Monday, November 22, 2010

Off Panel Discussion 1: Us and Them

Not Happening
In the coming weeks, this blog will host a feature called Off Panel Discussion. My readers are invited to be part of the "off" Panel. A blog post from me to the universe will start the week, and end with a question. Then a wrap up at the end of the week will amalgamate all of the great answers that poured in. The first week starts now. The topic is how superheroes stand in relation to the real world. The question appears at the end of the post.

It's a tale we all have heard. The superhero era was born with Action #1. A look inside to the third feature showed the excited youth of the Great Depression a champion of justice who donned his distinctive suit and used his amazing powers to fight evil doers. Of course, I am thinking of Zatara. But the kids who read the issue in sequence had already discovered Superman.

About twenty years into the comic book experience, creators started spicing up superhero stories with foils who were very obviously patterned to be a variation of the starring character. Bizarro. The Reverse Flash. Thousands of Green Lanterns. Supergirl. Batwoman. Right through to the numerous variant Batmen in Grant Morrison's current run.

Bizarro Is Not Surprised To Meet His Double
What I find interesting about this is that superheroes are in the first place a very strange variant on everybody real. If we consider Superman to be a basic inspiration for all the others, then the explosion of new superheroes in 1938-1941 had already produced numerous variants on the concept. What is it that makes comic book readers (and of course writers) wonder what other variants would look like? The odd thing about inventing Bizarro to give Superman an "opposite" is that Superman already had in Action #1 a double who was his opposite: Clark Kent. Heroic fiction long ago found out that it's more exciting to see a hero come onstage than to have him stand onstage all the time. You can see a reluctant or waylaid hero return to take the field in the homeric Iliad and Odyssey, and the same setup prevails in The Dark Knight Returns. Thanks to Clark Kent, the writer had an excuse to show Superman emerging triumphantly rather than just standing there and being great all of the time.

But with every reading of Action #1, there was another Superman-opposite: The person whose two hands were holding the issue up. In fact, Clark Kent was not just a place from which Superman could emerge, the way that Achilles emerged from his tent. Clark was also a surrogate for us. Jerry Siegel said, " one of his identities, [Superman] could be meek and mild, as I was, and wear glasses, the way I do." Clark couldn't get the woman patterned on the girl that Siegel couldn't get. She's after Superman.

In a verbal essay in the movie Kill Bill: Volume 2, Bill famously says that Superman is the real man and Clark Kent is the disguise (which matches Siegel's description) and that Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race. But the last part isn't true. Clark Kent is Jerry Siegel's portrayal of himself. Superman is what Jerry Siegel dreamed of becoming, and he shared that dream with us.

And so, the real opposite figure for a superhero is not another superhero or even a supervillain, but any one of us. I was impressed, though, with some of the comments to my last post, wherein people mentioned the inspirational value of superheroes. And, so, the question:

Off Panel Discussion Question #1: What person in the real world is most like a superhero?

Answers, please -- lots of them! All of the comments here are visible to one and all, and I'm sure they will be excellent. Then I'll post again at the end of the week to provide a wrap-up discussing your answer. Leave your answer in the comments and be the hero of Off Panel Discussion #1!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Whatever Happened To Earth One?

When I was a boy who went where my mother took me, we went sometimes to a department store downtown. There was a path through the aisles that went to the right, and before one left the aisles full of things for adults, one could smell the vinyl where superhero figures were sold. This is a smell that probably carries some medical hazards that people in 2010 know to avoid, but I thought it was lovely. At its source, I met my heroes. Superman, Batman, the Teen Titans -- the stars of various television and comic book renditions. Not far away was the tobacco-and-magazine store where I bought those comics in a haphazard fashion. I wasn't thorough enough to make sure that I got each month's issue of any particular series, and my collection has many instances where I have only one part of two-part stories.

My comprehension was poor enough that when, many years later, I saw the same Batman television show with the sensibilities of a teenager who read real literature, I was shocked to see that the antics of Adam West and Burt Ward were intentionally comedic. This had been lost on me when I saw it as a child. I enjoyed it on some other level.

I didn't need to be told in words that the comics were aimed at kids, even though certain issues of Detective Comics were unmistakably hardcore. I simply saw that nobody over the age of 12 that I knew was reading any. And so, I stopped buying comics on any regular basis before Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the shelves clean of the worlds of my heroes. Earth One, Earth Two, Earth S, stacked up not very carefully in boxes.

By odd coincidence, I ended up buying all of three comics during the mid-Eighties and two of them were classics by Alan Moore. This really was a coincidence, or effective marketing on the covers, I suppose. Still, my focus was so absent that when my father picked up the first part of Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but never bothered to get the second part until nine years later.

In early 1989, with a Batman movie set to release, some friends of mine told me about Dark Knight Returns and one of them lent it to me. This was the first time I saw anyone grown and not completely lost in fantasy read a story about those heroes of the vinyl action figures. I'd read Shakespeare and Virgil by that time, and had friends who lived with their eyes deep in real literature. I tried to convey upon them that Moore and Miller had written real literature with the funnybook heroes, and saw some agree and others disagree. A friend and I watched one episode of Adam West's Batman as a drinking game, taking a sip of beer every time Batman lectured anyone.

During a period of three or so years, I read the comics again, and collected -- this time from a gun and comics store -- some of the old issues I'd missed. The comics had grown up while I did, in not very similar ways. Barry Allen was dead. Supergirl was dead.

I started writing for an audience of basically none, little snippets of prose that might be considered a stillborn novel or script. For every plot point on the page there were ten in my head. I imagined just how it would look, how my take on Earth One would go. It was the sort of homage that years later came frequently from DC Comics itself as they set a writer here and there free to re-tell their classic worlds in new takes, "Elseworlds" they called it. And some fifteen years later, when I again returned to the comics, after again taking a long hiatus to let my life happen in other ways, I was shocked to see that some very specific plot points of my unwritten, unread, maybe once-told story had shown up in real comics in the meantime. It felt like ESP plagiarism had taken place. A squad of heroic-seeming villains defeat the Earth's superheroes but leave the seeds of their defeat in failing to actually kill Batman, who stalks back from an Antarctic plane crash to lead the resistance, reasoning from their failure to finish him off what their weaknesses were. I wrote that! Or thought it. And to see that in a Grant Morrison story that was printed some five years later tells me that there were some ideas in the older comics that anyone with the same sensibilities would take from them. Darkseid as Hitler, Earth as the conquered Europe, the Justice League as the Resistance and Allied armies -- this is obvious, on some level. It had to be done. And the idea of a hero fighting back from being abandoned in the frozen polar regions -- well, it had been done before in a Green Lantern comic and Superman II.

Many mature stories and Elseworlds also cover the same material. Superheroes are outlawed. Darkseid or some other bad guy as the conquering Hitler. Blitzkrieg, occupation, Stalingrad and Midway, D-Day, victory. Nobody wrote this story. It happened. We found in my father's old things an "action figure" of Douglas MacArthur and a copy of Detective #286. There was a common idea there, and writers wrote the childhood heroes into modified versions of World War Two using some of the values that made "real literature" good.

They say comic books can inspire a reader but I have trouble pointing to any good I ever did having been inspired by them. Maybe there is some, but it sure didn't resemble what Superman did. No, but one thing I got from the comics is how different the separate takes on the heroes and villains were. The Fifties, the Sixties, my pre-Crisis era, the era that came later, when it was hard to know who was Green Lantern anymore when I saw a comic book shelf and saw no one I recognized.

And after I'd spent a longer time away from them, they pulled me in again. I read about Identity Crisis, then in progress, from CNN. I joined it mid-way, and later read a few other things, older and current. Kingdom Come, and then Infinite Crisis. What really pulled me in this time was the sense of community because I could discuss these things with other fans. I had never really known other fans in person, and to this day I do not. I have had a few conversations, but even driving right past a major comics convention while it is in progress has not made me really want to go inside. Parking nearby to eat with my family at an Italian restaurant is life. When I walk down streets where muggers sometimes strike, I think of the irrelevance of Batman as an idea. A man who refused to hand his wallet over was shot dead not far from where I currently sit. A friend of someone very close to me drowned, and thoughts of Aquaman saving him made me smile and cry. That's what Aquaman can do. He can make you smile and cry when you would otherwise be numb.

For the last three years, I found something very interesting sociologically in the oldest Golden Age comics; at the same time, I found something almost totally different in the cutting edge comics of, in particular, Grant Morrison. These two passions ignited a willingness to act, but not to save drowning men, because I can't do that. I have written, and in this online community, the same typing that I once put into recording, for an audience of none, my own fictional stories, I have offered analysis. At first, I tried talking about the Golden Age comics, but I stopped, and found myself writing regular issue-by-issue analyses of the current comics, and the reason why is very important. That's what readers care more about now. I see the traffic stats for my site. Every comic has a peak of interest that lasts a day or two and then fades. Sometimes a second or third peak occurs if an older comic is homaged, but that is a minority event. The interest for the comics of 1940 peaked in 1940. I've posted on those, but the reason why I am posting has a lot to do with community. Not the hollow metrics of seeing the traffic stats peak, but the active discussion and engagement, in the comments here and on the DC Message Boards. One sees the transient passing of the inspired and cannot long forget that the canonical comic book shows a lone figure commit acts of justified aggression. Justification is easy and many-way directed when it comes from within. Superman said, in the best comic book of the last decade, that dreams inspire us but what do the comics inspire? Probably not more lifeguards. The exciting part of an Aquaman comic is not when Aquaman stares at the beach but when he boards a ship and doles out punishment. That may be what it inspires.

The comics are a wonderful realm for setting the mind free. They invite one to be a detective far more than they propel one to saving lives or stopping muggers. The unexamined life is not worth living. I fell, just by being me, into a yearlong plunge trying to understand Grant Morrison's run on Batman and to answer the question, "Who is the Black Glove?" This remains something that happens online, not in my real life. I feel, in ways I'd like to expound upon later, that the activity has sharpened my mind and borne out the best practices of science and ways of being. I rather deliberately tried to bring the exact same habit from my comic book analysis to the standout television drama, Mad Men, just to see how the whole experience -- looking for subtleties, evoking a response from the online community, carried over. And in a respect, to go back to the discussions I had a long time ago as to whether superhero comics are real art. Understanding them is much the same as understanding real art.

That one can go from the comics to other venues invites that very transition. What is found in comics, and much that isn't, can also be found elsewhere. With the interruption of one part of my online discussion of comics, I will switch gears here. I will in the long run post much less and less regularly, and aim my focus elsewhere, some on this blog and some not. I may in the short run actually post more, to launch a few projects in discussion that seem worthy to me. That Grant Morrison's comics are changing seasons makes this timely. I have been offered pay for writing in a couple of venues and I will consider those.

The building where I bought those figures of the superheroes has long since ceased being a store of any kind. It burned down this fall, leaving a smoking shell. It's the sort of thing that a superhero would have stopped, easily, but there are no superheroes. Maybe some of the firefighters who stopped the fire from spreading were inspired by superheroes. Isn't it pretty to think so?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Batman The Return

"The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough." -Niels Bohr

Comic book superheroes, even the ones who cannot overfly a continent whilst shooting heat from their eyes, live in a world where the greatest feats of our real world are matched and exceeded by well-prepared mortals on a moment's notice. For some fifty years, Batman has lived in a world that inherits all of the wild premises of the magical and science fiction allies on his various super teams. His own wonders of deduction and acrobatics inhabit a world in which humanlike robots have arisen from the hands of lone inventors. Antigravity, size manipulation, teleportation -- these are part of Batman's world, but have not been a part of his methods. To preserve the formula that has propelled the character through seventy years of success, we never see him ask Superman to provide him with a Legion flight ring. We don't see him teleport into battle even though he routinely does so in JLA titles. There is a rule here which considers the title on the cover to determine what Batman can and cannot do. In Batman: The Return, Grant Morrison starts changing the rules, but not as much as he could have. Batman begins adding to his arsenal, with things that the real world of 2010 does not have, but not -- the rules are being bent, not abandoned -- Red Tornado -level robots and Thanagarian tech. Batman is skipping a few years ahead of where he's been, but not centuries. As RetroWarbird mentioned in the comments to my last post, we are seeing the sci fi of technology, but not the cosmic sci fi of Bruce's last two or three adventures.

"Planet Gotham", the one-shot issue's story title, takes the Batman concept planetwide while bringing some of the DC Universe's wilder technology into his arsenal. The idea of Batman works, so the man who is obsessed with fighting crime has finally taken upon himself to mass produce it, to bring Batman to ten thousand cities instead of one, to protect six billion people instead of ten million. If only it were feasible, it's what a man obsessed with a mission to stop crime would do. And yet until now he has not. But now he is.

This issue begins with an origin, one that happens to revisit a moment from last week's ROBW #6 as well as Last Rites and The Dark Knight Returns. As we know, it is the moment that Batman became Batman and his first act upon doing so was to ask for help. As has been abundantly foreshadowed of late, he is going to ask for more help than he has ever done so far, and it begins with those who have stood beside him in Gotham. It continues in Batman, Inc. all around the world.

Kane and Finger's Bat-Man began by fighting realistic crooks and killers, but that only lasted twelve pages. Soon he was fighting mad scientists and monsters. It took far fewer pages than the length of Batman: The Return for Batman's creators to decide that his victory over ordinary crooks was such little challenge that it was time to put him against something bigger. Return introduces the something-bigger that will occupy Batman's resources as he hopes to fight all crime but may have to content himself with neutralizing this new enemy.

Morrison's first two seasons of Batman have involved a single shadowy force that lurks behind the scenes while sending forth a series of medium-sized villains to challenge Batman before the climactic showdown. In both of the first two seasons, this turned out to be Doctor Hurt. This time, it is the organization that the script pages in Return call Kultek but that the pages in the story call Leviathan. What are these entities? Morrison tells us in the script that Kultek is a sinister organization. The name Kultek is itself mysterious (it means "refugees" in Hungarian, quite likely by coincidence). The name Leviathan is a pointer towards some dark anti-Judeo-Christian religion, familiar territory after the demonic names and backstory of Doctor Hurt. Exactly how these things relate or do not relate remains to be seen. Is Leviathan precisely the same thing as Kultek? Is it a subdivision? Does it relate to Thomas Hobbes' portrayal of tyrannical government? To the Old Testament's sea monster? To the DC Universe's similar characters such as Kobra and R'as al-Ghul? The detailed answers are not here. What we do see in Bruce's two outings against Leviathan, and a third under his surveillance, is a sampling of what is sure to be a longer list of bad guys.

The action starts off with an incredible number of references to knowing and not knowing. The verb "to know" and its negation appear thirteen times, sometimes repeated twice in the same speech balloon. The idea of knowing is communicated even more times using different words. One of the men is named Farouk. In Arabic, that means "he who knows truth from falsity." Batman is, in comparison to his super-powered allies, a man who knows things. He is a detective -- as his enemy calls him, a master detective -- and he usually has made victory inevitable at the moment that he discovers what his enemy is up to.

And so this conflict between Batman and the new enemy is about knowing. Batman says that a thing which is known can beat Farouk. Farouk downplays his failures by saying that Batman will learn nothing from him. Batman seems to know quite a bit about the enemy, possibly from his brush with omniscience at the end of time. The enemy, of course, knows everything about themselves. We, however, know quite little. Who, besides Bruce Wayne, is "Fatherless"?

We know this: Leviathan (which appears in a narration box as though it is the location for the final scene) has some dark master. But the boy hails it. It is an entity, whether singular or plural. They use genetic manipulation to create superpowered beings, as bodyguards for the wealthy, but perhaps for some other purpose. They allow the entities to practice against one other. For those who were keeping score, Traktir held his own against Batman for a while and the Heretic is the one who beat Traktir and a whole team at once. The Heretic, who may just be one big eye under that cowl, is obviously a tough opponent. He also talks about what will happen in ways that imply either prophecy or delusion.

And as much as this seems like a time for a new story to begin, things are compatible with being another dive into the same pool. Leviathan, among its other senses (including a use in Morrison's Clarion The Witch Boy), is like Barbatos is a name from demonology. "Heretic" is inherently a comment about religion. The Heretic looks a bit like the Satanic Replacement Batman, Lane. A dark master controls a powerful web of subordinates. Can anyone stop him? The final panel, showing Batman, is posed very much like he was at the end of Morrison's JLA #11, when Bruce began to wage corporate takeover against Luthor's forces in Rock of Ages. Both even sport the same "To be continued" in the same corner of the page. And we know how Rock of Ages ended up. Game on.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Batman: Next Season

By the time Grant Morrison's Batman run had reached its fifteenth issue, the structure that had to that point involved various arcs of one to four issues, involving a series of assorted villains, took on a different aspect. At roughly the same time that interviews announced the upcoming Batman R.I.P., the story itself revealed a grand design of singular focus: The entire run, going back to the "Zur En Arrh" graffiti from the first scene, pointed towards one confrontation as a mastermind of inhuman patience brought a plan to destroy Batman to its culmination. This plot and its catchphrase, "Who is the Black Glove?", served as the pinnacle and guiding force of the entire two-year run. Moreover, it went on to serve as the wellspring for the main threat of yet another run, Morrison's sixteen issues of Batman and Robin which served as a sequel, reprise, and parody of RIP. It proved to be a remarkable undertaking to have kept a story so well hidden for over a year and then, in the re-reading, so abundantly obvious, with clues like the graffiti having built up the threat, the plan, and the nature of the enemy himself in many of the issues that preceded Doctor Hurt's final attack.

As the second Doctor Hurt plot has now ended, and a new run on Batman, Inc. is ready to begin, one can see that the original Morrison run is all the more remarkable for having produced the seeds for the still upcoming run even while it seemed to keep the primary focus on the mystery of RIP. A few important non-Black Glove themes that go back to 2006 sat dormant during Bruce Wayne's absence but will come to the forefront in the next year:

(1) Bruce Wayne is a important, heroic identity even when he is not Batman.
(2) Batman is such a great example of human actualization that he should be emulated; both evil and good forces have sought to duplicate Batman, creating one more or even an army of him.
(3) Batman will allow more equality in his partnerships, having seen the failures that result from dominating in all his relationships.
(4) The magic and science fiction that were part of the epic so far will be largely or totally absent from the next part of the story.

If there is a place to look for important symbolism in a story, it is at the beginning. Theme #1, Bruce over Batman, began in Morrison's run with the first words that any of Batman's allies said to him. Commissioner Gordon opened (excepting one line by an unnamed policeman) the dialogue in Batman #655 by asking the masked vigilante, "Is that really you?" On the surface, Gordon is asking if this is the real Batman, not another imposter like the one in the first scene. Morrison is far too careful a writer to open with a line that he didn't mean to have particular significance. What is being asked by Morrison is if the costumed identity, the suit, is really the hero. This question will be underscored in the very next line, when Gordon asks, "Has anyone ever told you how ridiculous you look in that getup?" Gordon later mentions -- again with a meaning besides the surface one -- "the nut in the Batman suit." If we wonder if Morrison is taking the question seriously or not, we can skip to the first issue post-RIP which shows a younger Bruce being asked by Alfred, "Have you noticed how you no longer refer to Batman as your disguise?"

The message continues to come from Batman's consiglieri, his older and sometimes wiser allies. After Commissioner Gordon tells Bruce to get out of town, the present-day Alfred, later in issue #655, tells Bruce that he has to relearn to be himself. And Tim tells Bruce to "combine the two," on the surface meaning to combine the two pieces of advice in one trip, but on a deeper level telling him to combine his two identities. We can already see all of this playing out in Batman, Inc., with Bruce Wayne stepping forward as the public face of the Batman corporation and many trips abroad as part of a recruitment effort.

Bruce Wayne has rarely been depicted as the all-around loser that Clark Kent has sometimes been, but his persona as the dissolute fop goes back to Detective #27, when Commissioner Gordon lights a cigar and muses to himself, "Bruce Wayne is a nice chap, but he must lead a boring life. Seems disinterested in everything." But Morrison shows Bruce Wayne performing stunts that are fully worthy of Batman at his best. In #664, Bruce skydives onto skis saying, "I've always wanted to do that." He goes on to bring a helicopter down with a ski pole after telling Jezebel that he is much cooler than James Bond. Morrison's Bruce Wayne also skydives from a hot air balloon into the city, making a smooth change into Batman in the air. Later, in #675, he fights off Jezebel's attackers without changing into Batman -- we see Bruce Wayne take down two thugs and the Nine-Eyed Man; there is even a panel of Bruce Wayne triumphant in battle with the bat-signal behind him.

In the persona of the Batman of Zur En Arrh, an occasionally dull but effective brute, we see the shortcomings of what Batman is like when Bruce Wayne is taken out of the equation. The implied critique in that rendition (looking quite a bit like his contemporary, the All Star Batman of Frank Miller) lets us know that the pendulum will swing the other way; we will see a Batman who has more Bruce Wayne in his equation. Indeed, we did in the just-concluded Return of Bruce Wayne. The hero operates without a mask in most of the issues, and gets to the end of Darkseid's trap by physically ripping a dark bat-persona out of himself, something that Superman's heat vision cannot do for him. Indeed, the pattern of story arcs resolving with Bruce Wayne unmasked repeats over and over. It happens in Morrison's second arc, when Bruce and Jezebel are watched by two black-gloved hands. It happens again at the end of RIP, seemingly because of Hurt's command that Bruce stop being Batman. Without the cowl, he does so, but is no less a hero. It is not Batman who brings down Hurt; it is Bruce Wayne, who is also unmasked at the end of story arc conclusions in 52 #30 and #47, Batman #702, Batman and Robin #16, and Return of Bruce Wayne #6. The title of that series itself has a meaning beneath the surface, for it is not only the journey of a man returning home, it is the return of a newly important man. Morrison's bat saga promises us in every way the return of a character named Bruce Wayne. And so we should expect to see more Bruce and less Batman. The revelation that Bruce has been bankrolling Batman launches this era formally, but the signs and signals have been with us the whole time.

And what will Bruce Wayne / Batman do in this new era? Theme #2, Duplicating Batman, has made the answer obvious to our hero; anybody with the means to do so has tried to duplicate whatever version of Batman they can. Talia used her genes and Bruce's to breed the ultimate child in Damian. Talia later makes an army of Man-Bats. The Gotham City Police Department had hired Doctor Hurt to turn three policemen into Replacement Batmen. John Mayhew tried to assemble a squadron of surrogate Batmen from around the world. Finally, Darkseid's cronies Mokkari and Simyan tried to make an army of cloned Batmen, using the hero's genetic material and memories -- a plan that might have had fearsome results had the original not stopped them.

Most of the arcs in Batman and Robin continued this theme, first with Dick Grayson a fellow orphan and crimefighter taking on (permanently now, for all he knew) the Batman role better than anyone other than Bruce could hope to. Jason Todd, though, thought that he could improve the brand with his deadly Red Hood identity. Next up, one of the clones went on a brief rampage thanks to the Lazarus Pit. Finally, the Joker wore black and worked as a crimefighting detective.

And so, following the methods of John Mayhew more than the others, Bruce Wayne will now try to duplicate himself, or rather his concept: Batman himself will franchise the Batman symbol, traveling the world to mold other non-powered superheroes in his image, elevating the methods and goals of their crimefighting to his standards. Most likely, Bruce will succeed in what others have attempted; he will make a larger force of surrogate Batmen.

When he does so, he will know how not to approach the matter. Theme #3, Trust in Allies, is introduced when the Knight tells us in #667 that Mayhew's heroes hardly knew one another and that "everybody was in awe of Batman. No wonder it lasted all of half an hour." The awe that the Club of Heroes members have for Batman is obvious throughout that story. With Batman filling the leadership role, attending meetings capriciously, delivering orders, and effortlessly commanding the glory, he becomes the target of envy. Wingman plays Iago to Batman's Othello, joining a plot to kill Batman and the other heroes in return for the Devil's promise of fame. This is quite the downfall from Wingman's debut back in Batman #65, when Batman was shown training him because his "northern European" home country told Batman of an "urgent request for a counterpart of Batman." In the shiny, happy world of 1951, all goes well except for the envy that an injured Robin has regarding Batman's temporary new partner.

But the Club of Heroes story inherits the Batman that Morrison got, the "bat-jerk" we had seen hanging up on Oracle and defiant in his rectitude after R'as al-Ghul used his plans to bring down the Justice League in Mark Waid's "Tower of Babel" story. This Batman, according to #669, somehow gave Wingman the idea that he believed him to be "a bit of a loser", and that he didn't take Wingman seriously. This perception drove the capable Wingman to an unanticipated breaking point, where he would turn to evil in order to be seen as a greatest good. He was tempted by fame thanks to his own moral weakness but also because Batman had, in the words of Iago, "a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly."

It is not only the morally flawed Wingman and the fragile Club of Heroes that breaks on contact with the haughty, superior Batman. He on two occasions even drives Tim Drake away, in #657 and #676.

That Batman will reach out more to allies is also primed as Return of Bruce Wayne ends, with Batman turning to the Justice League, calling them not "my colleagues" but "my friends." ROBW #6 makes a bold point that Batman is a man with the weakness of having been left alone but the strength, since the beginning, of having help. First from Alfred, then from Dick Grayson, who saved Bruce's life not only with his action but with also his levity. As ROBW ends, Bruce turns to his friends for a particular reason: He has been fighting gods and such a fight is inherently not his because he is a man. Theme #4, No Science Fiction, begins in #701 when Batman tells us, with uncharacteristic humility, "I've worked so much to gain [the super-powered heroes'] respect, they sometimes forget I'm flesh and blood." By the end of ROBW, Bruce knows that the science fiction monster has to be beaten by science fiction heroes. He tells us as much and hands the baton to Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. This ends the part of the story that revolves around Darkseid, time travel, demons, and space medicine. RIP ended with Bruce telling us that he was writing the last Black Casebook entry. Inc. will be what comes after that.

And so begins Batman, Inc. A new season, but Morrison was welcoming it in since his first issue back in 2006. He's been telling us since the beginning that we needed to say goodbye to the bat-jerk and see a man who is more Bruce Wayne, more human, more open -- a part of things rather than the loner above them. We could call it a new approach to the character. Morrison, through Metron, calls it the first truth of Batman. This is a very different take than Morrison's Arkham Asylum presented when it told us, "Mommy's dead. Daddy's dead. Brucie's dead. I shall become a bat." The older Waynes cannot be revived. But Brucie's not dead anymore. A bat shall become him.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Return of Bruce Wayne 6: The Myth

While Bruce Wayne scored his inevitable victory over Darkseid (or rather the plan that the now-absent Darkseid set into motion) in ROBW #6, the ornate narration visited numerous details of Morrison's run and other aspects of Batman and DC mythology along the way. In so doing, it provided final explanations for a few of the lingering mysteries of the run and also made a tremendous number of comments about the character. Because I have already commented on the basic plot of Bruce beating Darkseid's Hyper-Adapter, I will focus here on the many expressive details that came along the way.

When Bruce first arrives at the end of time, thanks to Professor Nichols' time travel machine, the Archivists use the occasion to store his history into their permanent archive of the Universe. Bruce has an exalted role in the history of the universe – his is the last story to be stored and all of the final events in the universe involve him. The Archivists have a flair for the artistic: They create representations of the key items in Batman's mythic story: The pearls his mother wore, the bell he used to summon Alfred on the night he chose to become Batman, the gun and the bullets that took his parents' lives.

While completing their primary purpose for existing, the Archivists go to great lengths to help Bruce. He takes off the burning gangster clothing from ROBW #5 and undergoes a revival, what they refer, biblically, as a Lazarus Transformation. Affirming the essential, mythic characteristics of the situation, and Morrison's love of sigils, they arrange themselves in a "cardinal configuration", like the four points of the compass, as they begin to work with a Bruce who has regained his memory. Bruce describes the situation as familiar, because the urgency of the moment, and being hunted, is how Batman has spent his entire existence. At that comment, the original menace to Bruce, a bullet, is recorded as the absolute last detail to go into the archive of the universe.

Reflecting Morrison's love of science and technology, Bruce cannot help but be curious about the beings, assessing their hairy appearance as a characteristic of what roboticist Hans Moravec calls "bush robots." They, in turn, are fascinated by him, calling him and his appropriation of Nichols' time machine as one of history's great mysteries. They converse of platonic, universal matters while addressing the specifics of Bruce's problem. The timeline of Morrison's larger story, which began with a being dedicated to knowledge appearing before Anthro, ends with Bruce being assisted by these other beings dedicated to knowledge. Exemplifying Bruce's mythic stature, these beings who record the final archive of the universe are "honored" to assist him. They also tell him that this is to be his new beginning, which reminds us that Morrison's next season with Bruce will be something different and tells Bruce that these beings who know the full history of the universe already know that he's going to win this battle.

When the search party arrives, we have the first of many times that a scene or dialogue from a previous issue is repeated, this time from ROBW #2. This cuts sharply to the origin of Batman -- not the shooting, but the scene from his first night fighting crime, based on a scene in Detective #33, revamped by Frank Miller in Batman: Year One, and tweaked by Morrison to give it the characteristics of Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven in Batman #682, illustrated like this issue by Lee Garbett. This scene is referenced three times in ROBW #6, highlighting the importance of the bell that Bruce rang in a way that only becomes clear upon the third instance.

At Vanishing Point, Booster Gold's assistant Skeets becomes the voice of wisdom, telling the search party that the trap Bruce created is actually a time sphere, and it carries them from their doom to the battle in which they will be essential. They escape from the timestream only moments before it ends; this is the third of three final significant events in the DC Universe. Let it be noted that Rip Hunter gets the universe's last words: "The big all-over!"

In the present, the Bruce/Hyper-Adapter hybrid easily takes down a group of JLA members which conveniently contains none of the original or Satellite Era members. When his rampage leaves only Tim Drake standing, Tim plays a card that Bruce used to stop the monster of the original Blockbuster story in Detective #345 -- he removes his mask and allows his humanity and familiarity to stop the invincible threat. Bruce, amnesiac, remains hostile, but slows to a creak, chilling the room because of the contact he made with the universe's heat death. His nose bleeding to reflect the internal struggle, Bruce's words turn tender. "I know you. Tim." More meaningful than first names, he later, more poignantly says, "Robin."

It is this measure of control that Tim helped Bruce achieve that leads him to submit when Wonder Woman arrives. In Batman #701-702, Bruce reminds us that while he is a man, these other heroes are themselves mythic and gods. Wonder Woman sees the story in her own terms, calling the Hyper-Adapter a Fury and probably in reference to Pandora, asking if Darkseid opened a box to let that demon out.

Under the power of Diana's lasso, Bruce speaks the truth while we see the words of the Hyper-Adapter struggling to manipulate him, associating the identity of Diana with Martha Wayne by saying "Mother betrayed you! Mother lied! Mother Box lied! Tell her nothing! Tell mother nothing!" Apparently compelled to obey the letter of its command, but not the spirit, Bruce continues to tell Diana everything she asks while triumphantly and hilariously vexing the Hyper-Adapter by punctuating his words with the non sequitur "Nothing." It asked him to tell her nothing. He told her everything and also told her, as it commanded, "Nothing."

As a hint of the Darkseid-Doctor Hurt association which is reinforced later, it continued its rant with lies about Thomas Wayne, much the same as Hurt would have had Bruce believe: "Father hated you! Stay lonely! Stay dead forever father fear!"

With his memory intact, the Hyper-Adapter goes on the attack, with "time" being shown to us, in the form of the Hanged Man tarot card, which symbolizes devotion to a worthy cause and also displays the petrine cross which was so notoriously removed from the cover of B&R #15. We also see the pearls and bullet and the Wayne murders, the eclipsed sun from Bruce's legend-inspiring adventure in ROBW #1, the "HAHAHA" of the Joker, symbols of games -- cards and chess, a bat and the bat-symbol, and a constellation. These tokens of what Batman is are alluded to with single-word speech balloons covering everything from the Wayne murders to the Joker's apophenia-inducing puzzles to a "ka-pow" right out of the Adam West television show.

We know that Batman must win. But he once again out-plans the enemy plan. Batman needs a time sphere for his plan to work and though the Hyper-Adapter disabled one, the search party arrives with a second one. Batman reckons that urban pollution alone is one weapon against the Hyper-Adapter -- for air to pose a danger to an alien threat is as old as The War of The Worlds. But he hits every right note at once with the masterstroke of his plan -- he has brought the monster to fight the strongest members of the Justice League on their home ground. They are empowered not only by who they are but because this moment now is the Age of Superheroes (the importance of the era itself being a thing that Libra acknowledged in Final Crisis) and presenting a theme to be developed more later, the monster must moreover fight his friends.

The superheroes, however, cannot tear the Hyper-Adapter out of Bruce -- he has to do that on his own. But once it is out, it stands no chance. In the grip of Wonder Woman, Superman, and Green Lantern, it is helpless, and they throw it where Bruce instructs them, into the time sphere. As they do, Bruce tells us that it, like the New Gods, is an idea made real. He says of it what Vandal Savage's evil thugs said of him at the end of ROBW #3, that it "never tires, never stops." Becoming the image that has defined Bruce, it becomes a bat, as it begins a trip backwards in time to its own defeat. Along the way, it makes the appearance during which it briefly fought Dick Grayson during B&R #11-12. Compelled by the time sphere, it goes back like the time-traveling bullet from Final Crisis, probably making the stop along the way to encounter 1765's Thomas Wayne as part of this voyage and not as a residue from Bruce's previous visit in 1718. Finally, it arrives in 9,000 B.C. where it is killed by Vandal Savage. Its skin later adorns the site where Savage's tribe binds Bruce to the ground and Bruce wears it in triumph, creating the bat-legend that carries forward in time, ultimately linking back to this story and itself. DC Message Board poster dangerdrventure notes that consuming the flesh of this bat form of the Hyper-Adapter may be the source of immortality for both Doctor Hurt and Vandal Savage. Its death is a part of the same story that it thought it was using to doom Bruce and his world, another dramatic example of the folly of working against Batman.

A powerful fever threatens to kill Bruce in the wake of his possession. As he falls, he puts clues together, telling us that Darkseid had tried to incarnate in Doctor Hurt. Given the evil with which 1765's Thomas Wayne began, this does not meet the requirements of incarnation from Final Crisis #4, "the ruin of a powerful, noble spirit." Maybe because of this, Darkseid was not able to use Hurt as he was Turpin.

The narration switches to pure symbols and flashbacks as a near-death experience with Kirbyesque art shows us a conversation between Bruce and Darkseid in the silent battlefield full of tombstones and broken Ozymandius-style statues where the "war in heaven" that beat the good New Gods before Final Crisis had taken place. Moments after Bruce had expelled one bat-demon, we see a flashback to what was truly Morrison's first Batman issue, the scene in 52 #30 in which the Ten Eyed Men cut away Bruce's demon -- a scene that RetroWarbird notes showed a Barbatos-like demon floating away. Lines from throughout ROBW and Batman #701 appear in fragment and show the rush of the story to this one end. We also see that the man in the wheelchair from ROBW #5 was, as many suspected, an avatar of Metron, who reveals that he has set up the Fifth World and says that Bruce can end this threat to his life, and the threat of Darkseid, by articulating the first truth of Batman. And at that, we see the third flashback to the "bell" scene and realize its true significance -- though Joe Chill's gunshots left Bruce alone, vulnerable to the fear of loneliness, he was never alone. He is staring at a bat, perhaps a stop of the Hyper-Adapter on its path to the past. In Batman #682, it is called a "peculiar, beady-eyed specimen, quite unafraid." It ends with Alfred disposing of it in humiliating fashion, sweeping it up and burning it. But at the moment of Bruce's impending mortality -- as in Return of Bruce Wayne #6, he had salvation awaiting. In that story, Bruce's help came the moment he rang the bell -- it was Alfred, who looms gigantic over this story though he is never shown and is named just once. In this story, it is Tim -- Robin. It is Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Superman. Batman's friends.

The ringing of the bell in the flashback sends a pattern of sound across the whole world. Batman is a figure far more prone to give his assistance than to need it himself. Tim, his partner, recognizes that the way to revive Bruce is to tell him that Gotham is in danger. This is not just a claim they make for its therapeutic value. It happens to be true -- these events take place during the culmination of Doctor Hurt's attack which played out in Batman and Robin #16. Bruce's thoughts reveal in flashbacks that wrap up the mystery of the casket, that it never held anything of power. It was always a red herring for Doctor Hurt to pursue. Its note reading "Gotcha!" was a second barb aimed at Darkseid and his servants using that word, because Bruce knew that it would eventually be seen by them, as it was when Hurt went on to open it at a moment that is probably just slightly after Bruce rises from the icy bath that cools his fever. He thinks of the evil that is Doctor Hurt, and underscores for us, speaking to a mystery that has spanned two years, exactly what Hurt is: "A pure strain of platonic evil." And that there is still time to stop it. Going alone to join the battle with Dick and Damian, Bruce reminds us that his mission is not done, and will not be until "the night is over." As the Archivists knew, the knight's not over yet.

Return of Bruce Wayne 6: What Happened

This issue is a piece of a puzzle. It fits squarely between ROBW #5 and the end of B&R #15. It concludes ROBW and retroactively concludes B&R and Grant Morrison's 28 issues of Batman. It leads in to Batman, Inc. while also concluding, in some respects, Final Crisis, the Batman origin tale from Detective #33, and the entire timeline of the DC Universe. An ambitious story? And then some.

What happens? Through a narrative that is tangled in time, story lines, different titles, and themes, with characters who are moving forward, backward, and sideways in time, the myth of Batman is rebuilt from the beginning to its absolute end. One very particular adventure concludes: The Hyper-Adapter that Darkseid set loose must be beaten. This, of course, happens. In that respect, the story is very simple. What it says along the way is incredibly complex. I would not want to count the panels, including tiny insets, in this issue, but I suspect that the total number is several times that of an ordinary comic.

How does the final encounter between Bruce and the Hyper-Adapter play out? The Archivists who inhabit Vanishing Point automatically snare it for him, in a trap that will last a while, but not long enough to doom it at the very end. Bruce must escape it, and because his mind is what attracts it, he asks the Archivists to wipe his memory once more. He also asks them to build a time sphere that his friends can use to escape from the universe's heat death while he borrows theirs. And so he jumps, amnesiac, to the Hall of Justice.

The Hyper-Adapter, as clever as it is ugly, has bonded with him, and so it is the Archivist suit that Bruce wears upon his arrival. Satan, as Bruce says in ROBW #2, is hairy; it is not merely a disguise he is wearing: Bruce is essentially possessed, still as dangerous as ever, taking down the JLA while they try to stop him. The Hyper-Adapter directs Bruce to do its ill bidding until Tim Drake talks the half of Bruce that is still himself into slowing down his attack. Bruce allows Wonder Woman to lasso the composite pair and let them both speak their truths. At that point the Hyper-Adapter becomes its full self, still bonded to Bruce, threatening his life and all of time. And at that, Bruce's plan is itself revealed. He knows that he is not a god and cannot face true evil on a mythic scale, but that he is not and never has been alone. He cannot beat the Hyper-Adapter, only purge it from himself. And then his friends take over. In the time of superheroes, the JLA is unbeatable: Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Superman can beat the Hyper-Adapter, and by bringing it to the JLA, Batman has made it just another monster for them to beat. It has destroyed Nichols' time machine so that Batman cannot banish it, but as always, he is a step ahead. As soon as the time sphere brings the rescue party into the fight, the three big guns of the JLA wrestle the Hyper-Adapter inside, and it is taken into the past, in the form of a giant bat, where it is turned into an element of its own story: Vandal Savage kills it, where it inspires the bat legend that Bruce's adventure in ROBW #1 created for the Miagani.

This leaves Bruce barely alive, a medical threat which is resolved with ice water and by telling him that Gotham is in peril and needs him. That sounds like a necessary lie that Tim Drake thinks of, but it happens to be true: Bruce, having returned safely to his own time with his health, mind, and life intact, leaves to go help Dick and Damian beat Doctor Hurt, which we already saw take place.

On the simplest level, that is how Batman escapes from the trap that Darkseid created for him in Final Crisis #6: With his brains, his ability to survive, and a little help from his friends.

The larger part of the narration, though, embeds inside the plot the resolution of numerous plot points from Morrison's entire bat-saga, along with a sort of essay about Batman and the most endless Batman story of them all. That will be the subject of a second post, appearing here later today.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Batman and Robin 16

One has to give Doctor Hurt credit. While most villains over the years have gone down easily when opposed by Batman, Hurt stayed alive, uncaptured, and largely on the offense until he had to face the combined efforts of two Batmen, one Robin, and the Joker. He was formidable enough that he had, and passed on, opportunities to kill both Batmen in a failed effort to achieve an even larger victory. But his elaborate plans kept the heroes off-balance for years. What was puzzling them -- and us -- was the nature of his game.

For Hurt, this issue begins and ends underground, and he spends most of the middle underground. All three of these subterranean scenes are memorable. First, we see the ceremony which is not quite the origin of Doctor Hurt -- he is already devoted to evil and practiced in Satanic rites in 1765 when he manages to raise a bat apparition that he takes for a demon and which somehow, perhaps telepathically, utters cryptic messages totaling just 22 words that forge a deal with Thomas and drops clear references to Darkseid.

Key parts of Hurt's origin as Thomas Wayne -- not Bruce's father but a young man in the Wayne family looking a lot like Bruce in 1765 -- had been hinted at over the last several issues. The issue begins with a faithful retelling of the ritual from Peter Milligan's 1990 story "Dark Knight, Dark City" in Batman #452-455. Six men prepare to sacrifice a woman in order to raise a demon, Barbatos. Thomas -- Jefferson in Milligan's story, Jefferson or Wayne in Morrison's -- objects at a key moment and the men flee. But in Morrison's version, only five men flee while Thomas Wayne remains to face the demon. As much as we know of Hurt's story, this is when Old Thomas Wayne became something special. Did he receive supernatural powers? He received at least one, longevity, contingent upon various blood rituals, just like Manfred in his deal with Satan in Morrison's 1990 story "Gothic."

What this made of Thomas who, identifying with Simon Magus, called himself Simon and eventually Doctor Simon Hurt, is hinted at in sentence fragments uttered (telepathically?) by Barbatos, then later made absolutely clear when Hurt, looking in a mirror and seeing or imagining Barbatos, says "I live to be your weapon." This line is the absolute nail-in-the-coffin proof that Hurt does not imagine himself to be the ultimate evil, but rather the servant of a greater evil. If we find out more about this Barbatos, we may find out if it truly is what the issue's solicit calls "ultimate evil."

Barbatos is clearly associated with the Hyper Adapter that Darkseid set loose in Batman #702 (in a previously unrevealed detail from Bruce's showdown with Darkseid in Final Crisis #6), and is most likely exactly that. Despite Hurt's vision, we see that no actual giant bat is present, just a large one that Thomas bites into in; if the issue's title had been "Black Sabbath" instead of "Black Mass" the farcical aspects of this arc could have added a guest appearance by celebrity bat-biter Ozzy Osbourne.

Though we see Thomas and Barbatos in their deal, interesting details regarding each and their association itself remain unclear. Thomas is already in search of "the mystery box" which came into being probably some years earlier in time for Jack Valor to see it in ROBW #3. The excitement with which one of the fiends yells "Barbatos!" upon seeing the box in B&R #12 might make one think that the box was the key to Barbatos, but here and in ROBW #5, Thomas indicates that Barbatos is the key to the box. We know that something dreadful is in the box, but it has contained lately and perhaps for a long time a bat-tracer and a note. Why did Thomas want the box? Is Barbatos, in saying "Omega Adapter," identifying itself or is it a different thing, perhaps not Apokoliptan at all, speaking of the box? This remains unclear and may be part of the true finale to this story in ROBW #6. Another riddle is why this encounter took place at all -- Thomas thinks he brought it about, but was making Hurt part of the Omega plan? If so, pestering Batman seems like an irrelevant add-on to a plan to destroy the world, particularly odd in that Hurt's major blow already came before Bruce faced Darkseid. A smaller riddle is why Barbatos calls Thomas "dark twin." Maybe it is exercising its knowledge of dead languages -- "Thomas" means "twin." Maybe Thomas is the actual twin of an 18th century Wayne, Darius or another. Or if this really is all about Bruce, maybe Barbatos considers Thomas to be a twin to the object of its primary objective.

The battle in Wayne Manor features Bruce Wayne, in a surprising reemergence that seems to be factually contradicted by last month's Road Home story. And so, in his great return, Bruce is a man who surprisingly comes back from a long torturous journey to stand beside his son (and closest friend) and fight against a large number of enemies who have taken his home -- this is the plot of Book XXII of The Odyssey, a chapter commonly called "Death in the Great Hall." This is Batman's version of that story, right down to the bow and arrow that Damian uses.

The Dynamic Trio, each of them taking on 33 Fiends, is easily able to overwhelm the muscle in Hurt's plan, and the story thereafter refers much more to Morrison's Batman story of 2008 than to Greek classics. Just as Bruce descended into Arkham in RIP he descends into the Batcave. Just as the Joker taunted him by loudspeaker then, Hurt does so now. Just as Jezebel called out for help then, Alfred does so now. And just as the Joker then shouted in triumph that Bruce was finally finding out what it was like to be him (the clown at midnight), Hurt shouts now, as he locks Batman in a vault, that Bruce is finally finding out what it is like to be "second best," "the Devil in Hell." That is a reference not only to Hurt's role as an outcast but to the "fallen angel" brand of Devil who regrets having been cast into Hell, second best to the king of Heaven whom he could not overthrow. Rolling on with references to the earlier story, Hurt quotes one of the lines that the Army doctor who inspired Hurt had in Batman #156, "One of man's most primitive fears is loneliness," which was also cited by Morrison in Batman #673. And then, in a moment that fandom has been waiting for, the story offers the real meaning (Hurt's meaning, anyway) of RIP as he curses Bruce to "Rot in purgatory."

Above ground, Dick and Damian take down Professor Pyg who identifies himself as the pig named Napoleon (who was himself an allusion to Stalin) from George Orwell's Animal Farm. With a burning "Mommy Made of Nails" and one lie, they neutralize Pyg by turning his own victims upon him.

Below ground, Bruce, probably having cracked his grandmother Betsy's story from ROBW #5, tells us that Hurt was the one who had been kept in the secret room, undoubtedly the criminal whose activities brought drug and rape allegations down around Bruce's father. And when Hurt claims to be Bruce's father we can see that he's no longer just flailing for a way to get a psychological edge -- he actually cannot stop speaking and possibly believing delusions about his identity, putting the lie retroactively to his implication a few pages earlier of knowing what the Devil feels like. He exults in being for Bruce what he has so long been for the readers, an endless puzzle, a case we can never close.

The Joker leads Hurt via a trail of 1-and-8 dominoes to a Clint Eastwood showdown with Hurt that leads him to the banana peel we saw prominently last time. A look at the line of Poe scrawled on the door of Alan Wayne's tomb reminds us once more of the dark, flapping things that visited the protagonist of The Raven, Bruce in his study as shown back in Detective #33 (Morrison, in Batman #682, has the bat land on a bust to copy The Raven more closely), and Old Thomas himself in this issue's first scene.

And so, mirroring the final events setting up Bruce's worst moments going into RIP's final issue, this story's final issue has Hurt's face smashed into glass before he is set laughing by Joker venom and buried alive in a coffin. This is also how the Joker disposed of the real Oberon Sexton, but Hurt, being immortal (why he has aged enough to play Bruce's father is not addressed), just may get out of this trap at his leisure, if his inability to perform blood rituals and "space voodoo" doesn't do him in down there.

Both the Joker and Hurt are hit by Bruce at comical punch line moments, Hurt asking Barbatos for a sign and the Joker asking what could be funnier than his stint as a crimefighter. He ends, though, as a gravedigging clown, taking us back to the prose issue of Batman #663, not to mention Hamlet.

The main story at an end (give or take ROBW #6), the issue confirms Damian's emergence as a thermonuclear-bomb-defusing superhero and then gives us the set up for Batman, Inc. With Bruce Wayne deciding to make public his role in funding Batman's war on crime, we are launched into a new era that puts aside for now the dark, twisted ambiguous mysteries that have haunted Batman since he walked past unnoticed "Zur En Arrh" graffiti in Batman #655. As Lois Lane was long fooled by glasses, the audience will likely fail to notice that the athletic man whose former ward is about the right age to be the first Robin and whose son is the right age to be the current Robin might actually be Batman. And so begins a new era for Batman.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hurt on Hurt

"Call me Doctor Hurt," he said, to an audience of seven villains. On a logical level, that statement contains a hedge: The head of the Black Glove does not tell the Club of Villains that he is Doctor Hurt -- he merely tells them, and us, to call him that.

Even by the standards of super villains, Doctor Hurt is an avid liar. Among the deliberate falsehoods he speaks, there may be some delusions as well. And yet, his words and the deeds that we've witnessed provide information about him. Grant Morrison's handling of Doctor Hurt has taken readers through two different long stories that make a mystery of who this eminently capable and patient enemy of Batman is. Hurt is not trustworthy enough that his words alone could lead us to know his one exclusive identity -- if he has one. But they do help us narrow down who Doctor Hurt is in the sense of what he is like, and identify the guises he wears, which include some obvious fictions as well as some of the candidates for his identity.

Everything Doctor Hurt says is a voice from two authors for two audiences. Hurt the fictional character says things to whomever is listening. And all of those lines were written by Grant Morrison to let readers know just what he wanted us to at that point in the story. Trying to juggle the two demands and others (such as making the dialogue good) in every line makes all of Hurt's dialogue the result of a many-way balancing act that is awesome to contemplate. It's quite a bit more complex than the bare minimum task that a writer faces in writing Lex Luthor. The result may bend at times the motive to sound like Hurt versus the motive to tell readers just enough and not more.

I will highlight a few different personae within Hurt's voice, and the voices and actions that reflect his attitudes about himself. These are not definite declarations of identity: to say that Hurt speaks as though he is the Devil is not to say that he necessarily is the Devil, any more than he is Alfred when he pretends to be Alfred in Batman #679. The qualities and identities that I will track here, quotation by quotation, are, with a pithy one-word code for each:

Devil: A supernatural being dealing out earthly rewards in return for corruption.
Sadist: A man who likes others to suffer as a pleasure for him in its own right.
Wayne: A Wayne who was born long ago but is still alive.
Thomas: This code indicates specifically the father of Bruce, not the Wayne who went by that name centuries ago.
Rules: A man who is on the inferior end of complying with arcane supernatural rules, implying some other power is offering something in return for his compliance with its evil requirements.
Poor: A man who has a poor man's contempt for the wealthy and out of insecurity from that past, he exults in his access to wealth and power now.

In terms of that code, here is Hurt in his own words and actions:

"The Black Glove aims to deliver a deluxe service high stakes experience at the very highest levels of the international game.": Sadist, Poor (Batman #667)
"eyewitnesses will be bribed or killed, the widow ruined": Sadist (Batman #676)
"damaged little aristocrat": Poor (Batman #677)
"complete and utter ruination of a noble human spirit": Devil (Batman #667)
"[Batman may return.] Perhaps as my butler": Poor (Batman #678)
[Hitting Alfred over the head with a bottle]: Sadist (Batman #667)
"The usurper never was my son, was he? It was you... you and Martha, my adulterous witch of a wife, am I right?": Thomas (Batman #679)
"I'm Doctor Hurt now": Wayne, Thomas (Batman #679)
"We intend to ruin him in every way imaginable. Body and soul.": Devil (Batman #679)
"the Black Glove invites you, some of the richest people in the world, to play a game with human lives.": Devil, Poor (Batman #680)
"Can the ultimate noble spirit survive the ultimate ignoble betrayal?": Devil (Batman #680)
Joker: "I found out who Doctor Hurt is and why he hates you.": Devil? Wayne? (Batman #680)
Joker: "devil is double is deuce, my dear doctor. and joker trumps deuce... pleased to meet you, admire your work, but don't, don't, call me servant.": Devil (Batman #681)
"I'm your father": Thomas (Batman #681)
"Hole in Things. The Enemy.": Devil (Batman #681)
"Unless, of course... unless Batman agrees to serve the Black Glove. And willingly dedicates his life to the corruption of virtue. Ready to deal?": Devil (Batman #681)
"Then I curse the cape and cowl, as you will soon! The next time you wear it will be the last!": Devil (Batman #681)

"99 Fiends, like storm crows, lead the way. The 3rd Hierarchy is already at your door, my stern judgment to enact.": Devil (B&R #10)
"Absolves me of all sin": Rules (B&R #11)
"Wounds [in the shape of a 'W'] remind me who I am": Wayne (B&R #11)
"Double You": Wayne, Devil (B&R #11)
"You know what I am": Devil, Rules? (B&R #11)
"reclaim what was always rightfully mine": Wayne (B&R #11)
"walk with me", "Christ will protect you from the bullets": Devil, Rules (B&R #11)
"slate's clear, washed in the blood of the Lamb; free": Rules (B&R #11)
"let it all fall down": Wayne? Devil? (B&R #11)
"Take me home. Gotham City": Wayne (B&R #11)
"return of the king": Wayne (B&R #12)
[opening scene: man pays hit man to kill his wife and son]: Thomas (B&R #13)
"Wayne Manor is mine. Gotham City is mine.": Wayne (B&R #13)
"And soon, when the Black Sun shines": Rules (B&R #13)
"I will break and corrupt this boy": Devil (B&R #13)
"You dare imagine yourself superior to a Wayne?": Wayne (B&R #13)
"...the key to eternity": Rules (ROBW #4)
"you little slut": Sadist (ROBW #4)
"Any attempt to tamper with the locks results in the destruction of the contents, remember? The secret of life eternal is here, in a box only you know how to open, so breathe deeply and do what Doctor Thomas tells you.": Rules (ROBW #4)
"Darius and Mad Tony": Wayne, Poor (ROBW #4)
"we raised batwinged Barbatos and drank the starry venom": Rules (ROBW #4)
"Are you one too? I'll get you all in the end.": Devil (ROBW #4)
"They say he too sought in blood the secret of life eternal… but that was blood of a different sort." ["too" and "different" juxtapose the case to that of Jonah Hex as a bounty hunter]: Rules (ROBW #4)
"I knew this prize would be mine in the end. But even I can't open it without destroying the contents, and that's my big problem...": Rules? (B&R #14)
"Perfectly corrupt, Pyg. Perfectly ugly.": Devil (B&R #14)
"I give you Gotham! The new capital city of crime! Where the only law is the law of might makes right! Where human lives are commodities! Where even men like our stubborn, incorruptible Police Commissioner Gordon must succumb to the new order of things... Soon you'll do anything for what we have to offer, Gordon. You and all the other innocent victims of Professor Pyg's viral narcotic. Instant junkies.": Devil, Sadist (B&R #14)
"Does it hurt now? I have the only thing that can stop the pain right here. But my customers have to do exactly as they're told.": Devil, Sadist (B&R #14)
Betsy Kane: "Then there was that terrible night... and every time I think of his sneering, awful face... The pearls were to identify her to the gunman... Doctor Thomas by day, Bad Tommy by night. Patrick and Silas had to cover up the whole thing. The stolen drugs, the rape charges, the secret room where they treated him for months while my grandson was sent away to a boarding school. He killed my daughter, of that I have no doubt. Then he stood there and admitted he'd turned her into a drug addict and... and worse.": Thomas (ROBW #5)
"You could be the richest man on Earth. You know who I am. I'm offering you the same deal I offered the others. And I bet you everything you can't refuse. Tell me that's not hesitation, Carter. If you don't want the wealth, the fame, the admiration of your peers... what about the woman? Think about what happened when Roderick Kane chose not to play. But don't think too long. Your visitor won't keep forever.": Devil (ROBW #5)
"No one important, Carter. No one who matters.": Poor, Sadist (ROBW #5)
"Barbatos will lead us to the hidden casket of immortality and life eternal. All is prepared for the ceremony of the bat.": Rules (ROBW #5)
"A man's soul is in his reputation, his legacy. Destroy a reputation, destroy a soul.": Rules, Devil (ROBW #5)

"Open the hole in time, Carter... call down Barbatos, the hunter, the finder of great treasure.": Rules (ROBW #5)

[Carter wins Doctor Hurt's wager] "Yes... Well done. I hope that thought will comfort you in the years of lonely obscurity ahead. Now run.": Devil, Rules? (ROBW #5)
Joker: "The big brother you never had is on the Devil's chopping block": Devil (B&R #15)
Joker: "most evil man in the world": Rules (B&R #15)
"It seems I may have returned just in time to protect my beloved city from disaster.": Thomas (B&R #15)
"Our handsome young acrobat will become a human vegetable. Unable to move or feed or change himself. With only broken memories of how it felt to soar.": Sadist (B&R #15)
"All I ask is something small in return. Something soul-sized.": Devil (B&R #15)
Damian: "You're not the Devil! You're a man who lived too long. We know who you are!": Rules (B&R #15)
"Become my creature, submit absolutely to my instruction and when your soul is extinguished in my service... perhaps you'll finally know by the gaping hole that remains what it is you've lost.": Devil (B&R #15)
"[Thomas and Martha] took me in. They showed me kindness.": Thomas (B&R #15)
"Now I've taken his face. He'll be remembered as a criminal, she a drug fiend. Their son mentally ill. The legacy of Batman will be one of monstrous failure and perversion.": Sadist, Rules (B&R #15)
"I will be Batman in my great black car, preying on the weak, in Gotham's endless night.": Sadist (B&R #15)
"The ceremony of the bat has begun. As the sun shines black you and I will summon the spirit Barbatos to open this impenetrable box of ancient secrets.": Rules (B&R #15)
"One last chance to save your friend. Raise your left hand and say...": Rules (B&R #15)
"Well... here we are come to business. Alone at last. You and I.": Rules (B&R #16 preview)

That list excerpts sixty-four of the items that are most revealing about Doctor Hurt's self-image; for the moment, I withhold a few more which indicate something a bit trickier and give us more insight still. The aforementioned pieces of evidence point in several different directions. Cumulatively, they are consistent with this back story:

Thomas was a Wayne born around 1730. Contact with a bat-demon in 1765 gave him limited life extension and perhaps other powers such as protection from bullets or the ability to cast a curse. He has tried to summon Barbatos again, perhaps to refresh his life extension, but has never been able to do so. He has pursued a few evil goals since then: He wants wealth and power, but particularly the helm of the Wayne family, which he considers to be rightfully his. In the meantime, he has come to seek the corruption of all virtue and he leads others, particularly the ultra-wealthy, to make deals that cost them their souls. In pursuit of those goals, he has claimed at least once to be the younger Thomas Wayne, which he is not, and has implied if not stated that he is the Devil, which he may or may not believe.

That account is consistent and is perhaps relatively complete. But there are hints of other important story elements that do not fit easily into that.

[to Bruce] "Remember me? How you've grown, hmm? How long has it been?" (Batman #678) That line may be throwaway trash talking to his enemy when Bruce is down. But we know that Thomas and Martha took Hurt in, so Hurt probably did see Bruce when Bruce was a boy. But he has also seen Bruce as an adult, so it is odd that he mentions that Bruce has grown. This could be sheer rhetoric; it is also consistent with possession of Hurt by another mind such that he doesn't recall, as he's speaking in #678, the Isolation Experiment but does recall meeting the Waynes earlier.

"['W'] is the mark of the shadow, the dark twin." (B&R #11) Of whom? God? Some long-since dead Wayne -- Darius? The much younger Thomas? Bruce? These lines and the "double you" (which is a pun on the name of the letter) mean that Hurt is in his own mind someone else's counterpart, but there is no obvious answer as to whom. Moreover, the "double you" (a pun on the spoken name of 'W') is compatible either with the counterpart concept or with possession.

"200 years ago, Barbatos was beyond our abilities to explain or comprehend -- a demon, a myth. Now we have dark science on our side. A new understanding of time and unearthly lifeforms... In the name of the first red rock and the rage, and the angels and dukes of the dark side inferno pits." (ROBW #5) This line (as well as the chanting of King Coal's men) indicates a link between earthly Satanism and Darkseid and Apokolips. This is consistent with the previously hypothesized back story, but suggests that Hurt has become specifically aware of the nature of the demons to which he refers (the 99 Fiends include dukes) as originating somehow with Apokolips.

"Souls to feed Barbatos." (ROBW #5) This is a line of crucial importance despite its brevity, as the following makes clear:

What motivates Hurt? The answer does not need to be one thing. A person can like both skeet shooting and butterscotch pudding. Hurt is (a) a sadist; (b) a man who believes that the supernatural offers him a reward that he is seeking; (c) a Wayne who wishes that specific fortune and empire to be his. Is he also (d) the principle tempter in the universe, the Devil? "Souls to feed Barbatos" does not deliver a clear negative answer to that, but it indicates that most of the quotations tagged "Devil" above can be explained more simply: Hurt believes that what he seeks from Barbatos can be obtained by paying Barbatos with souls. When Hurt spoke of destroying Bruce's soul, he identified himself as a being who seeks evil for its own sake. But the indication that the souls are for Barbatos gives a simpler explanation of his motives: He is still motivated by more than one thing, the (a), (b), and (c) above -- he is a sadist who wants to be the principle Wayne and get some deal (probably for immortality) as well. But there is no evidence that he has a separate motive to collect others' souls. In "Gothic", Manfred acted to cause deaths in order to further his goals, but only because it furthered his goals. He says "Regrettably, this involved the regular spilling of blood." (LOTDK #9) He goes on to call the murders he commits "atrocious." They are a means to achieve an end. Hurt's line "Souls to feed Barbatos" is consistent with Hurt regretting what he does as a means to achieve his desired end. On the other hand, as a sadist, he may enjoy it quite a bit, and his characteristic smile suggests that he does. But he has a motive besides doing it because he is the being whose purpose is simply to do such things. He believes that he is gathering souls to pay such a being.

While this makes it simpler to explain his actions as those of a self-serving man (the "Rules" role that Hurt plays), it doesn't contradict the more complex possibilities that he is also the Devil or is possessed by the Devil and speaking with multiple voices. There remains the interesting dimension of the audiences to whom he speaks. The following people are present when Hurt asserts or may assert that he is the Devil: Lane, the Joker, Bruce, Dick and Damian, the doomed priest, Nichols, and in vaguer terms, others. If he is sure that he is not the Devil, why would he lay the "deal" act on so thick? Why would he say "You know what I am" with the impersonal pronoun instead of "who"? When Damian says that Hurt is not the Devil, why doesn't Hurt say, "Well, of course not. But anyway..."?

This is where the audiences make it complex. Hurt may have told Lane something so Lane would tell Bruce. Hurt could say that he's the Devil because he believes it, or he could be a man playing by Rules who thinks that a soul is only ruined if a person deals with the Devil than if a person just accepts a thing they want. Maybe he debases the priest (who isn't going to live to talk to anyone else) by telling him that he is blessing the Devil. And therefore, anything Hurt says can be explained by two motives so that there is evidence of both possibilities -- that he believes that he is the Devil; or, that he finds it useful to ruin souls for Barbatos -- but proof of neither.

And what did Hurt say to the Joker off-camera in #680? He told the Joker who he was, then the Joker said that what he found out is part of why the Joker would not join forces with Batman against the Black Glove. The Joker later calls Hurt the Devil, which is a viewpoint (fact or fiction) that he only could have gotten from Hurt, so clearly Hurt told the Joker that he is the Devil. Why lie to the Joker? Is that a soul that is not yet ruined? Maybe Hurt also told the Joker that he began as a Wayne. Clearly, the Joker's investigations as Oberon Sexton have led him to that knowledge by now, but the Joker already wanted revenge on Hurt before RIP ended. Because he's a relative of Bruce? Because he tried to do the Joker's job of eliminating Batman? Or because the Joker wants to trump the Devil, taking it as a personal challenge to be a bigger villain?

Likewise, Hurt's motive for trying to get Bruce becomes ambiguous: Is it because he's the tempter of souls and wants to corrupt "the man who has no price, the man who cannot be bought or sold or swayed from his singular path"? (Batman #663) Or because Bruce is the "usurper" holding the empire that Hurt, the rejected Wayne, believes is rightfully his? By surviving when Chill was meant to kill him, did Bruce ruin Hurt's plan to begin posing as Thomas? Even Hurt's motive for taking the Wayne empire is ambiguous: Does he want the house or free rein to hunt for the casket?

The audiences make it complex and the double audiences -- characters inside the story and we outside the story -- make it doubly complex. Look at the timeline of the evidence above. Ordered by publication date, we see one thing: Of the first stories to be published (by the end of RIP), there are many pieces of evidence for the Devil persona, followed by Thomas, with Wayne and Rules basically absent.  Of the stories coming later, Rules and Devil are the leading themes referenced, with Wayne arising as a common theme, but much less prevalent.

Alternately, consider the evidence in terms of Hurt's personal timeline. We see a trend that is the reverse of publication order. Of events taking place before Batman's career started, the Rules motive is easily the most prevalent, with Devil, Wayne, and Thomas making only a couple of showings each. Of the events taking place after Batman's career started, the Devil persona is clearly the most prevalent. If we had seen this story in the order of DC Universe chronology, we would have seen a man make some sort of infernal deal to start the story, with a pretty clear track as it unfolded of who he was and what he became. The narration did the opposite: We had an utterly ambiguous figure who was revealed to us, one hint at a time, as the Devil, before the backstory was shown, one hint at a time, as to how he became who he is. And so the origin comes last, tomorrow, in Batman and Robin #16. At least, the preview shows us the beginning of the origin. At least, we may see more of the origin. We may not. As Morrison said in a recent interview, "At the same time it comes to an end now, so we learn a lot more about him, but I did want to keep a little bit of that ambiguity in there because that's what he's all about." The double motives and folding logic as each line in the story is told for two audiences has been so far a masterpiece of ambiguity.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Batman and Robin 16 Preview

The preview to this week's upcoming Batman and Robin #16 opens with a scene that captures a key scene from Peter Milligan's "Dark Knight, Dark City", a 1990 story that is exerting a heavy influence on the ending of this part of Grant Morrison's long Batman saga. However, while the original comic's scene matches this one in many ways, the small differences in the preview suggest something very fundamentally different instead of trivial.

We've seen these underground demonic rites three times now, counting Milligan's story and such a scene in Return of Bruce Wayne #5. In all three, when a group is about to commit itself to the will of an evil spirit, one man backs out. In ROBW #5, the man is Carter Nichols. In DKDC, the man was named Thomas -- Thomas Jefferson. In the B&R #16 preview, the man is also named Thomas, but is probably Thomas Wayne, as seen in ROBW #4, who goes on to become Doctor Hurt.

The great difference between this scene and the corresponding scene in the original is that in the original, the intended sacrificial victim is trapped alone in the cellar with what proves to be an actual large bat, but which manages to speak across the centuries to Batman when he frees it, and the woman's spirit, in the present. It should be noted that the DKDC story has certain parallels to Morrison's own "Gothic", which was being printed at the exact same time; an ad for DKDC even appeared in one issue of "Gothic."

Because the man who is trapped appears to have planned this moment he, not Jefferson, is probably the one who objected and caused the others to flee. In any case, this is certain to be the moment at which Old Thomas Wayne (OTW) acquires the life extension that seems to have lasted a touch over 200 years, at which point the aging process must have resumed, or the young-looking man could not now be posing as Bruce's father.

The preview shows us nothing of the source of the demon but the shrine upon which the victim lies. OTW's identification of bells with Barbatos indicates that Apokoliptan technology is probably present, but this is not clear, so perhaps no such artifact is actually in anyone's grasp.

Bruce's jump in time before this scene was to and from 1718, when Jack Valor was 15. Jack appears much older when he writes his journal; he would be 62 when this ceremony takes place, so it is possible that he witnesses the casket after the ceremony took place. His journal begins in 1746, when Jack would be only 43; it's not quite clear how the 18th century timeline works out.

We know that Hurt lost the casket c. 1880 and still had not found it by c. 1980. He tries to use a time machine -- a strange prop in a story about magic -- probably to grab Barbatos from a time when Hurt had seen him before. But Bruce grabbed the device at the moment it opened a portal, and then became something that he himself did not expect -- if Hurt set the device to a time useful to him, then this bat-demon is likely to be Bruce, somehow transformed as Nichols' device grabs him from the path that the Omega trap had set him on, in an image like the actual large bat from ROBW #1. This could be a series of juggling time portals. Maybe Bruce "ditches" the Omega trap here, or maybe he uses Nichols' device to carry it to the End of Time. Nichols' device, we were told, would require a huge energy source which Hurt somehow provides. Dick encounters an energy source in B&R that keeps him from communicating with Alfred. Whatever the logic and logistics of how these stories come together, the elements are all in plain sight. An energy source, evil will, two portals in time, a bat, and a bat man.

What we have yet to see is if this evil, supernatural but often sci-fi-seeming technology has anything truly demonic, in the sense that earthly Satanists would mean the word, about it.

Hurt, who appears alternately convinced that he is the Devil and aware that he is not, is perhaps headed for an existential comeuppance: If he finds out that the demon he worshipped is the good man who is destined to stop him, and that the great spiritual evil is just a sci fi gadget. On the other hand, he seems aware of the latter distinction in ROBW #5: "200 years ago, Barbatos was beyond our abilities to explain or comprehend -- a demon, a myth. Now we have dark science on our side. A new understanding of time and unearthly lifeforms." It doesn't seem that Hurt would be surprised or disappointed to learn that a box full of wires may have granted such power as he's gotten. And if he finds out that he has been "following" Bruce all these years, that's as much a blow to Bruce to have inspired evil as it is to evil to have been duped.

Milligan may or may not have intended for the appearance of a bat in his ceremony to correspond to the one who has, by legend, visited Bruce in his study, inspiring his guise -- a story element that Morrison depicts in Batman #682. Morrison may have been foreshadowing Hurt's fate when we see that bat's body scooped up by Alfred and set afire. Bats and the Devil surrounded in flames -- this is an image in B&R #3, as I show here.

Before Wednesday's finale of this story, I will post on the words of Doctor Hurt, how he describes himself. This preview shows him on the cusp of becoming what he is. B&R #16 will possibly follow his origin with his fate. Exactly what he made of himself in the meantime is a mystery whose answers may lie in past issues, or #16, or nowhere at all.