Saturday, April 10, 2010
Batman and Robin has built up a story through a year of smaller arcs that have their own payoffs, but have logical ties to each other, and to something big coming which has been unrevealed. This fourth arc derives great dramatic possibility by inheriting all of the open plot points from the previous three issues, not to mention Morrison's run on Batman and even the full history of Batman, whose details are still free to be rewritten since Infinite Crisis ended over four years ago. Credit Morrison for not putting out a six-issue "Batman: The Origin" that dutifully told the details in sequence, because the payoff is so much better built up as it has been. And that's just to relay what is sure to be just some of Batman's backstory. The rest could be the subject of years more of storytelling. But not to get ahead of where we are now. The three-issue arc that is in progress seems likely to end up remembered as a classic, and reading the first two issues has been a great pleasure.
The opening scene shows us, in full view, Doctor Hurt, who was indeed the "El Penitente" that other characters have talked about since this series reached #4. He speaks of his nature in shadowy language, giving us clues, but -- again, to dramatic effect -- no encyclopedia-level facts. He has been repenting, with self-flagellation, for the apparently earnest motive of being forgiven his sins (and not, as I had guessed earlier, his defeat) although he intends to resume sinning immediately. Maybe this is a one-time event, but it may be some condition of infernal immortality. Hurt is obviously unconcerned by the deadly gunfire around him, but we don't see him shrug off the impact of any actual bullets. Is he invulnerable or just lucky?
Hurt refers to himself, suggestively, as a "what" as well as a "who", and in three poetic fragments, that he is a double, twin, or shadow -- of whom? The older Thomas Wayne (henceforth OTW)? The younger, Bruce's father (henceforth YTW)? Of Bruce himself? Of God? The 'W' scar could be a signature for any of at least the first three, and Hurt says later that Gotham is his home. The priest's blessing cuts in mid-way, with "the Father" omitted, and "the Son and the Holy Spirit" spoken on-panel: an indication of a missing father, which could symbolically represent either YTW or Bruce.
Hurt's intentions are clear in kind: He is headed to Gotham to wreak spectacular (a word often used to describe mass terrorism) atrocities. He is after something that is rightfully his, but is not motivated ("Let it all fall down") by keeping his drug empire in Mexico.
Given the missing portrait of the devil-worshipping OTW in Wayne Manor, who summoned a bat-demon in 1765, and the subterranean compound that Dick discovers, a simple possibility is that Hurt is OTW, has been "what" he is since summoning that demon, and considering himself a Wayne, has always been out to get the Wayne fortune/name back, something we know that someone will try to do (apparently through peaceful and legal means) beginning in #13. The teaser from #1 showed very old keys to Wayne Manor -- those could be from 1765. In the past, when Morrison has laid enough clues pointing to one conclusion, and there is no "mystery" with multiple suspects, the straightforward interpretation has proven to be correct. However, the Hurt we've seen before was not just an angry lost Wayne with supernatural powers -- he asked Bruce not to yield the family estate to him, but to "dedicate his life to the corruption of virtue" and spoke of his plan as "the destruction of the ultimate noble spirit". He did refer to Bruce as an "usurper", which lends credence to the notion of Hurt as a real Wayne, but he openly claimed, twice, to be YTW, an obvious lie. Also, we find out that the "Barbatos" paint is not old, but from the last year, probably when the Black Glove controlled Wayne Manor. The complex Dick discovers could not have been built in the last year, but it has rail lines, which should not have existed in 1765. Finally, we know that Joshua Wayne had access to this area, probably as part of Underground Railroad activity (the term was not usually meant literally). Joshua acting for good and Solomon for evil? Some of the demons mentioned in this story go back to a book called "The Lesser Key of Solomon", so that Wayne, with his stern face, may just have a role in this. With the talk of twins, a case of known twin Waynes has to stand out, but the face of Solomon Wayne is not Hurt's, and the face of OTW may be. One more tidbit that we can piece together from multiple issues: The "House of Hurt", the mansion seen in Batman #676, is apparently, the same mansion where Le Bossu was in #3, and that was in Gotham. So Hurt may have a base of operations posing as one of Gotham's current elite. Possibly matching the "Gotham's Hurt Missing" from Batman #678. So while there's a strong hint of a link directly from 1765's devil worship to the present Hurt, there is a long trail from then to now.
Oberon Sexton is the issue's other mystery man. He can fight well, suggesting such suspects as Bruce Wayne and the Joker, although perhaps not so well as you would expect of either of them. Damian's keen ear tells us that Sexton's accent is not properly English, ruling out the obscure Sir Anthony guess. He could still be Morrison, acting like King Mob in The Invisibles, but this possibility has gotten little attention of late, and would be hard to squeeze into an issue as packed as #12 seems bound to be. The teaser panel showing Sexton unmasking indicates a chin that is perhaps too square to be the Joker, but artistic license keeps that from being a certainty. However, he is determined to solve the Domino Mystery, and is either hesitant or uncertain regarding his real identity. He implicitly says that he is not Bruce Wayne, and his unmasking in the next issue would seem to guarantee that -- the solicit for #13 indicates that Bruce has not returned, although Sexton could be Bruce but as Damian opined last issue, "whatever happened changed him". Structurally, one would not expect so many clues pointing to the real answer before the identity is revealed. Note that in the Red Hood arc, Jason's name was given away before his identity was truly revealed. Maybe that was done, spoiling a tiny mystery, deliberately to give Morrison the ability to fake a red herring now and have Sexton truly be English.
Sexton's discussion of the demons attacking the cemetery implies that they came there not for him, as part of a simple chase from his hotel, but to dig something up, and it is likely what Dick Grayson has seen, and been battered by, but has not told us. It seems to involve a light, an energy source, and left him in poor condition, with his uniform tattered. He came up with the casket (box) that Joshua Wayne held in his portrait. At the moment, being attacked by a Deathstroke-controlled Damian (can't he just shut his eyes and make Deathstroke blind?), Dick has bigger worries than showing us what's inside or explaining what he found. He started his expedition in good form, sliding under a falling gate with his acrobat timing. As the issue ends, nothing but the comic book genre suggests that he can survive the next minute.
The demons actually provide the first clear indication of actual supernatural presence in this entire extended story, as a raven hovers behind Naberius and perches alongside him. Naberius has the eyes of a bird. But for all of that, he and his demon-named squad (Duke Vepar recites the Lord's Prayer in reverse) is no match for Damian and Sexton's ordinary martial arts. There are many demon names in cultural history, but Naberius was probably chosen because he is known for restoring lost dignities and honors. But whose honors will be restored -- those of Hurt (who wants status in Gotham, and he nearly had it in RIP), or those of Bruce? In the aforementioned "Lesser Key of Solomon", Naberius is the 24th ranking demon out of a host of 72. Barbatos is #8, and Bael #1. We see the rest of the 99 Fiends show up as the issue draws to a cliffhanger end. Naberius says that the 99 Fiends have no master. Could it be that we'll see an ultimate Big Bad who is not an individual at all, but a legion of demons? Or will this go all the way up the hierarchy, as indicated in Morrison's comments on RIP, to the #1? Naberius indicates that Barbatos is waking below... will we have a true demon, of superhuman size and power, like the Bat-Demon in World's Finest #255, join the fight?
If the detective in the story is always right (we've seen this before, although with Bruce as the detective), then we apparently have the identity of the Domino Killer: It has to be someone operating in Hurt's interest, because nobody planted the domino on Naberius, who is working for Hurt, and who has used "Mexican Train" in his language. But Sexton is the last remaining suspect who could have planted this domino (a 4:1, not in sequence with the "countdown" we saw before), and we've long had reason to suspect that there is no domino "killer".
Whatever happens next, with Hurt, Deathstroke, Barbatos, and ninety-some demons converging, with Robin out of action, and Dick Grayson on the ground, will take place near the grave of Alan Wayne, in the Garden of Death. Maybe some of the horrors of #666 may ensue. Or Dick Grayson's finest hour.