Wednesday, July 7, 2010
The story in Batman and Robin #13-#15 is the sequel to 2008's Batman, R.I.P. Now as then, a chess match between Doctor Hurt and Batman has moved past the opening and the midgame and on to the endgame. But this isn't Bruce Wayne -- it's Dick Grayson. Bruce, we ultimately found out, was prepared for Hurt all along. He was playing a bigger game. Dick Grayson comes into this conflict at a disadvantage. He doesn't know what Hurt's scheme is. He's figuring it out in parts as the situation comes to a boil. Just as he figures out what danger Gotham City is in, he is personally overwhelmed by Doctor Hurt's forces and subdued. Then shot in the head. But that hasn't happened yet. It will happen three days from now.
Batman and Robin #13 is told in three different timeframes. The first to appear in the comic is the past, but it's a past that could not have been real. In two and a half of the most blood-curdling pages in Batman's history, we see Thomas Wayne gleefully celebrate the deaths of Martha and his son Bruce, contract killings that he had arranged. Then he goes on to a life of utter decadence, painted more than adequately in a single wordless panel -- in RIP's red and black -- showing an orgy, reminiscent of "Eyes Wide Shut", with "Wayne" in the bat-mask from Detective #235, and RIP, and all of Hurt's most recent appearances. Echoing a gesture from RIP, Wayne/Hurt pours champagne on one of several crazed participants in the throes of sexual depravity. The masks on the attendees depict various demons and animals, including the pig mask we have seen, and see again in this issue, on Professor Pyg. It should be noted that the direction of Thomas' parted hair reverses in precisely that panel. It switches to the part that Simon Hurt has always worn.
That past cannot be real because Bruce did not die and Thomas did not stand in public and attend a funeral after the shooting. In other respects, the story resembles the lie that Hurt told at the end of RIP to a disbelieving Bruce. Hurt's lie then, in Batman #681, was factually consistent with a cover-up, stating that Bruce was supposed to be shot, but that Chill had "lost his nerve" and that Thomas Wayne, surviving that night, went into hiding. Under the assumption that the actual mythology of the Waynes will not be altered (and we already know, even by Hurt's admission, that the dossier attesting to Thomas Wayne contracting Martha's death was faked), we actually have three stories concerning the Waynes' last night: The traditional account of the Waynes as victims; the dossier lie that Hurt repeated in #681; and, the opening of B&R #13, showing Thomas living on, openly, after that night.
Under the strong presumption that the Waynes were good people who were victimized (even Batman #673's story of Joe Chill reinforces the idea that Chill was supposed to kill Bruce and did kill Thomas: "Three for three."), what do we make of this dark fantasy? The newspaper clip seen in #678 tells us that Hurt was in Gotham before the Waynes died. He obviously wanted to be Thomas. But he wasn't -- it's just a fantasy. And if Hurt is really an evil spirit that inhabits the bodies of real men, then Thomas Wayne might have been his host if only he could have made it happen. He didn't -- he went on to order Thomas' death and to become Doctor Hurt -- but he still dreams about how it could have been.
This is another variant on "the couples plot" that has been turning up in Morrison's Black Glove stories since Batman #669. A man has his wife or lover killed. There is a lie, a frame-up, or a cover-up. John Mayhew, Mangrove Pierce, Dorothy Lamarr -- their reality and a frame -- and two different incriminating stories about the Waynes. And, as we learn later in this issue, the real Oberon Sexton has killed his wife, too, and it is covered up with a lie. Why does this plot keep repeating? It's not for lack of imagination on Grant Morrison's part -- it just gets more insidious with the suggestion that some dark force is making this play out over and over again. Without this context, it might seem like Oberon Sexton were just a bad man who happened to get into the Joker's path. But we've known that Doctor Hurt makes slaves of good men: Sexton is perhaps another one, whom the Joker found as he followed Hurt's path. Even in the "Darkest Knight" story, Dick Grayson kills a woman: Batman kills Batwoman, as part of a bigger plan to save her.
A detail in the art of the fantasy/flashback reveals a stylistic connection that has previously been elusive: The pips on the dominoes, when seen in reverse color (white on black) resemble the pearls that fell from Martha Wayne's necklace. We see this because the dominoes (figurative, presumably) are shown in line, standing, during the fantasy/flashback. Later in the issue, we see that they have begun to fall. In reverse color, we see them mirror the pearls shown in the issue's first panel. Recall, also, that pearls were the theme of Pearly Charlie English, who was the good version of a [more] evil double.
When the story cuts to the future (three days from now), we see Hurt arrive in Gotham as Thomas Wayne, under the pretense of having lost his memory for the intervening period. A short but highly meaningful quip tells us that the city is in chaos three days from now. Hurt takes control of Wayne Manor and the 99 Fiends (recognizable thanks to their hip party-goer attire) have captured Dick and Damian. Hurt insinuates -- again -- that he is a Wayne and thereby superior to Grayson. With the same bluntness that Boss Dark Side showed when he had Shiloh Norman as a captive, Hurt dispenses with the "Bond villain" theatrics and does the obvious. He shoots Dick Grayson in the head.
With astonishing density, the dialogue refers to the black sun / eclipse motif from Return of Bruce Wayne and to the devil-deal that Damian makes in Batman #666. A small but portentous detail is a portrait that shows what seems to be Thomas Wayne with a woman who seems -- a blonde or a redhead -- not to be Martha.
And so, having opened in medias res, the story flips back to the present, with the scene previewed on the Internet a couple of days earlier. In a brilliant departure from the usual uses of the Joker, this time the Clown Prince of Crime (who doesn't feel like he deserves that name recently) is in captivity, physically harmless (Dick fears that Damian will kill the clown) but dangerous because of what he knows. It seems clear that the Joker's investigations as Oberon Sexton have given him advance knowledge of Hurt's plan. He asks for Batman's confidence. But he wears a disguise to try to get that trust. Dick is so certain that anything the Joker says is a trick that the Joker can probably perpetrate a trick just by telling the truth. The role that the white-faced archnemesis plays here is like that which Qull plays in the life of Abin Sur in Alan Moore's classic story "Tygers". Dick may lose his battle with Hurt if he doesn't listen to the clues that the Joker is offering. But if he does listen, he gives the Joker an opening to betray him. No situation could strike the Joker as funnier.
The rest of the present-tense plot shows how things start to unravel on the path to that dark future awaiting three days out. With Bruce Wayne likely to return on the third day, the numerology is that of the Easter story. Dick Grayson and Commissioner Gordon are shot down in the flying Batmobile by bazooka-wielding thugs of the 99 Fiends. This is when the dominoes start falling figuratively. Dick is unconscious as Pyg is, across town, sprung from Blackgate Prison. We see in a preview for next time that Pyg is about to operate on Commissioner Gordon, a fate that would bring him to the opening of Morrison's entire run, when Gordon was laughing from Joker toxin exposure in the opening pages of Batman #655.
As for the main threat that Hurt constitutes, it is indeed, as postulated here earlier, the antidote from #3 that carries the threat that Dick thought he was alleviating. The poison has already been delivered (a Joker classic since Batman #1, and played out again with Toad's death in B&R #2) to a huge number of people and Jim Gordon's sneezes tell us that he's obviously going to be one of the first victims to succumb. The city faces, when or before the eclipse happens, a plague similar to that seen in "Gothic", matching the fear expressed by Phosphorus Rex in B&R #3 when he says "They'll kill all of us." The Joker refers to "all fall down" time, which plays on the same children's nursery rhyme that "Gothic" quotes.
Dick is doing his best as a detective. He sees a "Mexican Train" being drawn on Gotham's map by the location of the Joker's crimes. Moments later, he places the image of a virus on the same portion of the same computer monitor. Did the Joker draw a picture of the molecule that actually cures the disease that Hurt is spreading?
This issue is magnificent, giving us a taste of a new future for the Batman characters as well as a new history of the Waynes' past and a portentous story in the present tense. Frazer Irving's art earns very high marks. When the four-page preview was released to the web this week, some fans found fault with his style. But that was the least "creepy" portion of the story, plotwise, The creepier the story gets, the more his work approaches sheer perfection. As the Joker crumbles during Damian's interrogation; as Dick is brought down from the sky with explosives; and, in every satanically sinister depiction of Hurt's face, Irving's art makes a perfect nightmare of the predicament that Morrison has scripted.
Bruce Wayne would have been ready for this. Dick Grayson wasn't. The Joker's grin mocks Dick when he tells him that to stop everyone from dying, he'll have to be as good as Bruce was. He certainly doesn't plan as well. With him, it's all in the timing.