Thursday, March 11, 2010
The idea that the bat-symbol originated earlier in the Wayne family goes back to Detective #235. Well-known stories that have referenced occult religions or Native American demons tying together the bat-man image or the site of present-day Gotham include "Thou Shalt Have No Other Batman Before Me" in World's Finest #255 (1979), Batman: The Cult (1988), Dark Knight Dark City (Batman #452-454, 1990) and Morrison's own Gothic (1990). Each of these stories shows some different group in the past summoning demons. Batman and Robin #10 has paid homage directly or indirectly to all of them, by showing the bat-symbol in artifacts from in the distant past, the rose as a symbol, the name of the Miagani tribe, and the demon name Barbatos (which is Latin for bearded, but has "bat" in it).
The issue weaves together three plots in a heightening circle of tension as Dick's investigation of clues in Wayne Manor, by itself something that would not ordinarily mean danger or suspense, is threatened by an attack from Damian, who is suffering some from of control from his mother, who is motivated as always by the greater power of the al-Ghuls, and an attack from El Penitente's agents, who have pursued Oberon Sexton to the grounds of Wayne Manor.
The history of the Waynes has at least two irregularities in it: First, a Thomas Wayne from the 1760s who prayed to Barbatos on a bat-symbol in the "hidden batcave" that Dick discovers. His portrait is missing for now, and we should not be surprised if it depicts Doctor Hurt when it is found. The preview image seen at the end of #1 shows Doctor Hurt with a very old-looking key to Wayne Manor, which is not plausibly from the time of Bruce's parents, but could easily be from the 1760s. We may see El Penitente show up with that key very soon. Given the longstanding references to Thomas Wayne as a possible identity for Doctor Hurt (Morrison said "Doctor Hurt/Thomas Wayne/The Devil" in a Newsarama interview), the elder Thomas seems to provide an "out" for Hurt to be the Devil living in the body of an older Thomas Wayne, but not Bruce's father. However, note that some of Hurt's claims were specific to being the Thomas Wayne whom we know to be Bruce's father, and these are either straight-out lies or indications that Hurt somehow inhabited the more recent Thomas Wayne's body, at least momentarily.
The second anomaly in the family gallery is a Mordecai Wayne who resembles Bruce exactly but doesn't fit with the geneology. That is likely an Omega Sanction past life of Bruce who managed to avoid wedding his own great-great-grandmother [insert several more "great"s]. We will presumbly get confirmation or denial of these things as the story moves on.
Simultaneously, and surely not coincidentally, while Dick finds a shrine to a demon in Wayne Manor, El Penitente phones Oberon Sexton again, and he references demons, calling his team of thugs "The 3rd Hierarchy". When the hit squad shows up a moment later, two demon names are used for three of them: Belial (referring to a platinum-blonde pair of punks, one left-handed, one right-handed) and Zepar. Belial has subtly entered the story before, being the demon who spoke the line from Paradise Lost that appeared on Jason Todd's calling cards. The demonology on all of these characters indicates that they are lesser-ranking (hence, 3rd hierarchy). It may be significant, though, that up until now, aside from being obviously evil, El Penitente references have paid homage to holy Christian (specifically, Catholic) terms, such as Santo=saint, and that continues here with the instructions to shoot Sexton in the four points to "cross" him. But the overtly evil references appear here for the first time.
In various ways, we get more hints, but very slight ones, to Oberon Sexton's identity. We'd only seen him in a total of three pages (plus one panel) before this issue, and the few but suggestive things we saw have led me on a broad and wishy-washy series of guesses. This time, we learn something definitive: He has shared the results of his investigation (honestly or not honestly) with Dick, but did not mention the significant fact that he'd received a call from El Penitente. In the second call, El Penitente is murderously irate that Sexton did not "strike at" Batman in their meeting. This would seem to mean that El Penitente thinks that Sexton is either powerful in some unnatural way or an excellent fighter, because an ordinary person would be wasting their time trying to strike at Batman.
Whoever Sexton might be, there is something left to be explained. If he is an Omega Sanction life of Bruce Wayne, then there must be some exceptional reason for his not telling Dick about the phone call. Moreover, he could have dealt with the hit squad physically instead of fleeing them.
If Sexton is the Joker, it's hard to identify his precise role. If he's trying, in Batman's absence, to "be good" (wearing black and red -- the chromatic opposites of his natural colors), there's some pending anomaly in that he's investigating murders known to be, at least in part, committed by himself. Either he's suffered a loss of memory or is deliberately playing a persona who doesn't know everything the Joker knows. It is interesting to note the similarity between the scenes in which the Joker first encounters Dick Grayson back in Batman #1 and the scene where Sexton comes upon Damian in the cemetery. While the intention is lethal in the first scene and amiable in the second, the stage direction is fairly similar between them. And, as noted earlier, posing as a figure of the law is not a new thing for the Joker, although playing the role for this long is.
Where do things go next? We know from interview comments that Talia is going to strike hard at Dick Grayson, drawing upon known DCU villains to attempt to finish him off. The "shovel" teaser from #9 did not show up in any way in #10, so it likely will in #11, with the "Gravedigger" plying his trade to find -- what -- some other clue? Some trapped spirit, good or evil?
It seems like a sure bet that the threat will at least top those of the earlier-cited stories, if it doesn't mirror them. In World's Finest #255, a bat-demon Gitchka rises to begin ruling the world, and easily fells Superman with its magic before the proper bat-costumed shaman defeats it.
In Dark Knight, Dark City (which incidentally involved a circus and a danse macabre), the Riddler seeks, as others sought before him, to control a demon that will confer great power -- a demon which, by being trapped under the city throughout its history is the spirit of the city, and which helped make Batman. It turns out that the demon, the spirit of an actual bat, simply wished to be free, and directed the Riddler to set in motion the events that would lead to Batman freeing the spirit and that of a young woman who would have been a sacrificial killing centuries ago.
Meanwhile, in Gothic, it was Gotham Cathedral that housed centuries-old evil works, being built to focus spiritual energies which Mister Whisper, seeking a way to cheat in a deal with the Devil, planned to kill everyone in Gotham to offer their souls instead of his own. He opened a time capsule (called "a casket" in the story, like the box in Joshua Wayne's portrait), where, in 1760 (the time frame of the older Thomas Wayne), he placed plague virus, which the bell of the cathedral was to smash in modern times, making Gotham a city of death. The mechanism to begin this involves moonlight passing through a rose window (a rose appears in the middle of the bat-symbol that Dick falls through). Batman, of course, stops the virus from being released, and at the same time set to peace the spirit of another young sacrificed female from the past. (Gothic and Dark Knight, Dark City were printed almost simultaneously, overlapping in their cover dates during mid-1990.)
El Penitente's drug cartel must have something very big in their plans, more like Whisper's plague virus than the mere addiction spread to several Gothamites during the Professor Pyg arc. We will find out more about the devil worship that took place in Wayne Manor, and almost certainly find that the symbology of Batman goes back to these earlier, evil times. Bruce Wayne will battle related forces in the past in Return of Bruce Wayne, and Dick and Damian will have to unite to stop the evil plan in the present. And this should be where some of the events referred to in Batman #666 begin.