Friday, May 7, 2010
Much of the action was very straightforward. The scenes that played out Talia's move against Batman and Robin are just what they seem to be, and for now, that threat has passed. Probably the most important consequences, in the near term, are that it cemented the bond between Dick and Damian. Moreover, with Dick twice dealing out beatings to Deathstroke, walking away from some sort of battle with a demon, and standing powerful, smart, and resolute before the Joker, his role in Morrison's story is clear: He's a world-beater. He's up to what's coming.
And what is coming? The Joker seems to be the lesser of two threats. Exactly what his state of mind is is unclear. Is he about to lay into a violent attack on Dick? Will he propose an alliance that Dick won't possibly accept? Is he even aware that his Sexton identity and his activities as a Domino Killer are both part of his actions?
Because of his propensity for almost arbitrary degrees of psychological disorder, the Joker is ultimately uninterpretable, but we do see that his actions led him to resemble his missing nemesis, and at the same time to seek him out in the form of "Bruce Wayne". If he knows everything he's seen and heard (which is not a given), then he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Fans had speculated, with good reason, that the Joker might see Bruce's face and hear his name but never do the detective work to identity that he is Bruce Wayne. But clearly, as Sexton, he did excellent detective work, finding three of the Black Glove members who were masked when he met them, and from other parts of the world. Only a serious dissociation of what he has witnessed and his memory would keep the Joker from knowing that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Given that, consider his frequent and pointed mentions of Bruce to the new Batman (who, the Joker should know, is not the original; and he might well know that he is specifically "Dick Grayson"). In the final scene of #12, was the Joker fishing for information, trying to get Dick to reveal something about Bruce's fate? It's even possible that he was driven to perform the killings in order to get that information, for his own peace (as it is) of mind. But the Joker actually has multiple reasons to have acted as he has: To emulate his fallen enemy, to make good on the threat he made at the end of Batman, R.I.P., and to get this close to the new Batman. And now that he's this close... what next? Whatever the Joker hopes to have happen, a battle is going to result, most likely one that will range far beyond the hotel room. The line of police cars outside is probably about to witness the Joker escaping over their heads or under their feet if not on a bloody rampage right through their ranks.
The larger threat, however, is the one for which the issue's story was titled, although the significance of the title remains unclear (or underwhelming). A Mexican train did indeed arrive in Gotham, maybe just a train, although there is at least some metaphorical sense in which a greater menace looms. As an utterly unknown figure (perhaps one of the 99 Fiends; certainly someone on Doctor Hurt's side) says, "This train started rolling a long, long time ago." That meaning probably extends to the musty secrets of Wayne Manor and the caves below it. Both the past and present manifestations of Doctor Hurt's coming attack have been revealed only partially, in some of the best shadowy narration the comic book genre has ever seen.
One of the most significant reveals of this issue is that the relationship between the Waynes and demonic forces has been ongoing. Not just the Devil worship of Old Thomas and then the recent battle between Bruce (and perhaps his father before him) against that devil. At least Joshua and Alan Wayne have played a role, too -- either knowingly or unknowingly with Bruce's past lives coming to bear. And we know, moreover, that Bruce's presence in the cave in the remote past has left a tangible mark -- perhaps the origin moment of the bat-demons in Gotham somewhere under Wayne Manor. The timeline, such as we know it:
In the distant past (Seven Soldiers #1 mentions 40,000 B.C. as the first contact between New Gods and early Man, but North America was not inhabited until more like 10,000 or 8,000 B.C. It hardly matters.) Bruce Wayne makes his arrival in the vicinity of Gotham via the Omega Sanction. Coincidentally or not, the rocket / time capsule from Final Crisis is also then and there. And we know, in a spiraling narration bringing in Return of Bruce Wayne #1 (whose preview was posted to the web less than a day ago), that the people he encounters call themselves "Deer People". This adds a bit of significance to the antlers upon which the bat-cowl is hung. The details are pending for a few more days, but it is possible that the entire "bat" association with the location of Wayne Manor began with Bruce's arrival. This would be a paradox, a time loop, something that Morrison has used before with the bullet in Final Crisis and the Sheeda in Seven Soldiers as well as the Superman rocket in Red Son -- a rocket that looks just like the one by Bruce's cave, and that similarity is thematically meaningful. Bruce is now living Superman's story -- the surviving son of doomed parents, escaping via distant translocation to a place where he can grow strong. This thematic similarity to Superman is probably a direct intention of the Batman origin as written in 1939, and to make the tie could be the reason why Morrison chose to place the rocket here even if it didn't literally bear him to this time and place. The time loop may not, however, be the origin of the "bat" presence here, and we'll find out soon enough if an existing, savage bat demon was already lurking before Bruce showed up.
We've been told that the Miagani tribe will practice bat-worship as part of ROBW. Morrison said that they were revealed in Legends of the Dark Knight in the Nineties. I have searched the 122 issues that meet that description without finding any such mention, and either the reference lurks in some tiny corner of no great significance or Morrison is mistaken. The Miagani are mentioned in 1988's The Cult, but they are not themselves evil -- they run into Deacon Blackfire, who is evil. The LOTDK story that best matches the theme is "Shaman" in LOTDK #1-5, the story immediately prior to Morrison's "Gothic". There, there are Native people who practice bat-demon worship. In fact, two entirely unrelated tribes do so -- one native to Alaska and the other native to the fictional Santa Prisca.
The way the timeline of the Manor moves on is fascinating. It was constructed as a 'W' in the time of Darius Wayne (1795) and given garden paths in the shape of a bat-signal in the time of Alan Wayne (according to Batman Secret Files and Origins, he is Solomon's son and Joshua's nephew, and thus lived around 1870). Given that Joshua is holding the casket that makes one of the 99 Fiends shout out "Barbatos!" it is clear that at least eight Waynes (including Bruce's life as the witch-hunter Mordecai) have had a role in the story. It remains to be seen if they all knew about demons or if Darius, Joshua, or Alan were unwitting in their role and directed by Omega Sanction lives of Bruce. Of all of the Waynes seen in the portrait gallery, only Kenneth, Patrick, and Silas have not yet been drawn into the plot... yet.
Which brings us to the train that started rolling long, long ago. Inside the train, we see Senator Vine, the Black Glove member whose absence from the story I noted earlier. Sexton never mentioned him before, despite knowing that he was a more logical target for the next killing (by himself!) than Bruce Wayne. Here he speaks his first lines in a short conversation with Doctor Hurt that mentions Batman not at all but is, on the surface, about a coming battle between the Black Glove and the Joker. It's impossible to know how earnest Hurt's half of the dialogue is. His ego seems likely to pit him against the Joker (who has "a knack for engaging foes he cannot defeat"... like Hurt should talk). But it's impossible that he actually cares whether Vine lives or dies. Having seen Hurt blithely watch the defeats and deaths of Charlie Caligula, the Sombrero, and General Malenkov, we are likely to see him poker-faced as Senator Vine takes his last breath sometime to come.
But what is to come? What began in the tunnel under Wayne Manor? It seems that precisely when Dick found the casket, Barbatos awoke, although that may have been a hallucination. Still, the significance remains -- at least something made Dick see a giant bat demon (notably larger than the one whose head is on Bruce's on the cover of ROBW #1) and left him beaten. Maybe a spirit animated the symbol partially removed from his own chest. It may have the ability to animate things in the shape of a bat. Like the paths around the Manor itself would have been. This again suggests the bat demon seen back in World's Finest #255.
The forces on Hurt's side take many forms. We've seen members of the "99 Fiends" who appear to be hired muscle wielding conventional weapons; much more like typical henchmen than actual demons like Etrigan. Moreover, they dress more like punk and rock musicians or even hipsters than supervillains, much less demons. The scene at the train station shows some of the Fiends, including one holding the bat casket. But there are also several others who look like businessmen wearing domino masks. (Naberius is the only known Fiend to wear such a mask, although nameless others wear goggle or glasses.) These may have been "Fiends"; their different attire may mean they are members of some other group. These masked "businessmen" may be part of the same group that Santo was in; he was apparently a mortal man who needed hospital care. Note also that of the gang leaders in #4, once again Tony Li is left unmentioned when someone lists the ranks of the deceased. Tony Li wore a mask very like the "businessmen". That may explain how the domino got into Santo's hand, although he may have been carrying it all along. It seems as though the dominoes are ID cards indicating the rank of each of Hurt's followers (some of whom wear domino masks) and the Joker called himself the Domino Killer to mock them. Cumulatively, figures like Toad, the Fiends, these masked men, etc., are working for Hurt, but it seems as though he is going to bring a much greater threat than 99 henchmen to town.
Aside from Toad, and the creepy eyes of Naberius, the one obviously nonhuman force we've seen was the (possibly hallucinatory) giant bat, which had none of the human characteristics seen in the statue. The giant bat, which may simply be Barbatos seems more like "muscle" than anything that might be possessing the calm and calculating Doctor Hurt.
So what is coming? His people think that his victory over Batman is preordained and will wrap up in less than 48 hours. Hurt, having called Bruce an usurper back in #679, is possibly the Old Thomas Wayne and almost certainly the man who will pose as the Young Thomas Wayne in the next issue. The newspaper he is holding has a headline about a "New Wayne Scandal", which more likely pertains to that ruse to come than anything going on in the other Batman titles. (An accompanying photo is a headshot, possibly of the false Thomas Wayne.) If Hurt's next move is to take over Gotham as Thomas Wayne, he will have to discard the portion of the dossier that accused Thomas of murder.
But he's going to make a bigger move than merely claim he is Thomas Wayne, put his heels up on a desk, and start issuing memos. This is the story that Morrison said ties in to #666 "considerably". There's going to be a battle. There's going to be great peril to the entire city. Dick has suggested (perhaps just to investigate Bruce's time-flung whereabouts) the Justice League. The 99 Fiends succeeded in a quest to tap the power of Barbatos. A fistfight (or fire and brimstone -fight) with the Justice League slugging it out with demons hasn't been Hurt's style so far. In the plan of RIP, he worked methodically against Bruce over years, a plan that we could see just before it unfolded. In this case, we see an unlikely mixture of demons, thugs, gangsters, and the corruption of the law. What else does the Devil have planned? Apocalypse? Or a reign of evil so subtle that no one in Gotham even notices what changed? The next move is Doctor Hurt's. He's going to face a crimefighter who has with each passing issue been easier to call not Dick Grayson but Batman.