Sunday, September 26, 2010

Batman: The Casket

Everybody wants it. References to it show up in the forefront and the background of the story. The story gives us clues to its nature, but deliberately holds its exact identity a mystery. The casket appearing concurrently in Batman and Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne is, as message-board poster hellblazerraiser points out, a textbook example of a MacGuffin. There are stories that leave the mystery of their MacGuffin's identity unsolved. Morrison has left mysteries hanging before, but the number and kind of clues suggest that he is going to wrap this one up sometime in the final four issues left in this "season" of his Batman work. What do we know about the casket so far?

The term itself is a bit unusual. In contemporary American English, the word "casket" is most often used to denote a coffin in which a person is to be buried. That meaning is not intended here -- the casket is simply a box, far too small to hold a person -- but the macabre undertones of the word go along with the story's tone.

Because this is a time travel story, the casket has appeared at many widely-separated points in time. The casket has definitely appeared as early as the 18th century and as late as the present-day. What may be the casket has perhaps shown up at the end of time. The known sightings, with exact or approximate years:

c. 1750: Jack Valor places papers with the words of Bruce Wayne inside. He sees a book and a mysterious something else inside. The casket is in the possession of a wealthy brother and sister who are probably Van Derms. (Jack's journal opens with a date of 1734, but he appears clearly more than 18 years older than the adolescent he was in the main events of ROBW #2.)

c. 1860: Darius Wayne holds the casket in a portrait set in the tunnels of the hidden Batcave that Dick finds in B&R. Interestingly, there is a beam of bright light reaching him in what seems to be an underground passage with no exposure to daylight.

c. 1880: In the main events of ROBW #4, the family of Catherine Van Derm is killed for the casket by people working for Vandal Savage and Old Thomas Wayne. They obtain the casket but cannot open it. By story's end, they lose it, and it falls into the possession of Alan Wayne.

c. 1890: In an understated detail to which no dialogue refers, the casket appears in the portrait of Alan Wayne. It is known from his narration that the bat-shaped design of the Garden of Death of Wayne Manor was created specifically to mark the location of the casket, so that Bruce Wayne can later find it.

2010: Dick retrieves the casket from the vicinity of the bat-cowl shrine that the Miagani created. This is concurrent with a source of light and an energy source that interrupts his communications with Alfred.
He has an encounter with a giant bat (as drawn, much larger than the large bat from ROBW #1) which may have been a hallucination. In the fight brought on by Talia's unrelated attack, he loses it to the 99 Fiends. A Fiend with the horsehead / knight insignia brings it to the station where Doctor Hurt's "Mexican train" arrives. Hurt still has the casket, and is unable to open it, as of B&R #14.

The casket itself seems simply to be a box. There are two kind of content: The writings of Bruce Wayne, and the mysterious "something else" which seems to have the larger importance. Of this, we know:

1) It creates the sound of bells, which may be not literally sound but a sort of psychic projection.
2) Jack Valor sees it, but says that he cannot speak of it.
3) Alan Wayne sees it, and says that it is "the sickening likeness of a coffin's lid", with "a yawning vacant grave within, and something beyond that seemed to be all our graves."
4) Bruce Wayne sees it before his jump forward from c. 1880 to c. 1980. Moreover, he takes the book and papers with him for that jump. He may or may not return them to the casket in the future.

What we know leads to a larger chain of suggested clues as to what it may be: Alan Wayne's description is a partial match the Ancestor Box that Darkseid holds in Batman #702, as he hits Bruce with the Omega Sanction. The two references to bell sounds match the Ancestor Box as well. This gives us a strong indication that the "something else" is exactly the Ancestor Box -- no more, no less -- but this is unproven, and would moreover raise the question of how anyone got their physical hands on the Ancestor Box in order to put it into the casket. We never see Bruce doing so, and he would be the leading candidate. If it is the Ancestor Box, was its capture against Darkseid's intentions, or was it exactly his intention?

To add to the exact timeline above, we have the following possible appearances of the "something else":

2008: In a moment that for the "something else" precedes all of its past appearances, Darkseid incorporates the Ancestor Box into his trap for Bruce Wayne. If so, then it apparently goes back to 9,000 B.C. An interesting question is whether it exists normally in time, present in and near Gotham at every moment between then and the Twentieth Century, or if it leaps along with Bruce. However, Jack Valor sees it in a time that Bruce's travels do not involve, indicating that it has been "captured" and put into the regular timeline, either in 9,000 B.C. or c. 1645 in the main events of ROBW #2. This capture, as noted above, is never seen or directly indicated. Is it possible that the tentacles chopped off by Bruce are the contents, referred to by Martin Van Derm as "the Devil" when he writes c. 1670? In any case, it stays on that timeline until at least c. 1980 and the events of the forthcoming ROBW #5.

1765: Old Thomas Wayne, in ROBW #4, when Catherine reports the bells, suggests that he has previously encountered the mysterious contents of the casket when he and others participated in the Barbatos ceremony. This fits easily with the known presence of the casket in Gotham before and after this date, although it indicates that the casket's possession was shared by or exchanged between the Waynes and Van Derms.

The End of Time: When Bruce Wayne encounters his rescue party at Vanishing Point, his presence at the End of Time and his ability to stop Superman and Green Lantern is unexplained. This would likely be within the abilities of an Ancestor Box. He is clearly more knowledgeable about the larger plot than he was in ROBW #3, indicating that sometime after the events that will begin in ROBW #5, he will gain control of the casket, retrieving it as Alan Wayne intended, some hundred years after it has sat waiting under Wayne Manor. At that point, he will cease to be an amnesiac dupe in Darkseid's trap and will begin his counterattack.

c. 1980: The main events of ROBW #5 will show the long-anticipated interaction between Thomas and Martha Wayne and the Black Glove. Bruce Wayne is alive as a small boy and also present as the gunshot victim of Jonah Hex, and will act as a detective, perhaps the same one hired by Martha's family as referred to by the Mayor in Batman #677. If the masquerade ball from Detective #235 takes place in Wayne Manor, it might be in the hidden Batcave, with Doctor Hurt striving to collect the casket which is present. The adult Bruce Wayne might be the one to come away with it, leaving Hurt waiting another 28 years until RIP to try again. Doctor Hurt's presence in Wayne Manor when Bruce is a child would resonate with his words to Bruce in Batman #678, "My, how you've grown." Clearly, ROBW #5 will be a big event in the mythology of Batman.

The facts that Old Thomas Wayne wanted the contents of the casket in c. 1880 so that they could provide him with immortality and that Doctor Hurt still (again?) wants them in 2010 indicate that Hurt is Old Thomas Wayne, bestowed with longevity but not total immortality. (He seems to have aged about 35 years as 245 years have actually passed.) He received his partial immortality in a first contact with the "something else" in 1765. Just as Bruce will be able to use the box's vast powers to travel in time and stop his super-powered friends, Hurt has found a way to use it for life extension but -- for unstated reasons -- only got partial immortality instead of the whole thing.

This would provide one explanation why he wants to get back to Wayne Manor and why he wanted to do so in RIP. Why didn't he obtain the casket in 2008 when he had control of the mansion for about five days? The fresh paint that Dick sees at the Barbatos shrine indicates that Hurt was probably within mere yards of his goal. Maybe he never got through the final wall/gate barriers that took Dick only a minute to get through. The timeline suggests that Bruce Wayne may be the answer: If Bruce took the casket from c. 1980 but it is present again in 2010, then the casket must return at some point. Perhaps Bruce, finally seeing the big picture, deliberately takes it from the End of Time back to c. 2009, so that it is absent from Wayne Manor during the events of RIP but is present again for the current story.

For however many of these jigsaw pieces fit together, more is unexplained. How did the contents get into the casket? Is Doctor Hurt, the curse-casting Devil of RIP just a man who got his hands on some New Gods technology and mistakenly thought them to be instruments of demons, the Devil, and black magic? If so, is Morrison portraying Earth's occult beings as a byproduct of DC's gods and devils? How much of the larger story is known to the Joker, who was a moment from reaching the door of their crypt when he was struck down in B&R #11? However much is clear now, Morrison has more to reveal to us before the story ends next month.


One, I'm adding an image of the casket in the portrait of Alan Wayne. It appears in the extreme lower right of this cropped version of a much bigger panel from B&R #10. Click to enlarge.

Two, the discussion of the casket has to lead into the larger plot of the All Over that Darkseid is threatening. In 1718, the Miagani mention this along with something leaving the Batcave. The Native American Midnight Horse mentions it in association with the casket in ROBW #4. This lends support to the idea that the "something else" was obtained after the events of ROBW #2 in c. 1645. Possibly associated with the chopping off of the tentacles. But was this part of Darkseid's intentions, or something Bruce did to start to overcome that plan? And is it associated with the Joker's "everybody dies" comment or is that a separate parallel threat? There is more to discuss, and I'm sure the comment section below will fill up with the excellent ideas of the people who comment here. The delays in the series provide more opportunities for discussion before the story resumes.


  1. One question. You say that the casket is in the portrait of Alan Wayne. I see it in Joshua Wayne's portrait, but I can't find a clear shot of the portrait of Alan Wayne in Batman and Robin 10-12, and wondered if you misspoke, or if I missed something.

  2. The casket appears on the right side of Alan Wayne's portrait as seen in the wide panel of all the portraits early in B&R #10. Granted, comic art is inherently ambiguous, but what's there definitely looks like the casket. I'll add a screenshot to the bottom of the post.

    It doesn't really add too much information, since we already know that Alan Wayne stashed the casket in Wayne Manor anyway.

  3. Great post, I'm interested to see how all of this plays out, is anyone reading Time Masters: Vanishing Point? It's suppose to tie into ROBW but I seriously doubt Grant has any input into that series, I wonder if that's being well done or not. I also wonder if we will get a definitive answer on how Dr. Hurt is connected to Darkseid. Didn't seem like it all over the past 3 years until batman 701-702.

  4. Time Masters seems to be more about setting up Flashpoint than with ROBW.

  5. John, one detail in VP #2 is that Rip finds a small body of water containing a tentacled beast. From this location, different moments in time can be viewed. Most of Bruce's jumps involve water, and the tentacled beast may match the one in ROBW #2 and/or the Ancestor Box seen in Darkseid's hands. The body of water that Rip finds may represent a time/place/thing instrumental to Bruce's jumps.

  6. the casket is simply a box, far too small to hold a person

    Considering that's precisely what the Ancestor Box contained, I'm going to say that's exactly what's in the casket.

  7. I wonder if the casket itself has become some kind of steampunk, earthbound version of an ancestor box?

    I.e., its constituent contents forming an equivalent of the advanced, Kirby-krackling tech of Apokolips, constructed from human technologies of different ages ...

  8. personally I have a hard time believing that Doctor Hurt is Old Thomas Wayne or that he isn't the devil, A) because the Old Thomas Wayne thing just comes too much out of left field, suddenly occuring with total convenience and B) it's a lot cooler with him as the devil, not satan but the devil. I'm not saying he couldn't be in possession of someones physical form like Old Thomas Wayne, or Thomas Wayne Junior (that would be F*&^ing awesome, really it would be!) or maybe even the corpse of Thomas himself. But what you're really ignoring is the streets of gotham arch right now which is hinting at and suggesting that Thomas Wayne was in fact a sort of degenerate and drunkard, one of the idol rich like those who populate the black glove, maybe the thing is that he and Martha entered an orgy where in she got pregenant with mentally damaged Tom Junior and hence the stop. OH yeah the big other thing is that Dr. Hurt hates batman, we know this cause he pretty much tells us this and has some kind of interconnected history with him or his past, it was in RIP that the joker says "then he told me why he hates you..." idkit just seems more interesting then a time traveling uncle who just happens to be related to Bruce but doesn't really care that he's Batman. I'm personally willing to bet that the casket is more linked to Darkseid's plan and that the hyperfauna in ROBW 2 didn't have to do with that in that it was attracted from cube time not pulled there from the start, IDK it just seems less climactic and grand if it's just a tentacle monster.

  9. For openers, I am a new reader to Batman and Batman related material. I was intrigued by the ROBW and have been sucked in. I have started reading or read B&R, Red Robin, Final Crisis, and Blackest Night. I am quite glad I have came across this blog as it is an excellent supplement to my reading.

    My question is this, in ROBW#1, what is, and how did the "sky cart" arrive at that location? That has been driving me a little nuts. Again, new reader to the books, and new reader to the site. Be gentile.

  10. Well it's grant morrison work so don't expect an easy or obvious he answer, he's like that but that's part of the fun. The sky cart was fired off in the last issue of final crisis (don't worry it doesn't spoil anything) and all the cosmic upheaval I'm guessing is what allowed it to fall back through time to predate Bruce's apperrance in the caveman era,it's made from Superman's Rocket, with the bat signal and final printing of the daily planet (not really but you'll see when you get there what I mean) So that's the deal, oh and it also has his utility belt in it, which doesn't make any sense or I guess it does...CONTINUITY!!

  11. Shiny, are you saying that the Ancestor Box is containing a person? I may have misunderstood... (Of course, anything is plausible with Apokoliptan technology.)

  12. Lido, something has to give. RIP built up Doctor Hurt as the ultimate enemy. A couple of different indications now hint that he might get an existential comeuppance, that he's not the big deal he thinks he is. If he finds out such a thing, that works against the power of RIP's ending. But there's no guarantee that he will get such a comeuppance, or that anything about his past (e.g., that Bruce inspired "Barbatos") has to happen.

    I am not reading Streets of Gotham, and do not think that Morrison would work it into his story. However, it's true that the editorial staff is likely to coordinate the stories so as to avoid glaring clashes. I may need to catch up on Streets of Gotham to see if there is any real information there re: Morrison's plans.

  13. Mike, Lido gave a partial answer. In a nutshell, the rocket was sent from the "good guys" in Final Crisis, but we do not know why the rocket landed in the past precisely where Bruce showed up -- if that fact is important to the ROBW story or not. It's lingered in my mind that Superman's cape, being indestructible (in this case; not all versions of his cape have been) ought to be in Gotham somewhere. But maybe it's lost.