Monday, April 26, 2010
Batman, R.I.P. ended with the gradual accumulation of evidence that Doctor Hurt is the Devil, a plot point amply reinforced by Grant Morrison in interviews that came out after -- and even during -- the story. It remains the fact that there was never a single panel that conclusively showed him to be supernatural. There were suggestions -- he seemed to know, instantly, too much about the victim of Le Bossu's murder outside Hurt's mansion. Later, we saw him calmly interact with the Joker though the Clown Prince of Crime was in the middle of a bloody killing spree. Via Batman #666, we know that Lane and Damian eventually gain limited invulnerablity as part of a deal with the Devil. But we only saw figurative horns and gasoline-fueled fire, not real horns and sulfur from the netherworld.
Batman and Robin, in contrast, began, on page #1 of issue #1, with a green-skinned, red-eyed villain plainly outside the realm of real possibility. Someone who, Dick finds, is in no known databases. Being silly, rather than awesome and menacing, Toad struck nobody as a demon, but his presence immediately struck down the air of natural / not-supernatural action from the Batman run. In the DCU, green skin doesn't have to mean supernatural -- it may be hard to count the green-skinned characters, but Coluans and Martians green for their own dermatological reasons. And yet, what is Toad? A project from some kind of island of Doctor Moreau?
We have seen with our own eyes just three characters found with single dominoes on their person: Toad (double 12), Santo (12-10, apparently), and Naberius (4-1). We don't yet have a definitive answer as to what role the dominoes serve, but one possibility borne up by those three that we've seen is that they are not "calling cards" planted by an attacker but some sort of talisman or identification held willingly by the associates of Doctor Hurt. And if that is so, could the numbers indicate (inverse) rank? If they come from a set with 12 as the highest number, Toad could be the lowest ranking imp in the order. Santo (who seemed to be a normal gangster) would be just a bit higher, and Naberius (whose birdlike eyes are our other instance of nonhuman anatomy on-panel) somewhat close to the upper ranks.
In terms of numerology, it's not clear how dominoes would round out the "99 Fiends" no more, no less. That number is 9 times 11. In a set going up to twelves, there should be just 91 dominoes. Increasing the maximum number of pips any more would add more than eight. This discrepancy may sink the relationship between dominoes and "99", or it may be explained away or even ignored.
The notion that our demons may be ranked comes up in the name "3rd Hierarchy" as well as the titles of nobility borne by the squad sent to attack Oberon Sexton. All of the demons' names presented in this run come from The Lesser Key of Solomon, which lists 72 demons (not 99) in a precise rank.
There is a major discrepancy in the names we have seen: one of the 3rd Hierarchy is called "Duke Zepar" in Batman and Robin #10, but "Duke Vepar" in #11. This is probably an error on Morrison's part: both of those names are among the demons listed in The Lesser Key of Solomon. As it happens, Duke Zepar is ranked rather high and Duke Vepar more towards the middle, so Vepar is probably the name that was intended for a mere hitman.
All told, the demons mentioned in Morrison's run, and their ranks, are as follows:
(Duke Zepar: #16) -- probably unintended
Asmoday: #32 -- called Asmodeus in a simile that described the Joker in Batman #663
Duke Vepar: #42
When Naberius asks the 3rd Hierarchy to introduce themselves, he calls upon them to speak in ascending order according to that scheme. Especially given the uncertainty regarding Zepar/Vepar, this is not obviously a significant fact -- 1 in 3 arrangements of 3 items are either in ascending or descending order.
Of his Batman run, Morrison said, in an interview "Well the whole story is built towards a very big peak, and the big reveal comes in the very last issue. There's a kind of pyramid of influence." Then he described how the Club of Villains worked for the Black Glove organization, and how above that, there was the Black Glove.
This narrative structure, bigger even than Morrison describes above, was a huge success. The first underlings, the three Replacement Batmen, were doled out to us one at a time, with each far more portentous than the previous. John Mayhew was the villain of another arc, and the Club of Villains were introduced as a concept. These characters were menacing in their own right, like the villains of any throwaway Batman story over the decades, but were part of a much larger scheme. This is what made it effective storytelling to belittle many of the Club of Villains as RIP went on, to show how much bigger the finale was than what had come.
Batman and Robin is structured neatly into arcs of three issues per story, building even more so into the climax that is coming. Toad worked for Pyg, and Pyg worked for Hurt. Flamingo, like Pyg and the Replacement Batmen, are psychologically ruined good men turned evil by Doctor Hurt. As Lane said, "Sometimes he visits the world to destroy the good and make slaves of men like me." King Coal, too, worked towards the kind of evil Hurt represented, even if he didn't know of Hurt himself. Major villains like the Red Hood, Talia, and Deathstroke are auxiliary to the still-bigger menace of the Big Bad. The story is building to a climax again, and again, the readers appreciate the effect.
This, combined with the identity of Doctor Hurt as the Devil leaves two things to be explained: Why did Naberius say "99 Fiends have no master?" And why do the clues in Wayne Manor point towards Barbatos, not The Devil, as the object of evil worship?
It is perhaps worth noting that the moment after Naberius says it, he screams, though no one strikes him at that moment. Is it a war-whoop, or a psychic/mystical blow from a master angered by that claim? He could be boasting or telling us that the Devil in this story is a devil-by-committee; like the "pandemonium" of Paradise Lost, which has one primary fallen angel, Satan (also called Lucifer), leading a host of many demons, some of whom are named in other works as the primary devil of the universe (e.g., Beelzebub is a lieutenant of Satan in Paradise Lost but Bael -- the first root of "Beelzebub" -- is the #1-ranked demon in The Lesser Keys of Solomon).
Whatever Naberius's claim, it is undermined by Hurt's angry threat to Oberon Sexton that the 3rd Hierarchy is coming, his "stern judgment to enact". Newsflash to Naberius: If you work to enact someone else's judgment, you have a master.
Name, Rank, and Serial Number
If the dominoes indicate the rank of one of these infernal beings, then we have been seeing a countdown, though not in the complete and exhaustive sense that the first three dominoes might have implied. It was a big jump from the 12's, 11's, and 10's to the 4-1 domino on Naberius. Of the 91 possible dominoes in a set going up to 12's, the domino Toad was carrying was last: double 12's itself. Those in Pyg's lab and in Santo's hand were just above that. But the 4-1 of Naberius, the only other domino we know to be associated with an individual, was much higher, twelfth overall; this beats his rank in the Lesser Key of Solomon.
Obviously, the story is going to show us many more demons (they are in the background as #11 ends), and will also show us someone higher in rank than Naberius, who went down after a few smacks of a shovel. Naberius himself tells us that Barbatos is awaking just now. From the statuary, he looks like a more dangerous opponent than Naberius. He may be looming as the ultimate or penultimate threat in the coming battle. It is also possible that Dick Grayson has returned to the surface having already faced him, or even having beaten him, in which case we would certainly see some greater menace instead.
Thou Shalt Have No Other Devils Before Me
In #10, Dick asks a rather self-answering question: "Did something happen way back to associate this place with bat gods and bat tribes and devils?" Not two panels back, Alfred began telling him that the Thomas Wayne of 1765 was a devil worshipper who summoned an ancient bat-demon. In #11, we're told that the demon, worshipped by the Miagani tribe, has the more recent name Barbatos. This name is also written in the occult Batcave, surrounded by many copies of "thomas". The paint is new, almost certainly from the time that the Club of Villains occupied Wayne Manor during RIP. Regardless of what has happened in the last year, Alfred's account indicates that Thomas Wayne (whose face has not been seen, as his portrait is missing) summoned Barbatos. Given that Doctor Hurt is a supernaturally evil man with a Waynelike face and that the elder Thomas Wayne summoned a demon, it may seem like the simplest backstory is that Doctor Hurt is that very Thomas Wayne, possessed by Barbatos. This is additionally bolstered by the fact that Doctor Hurt, who has called Bruce an usurper (though this was part of an implicit claim of Hurt's to be the younger Thomas Wayne), calls Gotham home and is coming to Gotham to reclaim what was always rightfully his. We know that someone will begin a claim of being the younger Thomas Wayne in #13 -- this could likely be Doctor Hurt, pursuing his return to Wayne Manor via lawyers instead of via fire and brimstone.
However, the story thus far, including Alfred's account of older Thomas Wayne's activities, has been more specific in identifying the Devil as the opponent. Batman #666 named "the biblical Antichrist" and "the dragon of Revelations". Batman #681 named "the Devil himself". On the other hand, #666 named the source of Lane's power as having wings of black skin like a bat -- like Barbatos -- but one who named Lane his messiah.
Yet it is clear that Barbatos is asleep as #11 begins, and that probably means in a sense of long dormancy, not just the last several hours. Whoever Hurt has been recently, it is not Barbatos. Has Barbatos been asleep since the helicopter crash? Or much longer? Is Barbatos the effective hand of the Devil in this story? Or the closest thing to the Devil that we'll see? There is some source of light and energy down there. And the portrait of Joshua Wayne is set right at the statue of Barbatos as he looks into a light. What is in the casket in his hands -- the one that Dick has found? Assuming that Joshua is one of the good Waynes, it is probably the weapon that will defeat Barbatos. But the pyramid of evil in this story will not stop when the fistfight ends. When Barbatos has had his chance at Batman and Robin, the plot of the false Thomas Wayne will continue into the next arc.
The end result of the domino countdown may have been before us in the first issue of the series. We see Doctor Hurt holding old (1765?) keys to Wayne Manor. The fob to which they are attached is very much the size and shape of a domino. What's on the other side? If the numbers indicate rank, with low counts being high rank, then the reverse side may just be blank, the double-zero that tops the set of dominoes. The solicit for #12 says that the secret of the dominoes is terrifying. Does that mean a plague or a toxin bringing mass deaths? Or simply a countdown to an individual? If Doctor Hurt, the Devil, is a holder of the top domino, then he is part of the 99 Fiends, and they indeed have no master but those who make up the 99 Fiends.