Sunday, July 11, 2010
A casket bearing the bat-symbol appears to be, as Dick Grayson says, "the key" to everything big in Grant Morrison's intertwined runs in Batman and Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne. We know that it contains the writings of Bruce Wayne from his stint as a witch-hunter in the 1640s and papers he narrated to Jack Valor in 1718. As of 1734, it contains something else -- something Valor finds unspeakable and unsettling. It seems to make him feel as though he had participated in an awful rite, and makes him think of the end of the world. Maybe something else is placed in it after 1734. But whatever is in there, the sight of the casket makes the 99 Fiends say "Barbatos".
This casket has to be the handiwork of the Van Derm family, who have come up at least four times in the story, despite the extreme shortage of any actual text describing them. Martin Van Derm is seen c. 1645 as the keeper of the register of Gotham Colony. He is also a painter, and comes to win the trust of Bruce Wayne -- a trust which seems to extend to his entire family. At the end of ROBW #2, he seems to be handing Bruce's writings to his offspring while his narration tells us that "The Devil was not yet done with Gotham." Martin must finish his natural lifespan long before the alleged devil worship in the 1760s, so there is an important part of the story missing where devil worship begins in Gotham, perhaps sometime around the 1670s. The only person we know of who might be in the prime of life at this time would be the nameless person to whom Martin hands Bruce's book.
Later, in the 1730s, the Van Derm family has seems to be helmed by a "wealthy brother and sister", because it is they that Valor visits, and Van Derm is the name Bruce used to give him a destination. By this time, the casket has already been assembled and has the unsettling item inside. Devil worship has taken root sometime in the past century, with characters who have not yet been named.
According to Alfred's comment in B&R #12, Wayne Manor was built in 1795 by a Nathan Van Derm, who is thereby the fifth Van Derm to whom the story has referred, but only the second with a name. Once again, a role of great potential to affect the story falls to this one family. And one where knowledge of what is beneath Wayne Manor seems to have been necessary.
We know little more than this: That this family has been mentioned repeatedly, when there is no narrative reason to do so that has yet been made clear. The only Van Derm whom we have seen clearly has the same hairline as Doctor Hurt. And the names Martin, Nathan, Simon [Hurt] seem to fit in a sequence. The Van Derms have worked to serve the Waynes. Way back in Batman #678, Doctor Hurt relishes his expected victory and offers that the broken Batman might return to Wayne Manor, "perhaps as my butler." This line seemed like a clue at the time, that Hurt was someone who had been under the Waynes in the past, and wanted his family to take the upper hand.
It has been supposed, from the missing painting of old Thomas Wayne, and the allegations of devil worship, that Doctor Hurt is simply that ancestor of Bruce's, kept alive by some sort of satanic pact. But we already know that Doctor Hurt's current desire for the Waynes is to ruin their reputation with lies and then adopt a false identity as one of them. Is he one of them -- or a Van Derm who has used ill-gotten immortality to fight a family feud with them? Is the story about old Thomas Wayne's devil worship a lie to smear his name? RIP took place because Bruce wrongly trusted Doctor Hurt in the Army isolation experiment. Is the backstory in the past that he also wrongly trusted the Van Derm family, with Hurt being one of them?
Aside from the disproportional mention of this one family, we don't have any facts with which to answer that question. He feels that the Wayne fortune is "rightfully" his -- was it something he lost, or something he stole -- or planned to steal? He calls Gotham his home, and Bruce an usurper. But he also makes the direct lie that he is Bruce's father Thomas Wayne. We can't determine the facts of a largely untold backstory. But the Van Derms seem to have brought the Devil into this story. The story has told us just enough about them to make it seem likely that we need to be told more. The last two installments of ROBW have touched upon them near the end of the issue, and avoided using the family name when possible, as though Morrison wants to tell us just enough to keep them in the story, but outside of the glare of full attention. Perhaps because the big villain of the whole story is named Simon Van Derm.