Wednesday, November 3, 2010
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.