Thursday, November 12, 2009

Batman and Robin #6

As Grant Morrison's 12-part run on Batman and Robin reaches the midpoint, its intrigue is at an apex. The run has been structured as four three-issue story arcs. But the fourth one will from all indications be the greatest among equals, showcasing characters who have held the power behind the scenes during the three initial arcs.

The third arc was full of action, with the dynamic figures of Philip Tan illustrating clashes between two dynamic duos, as Jason Todd and his sidekick square off against the title characters. And finally, the four of them barely matching a newcomer, Flamingo. The great majority of issues #4 through #6 were devoted to this plot. I'm not, however, going to say too much about it here, because that plot was in some regards self-contained, and has come to a neat end with Jason's incarceration.

However, just as Sasha, the human fallout from the first story arc "fell into" the second one, a comment from Jason at the end of this second arc, is falling into the third one. I use the domino metaphor because of its obvious importance to a mystery behind this run, a story element that was in concrete terms absent from #6.

For the purposes of the future, #6 ended with two short scenes that were almost bursting with hints about where the story is going. In the first, Oberon Sexton receives a phone call from a man who identifies himself with or as El Penitente. In the second, Dick Grayson, goaded on by earlier comments from Jason Todd (whose resurrection was aided by a Lazarus Pit) appears to visit the body of "Batman" in a sealed vault, with the dialogue as well as two different preview panels indicating that this body may be placed into a Lazarus Pit. For the moment, these two sets of clues appear to lead in two different directions, although the El Penitente and "body of Bruce Wayne" stories will likely end up colliding by the fourth arc.

I'm going to take the unusual (for me) step of putting a lot of pieces together in one effort. I grant that some of what I posit here may not be true, but there is such an inter-relation of clues that it would seem coy to talk about each one for a while before assembling them into a story.

The seated man is El Penitente. The "penitentes" are, after all, a Latin American sect within Roman Catholicism whose essential trait is acting out the crucifixion, including self-whipping (Jesus faced whips before the cross). And the seated man has a whip in his hand, scars on his back, and has bared himself, evidently, for that task. He is definitely "a" penitente if not "the" penitente (note that Santos was wearing the tunic of a Penitente in #4). And his language also indicates that he is the principal player on his side of this war: He uses the the first-person singular when he says "I have unfinished business in Gotham City, and scores to settle." He's not a follower.

More significant, the seated man is evidently Doctor Hurt, or is somehow or another channeling whatever essence was Doctor Hurt before. He wears the Thomas Wayne batmask. He has the same distinctive hairline. He uses the phrase "your sins have found you out" (Doctor Hurt said this in the final issue of Batman, RIP). His speech is dense with statements of his own power and his listener's weakness, something Hurt has done in every panel where he's spoken. The newspapers and notes on Oberon Sexton's bed indicate two Devil / Black Glove elements: A five-pointed star (key to the Satanic future plot of #666) under the indecipherable photograph of one person, and the exact headline seen in the "Six months later" scene at the end of RIP: "Gruesome Slaying of Beloved Cardinal"... surely Cardinal Maggi, a Black Glove member.

Somehow, Doctor Hurt has reloaded very rapidly, taking command of a large criminal organization running out of Mexico. The scores he has to settle in Gotham probably have a lot more to do with his failure to best Bruce Wayne in Batman, RIP than with a cash-driven drug pushing ring. And if he's punishing himself for anything, it's probably that loss. And the fresh injuries in the shape of the W more than likely mean that he's conscious of the name Wayne as the source of his woe.

El Penitente's comments hint that he has a past association with Oberon Sexton. We've been told that Oberon Sexton's face was "scarred" and his "wife" killed. And that suggests that Oberon Sexton is actually Mangrove Pierce, last seen hanging upside down before Mayhew's party, with Hurt about to skin and wear Pierce's face. Apparently, Pierce was let go, faceless, and has put together this life for himself. His lover, the former wife of Mayhew, was killed by her husband. He's tracking down whoever killed the Cardinal and probably other former members of the Black Glove. Which suggests that the Joker, who vowed to "collect his winnings" from the members of the Black Glove is the same serial killer that Sexton is tracking down. Remember also that in Batman #680, one of the Black Glove members mentions that Doctor Hurt is fond of utilizing actors. As he reaches out now to Sexton to do something for him, it's possible that Sexton, as Pierce, was one of the actors who has worked for him previously.

So this page gives us good reason to believe that a number of pending mysteries for the year can be tentatively resolved from the clues in just three panels. Case closed? No. In principle, all kinds of other possibilities are still open. But this is the most economical reading of the clues.

Furthermore, the Domino Killer is probably not the "serial killer" that Sexton is after. The faulty solicit for #1 said that Batman and Robin would be on the trail of a child abducted by the Domino Killer. Sasha was abducted by Professor Pyg. Pyg used the word "dominoes". His drug / plan matches El Penitente's very well. An addiction you can catch -- sounds like the sort of soul-destruction that the Devil yearns for. The Domino Killer may likely be an agent of El Penitente.

And what of the body and the Lazarus Pit? The preview at the end of #1 showed us a "Batman" rising from what we now must feel sure is a Lazarus Pit while Batwoman appears to resist Dick Grayson's efforts. The previews at the end of #1 show her and some bat-hand (almost surely belonging to the body that Dick looks at at the end of #6). Which leads to a sharp contradiction with the belief that Dick has expressed quite clearly, that the body that Black Hand exhumed as part of Blackest Night is Bruce Wayne's.

This amounts to two conflicting assertions regarding a body being Bruce Wayne's. (Let's forget about the Bruce in the past for now -- that's not a direct conflict with any Bruce body in the present.) Moreover, We have been told in an October "DC Nation" column by Dan Didio that Batman and Robin "7 was so important to events in the DC Universe that it had to come out after Blackest Night 6". The most economical reading of this is that the conflict between the two assertions will be resolved by Batman and Robin #7 but will not be resolved by Blackest Night #6. The solicit for the former advertises "the details surrounding the 'death' of Bruce Wayne!" Evidently, Blackest Night #6 has some drama that is better served if we don't know that.

If if comes down to one or the other, the odds are far on the side of the body that Black Hand stole being the real Bruce. He has used it for some nefarious raising-the-dead purpose and his project has worked. Moreover, we have reason to doubt that the Lazarus Pit project will work -- it's probably too early for Bruce to come back. Granted, Dan Didio has also said "There were two Batmen [in Countdown, or with Earth Two?]. And that, honestly, is one of the cruxes of the storylines that will be playing out in 2010." So Bruce and Dick may overlap. But January seems too early for that. Batman and Batman and Robin? So my guess is that Dick knows that the body in the grave is the real one and he takes something else to the British Isles looking to test a Lazarus Pit on it and getting something that is not Batman. Naturally, Batwoman, who's been running into devil types on her own, would have reason to be concerned and perhaps to want to stop the effort.

We have been told by Grant Morrison that the Bruce in the past is Bruce. So a body in a Lazarus Pit is probably not the way we'll get Bruce back. (But who knows what rules exist governing spirits in the past, Lazarus Pits, and bodies in the present? A writer could make anything happen that is convenient for the story.) I think Dick will get a body to rise up and do something, but it won't be Bruce. The teaser title reinforces that: Blackest Knight. That sounds like, at best, Zombie Bruce, not "Hurray -- Bruce is back!"

Given that Squire appears in the promotional art for the next arc, I should add that in the Club of Heroes storyline way back in Batman #667-669 (where Mangrove Pierce first appeared, too), the story of the Knight resembled considerably what the Black Glove soon did to Batman -- he lost his fortune and was on drugs in the streets. If I were to interview Morrison, I would ask if that was the Black Glove practicing on a lesser superhero or was it foreshadowing on his part, or some subconscious expression of the larger plot that was coming. (The Musketeer also had a story that accurately foretold the final setting of RIP as a situation in which Batman faced two of his deadliest enemies in an insane asylum.)

There's a lot of uncertainty still out there, but I think the clues in #6 makes it likely that we know who most of the players are for this run. I think we'll see Dick Grayson try something with a Lazarus Pit that will one way or another fail to bring Bruce back. (Maybe one of the clones from Last Rites.) I think that will serve as our confirmation that Black Hand, indeed, has Bruce's actual skull in his hand. And we'll see the Black Glove's supporting cast move to the forefront when this story moves into the fourth arc.

In the meantime, we can scrutinize the clue-filled pages of Batman and Robin #6 as much as we want, looking for other possibilities -- the next issue of the series is two and a half months away.