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.


  1. have you checked out the entry over at funnybookbabylon on the Hurt/Bruce theory? curious to hear your thoughts.

  2. Lance, thanks for pointing me to that.

    All through Morrison's run, an equation between Batman and the Devil (and the Black Glove) was just beneath the surface. The prostitute who says that Batman is up to *his* devil-ears in trouble... The close-ups of Batman's own black glove on many occasions... The fact that Hurt wears the bat-mask that inspired Bruce's.

    However, while "Batman" is a symbolic entity (and Bruce Wayne is the real man who puts it on), the Devil is a real entity, embodied by Hurt. And he's not just a fearsome figure who makes one do good; he's an evil tempter trying to make people do evil.

    One of my conjectures regarding RIP was that Bruce might find out that a devilish symbol -- and the murderers of his parents -- had inspired Batman, making him question the costume and whether he could continue to wear it. The theory at funnybook babylon is somewhat the reverse -- that Batman made the Devil, not vice versa. Of course, it would be Morrisonian to do both, a la the bullet in FC that Darkseid fired and that was fired at him.

    While I admire the work behind the theory, I wouldn't say that I particularly believe that such a reveal is coming, though it seems within the realm of ideas that could fit into Morrison's story.

    I think Morrison virtually *has* to explore the Black Glove / Waynes history eventually, and that link may be enough without time travel having made it work full circle.

  3. Good stuff as always, Rikdad.

    Do you have links to the recent Morrison interview(s)? I've stopped checking a lot of message boards, so I'm not really up on where this stuff appears.

    Soon after RIP was finished, though, I remember Morrison throwing "Thomas Wayne" into the mix back then too, as if we should (have) be(en?) way more suspicious of him as a candidate for Hurt's true identity. That didn't make much sense to me then. To me it seemed like Morrison in the interview was trying to make up for not doing a good enough job in the actual comics of making us seriously suspect that Hurt was Bruce's father, because I think most of us knew (thought?) that this possibility was an obvious lie designed by Hurt to stir up confusion. The fact that Morrison is still mentioning the Thomas Wayne identity in conjunction with Hurt is puzzling to me, though. Like I say, I thought we were way past taking that identification seriously, or even entertaining it. But maybe there's something more to it.

  4. DAL, I still think it's worth looking to Hurt's comments to Alfred as a pointer to a possible link between Hurt and Thomas Wayne. Hurt implies that he *is* Thomas Wayne, Alfred says he isn't, and Hurt agrees, "No. I'm Doctor Hurt now." The implication (if it's not an outright lie) is that he *was* Thomas Wayne but is now Hurt. In which case the speaker of that sentence might be a spirit/personality which has traveled from one body to another, as hinted in #670 and in Twin Peaks. Which would mean that there is a connection, but not traditional identity (i.e., that Thomas Wayne adopted the Simon Hurt identity, and Simon Hurt biologically and legally IS Thomas Wayne).

    The arc that starts in B&R #10 will be about Bruce's "family tree". I think that's where we'll get the answers, such as we ever do.

  5. Rikdad -
    I agree I think the funnybookbabylon post is more thematically correct than narratively; Morrison, it seems to me, has worked hard to carve out too much of the sci-fi/fantastical angle from his run (you can read it w/o needing to read final crisis at all, ie; also, all the sci-fi stuff was just "mind-games", etc.) so I suspect that his return of Bruce Wayne will be handled in some way that gracefully addresses this. At least, I kind of hope that, too. Morrison noted in his into to the black casebook that batman stories need a certain amount of "realism" to make the character work best, and having bruce wayne turn out to be the devil kind of defeats that. the ambiguity about Hurt's nature is what makes it work so well (for me).

    You mentioning the Alfred section makes me think of that again; the only small problem with your answer to DAL is that Alfred seems so confident that he's *not* Thomas Wayne; if the physical resemblence was as strong as we're led to believe, I think Alfred would've had a bit more of a pause there. For Hurt to be bruce's "father's double, and [bruce's] own" there would need to be a less than identical set of features, because I dont think its implied that Bruce looks identical to Thomas either. So I'm not sure its the body of Thomas Wayne incarnated by the devil, either.

  6. Keeping the Twin Peaks theme....I think a BOB type devil-entity may have possessed Thomas Wayne at some point....


    The Waynes as a family may have a history of trumping the devil. Thomas, Bruce and (in #666) Damian...

  7. As always well thought out and written. You seem to be leaning to the thought that Dicks days are numbered. I haven't read #666 in awhile, but did it alude to what happened to Dick? Also, what are the chances of Morrison not adhering to the groundwork laid in #666? Wasn't #666 a possible future?

  8. JMD, I've been pushing the BOB analogy for quite a while. Maybe anyone who puts on the batsuit channels the Devil, and Thomas Wayne had the strength to take it off, leading to the family quarrel between the Waynes and the Black Glove.

    That's a good point to identify the 1-2-3 generational structure of such a confrontation. The points had been raised separately, but the big picture of all three generations of Wayne (plus Dick, too) fighting the Devil is a good one to highlight.

  9. ktim76, points (7) and (8) in the outline suggest, but don't prove, that Dick may have been killed due to Damian's action/inaction. It's clear that he's absent from the world of #666, and it seems more likely that he's dead than that he's retired and golfing.

    If Morrison adheres strictly to #666, then the bargain should not happen for about four more years. (Of DC time, which can mean never in our timeline.) If he adheres loosely to it, then anything's possible.

    The inevitable ambiguity is that if both Bruce and Dick have been killed by the time of #666, then the clues pointing backwards, which in isolation seem to describe one event, might describe two. As I suggest in the main post here, it's likely that most of the clues talk about Bruce's death four years from now, but if Morrison treats #666 loosely, that detail could shift (significantly!) from Bruce's death to Dick's death.

  10. I'm sure this has been brought up- but maybe the "death of a friend," in #666 is Damien resulting in the death of dick - which could be at any age (ala 10), but not the crossroads/death of Bruce until he's 14.

  11. Rikdad,

    Yeah I absolutely think the dialogue between Hurt and Alfred is still very much worth keeping in mind in regard to the Black Glove's connection to the Waynes. In much the same way, I think the detective supposedly hired by Martha's family (referenced in 677) is also a very intriguing hanging plot thread.

    The idea of the Devil inhabiting various bodies has definitely resonated with me for sometime. For instance, speaking of the idea of Batman being a "devil" himself, I've long been wondering whether it was the Devil who in a sense inhabited Bruce's own body when he (apparently) brought about Joe Chill's death in 673 (if that wasn't just a dream or whatever). The thing is, I don't know if we've really had any reason to suspect that Thomas Wayne really did anything devilish. Of course, the Black Glove incited a smear campaign of the Wayne Family name but, as with the Hurt-as-Thomas idea, that seemed like a complete lie.

    As far as Hurt resembling Thomas Wayne physically, though, I definitely think that's believable enough to at least arouse initial suspicion. While RIP was going on I remember people bringing up the fact that Hurt and Bruce looked like they could be related. Of course, they both look like pretty typical average fellows, but even so... In 677, the headshot of Mangrove Pierce also bore a resemblance to Hurt (and Bruce evidently thought so as well, since in 681 he suspected that Hurt and Pierce were one and the same). Pierce in the "Black Glove" movie was also supposedly Thomas Wayne's "double" and (in some sense) Bruce's double as well (both these points again according to Bruce in 681). We're also led to believe that Hurt cut off Pierce's face to impersonate Mayhew in 667. I don't know the fine details of how easy or difficult it would be to do that with a sliced-off mug, but the point is...There are many guys here who bear (or are said to have born) physical resemblances to each other: Bruce, Thomas, Hurt, Pierce, Mayhew.

    It might also be worth keeping in mind that Morrison changed Mayhew's physical appearance, because I've heard that in original Club of Heroes issues the character looked morel like a Perry White type. Was there a reason for this? Did Morrison, who's so found of near correspondences, want ANOTHER character in this run who looked sorta kinda close to some of the others (except that he had a mustache)?

    Last note on the Wayne family stuff: I really encourage anyone who hasn't done so already to search out the Aztek series that Morrison did in the '90s. There are some connections to his Batman stuff. In particular there's one issue that gives information about the Waynes having been invited to join a secret organization--but they turn the offer down. There's also some back material in one of the issues about a feud between the Waynes and the Vanes (remember Commissioner Vane?). I actually forget what issue(s) of Aztek this stuff was in, but for some reason issue 7 sticks in my mind.

  12. Regarding the batsuit "channeling" the Devil just reminds me of JMS's Amazing Spider-Man where Spider-Man's totem of strenght was a spider and thus somehow his opposite (arch enemy) was a Goblin... @_@

    Could we have some sort of simialarity here? The Wayne family channeled the Bat "totem" which in Morrison's case is the Devil, but they defeated the devil stuff and thus became a symbol of good. While typically a clown is a good/light/happy thing but Joker himself became a twisted guy and whatnot.. Oh my this is really going to be intriquing! 2 weeks for #7 of Batman and Robin, yeeehaw!

    Also the whole bat symbol. In Final Crisis #1 the tattooed man decides to become a hero but what is on his back? a BAT tattoo. Was he channeling something greater than himself? Was he channeling the heroic Batman symbol that Bruce drew at the end of Final Crisis? Heck Tattooed Man even does the ">tt<" which is a common phrase for Bruce and Damian. >_> Ah well great blog post, i didn't notice the Damian engineed thing. :D Maybe we can get a Robin of Zur en Aarh!

  13. DAL - I didn't know about Aztec. I'll have to check that out. Seems too much to be coincidence.