Saturday, January 30, 2010

Batman and Robin #7

Usually I approach posts about a single issue as an essay or review. Here, however, it seems fitting to do so with annotations, because there are so many little facets that may not fit together until later. So here, from front to back, are some observations regarding Batman and Robin #7:

Cover: The bat-corpse in the sarcophagus seen at the end of #6. Here we see that it's quite skeletal, with little if any flesh.

Dick carries the man he loves most. The pose is nearly identical to that of Superman holding Batman on the last page of Final Crisis #6. Like the famous rendition of Superman holding his deceased cousin in Crisis on Infinite Earths, it's also quite similar to Michelangelo's Pieta.

The action in London opens mid-explosion, with no explanation for why this is happening. Batman has saved a little girl by seconds. Rescuing children has been a frequent theme in Morrison's run. It's how his first issue of Batman opened, and how we first saw Damian as Batman in #666. It was also part of breaking up Pyg's scheme in the present, as hinted at in the solicit for #1 which didn't quite come to pass, because it was Pyg, not the Domino Killer, whom we saw abducting a child.

Squire begins to fill us in. She knows that there's one more bomb because King Coal said so. Why does she know what King Coal said? Did he confess or was he overheard? His name is a twist on the nursery rhyme, Old King Cole. There seem to have been more bombs, but we don't know how many.

Batman rendezvouses with Squire. Lucky those buses and cranes were around to facilitate his travel.

To stop the bomb, Batman goes underground for the first of three times in this issue.

Batman throws a bomb to let him stop a bomb. The burning black heart reflects King Coal's name (that's what coal does, burn). It's a well-connected villain who has his own train esconced in the London Underground. The phrase "black heart" comes up often in Morrison's writing, including in Batman #673, when Bruce speaks of "a deep, black well where my heart should be." Dick rescues the son, a self-titled prince, of the self-titled king we meet later. The son's language calls to mind the god-and-devil lines from Morrison's run that initially seemed figurative but ended up literal.

In Basement 101, Batman goes underground for the second of three times. The villain names are mixtures of puns and cultural references of perhaps no great importance. "The Morris Men" once again puts the author into the story, perhaps foreshadowing the reveal of a fourth-wall role for Oberon Sexton. Highwaymen (like Robin Hood) were some of the early inspirations for superheroes.

The jailer is concerned with the Pearly King speaking too much. The King himself takes pains not to give away information aloud, while doing so with gestures. Is he under surveillance? If so, does it have to do with the "eyes and ears of El Penitente" being everywhere?

The interrogation resembles the most famous scene in The Killing Joke, which Morrison has reprised already in DC Universe #0. Even in having the standing Batman on the left and the seated villain on the right. However, Pearly is not trying to hinder Batman -- he has obviously already prepared a helpful clue by putting a map into the dominoes. This is not depicted with consistency from frame to frame.

There is a tank of eels behind Pearly.

A game of cards played using real people is reminiscent of the Black Glove gambling on matters of life and death. King Coal lost to Eddie and had resorted to violence to renege on the wager. It's not clear why he needed to attack London in order to strike at Eddie, but Batman stories never pass up a good slow-acting death trap.

Coal is black and pearl is white. Two sides of a game. Street royalty (Pearly's diction is Cockney; he thinks he's royalty) against country (coal mines, or colliers, are inevitably in rural locations). South (London) vs. the north (Newcastle). And so we are also told that King Coal subscribes to "fanatical superstition". Is King Coal working for El Penitente? The Crime Bible people seem to be affiliated with him.

The legend of King Arthur and a Cauldron of Rebirth is perhaps a light embellishment by Morrison on actual epic poems. However, this deserves careful attention because Morrison has touched on this theme already, in Seven Soldiers, spinning an epic battle for a cauldron, lost by Arthur and his men, into a battle against the Sheeda. There, Morrison states that Arthur set "out to recover the Cauldron of Rebirth from Unwhen, the bleak otherworld on Sheeda-side. Thus are these deeds remembered by bards in later ages... And three times the fullness of great Arthur's ship we went into it. Save seven, none returned." As in the actual epic, Preiddeu Annwfn, Arthur does not win the cauldron. That poem describes the Cauldron as pearl-rimmed, which is probably where Pearly's motif comes from. As Arthur failed to win this cauldron, a Grail analog, the effort to revive Bruce isn't going to work out for Dick, either. Are the Sheeda going to enter into this story? I suppose not.

Perly's cup has a crown with the Maltese cross and fleur de lys on the sides. That's not an uncommon design for the crown of royalty.

How exactly is it that Pearly is playing dominoes when dominoes have already come up five times in this story? (The trunk that Toad was carrying. Dominoes in the hands of Toad, lab of Pyg, and hand of Santos. Pyg mentioning dominoes from his cell.) Full set of possibilities:

a) The author is using a theme that has no explanation within the logic of the story.
b) Some intricate, but humanly-explicable, criminal organization is leaving clues for Batman and has Pearly as well as Pyg and other agents under its control.
c) Some cosmically-powerful agency is sending Batman the domino clues without having an organization in the usual sense.
d) The author of the story is a character within the story, and is using dominoes for some purpose we will find out later.

Talia is salivating over Damian's soon-to-be ascendency in power and evil. Or so she thinks. A lead-in to next story arc, all foreshadowed long ago by #666 stating that Damian was bred to kill and replace Bruce Wayne.

Alfred says that the body's identity was ascertained by "several" reliable sources. Dick later cites Superman; perhaps there are others? But if DNA is the only evidence, this hints that some stand-in (e.g., the clones) may have been substituted. I have argued, though, that this is not the simplest explanation, though it's possible.

The Batgyro was Batman's new weapon back in Detective #31!

The coal pit has everything omenous going for it: It's on the purportedly cosmic "Ley line", has spooky backstories suggestive of sacrifice, with links to King Arthur (see above). Dick notices that men carried something heavy in. Presumably this means the coffin with Batwoman. We don't know how Batman arrived, but it seems like men carrying a coffin would have been a likely course.

Batman goes underground for the third time in this issue. Even for a guy who operates out of a cave, that's unlikely to happen by chance. The emphasis on the underground calls to mind the title of #677: "Batman in the Underworld".

Dick estimates that he might be back in pixie boots by New Year's. That's eleven days from December 21 to January 1.

King Coal's men glow. Why not?

They are involved with some attempted sacrifice (and, apparently, resurrection) of Batwoman, which is what the Crime Bible crew has been after since "52". But that means that these superstitious criminals think that putting a dead into the pit does more than bring them back as a live hero. So maybe what goes wrong here will have more to do with the pit than any problem with Bruce's body. Batwoman says that the covens believe that the Knight of the Beast will rise on this night. As in Watchmen, a plan has already been put into motion when we find out, and there's no going back. But instead of the evil Batwoman that King Coal expected, it will be evil Batman.

That's Bruce's left hand coming out first. The English word "sinister" comes from the Latin word for "left". Dick made contingency plans for backup in case he needs to fight the resurrected Bruce Wayne. We're sure to see him wish he'd brought more backup.

Update: DAL's very-sharp comment (to this post) that the first lines of B&R #1 are a probable comment on the series as a whole is very likely correct. Given that, I added the comment (also below) that the Russian Lev looks like Dan Didio. Here is a depiction of each of them, side-by-side. Aside from the obvious differences in emotion (Didio seems to be smiling, not yelling, in every photo I can find), it looks like a pretty good match. The first lines of Morrison's run on Batman spoke of the confusion and ambiguity that would typify the run. If this series indeed began with a Fourth Wall moment, then it makes it seem more likely that the "Mo G" graphic was a hint that the masked mystery writer Oberon Sexton could be Grant Morrison himself, the "Gravedigger" of Bruce Wayne... and perhaps other major characters.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Batman and Robin: Mysteries

Killers in the Mist

I've posted before, here, here, and here, pondering the uncertain set of relationships between the various villains and other supporting characters in Batman and Robin. It's been possible to see beneath the surface and find some definite indications of a deeper story. For example, it seems clear that El Penitente is, on some level, Doctor Hurt. Maybe there's a nuance of difference there; one evil spirit inhabiting two different bodies, but the differences are going to have to prove subtle. I feel like the two names may just as well be interchangeable. On that point, the story seems to have clarity.

Yet, much remains uncertain. The sheer number of supporting characters (most of whom are villains) as well as the ambiguity of the clues has been tantalizing. In the weeks since a new issue has come out, I have asked myself some questions and raised some conjectures, and lately, these have begun to point to one larger conclusion which I will work towards in this post.

What's The Pyg Deal?

The ambiguity of the story is highlighted by the fact that it remains hard to figure out exactly what was happening in the first scene. It's clear that Toad attempted to conduct a drug deal and got dominoes when he wanted money. But who were the other players?

Four parties were involved in the drug deal. Pyg is the supplier of the "contagious addiction" (henceforth, C.A.). Toad intended the deal to please Pyg, but clearly it did not: the Russians are punished by Pyg, who cites betrayal. Toad expected to be broken out, but ended up dead, and it's likely that Pyg's agents were on the way in to kill him, since he was working with the Russians whom Pyg blamed. Pyg, Toad, and the pair of Russians comprise three sides of the deal. We also know that El Penitente ends up planning an attack on Gotham to addict whole populations, which very likely matches Pyg's C.A. If El Penitente ends up with C.A., the simple question is: Did he have it all along, or did he acquire it in the deal? This reduces to a simpler question: Is Pyg an underling of El Penitente?

Most likely, yes. We learned way back in Batman #674 that Doctor Hurt sometimes "visits this world to destroy the good and make slaves". This happened to Flamingo, who works for El Penitente. And while Doctor Hurt used sci-fi levels of brainwashing to train the Replacement Batmen, we've been told that "something happens" to make Pyg, and the real-world psychology experiments of Harry Harlow are obviously the model. Almost certainly El Penitente made Pyg and has had him under his control the whole time. And just as the Black Glove skinned and wore a face back in Batman #667, and Flamingo peels and eats them now, Pyg likes to put new, and not better, ones on people. Pyg looks like he came out of a different room in the same factory that made Flamingo.

If El Penitente is the overlord and not the customer in the drug deal, this also simplifies our understanding of the actions of the Domino Killer, who has planted dominoes when Toad, Pyg, and Santos were each beaten. If they are all working for El Penitente, then we can posit a simple relationship: the Domino Killer is working against El Penitente. (Toad's death can be explained as punishment for a deal that Pyg didn't like or as punishment for being on Pyg's team. But Pyg can't be the one who planted a domino on Santos, and we don't need to conclude that Pyg's intentions towards Toad were what led to Toad's death.) In contrast, if El Penitente is the customer of the drug deal, then we have to explain why his forces left dominoes instead of money but then received dominoes in kind when Santos was slashed.

The simplest explanation is that a chain of command went from El Pentitente to Pyg to Toad to the Russians (who had never met Pyg according to Sasha's father). The Russians had been Pyg's customers, through Toad, for a while, but the operation had moved to Gotham only recently. El Penitente has also moved (in this alias, anyway) to Gotham just now and while he claims to do so for reasons of profit, it's really to do his devilish business and settle a score with Bruce Wayne's proxies. In like fashion, Doctor Hurt only pretended to be an entertainer of rich, evil people when he was actually their gleeful corruptor.

It remains to be seen who the customer of the drug deal was, but it was someone who likes to plant dominoes in unexpected places, and as long as there's only one of those, it points us to the Domino Killer. But who is that?

Domino, Face Down

I look back at my own comments, three months old, on the Domino Killer with interest. The clues seem to contradict themselves. We see dominoes being left in multiple places and no single agent could seemingly be capable of all of the acts. Damian has been near the scene every time dominoes have turned up, but under varying levels of duress. Moreover, the acts of violence that accompany the dominoes have been carried out by different agents. We know that Jason Todd slashed Santos, but he doesn't fit the interview clue about there being a "larger  mystery", and his role seems to have ended with the second arc.

My theory of a radically passive role of the dominoes -- that perhaps Toad, Pyg, and Santos were already carrying dominoes as a kind of good luck charm -- has one big problem: The sequential countdown would be statistically unlikely if three men carrying dominoes were victimized by multiple uncoordinated attackers.

As I mentioned in an older post, the Domino Killer seems to have some sort of amazing ability, either of stealth, of power, or of prophecy. Before I say more, I'll move on to another entity who has, on close inspection, one surprising artifact in his grasp.

King of the Gravediggers

Oberon Sexton is a mystery in this story. He may or may not be the Domino Killer. The wording of the solicit for issue #10 has ambiguous syntax: "Plus, more on Oberon Sexton, the Domino Killer, and the menace of El Penitente's drug cartel!" The phrase "Domino Killer" may be the second item in a list of three or it may be an appositive equal in identity to Oberon Sexton.

For quite a while, I've been musing over a possibility that I have not seen elsewhere on the Internet. That is, what if Grant Morrison has done with this story what he did with Flex Mentallo and was suspected by some to have done with Batman, R.I.P., to insert himself into the story as the answer to a mystery?

Sexton is "king", and British, and a writer... of mysteries. His introduction to Dick Grayson indicates on the surface a genuine fondness for the hero. (The syntax resembles that first spoken by Bruce Wayne when he met Dick Grayson in Detective #38.) It has been pointed out that he seems to know that the Red Hood has been the identity of multiple villains in the past, which could be a tip-off that he knows what nobody but the Joker should know. But obviously, Grant Morrison would know that as well.

So while I've thought, for a few weeks, about the possibility of Sexton being Morrison, it has seemed like at best an off-kilter conjecture. There is "evidence" against it (Sexton is English and Morrison is Scottish) and it feels like perhaps Batman is too big of a character to have Fourth Wall stuff going on in his stories while Animal Man and Flex Mentallo are not. But on the other hand, Earth Prime stories have worked with the JLA and Superman in the mix.

In my readings today, some observations fell into place. One, when we see his bed in Batman and Robin #6, there is -- near the newspaper that mentions the death of the Black Glove's Cardinal Maggi -- a folder that seems to show Doctor Hurt in the batmask he's worn since RIP with an upside-down pentagram. This seems to be the sort of dossier that an ordinary private investigator would be hard-pressed to come up with. ("I have a photo of the Devil in his devil costume and I marked the folder with a satanic symbol.") The scene overall is superficially reminiscent of the scene in Flex Mentallo #1 in which we see the writer (who is obviously patterned on Grant Morrison) answer a phone while papers are scattered around.

Even more noteworthy, the appearance of Sexton in Batman and Robin #5 shows him on television with the caption on the left reading "Gotham This Morning With Mo G." There is zero probability that a writer who is called "G Mo" put the phrase "Mo G" into his story by coincidence. And there's a wonderful irony there if the panel is calling out the mystery character's identity, hidden by the fact that the caption seems to describe the host of the show. In fact, the caption on the other half of the screen tells us that Sexton is the author of "Masks of Evil", which describes succinctly Morrison's genre.

This explanation cuts through the Gordian knots of contradictions -- How could someone keep planting dominoes in scenes of violence right before Batman and Robin get there? How could they show up when the parties behind the violence (the Circus of the Strange, Batman and Robin, Jason Todd) have no coordinating force behind them? If the dominoes were pre-planted, how could the numerical countdown proceed? All quite easy for the writer of the story.

Maybe too easy. The explanation is so powerful, it could be applied to any mystery, and while it's always somehow right (didn't Agatha Christie really plan all her books' crimes?) it's always possible for Sexton to have any other identity, including the one I suggested before -- Mangrove Pierce, who works for reasons inside the story, but who as a no-name, could perhaps not be a powerful reveal.

If Morrison has written himself into the story, he has gotten to meet Batman (and who wouldn't?), and has been found out by the Devil, who is reaching outside the story to give his writer a call. Who more than the author of the narrative's facts would the Devil want to influence?

Finally, one seeming contradiction keyed on how the solicit for #1 said that a child had been kidnapped by the Domino Killer. We know that the story was altered from what that solicit pitched: Pyg kidnapped Sasha. But how could a plot in which the Domino Killer kidnapped Sasha be turned into one in which Pyg did? Pyg couldn't have planted the domino in Santos' hand -- Pyg was incarcerated. But if Morrison is the Domino Killer, then any act in the story could have been pinned on him and also had an in-story agent carrying it out. And since Sasha had to undergo the "Pyg treatment" to drive the rest of the story, the Domino Killer could not be behind her kidnapping and be other than Pyg unless he's somehow "meta" -- a word I used in pondering the Domino Killer three months ago without considering a Fourth Wall reveal.

I will regrettably be out of touch on the day the next issue of Batman and Robin is, after all of this time, released. Hopefully, I have put the long time between issues to good use, at last, in pitching this notion which is either a true scoop or at least putting some clues out there where the skilled commenters on this blog can craft them into something better.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Zur En Arrh

Fifty years before Grant Morrison's epic-length run on Batman was beginning to peak in interest, a story that was key to his appeared in Batman #113. "Batman -- The Superman of Planet X" played with the boundaries of reality, opening with a framing scene that suggested that it was all a dream, but with no definite resolution by the story's end if it was a dream or strange but real. Set on a planet called Zur En Arrh, the adventure teams Batman up with a distant admirer of his named Tlano. The concept of the story was to invert the Superman-Batman team by making Batman the one with the super-powers and his partner the one with the scientific gadgets. This sort of role reversal or role reassignment was standard fare for Silver Age stories. What if Batman was Robin? What if Robin was Batman? What if Batman was fat?

If you imagine, however, that Batman had the experience as a dream, and apply the Freudian notion that dreams reveal hidden preoccupations, you can take it as evidence that Batman has, in comparison with Superman, an inferiority complex and that his subconscious created the fantasy to let him experience the superior role for a change. Grant Morrison fills in this explanation (along with the idea that exposure to a villain's hallucinogenic gas, not a mere dream, triggered the vision) in explicitly psychological terms in Batman #679, with Bat-Mite providing the analysis. Bruce, still reeling from Doctor Hurt's attack, provides Morrison's comparison of Batman and Superman, when he comments that his mind is "Like a streamlined engine. A silver bullet." This echoes Superman's catchphrase "Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive." (A streamlined engine is a type of locomotive.) And that's an encapsulation of Batman that no one can deny -- his superpower is his mind.

Given the notion that Batman had something to compensate for, a vulnerability, what was it? In pre-Crisis (and pre-Dark Knight Returns) history, Batman had a measured sense of humility, and lacking powers, in comparison with Superman, might be cause enough (in the 1958 story, he comments, "It has been fun playing Superman"). But modern Batman asks and gives no quarter. Inasmuchas he lacks the powers of his JLA allies, he more than makes up for that with near-total self actualization, making him one of the hardest superheroes to beat. The limits he perceives for himself are few and far between and largely concern his past. First and foremost, there is his defining origin moment -- his helplessness on the night his parents were killed.

When Bruce speaks with the evil monk in Batman #681, he speaks of a hole in his mind, waiting to open up and swallow him whole. As he turns to discuss his plans for a defensive measure, a backup personality to save him in the event of an attack on his mind that may have already taken place, it is clear that he is describing, without being fully aware then of the details, the attack that Doctor Hurt began through some unrevealed brainwashing that took place during the ten days of the isolation experiment (the basis of another old story from Batman #156). This is a second weakness that Bruce has, because of the vulnerability that Doctor Hurt took advantage of. A single panel, easy to miss, reveals the connection between the two: the words "Zur En Arrh", in mirror image, is placed into the middle of this discussion. By the end of the issue, we know that this phrase was not a string of random syllables, but from a mishearing of one of the last things Thomas Wayne ever said -- a line that Bruce did not hear clearly enough to understand -- a comment that if Zorro actually existed, he would be branded mad -- Zorro in Arkham.

This itself points to a quality of Batman often considered a flaw of his (if an essential one): That his obsession with crime and dressing up like a bat is fundamentally insane. That perspective can be seen in the 1989 Batman movie, as well as Morrison's Arkham Asylum which presented Batman's jarring confession: "I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me. Sometimes I... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I walk through those Arkham gates... when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me... it'll be just like coming home." While Batman teeters on the edge of losing his composure in that story, he loses it utterly in Batman, R.I.P.

Morrison structures all of these vulnerabilities together: A line that alludes to the madness of the hero that Bruce will one day become is spoken by his father. Then the act that brutally sets him on his life's path takes his parents from him. The sounds of that phrase surface in a hallucination that exposes Batman's weakness in comparison to his friend and ally, Superman. When he thinks of weakness, that phrase, the thing ringing in his mind before the gunshots, brings it all together -- his helplessness, powerlessness, loss, and madness.

Therefore, it is not surprising that someone empowered to manipulate Bruce, with access to all of his memories, would choose a phrase that Bruce associates with weakness, instead of a random one, to trigger in him a weakened state. The phrase already has those associations -- it does part of Doctor Hurt's work for him already. Doctor Hurt sums it up in Batman #677: "The extreme lengths to which our boy has gone to make himself strong are powerful indicators of the weakness he feels he must overcome. That weakness is still there, inside. The fracture that will break the man." Doctor Hurt thereby asserts firmly that it is not just a psychological trigger phrase that was programmed into Bruce that will bring him down -- it is the very weakness that Bruce has been trying to overcome since the beginning. The loss of his parents. The tragedy that came with the sounds "Zur En Arrh" in Bruce's ears.

A plot point that led to some confusion was that the phrase that Doctor Hurt used to put Bruce into a helpless state was the same one that Bruce used to activate his savage backup personality, the Batman of Zur En Arrh. Given that Bruce had no conscious memory of the details of Doctor Hurt's plan until some of them began to resurface in #674, we cannot conclude that Bruce chose the trigger knowing that it was specifically the trigger that would be used to attack him. But it's not so strange that he would use the personality that was super-strong as his salvation, or the phrase associated with it. Coming from whatever subconscious sense that he had, Bruce put his weakness front and center to trigger his strength. That is the essence of his life: Everything strong that he is was caused by the defining moment of helplessness. Psychologically, he doesn't run from it -- when he needs to be strong, he remembers it. That's what he chooses to trigger the Batman of Zur En Arrh. (Note: The purple costume was the costume worn by Tlano, not by our Batman; that is a confound from the older story to Bruce's defense.) Somehow, Bruce was training himself to be the Batman of Zur En Arrh when he heard the phrase. His training was incomplete. If it had worked, he would have beaten the Club of Villains physically when they invaded the Batcave. Instead, he knew that he was not ready, fell to the ground, and endured their predations on his prostrate body. He needed to mutter the key phrase to himself more over the next day, all the more revived in his purpose by having been led again to Crime Alley.

The Zur En Arrh hallucination had a number of interesting follow-ups. In Batman #682, we see the Bat-Radia, the artifact Tlano gives Batman in the original story, in Batman's palm while he arranges items in the Batcave. This is presumably a small joke on Morrison's part, since the Bat-Radia should not exist if the adventure was a hallucination. Issue #678 opens with a panel showing a slightly different version of the Bat-Radia, evidentally part of the vision Bruce had, as Tim reads from the Black Casebook. Most recently, we see that Zur En Arrh is the acoustical password that Dick uses to access the vault where Bruce's body was placed after Blackest Night. It is a small mystery as to how a vault in Dick's use utilizes that phrase, but that mystery has more than one possible resolution.

This account of Bruce's vulnerabilities, all tied up into a tidy package, leaves one thing out. In Batman #673, Bruce recollects that when he was about five years old, he first senses "the presence of a toppling void in the center of existence. For the first time in my life, I suddenly grasp something. Mom and Dad are going to die." Is this an epiphany that anyone might have had -- the universality of death? Or did something -- besides the discovery of the cave under Wayne Manor depicted in the artwork of that scene -- make Bruce sense such a void? In the Detective #235 account of the costume party to which Thomas Wayne first wore the batsuit that inspired Bruce's, young Bruce sees his father in the costume before the party. Ten years later, the Waynes are killed. In Morrison's telling, the timeline must be somewhat different, but could the party have been the basis of young Bruce's sense of a toppling void? Did Black Glove iniquities take place and mark the Waynes for their eventual destruction, the way that criminal activities of a less grand kind did in Detective #235? When Doctor Hurt comments in #678 "How you've grown" does that indicate a meeting between Hurt and young Bruce? Given Morrison's notion that Bruce is 35 and the newspaper headline in #678 reading "GOTHAM'S HURT MISSING" marked 31 years in the past, the timeline works out very well for that toppling void to have coincided with the Waynes' first meeting with The Black Glove.

Update: While I have long associated the "toppling void" comment with a possible association between the Wayne family and the Black Glove when Bruce was about five, there is an existing explanation that is more prosaic. The scene depicted in the artwork at that point in #673 is a well-established scene, occuring in stories such as Batman #0 and "The Man Who Falls". #673 shows Bruce discovering the cave and its bats from above, but the earlier renditions show him falling ("toppling") into it and identify his age as four. This doesn't mean that there isn't something more to the scene -- it's not quite apparent why finding a scary cave would lead one to believe that one's parents would die. Whereas the party from Detective #235 is an event from roughly the same time frame (in #235's version, Bruce must have been about four at the party and fourteen when his parents died) and did confront Bruce with an event that led to his parents' deaths -- though without any obvious clues to that effect at the time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Batman #666: Back to the Future

Twenty-three issues and going on three years ago, the satanically-numbered Batman #666 presented what seemed to be a rare single-issue story in Grant Morrison's then-nascent take on the Caped Crusader. Given the numerological significance of the issue, it was a bit of a surprise that he chose not to feature Bruce Wayne at all, except in flashbacks and indirect references. It was also a surprise that that story in the far-off future actually offered clues to the mystery set in the present. The issue was a key part of the nonlinear narrative that introduced the idea of Lane in issue #665, showed his death in #666, then showed his main encounter with Bruce Wayne in issues #672-674 before he returned briefly in the final pages of Batman, R.I.P. in issue #681. The fact that issue #666 would be part of Morrison's run made it easy to anticipate that there would be a devil-themed story, as there was in Kurt Busiek's run on Superman. It was not as obvious that the Devil would be the main villain of his run, with an influence felt all the way from Morrison's very first issue of Batman through his very (so far) last.

Morrison promised that the story, though set in a "possible future" would "fit in" with his Black Glove mystery and have "some pretty major clues". Indeed it did. Now, Morrison promises that the issue will "form the basis for the final three-issue arc of year one of Batman and Robin." The third arc seems to focus on Dick Grayson's mistake in putting Bruce's skeleton into a Lazarus Pit and raising a monster -- the premise of W. W. Jacob's short story The Monkey's Paw (you may have seen it parodied on The Simpsons). The fourth arc has been the subject of multiple interview comments that align around this idea, most specifically "if people want to check back to Batman #666 and read about Damian selling his soul to the devil, you might get an idea of how some upcoming events might play out." That's a carefully-qualified statement which offers the possibility-expanding freedom that just about anything could happen so long as it ties into #666 -- as Morrison said in yet another interview -- "considerably." Yet another tip-off, not so suprising given the rest of the information, is "Doctor Hurt/Thomas Wayne/The Devil from Batman, R.I.P. will be making a comeback [in Batman and Robin] to finish what he started." The inclusion of "Thomas Wayne" in that descriptor is particularly pregnant with possibility given the pithy comment from the arc's artist, Andy Clarke, that "Bruce Wayne's family tree is the focus of the arc." While Damian alone is enough to fulfill that description, it implies that Thomas Wayne if not some earlier ancestor will likely factor in.

Given the relevance of #666, it's useful to list out what we know from that issue regarding Damian selling his soul to the Devil. That happened considerably before the events of #666, which according to its solicit (but nothing in the issue itself) was set 15 years in the future. Given the quoted ages and times we have, that would mean that Damian, now ten, should make that bargain four years from now at age fourteen, eleven years before the encounter between Damian and Lane in #666. We have several interlocking, but ambiguous, pieces of information that may pertain to the events of the bargain. I have re-ordered them here in likely sequence of their logical relationship:

1) The Batman in the middle of the display case has a large symbol on his chest.
2) Large-symbol Batman lies bloody at a crossroads beneath a grief-stricken Damian.
3) The bargain Damian makes is at a crossroads on the night Batman died
4) Damian has met the Devil
5) Damian bargained with the Devil when he was 14; Gotham's survival in return for his soul
6) Damian is driven by guilt

We also know

7) Damian was responsible for the death of Barbara Gordon's "good friend"
8) Gotham has been left by this time without Bruce or Dick to protect it
9) Something happened to Bruce to pave the way for a Batman like Damian

In principle, even the items that seem to be related could be unrelated; we have no promise that any given pair of these items must refer to the same event. (8) indicates that we have the absences of two Batmen to explain. The simplest explanation is that (1-6) refer to Bruce's death in some event that leads to Damian selling his soul to the Devil. However, we have no promise that what we see in Batman and Robin will adhere to all of those details. For example, suppose that instead of Damian selling his soul on the night of Bruce's death when Damian is 14, the key event is Dick's death when Damian is 10. Meanwhile, (9) could refer to Bruce's death but also to any other relevant event in the past, including RIP and/or the Omega Effect.

Meanwhile, we have other pieces of information about the two stories, some of which promises to interlock. #666 tells us that Damian was "engineered to kill and replace" Bruce. And the solicit for #10 tells us that Talia tries to manipulate Damian "into taking action against Batman." Those two facts point to the same prospect, that Talia will want Damian to strike down Dick Grayson now and begin a less-humane role of her design. Even if he begins to act against Dick and then reconsiders, could his momentary combat with Dick open the door for a tragic incident, perhaps in combination with some other attack? We know that El Penitente has "scores to settle" in Gotham. His revenge on Bruce Wayne could include the death of Dick Grayson or taking Damian's soul. The cover for #10 has another interesting parallel with #666: It shows Batman inspecting bloody footprints; #666 opens with Damian following bloody footprints. Covers do not always depict action inside the issue, but the similarity is striking.

The cast of characters from #666 also factors into the whole Batman and Robin run. Lane, working for the Devil, kills five "bosses", which includes two of the Circus of the Strange villains we saw earlier. Their plan seemed highly reminiscent of El Penitente's plan, but that doesn't mean that they are working for him. It is possible that the Domino Killer represents another big bad in this story, one who is at odds with El Penitente. Then, just as Pyg and Phosphorus Rex are targets for Lane in the future, it could be that Pyg, though he concocted the contagious addiction that El Penitente seems to want, represents another side. And if Pyg's following orders, it is likely to be from the Domino Killer, especially given Pyg's comment about dominoes in #3. We also know that Flamingo works for El Penitente and is one of Lane's recruits in #666. Finally, a coincidence that is not necessarily a tangible connection: One of Lane's henchmen in #666 is referred to as Nikolai -- that's the name of Sasha's father (Niko, the abbreviation of Nikolai) who was driving the car for Toad. Niko is dead long before the events of #666, but perhaps a Russian connection is an enduring part of this plot.

Whether there's one "bloc" of villains in this story or more, it's clear that devilish forces are returning very soon, perhaps constituting the "fearsome and familiar" who menaces Alfred and Damian by Batman and Robin #9 (which is exactly what the preview panel of Doctor Hurt with the keys of Wayne Manor seems to be). If the details of #666 are held to closely, then Damian's deal with the Devil is about four years away. But if they are treated loosely, then perhaps the bargain will come soon with the death of Dick Grayson, even though #666 is more likely referring to the death of Bruce Wayne. If the life of one of DC's oldest superheroes is about to expire, then very big events are in motion.

If the loss of Dick's life or Damian's soul is how Doctor Hurt settles his score with Bruce Wayne, the man who beat him, he's still going to have to give up something significant -- the powers that Damian displays in #666 trump those of the Devil's own messiah. Any bargain would have to be carefully constructed to ensure that the Devil is bound to give great power to a man who, cursing him several times in #666, considers him an enemy.