the Club of Heroes? Or did he vanish after leaving prison? I think that is the most likely outcome, with his scarring being the face-skinning suffered at Hurt's hands. Although we also know that Flamingo, El Penitente's enforcer, likes to remove faces.

The Killers

A giant part of the rest of the story turns on two mystery killers: Who killed Mr. Toad? And who killed Cardinal Maggi?

From the moment we saw a newspaper in Batman #681 mentioning Cardinal Maggi's death, we had reason to suspect the Joker and Talia as possible culprits, because both of them threatened the members of the Black Glove. Seeing the same headline in Oberon Sexton's hotel room, we may wonder what his role is: Is he the one tracking down the members of the Black Glove? If he's Mangrove Pierce, then he would have reason to want revenge, too. On the other hand, Sexton could be investigating the murders that someone else is committing. Sexton shows empathy for Dick Grayson in their first meeting, and verbally defends the Dynamic Duo while being interviewed on television. So he outwardly shows a good-guy vibe, but appearances can be deceiving.

Since Toad's death resulted in a domino in his hand, it's reasonable to assume that the Domino Killer (who, otherwise, seems not to have killed anyone) was at work there. The name "Domino Killer" only occurs in solicits and interviews. The solicit for #1 indicated that Batman and Robin were on the case of someone abducted by the Domino Killer. Only Sasha was abducted, and she was abducted by Pyg, who also had a domino in his lab, and who mentioned dominoes in a soliloquy. Toad was killed despite being in a locked cell, so perhaps Pyg's other comment from the soliloquy, that "Pyg's crept in" has some meaning. But Professor Pyg seems to be a mortal man who's insane, not a spirit or mist or shapeshifter. Moreover, a domino appeared in Santos's hand while Pyg was incarcerated.

If Professor Pyg is merely working for the Domino Killer, then it becomes easier to explain. The Domino Killer could be El Penitente, or even someone in the hierarchy between El Penitente and Professor Pyg. Absolutely everyone who's ended up with a domino has been in that hierarchy who is apparently working for El Penitente. But if Pyg's people were working, apparently, to free Toad, why would someone on the same side kill him? Toad failed to execute a drug deal correctly, and was perhaps operating outside of Pyg's authority in doing so -- his murder may have been punishment, as was Pyg's action against Sasha's father. There is fundamentally nothing known about the Domino Killer that doesn't implicate Pyg.

Consider how Toad was killed. Note that the police commented that he started to stink before he was found dead. Maybe no killer entered the cell at all. Maybe some chemical killed him, possibly on the domino in the first place. Note that killing someone under lock and key with a chemical is a trick up the Joker's sleeve from way back in Batman #1. Could the Joker be attacking Doctor Hurt's interests, having investigated enough to connect the El Penitente drug operations to the villain who talked down to him in Batman, R.I.P.? Morrison has said that his plans for the Joker include "an idea I don't think has been done with him before". That increases the likelihood that one of the characters in the story already is the Joker, acting out of character. He could be fighting crime by lashing out against either the Black Glove members (the "globetrotting serial killer") or the Penitente/Pyg operations (the Domino Killer), or both of those, and he could even be Oberon Sexton, if the good-guy vibe is a ruse. It would be ironic that Sexton alluded to the Red Hood in his television interview, if he is in fact the former Red Hood.

Loose Ends

There are, of course, many other things looming in the title, including the upcoming Blackest Knight storyline. Whatever else goes on is likely to be a backdrop against which the bigger plot unfolds. There will be plenty to say about them before we see issue #7 hit the stands. The solicit for issues #8-9 says promises that while Dick is in the UK, "Meanwhile, back in Gotham City, Alfred and a recuperating Robin are at the mercy of someone both fearsome and familiar…" That could mean that the preview with Doctor Hurt holding the keys to Wayne Manor plays out very soon.


  1. Great post as usual. I totally missed the satan burning in B&R #3 with the bats. :D nicely noticed!

    I really do believe Oberon Sexton is the Joker instead of Pierce, 2 main reasons:
    1) This serie is suppose to be noob friendly, tho that doesn't mean Pierce couldn't be explained thru dialogue easily, i just find a more casual friendly choice i guess hehe.

    2) Oberon Sexton on the tv interview refers that there has been more than 1 Red Hood... How on earth does he know theres more than 1? honestly. >_> Also we can take it to the extreme and think about the whole "red and black" theme. Where once Red Hood Joker was the evil man, now he's the "Black Hood" novice crime detective. =p It could be a funny twist since the only good Joker i can recall are Jokester from another universe and funnily enough Batman: Brave and Bold tv show had Jokester as the heroic Red Hood. Yeah yeah im going way too off topic now, sorry! :(

    I doubt Talia has anything to do with these kills. She doesn't strike me as this silent ninja type, more like leading her own group and just slaughtering everything brutally. :D

    Oh well just 2 weeks for Blackest Night #6 and we get something new and juicy answered regarding what Bruce's tether connection and Nekron saying "Bruce Wayne" have anything to mean in the bigger picture.

  2. What are ur thoughts on the return of Bruce Wayne and the Black lantern "bruce wayne" from blackest night 5?

  3. while i am really looking forward to the return on doctor hurt, i really want to know who the domino killer is and what his motives and connection to everything is, i wonder how long morrison will stay on batman and robin, probably now at least 18-24 months i think, or if he would do 12 issues and just take over the batman regular book but who knows

  4. I do really like the idea of the Joker working against the Black Glove now, having felt out the guy in RIP and now being missing for a while. He's got a very legitimate stake in keeping Gotham the way it's been and not letting a new big heavy step in and dispose of Batman, his eternal plaything. I can even see the Joker holding off the Black Glove, but refusing to engage Dick, knowing he's not the Bat he wants to tussle with.

  5. Drazar -- thanks! The Red Hood point is intriguing. The uncertainty surrounding this, as with many other things, is that we can presume that Morrison is drawing on past continuity, but we don't know what facts he's keeping and which he is altering. In my notion of past continuity, there was a gang that put a Red Hood on recruits so that they would draw the most attention, and the Joker happened into that situation on the night of his origin. But is that Morrison's account? And would the public know that the previous Red Hood(s) and the Jason Todd Red Hood were different?

    That may indeed be a clue (like the one in which the Lump gave himself away as a false Alfred, by knowing something that Alfred didn't). But it's hard to be sure. The similarity to the Lump-Alfred case is suggestive, given that we see how this sort of a reveal is Morrison's style. On the other hand, the world of the story may have included media accounts of the various Red Hoods that gave Oberon Sexton the information. Very intriguing!

  6. Noah -- a Blackest Knight post is due in short order. I guess that the BL Bruce Wayne seen in BN #5 was probably mute due to Bruce's spirit being absent from the universe (because it's in the past). But since the BLs animate the dead body and insert their own personality, the body was still able to rise.

  7. John, the strange thing is that the Domino Killer isn't really a fact of the stories so far, just the solicits. We can probably take it as a given that whoever killed Mr. Toad is the Domino Killer. We have so few facts, though -- were the dominos planted right before Batman showed up in each case, or had they been with Toad, Pyg, and Santos the whole time? In the latter case, there isn't even much mystery. Since they are all probably working for El Penitente, dominos may just be something he hands out as calling cards. But the fact that Batman is finding them in numerical sequence would seem to mean something about fate or some grand plan.

  8. Matt -- That's a good take on it. For what it's worth, Dan Didio said that the Joker will confront the new Batman, but that doesn't necessarily preclude a "confrontation" that is relatively indirect, or consists of a statement that he wants to ignore him.

  9. Batman and Robin #10 preview text is up!:

    "Clarke joins Morrison for a three-issue arc titled "Batman vs. Robin!" Why would Talia manipulate her son Damian into taking action againts Batman? Will Damian do as her mother says... or stay loyal to Dick Grayson? Plus more on Domino Killer, Oberon Sexton, and the menace of El Penitente's drug cartel! Is this already the end for the new Dynamic Duo?"

    Oh man! So hmmm Talia Talia... Why would she do that? Is it because of what happens to Bruce's corpse? Is it because of the mind control drugs El Penitente has? So many questions. =)

  10. Always good to read one of your Batman posts, Rikdad.

    Yes, I was just about to alert you that the preview for issue 10 was out today as well. I think Talia might be predisposed to having Damian take down Batman since that task was basically the reason why Talia created him (according to the intro of Batman #666). Damian is Talia's attempt to co-opt or disrupt (and then steal) the value of Bruce Wayne. If Bruce Wayne is dead, shouldn't his biological heir have his wealth and resources? Perhaps Talia's angle is that craven. On the other hand, she's already used Damian to disrupt Bruce, and Damian's already fought with Tim, so it's only natural for him to be tested against Dick.

    As far as the Joker/Red Hood stuff goes: Yes, Rikdad, I believe that the origin you described IS the continuity that Morrison subscribes to...because that's how it was portrayed in the Killing Joke. Others have written on this more extensively, but Morrison suffers (or flourishes) from an Oedipal Complex when it comes to the creativity of Alan Moore, so I believe Morrison would use Moore's Joker/Red Hood origin as the basis for whatever twist/improvement he would attempt to make. Do other people know there have been multiple Red Hoods? Well, that whole original Red Hood Gang would know. Still, the dialogue does seem like a neat clue that Oberon is a former Red Hood himself.

    Isn't it strange how, on the one hand, we could only be dealing with two entities, Penitente and Oberon (with the "Domino Killer" being one of the two), but on the other hand we could be dealing with close to ten separate entities. It's all a trick of figuring out how many different "masks" an entity could be wearing. "Dr. Hurt" is "the Devil"; he is probably also "El Penitente", and thus maybe "the Domino Killer" as well; perhaps (I know you don't think this likely) he's also Mangrove Pierce, because he at least "wore him" in some (metaphoric?) respect. That's a lot of different "masks" on one entity--and he was last seen wearing Thomas Wayne's mask as well, someone else he claimed to be. On the other hand, "Oberon" could be the Joker, AND the Domino Killer, AND the international killer that Oberon SAYS he's chasing. Or else, at the other extreme, there's an outside chance that all of these entities are separate, and Oberon Sexton may be (or may have BEEN) a real person. Two people...or ten?

    Yes, B&R has been deceptively simplistic. Sometimes I listen to comic book podcasts. I remember listening to a group of guys (who hated/didn't "get" RIP) GUSH over Batman & Robin #2, and I thought to myself, "These guys, they're not even thinking. There are whole leagues of meaning that don't even register for these guys. Was the gang hired to break Toad out...or hired to kill him? And what is the logic behind each potential order?" It's questions like these--even if there aren't satisfying answers to them--that make Morrison's Batman so interesting. It makes you think in new ways and consider everything.

  11. I seem to remember Quitely talking about drawing the Joker, or Morrison talking about how he's excited to see Quitely's Joker. This led me to believe that Joker wouldn't be brought into the series until Quitely is back on the book. Now, I understand that plans change, especially when it comes to Quitely doing interiors, and Morrison might have just been talking about the covers, but I still have a feeling that it's going to be a while before Joker pops up.

  12. Hey Rikdad. My shop had an early copy of Blackest Night #6 and below are the spoilers regarding Batman if you wish to read:

    Barely NOTHING on Bruce Wayne, besides Hal and Barry talking about how resurrecting Bruce gave so MUCH shock to the heroes that it enabled Nekron to connect them to the Black Lantern rings. Hal also wonders how Bruce could combust himself like that, which makes it wonder what the corpse is as we always do wonder hehe. But yeah theres some more non-purely-Batman stuff happening in the issue but i wont spoil it. ;)

  13. Hi Rikdad, hope you don't mind me commenting in your blog - I found this thread via a link on the DC forums.

    Anyway, I've noticed something interesting about the picture you posted above. I can see four bats - three flying directly above the devil's face, one of them off to the left and half-obscured in shadow, and the fourth in the bottom left-hand corner, trapped in the flames below the devil face.

    So we have four bats = four Batmen. We know of three definite Batmen - Bruce Wayne in the (recent) past, Dick Grayson in the present, and Damian Wayne in the future. The mystery is whom the remaining bat symbolises. Could it be Tim Drake or Jason Todd? Interesting that one of the bats is half in darkness, yet still flying above the devil's face. For this reason I'm tempted to say it's Jason or Damian

    The bat in flames on the ground might symbolise a Batman who is/was destined to 'fall' in some way - a possible reference to Damian's future deal with the devil, or Jason's fall, or it could refer literally to the death of one of the Batmen - either Bruce's 'death' or worryingly, to the imminent and very real demise of Dick, Tim, Jason or Damian.

  14. I hate to take a step back, but I'm a little bit confused when it comes to the Black Glove film.

    1. The film itself was funded by the organization of the same name, correct? What interest would they have in producing a movie?

    2. I understand that Pierce was framed for murder, and that his whereabouts are unknown. Was this framing a result of some unfulfilled act done in the name of the Black Glove, similar to what happened to Mayhew at the end of #669? If so, who actually committed the murder? Who was killed?

    3. You mentioned the possibility of Pierce dying during Mayhew's attack on the Club of Heroes. Would this refer to the skinning incident, or something complete different?

    If you could help me with any of those questions, I would really appreciate it. For some reason, the film/Mangrove Pierce thing really just didn't click for me; I'm sure there's just some small details I'm overlooking, but again, I would really appreciate any help I could get.

  15. Ivyronette, I'm delighted to have your comment. I am not sure if that's a fourth bat in the lower left or not -- the shape is definitely suggestive of one of the "sure" bats, but it also resembles shapes in the bottom center. The coloring makes it look like the same as those other shapes in the flame, but that doesn't seem authoritative. I just don't know if a fourth bat was intended, or only three. Maybe a poll would get to the answer?

    If there are four, maybe Thomas Wayne is one. If he's the bat in the flames (who died), while Bruce, Dick, and Damian all survive the Devil, then everything fits. The problem with symbols is that they are often so ambiguous and interpretations fit after the fact no matter what. This was the snag with the cards in DC Universe #0 -- it sure looked like they meant something, but it wasn't possible except in hindsight to say what.

    Great observation, though -- it might be key to figuring this out after the fact?

  16. Adam, it seems as though John Mayhew was a member of the Black Glove and made the film for the sake of his own glory, branching out as a director after having succeeded at so many other things. Maybe he used the idea of the real organization because it seemed like the only compelling idea he had. It further seems that he earned the animosity of the organization for his effort -- as Gaucho told us in #681. Mayhew only died when his wager went bad, many years (at least 8; perhaps 20 or more) after the film. But maybe Hurt knew that Mayhew would bite the dust after playing his part in "spooking" Batman with an attempt to kill him.

    Pierce was presumably framed simply for having an affair with Mayhew's wife. We know that Pierce went to jail. We don't know how/when/if that sentence ended, even though anyone in the DCU should know that. Therefore, Gaucho's comment tells us that Pierce *must* be missing or known to be dead. Bruce thought he was still alive, so that only leaves missing. So it seems that Pierce served his sentence and was released (after 8+ years).

    As I see it, Pierce is the guy hanging upside down at the beginning of #667, and that's his skinned-off face seen in the video. The aftermath of such a thing would either be death or grotesque disfigurement. So I suggest that it's a strong possibility that Pierce adopted the Oberon Sexton identity, hiding his disfigurement under a mask while looking into the matter of the Black Glove, who happen to be getting killed in the present, by the Joker, by Talia, or some other force.

  17. Okay, that clears it up quite a bit. Thank you!

  18. Rikdad, I understand I am a little bit late (as in my other posts) but I was also confused about the mangrove pierce/john mayhew deal. In 667 the guy says you all probably think I'm John Mayhew, but I skinned John Mayhew... So, what I have pieced together is, Mayhew skinned Pierce then pretended not to be Mayhew? (I have posted as Mxylev, and Jlev439, just saying)

  19. Mxylev, I believe what happened was that Doctor Hurt was the man with the knife seen at the very beginning of #667. He skinned the face off Mangrove Pierce, who was the man hanging upside down. Then Hurt appeared in the video wearing Pierce's face, but claiming that it was Mayhew's face. Meanwhile, Mayhew was actually alive and making an effort to kill Batman. Hurt is heard on the radio in Mayhew's plane at the end, and perhaps over the mansion's sound system a couple of times during the story.

    It's also possible that it was Mayhew in the video wearing Pierce's face. There's no clear giveaway as to who was in the video, but the style of speech is highly typical of Hurt.

  20. thank you Rikdad everything is much clearer now.

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