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.
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).
Phosphorus Rex, Big Top, and Siam
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 "globetrotting serial killer" that Sexton is allegedly tracking
Whoever killed Cardinal Maggi
The Domino Killer
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.
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.
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.