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.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lynch, Peaks, Morrison, Batman

If you went to the movies in 1986, you might have chosen to see a romantic comedy, a historical drama, an action-adventure movie, horror, sex comedy – just about any sort of thing. Or you could have seen Blue Velvet, which blew conventional genre definitions away. It opened and closed like a G-rated film. The story had a familiar structure: damsel in distress, hero, villain. But all three of the principal characters showed deep perversions along the way. The hero eventually triumphed over the villain, but not before he found in himself a perversion which spread like an infectious disease from the villain to his victim, and from her to the hero. If there was a thematic progression, it was to show that beneath the mundane and beautiful world we enjoy exist all of the troubles of the world – sickness and violence and guilty pleasures – but even when you know that, that beautiful surface is still there, waiting for you to return to it. A movie like that doesn’t sit well with every viewer. It’s not a date movie unless you plan on a real wild finish to the date. Blue Velvet was admired by critics, but was the quintessential cult movie – loved by a relatively small group of fans. And in that respect, it typifies the film career of David Lynch.

Some three years later, the ABC network made the hard-to-believe announcement that it would begin airing a television series pitched by Lynch. The discrepancy between the conventional nature of broadcast network television and the eccentric films of Lynch created a tension that doomed the show to a limited lifespan. When 
Twin Peaks began airing in April 1990, it was just as "strange and wonderful", to use one of its own phrases, as one might have expected. Yet, powered by some of the sensibilities of primetime soap operas and a central murder mystery, it gained enough momentum to carry it through a second season. The show's defining whodunit -- Who killed Laura Palmer? -- became one of television's most famous mysteries. Eventually the appeal wore off for most of America (not to mention the network executives) and the show lapsed into history. 

Grant Morrison's style of writing superhero comics has at times incorporated some of the elements that make Lynch distinctive as a director. While Morrison has been tremendously successful in writing mainstream hits like the Justice League, he has also done avant garde work like Flex Mentallo, which commented on the superhero genre from within a story that broke fourth-wall boundaries. In bringing such sensibilities to features like Seven Soldiers and DC Comics' flagship story of 2008, Final Crisis, Morrison has written some classics that have won acclaim while turning off some of the larger audience by violating some of the rigid structural constraints of the genre.

In broad ways, then, it is easy to say that Morrison's work has played a role within comics somewhat like that of Lynch's work within film. However, in Morrison's work on Batman, the connection has been more specific than that. In Morrison's sixth issue of Batman, he began making explicit reference to Lynch's work, staring with the appearance of a blue rose. In Fire Walk With Me, the film prequel to Twin Peaks, a blue rose was used as part of a code to communicate that an FBI case pertained to the paranormal. When that blue rose appeared early in Morrison's extended Batman storyline, which ran for twenty-five issues, it foretold a paranormal element that had only begun to show itself.

One issue later, when Batman has encountered the second of two imposter Batmen, who wear a version of his costume but operate against him, he recollects that he had previously encountered those two, and one other, one night in his past, a night he had trouble remembering and had believed to be a dream. This left him eager to locate the third one and he refers to him as "The Third Man". This is most obviously a reference to the 1949 film of the same name, but it is more directly a link to Twin Peaks. Lynch and the 1949 Orson Wells film both use the phrase to refer to a person whose identity was the respective works' central mystery, having been seen (or heard) in the same context as two men whose identities were known. The third man becomes central to one part of Morrison's extended story line, although his identity is only a stepping stone to the larger mystery that was still unsolved when Batman had met and defeated the third replacement Batman.

That mystery came to fruition in the signature story of Morrison's Batman run, the six-issue story called Batman, R.I.P. This story began with the first on-camera appearance of a character named Doctor Hurt. (Actually, based on a nameless character seen in a single Batman story way back in 1963!) Doctor Hurt, it became clear, had brainwashed three policemen into adopting alternate Batman identities and making life difficult for the caped crusader. Now, Doctor Hurt was bringing together the elements of an incredibly long-running plan that would strike at Batman and remove him from his crimefighting role forever. When the first issue of RIP moved to a close, we saw Bruce Wayne and his girlfriend Jezebel Jet (the one who had received the blue rose over a year earlier) at the grave of his parents. The scene shifts to Arkham Asylum with artwork that initially focuses on some flowers, which had very sinister-looking millipedes crawling on them, signifying the horror that was welling up waiting to come. The scene to follow showed the Joker, Batman's deadly enemy, fantasizing about mass murder just before he is contacted by the Black Glove, the criminal organization headed by Doctor Hurt. This shot of the flowers and millipedes structurally resembles an early shot in Blue Velvet, which showed the green grass of a lawn, then zoomed in to reveal a dark subsurface with beetles underneath crawling in a disturbing battle between themselves. The image above shows three screenshots of Blue Velvet alongside the two panels of RIP that capture the same impression with a similar pair of images.

The action in the story soon thereafter shows us that just as Doctor Hurt had subjected the three policemen to brainwashing, he had reserved similar control over Batman thanks to having had access to Batman over a span of ten days when Batman had volunteered for an experiment in human endurance for the US Army (the 1963 story). As a result, Batman's crimefighting personality (as well as his personality as Bruce Wayne) was "switched off" suddenly when Batman heard a trigger phrase that had been programmed into him. This resembles the plot of another movie that Twin Peaks had referenced: The Manchurian Candidate. In that film, captured US Army soldiers had been brainwashed by the Chinese and Korean Communists during the Korean War. The equivalent of Doctor Hurt's trigger phrase was a playing card that a soldier was to see before carrying out a programmed task in the service of his former captors. In essence, the trigger awakens a persona that is not the victim's proper self. This came to play in Twin Peaks in two ways: One, when the Audrey Horne character (in a plot that is unrelated to mind control) wears a Queen of Diamonds costume, matching the playing card that served as the trigger in Manchurian Candidate. Many of us who were trying to solve the TV show's mystery at the time used the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds as an indication that someone might be under someone else's control, a hypothesis that turned out to be correct: It was ultimately revealed that Laura Palmer's killer was a man (her father) who was not acting under his own free will, but under the control of an "inhabiting spirit" named BOB.

As RIP moved to its final stages, the connections to Twin Peaks became thematically and visually overwhelming. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the penultimate issue of RIP, numbered Batman #680, is a kind of remake of the Twin Peaks series finale. It will be useful to summarize that episode, which was directed by David Lynch himself.

After Agent Cooper, the hero of the series, had identified the killer of Laura Palmer, he (and the show) lost purpose until a new villain surfaced. This was Windom Earle, a former FBI agent who had a bloody history with Cooper, a brilliant though evil man who had recently escaped from an insane asylum. Earle, it turns out, was aware of the same paranormal forces centered in the vicinity of Twin Peaks, and believed that he could tap their power for his own use. In his words, to "reorder the Earth itself to his liking". In order to defeat Cooper, Earle abducted Cooper's lover (played by a then-unknown Heather Graham) and took her through an interdimensional portal into a place called the Black Lodge. Cooper follows Earle into the Lodge and has to endure a number of strange interactions before facing three enemies: both Earle and also Cooper's own doppleganger, an evil version of himself who resembles Cooper exactly, except for having glassy eyes. Finally, the true power of the Lodge was the inexplicable and otherworldly BOB, who defeats Window Earle almost trivially before setting Cooper's doppleganger on a chase to bring down the hero. When the doppleganger catches Cooper, it results in Cooper's unconscious body appearing in the woods where he had entered the Lodge. When Cooper regains consciousness, it is soon revealed that while he presents a facade of normality, he has become the new host of BOB, therefore releasing that evil into the world again. And that moment ended the series.

Contrast this with the events of Batman #680, which was the fifh of RIP's six issues: Batman's abducted girlfriend, Jezebel Jet, was held as bait in Arkham Asylum, which the Black Glove had seized and turned into a trap for Batman. When the hero stormed into Arkham, he had to face a number of ordinary (and easily beatable) henchmen before coming face to face with the Joker, who is in every rendition of the Batman story, the hero's nemesis and methodological double (the Joker himself saying to Batman in this issue that they have "a yin/yang thing"). When Batman gets past the Joker, he sees Jezebel in a deathtrap, and in rescuing her, necessarily exposes himself to a toxin (earlier seen in Batman #663, but based on one that has been part of the Joker's repertoire since his very first story). As the issue ends, Batman (now unmasked) collapses, grinning and laughing like the Joker under the effects of the toxin which has killed every previous victim. Doctor Hurt stands triumphant over the scene, which also reveals that Jezebel is delighted by Batman's defeat -- she had been working against him from the beginning.

The similarities are numerous. Even before the fateful events of the finale, Cooper receives a warning from an otherworldly giant who has helped him before. Before heading to his confrontation in Arkham, Batman receives a warning from an otherworldly sprite (Bat-Mite, taken from decades-older comics) who has been helping him. Both heroes head into a tableau of danger and madness to face their evil double and an even more dangerous enemy (Doctor Hurt, the story slowly reveals, is actually The Devil). Both heroes are trying to rescue their girlfriends, who are being used by the villains as bait. Both heroes end up defeated, turned to the enemy's worldview (Cooper by being possessed by BOB; Batman through the Joker's toxin).

Even the set design matches -- closely. Compare Cooper facing off against his Evil Double in the Black Lodge with the shot of Batman finally coming face to face with the Joker. (Clicking on the images in this post will enlarge them.) Morrison (and his artist Tony Daniel) borrow the red, pleated curtains of the Black Lodge (which Lynch, apparently inspired by theatres, has used in other films) and a floor with a gaudy two-tone angular pattern (zigzags in the Black Lodge; a red-and-black checkerboard in Arkham Asylum, which the Black Glove has redecorated extensively). 

And the final blow is eerily similar. Batman, unmasked, has to break through glass to rescue Jezebel. In so doing, he apparently cuts his forehead. The last shot we see of him, he is grinning, out of his mind, seeing things for the moment through the Joker's eyes. Once outside the Black Lodge, Cooper smashes his own forehead into a bathroom mirror, then laughs evilly (BOB can be seen in the mirror as his reflection). The two scenes match even to the double trickle of blood over the eyebrow!

Of course, there is a key distinction. This is the absolute last moment in the story of Twin Peaks. (An ending crafted in response to the creators' knowledge that the network was cancelling the show.) But this was the second-to-last issue of RIP. And by no means the last issue of Batman. Cooper is never seen again. But Batman follows these events by inflicting a string of reversals on the Black Glove. It turns out that he was prepared for this event in many ways; he had an antidote to the Joker toxin already in his bloodstream, so it only stunned him. Even as he fell, he was sending a radio signal that would soon thereafter lock his enemies in. When he awoke in a buried coffin minutes later, he was able to free himself and win a striking victory over Doctor Hurt and the Black Glove. Agent Cooper, you were good, but you were no Batman.

When I first encountered the blue rose and "third man", I found interviews with Grant Morrison online, ones that preceded Morrison's work on Batman and wherein he praised David Lynch. (See here and here.) Since then, carrying on his work in the series Batman and Robin, Morrison has openly cited Lynch as an inspiration for the yearlong story, a follow-on to RIP, which is now in progress. And in terms of mood, the Lynchian feel has definitely shown up as Batman has faced such oddities as The Circus of the Strange.

To have had Twin Peaks reflected in Morrison's run has been for me greatly enjoyed. I took the mystery of Twin Peaks as a personal challenge to solve back in 1990, and I did so also with the mystery of the Black Glove's identity early in 2008. I enjoyed both stories thoroughly on multiple grounds, for their own mysteries and senses of mood. It was all the sweeter to have had one of the stories so deeply reflect the other.