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.


  1. 1 more week my man. Then we finally get #7 and we can see some story telling. Not to mention from #7-#9 there only 2 weeks apart from each other. :) So it'll be Outrageous!

    I never thought of the Grant Morrison = Sexton thing, and i do believe Batman is too A-List to be 4th wall stuff. I still hold my opinion that Sexton is the Joker, since Dr. Hurt black mails him in #6 and in #7-9 Robin is going to face an old menace, this to me implies more on Joker instead of Dr. Hurt because i never saw Hurt as an actual physical threat, more like the black glove commanding people to do his bidding. ;)

  2. Even if it doesn't turn up to be Morrison, how cool is it that he seemingly includes himself in the list of suspects for his mysteries and provides clues enough to make it a possibility? Awesome grab on the clues here, btw. Sharp, sharp eyes.

    I'm not sure you can say that that's definitely Dr. Hurt in that's so small, I'm amazed you caught it, but it still looks like a rorschach blob to me. The pentagram's a good tip-off, though.

  3. I can't help but wonder if the "Mo G" might also be a reference to the Mog mentioned in the Book of Revelation (which, of course, was associated with the Antichrist, though I forget it Mog was a city or an army).

  4. Drazar, a note on the Joker: GM said on the eve of the series beginning that he hadn't settled his plans for the Joker yet. It seems like Morrison (and not Daniel or other writers) is going to get to bring the Joker back from hiatus, but if he hadn't decided yet what to do with him, I think he's unlikely to be any of the major entities named so far. On the other hand, it would make a lot of sense if he were the one who'd killed Cardinal Maggi, but it's not necessary.

    Oberon Sexton has the good guy vibe. The Joker has posed as good guys before (in Dini's run on 'Tec), but I don't think OS is going to be the Joker. Also, note that Doctor Hurt threatens Sexton to do things for him. That obviously would not work with the Joker.

  5. Matt, the artwork is indeed blurry, but that head shape combined with the pentagram speaks loudly, IMO. In fact, I referred to this as devilish stuff in a previous blog post, but didn't see where to go with the observation.

    It remains possible that the Doctor Hurt schtick is more than just one guy; maybe there are many different bodies with that same spirit, but they've got to be related.

  6. Sypha, you seem to be thinking of Gog and Magog. These names / characters have been much used in Kingdom Come and numerous successor stories in Superman and JSA and now in Magog's solo title. I don't think "Mo G" is more likely to refer to Magog than to "G Mo".

  7. @Rikdad: Are we sure Joker wouldn't agree on things? Would Mangrove Pierce either? Would ultimately the writer let his creation let the hold of him? :p The thing is we know Joker is nuts, who knows what he would do really?! I mean now i'm going to speculate too much but what if the details Hurt told him we're exciting? Maybe he got the vibe to "hang around" to do this stuff for giggles? What if he was promised a Robin to kill? :p

    Still man, just 1 week and we get this awesome new issue.

  8. If Sexton is indeed GM, I'd be ok with that (I went through it in the 1990's ;)).

    I hope though that his identity is never revealed officially, but that it is strongly suggested that it is Grant Morrison

  9. That's right, Magog. My bad.

    Incidentally, seeing as you were the first one to correctly guess the Devil hypotheses, I wonder if you've ever read Jeffrey Burton Russell's 4 volume series on the historical development of absolute evil/The Devil. I'm currently through the second volume and it's fascinating stuff. I wonder if Morrison has read this series... the first volume ("The Devil") makes so many references to the colors red and black it's not even funny.

  10. Hi, Rikdad. Interesting theory you have there - 'Mo G' certainly seems to suggest a play on 'G Mo', and probably is.

    Still, I'm not sure the Joker can be completely ruled out. You'll have seen the theory doing the rounds that Hurt might be a jaded and corrupted Bruce Wayne from the far future. If this theory proves true, then could Sexton be the Joker - not as he is at present, but one from the future?

    You mentioned he had a 'good guy' vibe. If we take into account the Joker and Batman's apparently eternal relationship of opposites, and assume that Hurt is Bruce, could the Joker have undergone a sort of reverse process over the course of thousands of years, whereby he becomes increasingly sane and hence, 'good' (or at least, ambiguous?)

  11. Sypha, I have not read that, but it's a good pointer! When Batman, in #680, interpreted red and black to mean Cupid and the Devil, it definitely rang true.

  12. ivyronette, the notion of a Joker who's not the same Joker is always an out, but why would it be true? That has been done before (eg, Captain Atom becoming a villain) but it's hard to guess since the altered form of the character no longer has what the original did.

    But the mysteries re: the Domino Killer still rule out the Joker: He didn't slip into the room with Batman and Red Hood without being seen. He could still be Oberon Sexton, but he's not a good match for the DK. Of course, we don't know that the two are the same individual.

  13. "But the mysteries re: the Domino Killer still rule out the Joker: He didn't slip into the room with Batman and Red Hood without being seen. He could still be Oberon Sexton, but he's not a good match for the DK. Of course, we don't know that the two are the same individual."

    That's a good point. It would be an intriguing development, though - the idea of the roles being reversed to an extent in the far future.

    I'd just like to add that I really enjoy reading your blog - it's definitely one of the most insightful and interesting comic blogs out there!

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  15. Nice post as always, rikdad. Always nice to get a cup of coffee and read one of your posts on Batman.

    And, hey guys, it's not just THREE issues within a short time-span. It's FOUR. Starting next week Batamn & Robin is set to be bi-weekly from issue 7 (in late Jan) to issue 10 (in early March. I'm beside myself with anticipation!

    Rik, I think the idea of the dominoes having a more or less "passive" role is likely to be correct. I had thought this before I really got back into the game of keeping up with internet theories, even. They seem like badges of identification into a select criminal club. As to why Pyg was apparently getting PAID in dominoes, maybe that was so Pyg could deputize that many more elite lieutenants/workers/slaves(?) under him and thereby gain status within the villain hierarchy? Also, Toad is the only one with a domino who got killed...but he was also the only one with a domino who actually said that he didn't know what the meaning of the dominoes was.

    The problem you state with the "passive" domino theory is that the sequential countdown would thus be unlikely. But this wouldn't be so if whoever handed out or assigned the dominoes in the first place had planned ahead of time to eventually harm those underlings in that order (or put them into dangerous situations in that order). Sounds a lot like something Hurt would do.

    Honestly, though? Honestly...I don't think the countdown or the dominoes have that much logic to them. I think they're just a neat motif that Morrison hit on and liked, but I have doubts that he actually worked out the logistics of how they would work, of who exactly did what, for what reasons, and how the countdown was designed or ensured. Call me cynical but I think the most we can hope for as an "explanation" regarding the choice of dominoes...will be a sly thematic allusion, at some point, to the fact that some characters in this story have been known to wear "domino" masks.

    Regarding the tiny image on that folder: I don't see anything that resembles Hurt in the batmask there. I don't see anything that resembles anything. Then again, we're dealing with the art of Philip Tan.

    Cool idea about GM himself being Sexton. The idea of Hurt calling his author up on the phone and telling him what's what is very compelling! Wouldn't bet that this theory is going to prove correct--but it's very interesting nonetheless.

  16. DAL -- many good comments. As a quick reply, I note your apparent conclusion that Pyg wanted to be paid in dominoes. From the way Pyg reacted to the Russians (using the word "betrayed") I have assumed that Pyg was unhappy with some aspect of the deal.

    Eg, Pyg was expecting cash in the trunk, as Toad definitely was, and was unhappy because dominoes were in there. Which is certainly how any normal drug dealer would feel in that situation.

    There are other explanations -- maybe Pyg didn't even know about the deal and was unhappy that Toad had dealt with someone he shouldn't have dealt with. Maybe we don't know enough to be sure what went on ("What's the Pyg deal?") but I think the lack of money in the trunk stands out as a good possibility for why Pyg felt betrayed.

  17. Rikdad, another great post. Very insightful. One thing I think though...

    I do support the theory of Mangrove Pierce being Oberon Sexton, not. The whole Grant Morrison idea is plausible but I don't think he would try to pull that here. I also think that maybe Oberon Sexton is someone completely different then previously mentioned... Maybe the reason (if Oberon sexton is the domino killer) that he was able to plant the dominos is because he is someone who Batman and Robin would have expected to see. Notice that no glimpse of Oberon Sexton under his clothing or mask has been showed yet. This could be because under the mask, he is someone that has been involved in all these occurrences because he is an el penitente double agent... I don't know, but I thought I would give it a stab.
    Also, I feel like there is no way the Joker is included in any of this. Going back to Batman 680, he said he and batman are yin/yang. One cannot exist without the other, and since Joker's batman is Bruce Wayne, maybe he realizes that this knew Batman is not Bruce (because Two Face did) so he has no reason for being.
    Just thought I'd put my thoughts in the pool. But other than that, I agree with everything you have said so far.
    I also think Doctor Hurt is going to appear in Batman and Robin 8/9 (someone frightful and familiar)

  18. Oh and also I have may have missed an issue here or there, so I was wondering if Sexton has appeared in any other comics and Morrison decided to bring him back. I would check wikipedia to see when his first appearance was, but he does not have a wikipedia page.

  19. Rikdad, as I just re read revenge of the red hood, I found evidence supporting your points.

    1. When Commissioner Gordon is questioning Santo, Santo says that flamingo is on the way to Gotham in a "plane from hell." This supports what you said about Dr Hurt being El Penitente because Dr Hurt is the devil.

    2. When El Penitente (Hurt) calls Oberon Sexton, he says "your sins have found you out." Hurt says this same line in RIP to the members of the Black Glove right after the Joker left.

  20. Mxy, El Penitente threatens OS in #6, and the implication is that EP knows who OS is, and OS knows about EP, but was not working for him at that time. Sexton has, unless I'm missing something, never appeared ever before -- at least as "Oberon Sexton".

  21. jlev, that is indeed a good "Devil/hell" reference, which have often been literal truth in Morrison's run. I mention the "sins" line in this post: