Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Return of Bruce Wayne 2

It was easy to see from Return of Bruce Wayne #1 and the covers of the rest of the issues, that Bruce Wayne would be taking a trip through time -- basically one era visited per issue -- and that the series would comprise a series of adventures in the larger structure of an odyssey bringing him back to the present. One brief comment from Superman told us (as a comment in a Grant Morrison interview already had) that the story also involved the highest of stakes: the possible annihilation of the universe. In providing more details, issue #2 leaves much unexplained but tells us that Morrison will use this story to illuminate more clearly a Morrisonian cosmology that has only been hinted at before. The issue also drops hints regarding the larger, history-wide contest between Bruce and Doctor Hurt, AKA The Devil. It pits hero against hero as Bruce's plan to save the day conflicts with that of the Time Masters / JLA who are trying to save him. It speaks specifically to the story involving Dick Grayson and Doctor Hurt currently in Batman and Robin. And it portrays a single great adventure and love story set in the past.

The issue is ambiguous in several ways, and the rest of the series may or may not clear up the ambiguity in full. For now, we can wonder about (and likely, debate) some of the facts behind this complex story.

Bruce is simultaneously fighting at least three battles. Most vividly, there is a tentacled maw, a "Lovecraftian horror", that threatens the existence of Gotham City during its earliest days. The strange words Bruce hears after his first battle are Morrison's creation, but use the orthography -- specifically, unusual consonant sequences -- of terms (e.g., Nyarlathotep) that H. P. Lovecraft used in his stories about the Cthulhu Mythos. Bruce's repeated swordplay holds the creature back and eventually smites it.

He also fights against the times, resisting the unreasoned persecution of a Salem-like witch hunt. As the world's greatest detective -- his detective skills are on better display here than we have seen in some time -- he adroitly identifies conventional crime where his foil, Malleus, wants to identify witchcraft and the Devil -- which happen to be present in the story, but not where the witch hunters see them.

Finally, in saving Gotham, Bruce may place his foot into Darkseid's universal death trap; it's possible that he has already by the end of issue #2 escaped it.

The issue opens many possible mysteries, and resolves just a couple of them. Malleus, the overzealous witch hunter, turns out to be Nathaniel Wayne, who is absent from the portraits we have seen in Batman and Robin. Despite Bruce's failure to match the speech patterns of the times, Nathaniel seems not to recognize that Bruce is not the real Mordecai Wayne, so the relation between those two past Waynes is possibly not too close. Nathaniel seems to be earnest in fighting evil, but his ignorance and lack of circumspection does irreparable harm. He kills Bruce's lover, Annie, a real witch but not an evil one. In so doing, he may create the trigger of Darkseid's curse: When Annie curses all Waynes until the end of time, she is unwittingly cursing Bruce, her love. We don't know the consequences, but it may lead to the downfall of both Thomas Waynes. It may even be the thing that weaponizes Bruce and makes him a hazard to the 21st century. This curse echoes the one that Doctor Hurt casts at the end of Batman, R.I.P., and we know that somehow Bruce will beat both curses. Annie, for her part, resembles in some ways the backstory of the fictional Blair Witch, Elly Kedward, as a real witch from the British Isles who lands on the American continent and is soon unjustly exiled to the woods. She also calls to mind both Selina Kyle (the bat-villains suggested on the cover make no overt appearance in the issue) and Zatanna: Her wish for a man brought Bruce to her time, a plot point that Morrison also wrote for Zatanna in Seven Soldiers, when she wished for man who would bring excitement and received an evil destroyer.

The Archivist, who in the issue's biggest surprise turns out to be Bruce himself, reveals a great deal of science fiction that has apparently been part of Morrison's worldview for a long time. Space B was the mechanism by which the aliens who created Animal Man traveled through time, space, and reality, referenced in a Morrison passage in 52 #30. This was also mentioned by Bat-Mite in Batman #673. With remarkable brevity, the Archivist's comments also reinforce the cosmology in Superman Beyond (which Superman recognizes when he hears it; his blue eyes in his last panel may indicate the 4-D vision from that series). He identifies the universe as Universe-Zero, consistent with the Monitors' comments in Final Crisis and possibly relevant to Morrison's upcoming Multiversity miniseries. The notion of the whole universe being written in a single record suggests both the Worlogog from "Rock of Ages" and the book in Superman Beyond. The idea of freezing the whole record and storing it recalls how Superman (in two senses) saved the universe as the end of Final Crisis. The "hyperfauna", which perhaps comprise the real threat in Darkseid's trap, call to mind the higher dimensions of the Chronovore in All Star Superman and the Wonderworld in "Rock of Ages". It is possible that Annie's devils, the "wheel of time" and "neverending world" are the Sheeda from Seven Soldiers. All told, there is a single worldview evident here, and the connections across several Morrison stories surface here more clearly than ever.

Two larger battles stretch across the whole story. While the story of Thomas Wayne's devil worship in 1765 suggested that the Waynes' association with deviltry and demons began then, Return of Bruce Wayne #2 is set significantly earlier, with the portrait artist Brother Martin having studied under Rembrandt van Rijn, who died in 1669. This may downplay the possible importance of old Thomas Wayne in the backstory. Indeed, the story carries back, we now know, to the Miagani "bat people" having been changed from the "deer people" by their contact with Bruce in issue #1. But the first bat in the story is still the giant one killed by Vandal Savage before #1's events. We don't know how far back the bat / devil associations go, but we know from the words of someone who lived after Bruce's adventure in #2 that "the Devil" is not yet done with Gotham. This could refer to 1765's Thomas Wayne or still more plots involving Doctor Hurt. (Nathaniel describes the dragon in #2 with seven heads and ten crowns, terms from the Book of Revelation, chapters 12 and 13.) Meanwhile, the book seen in Mordecai's painting is given an origin here: It was written by Bruce, and thus describes what he knows as of #2, when he is still unclear about the full story. Is the book the artifact that is in the casket in Batman and Robin? Probably not, because, based on the fiends' comments in Batman and Robin #12, it has some apparent power over Barbatos, and there's no reason yet to suspect that a book that Bruce authors at this time would control a demon. More likely, it contains facts that Dick Grayson will soon need to know.

And the other overarching plot: Darkseid's use of Bruce as a weapon to destroy the 21st century? We don't know exactly how that works or how it might be stopped nor how Superman knows that such a trap exists. Annie's curse is one possible explanation. In fact, her curse must have some consequence, and if it is not merely the woes that follow several generations of Wayne, it could be a magical blight on Bruce that will cause the destruction of the universe upon his return. Why do I think so? Deals with the Devil often hang on the fine print. Annie said that the curse would last "until the end of time". So what has Bruce done? We don't know how Bruce became the Archivist. We don't know whether that event comes, in his personal timeline, between issue #2 and #3 or perhaps between #5 and #6. Bruce washes up on a beach to begin his adventure in #3, once again with an eclipse of the Sun at the time of his time jump, clinging to memories from his first two adventures. I think his role as the Archivist comes later in his personal timeline. He will somehow parlay the resources from pirate or cowboy days to travel to Vanishing Point. It looks to me like Bruce Wayne, given a curse that will affect him "until the end of time" went to the end of time in order to escape the curse. The series has four more issues, but we have seen Bruce Wayne already escape one of the problems plaguing him; he has perhaps already checkmated Darkseid.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Return of Bruce Wayne 1: Cavetalk

The dialogue in Return of Bruce Wayne #1 is all English (and grunts), but Bruce's speech is slurred and the locals speak in terms of unconventional conceptualizations.

Here is a de-slurred "translation" of Bruce's five utterances, in sequence:

Where am I?
What is this place?

The old man is dead.
I'm sorry.


Return of Bruce Wayne 1

Comic book stories used to begin simply. The hero would open the story with a clean slate on his to-do list. Someone would call him in and tell him about a problem. The description of the problem was accurate and complete. And he'd set about the task of solving the problem until it was done. Batman -- Bruce Wayne -- is facing a totally different sort of problem now, popping into new worlds disoriented unsure of when and where he is, even who he is. He's got to get back to his time, but he is also going to face more immediate problems everywhere he lands. Moreover, he's got to avoid a doomsday threat that he knows nothing about. We are also disoriented. We know certain things about what's going on, but not everything.

Bruce is trapped in the Omega Sanction. He is going to live some time in the area of Gotham City in each of several (perhaps five) different eras in its past. From what we see in The Return of Bruce Wayne #1, he will travel chronologically forward in jumps, appearing suddenly in the next era after (a moment for him; centuries for the world) vanishing from the last. He is not going to be born as a baby and grow up in each world. At least, that's not how it has worked so far.

In his first adventure in the past, Bruce lands in the era and location where Metron was seen giving fire to Anthro in Final Crisis #1. This is perhaps fifty years later, just after Anthro's death. Bruce happens to tangle with a nascent supervillain, Vandal Savage, who has been operating (without aging) since Metron's visit gave Anthro the means to beat Savage's people. Now Bruce Wayne wins the next round for the good guys, using his rusty skills, his utility belt, and the assistance of a proto-Robin to beat Vandal Savage -- savagely -- and then pop forward to the next adventure, in Puritanical witch-hunting times.

The Final Crisis scene set in this time played heavily on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in turn played on the myth of Prometheus: the gods give fire to Man, making him something more than he was. Bruce Wayne contributes, potentially, to that same transformation. The defeat of Savage is significant, causing his people to abandon him. In Final Crisis, Libra tells the supervillains -- specifically responding to Vandal Savage -- that the superheroes win because they "truly believe their actions are in accordance with a higher moral order". Bruce robs Savage of a foundation that he had built, forcing him to start from scratch.

The Deer People who fight with Bruce believe that he came down in the rocket full of Final Crisis artifacts. It is unclear if he really did ride inside it instead of appear by Omega radiation in the same time and place. The distinction of how Bruce arrived may or may not matter. The artifacts inside have been made fragile, as though greatly aged, and crumble at the touch, except for Superman's indestructible cape.

The giant bat worn by Bruce on the cover remains a mystery. Savage apparently had fought and killed it earlier, but we don't know if it is a special being -- maybe the same giant bat seen by Dick Grayson in Batman and Robin #12 or some gigantic paleo-mammal like some that have actually existed in nature.

The story has numerous thematic elements we've seen elsewhere. A proto-Joker (but not an over-the-top version) is one of the Deer People. A proto-Robin arises among them, too. Vandal Savage throws a prostrate Bruce in a copy of Bane throwing Batman in Knightfall. Batman and a reluctant proto-Robin leap from on high into water in a scene right out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But Batman doesn't resurface; he's millennia further ahead in time.

Bruce's victory happens to coincide with a total eclipse of the Sun; it is this, in the cave art commemorating Bruce, that Dick found, also in Batman and Robin #12. It is this which led to his call to alert the Justice League, leading to ROBW #1's surprise guests: Booster Gold, Rip Hunter (probably, silhouetted in the time bubble), Hal Jordan, and Superman. Their time travel has that inconvenient (for them) inflexibility that keeps them from going back one more day, and so they have missed Bruce, but will try again. The use of the JLA as rescuers explains Dick Grayson's mention of them in Batman and Robin, assuring that the battle with Doctor Hurt will be conducted by the bat-family alone. Somehow the JLA knows something that we didn't: If Bruce gets back to the 21st century on his own, "everyone dies." Whatever plan is behind this, it probably has something to do with the unexplained motive Darkseid had in planting a fake Bruce Wayne corpse behind. To connect the dots on this, it seems that Darkseid has made Bruce Wayne into the weapon that will (via some mumbo jumbo) destroy the universe -- one of those "fates worse than death" that villains love to enact. Surviving fistfights and gunfights will be the small challenge, and figuring out that a doomsday countdown is underway will be the hard one. Although for now, Bruce also has to worry about a gigantic hideous monster about to eat him in Puritan times.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Batman and Robin 12

Grant Morrison's original plan for Batman and Robin was a series of four arcs of three issues each. That would have made #12 a climax of the entire run. In the meantime, the plan was expanded to add a fifth arc, and as a consequence, #12 raised more questions than it answered, and the climax is yet to come.

Much of the action was very straightforward. The scenes that played out Talia's move against Batman and Robin are just what they seem to be, and for now, that threat has passed. Probably the most important consequences, in the near term, are that it cemented the bond between Dick and Damian. Moreover, with Dick twice dealing out beatings to Deathstroke, walking away from some sort of battle with a demon, and standing powerful, smart, and resolute before the Joker, his role in Morrison's story is clear: He's a world-beater. He's up to what's coming.

And what is coming? The Joker seems to be the lesser of two threats. Exactly what his state of mind is is unclear. Is he about to lay into a violent attack on Dick? Will he propose an alliance that Dick won't possibly accept? Is he even aware that his Sexton identity and his activities as a Domino Killer are both part of his actions?

Because of his propensity for almost arbitrary degrees of psychological disorder, the Joker is ultimately uninterpretable, but we do see that his actions led him to resemble his missing nemesis, and at the same time to seek him out in the form of "Bruce Wayne". If he knows everything he's seen and heard (which is not a given), then he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne. Fans had speculated, with good reason, that the Joker might see Bruce's face and hear his name but never do the detective work to identity that he is Bruce Wayne. But clearly, as Sexton, he did excellent detective work, finding three of the Black Glove members who were masked when he met them, and from other parts of the world. Only a serious dissociation of what he has witnessed and his memory would keep the Joker from knowing that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Given that, consider his frequent and pointed mentions of Bruce to the new Batman (who, the Joker should know, is not the original; and he might well know that he is specifically "Dick Grayson"). In the final scene of #12, was the Joker fishing for information, trying to get Dick to reveal something about Bruce's fate? It's even possible that he was driven to perform the killings in order to get that information, for his own peace (as it is) of mind. But the Joker actually has multiple reasons to have acted as he has: To emulate his fallen enemy, to make good on the threat he made at the end of Batman, R.I.P., and to get this close to the new Batman. And now that he's this close... what next? Whatever the Joker hopes to have happen, a battle is going to result, most likely one that will range far beyond the hotel room. The line of police cars outside is probably about to witness the Joker escaping over their heads or under their feet if not on a bloody rampage right through their ranks.

The larger threat, however, is the one for which the issue's story was titled, although the significance of the title remains unclear (or underwhelming). A Mexican train did indeed arrive in Gotham, maybe just a train, although there is at least some metaphorical sense in which a greater menace looms. As an utterly unknown figure (perhaps one of the 99 Fiends; certainly someone on Doctor Hurt's side) says, "This train started rolling a long, long time ago." That meaning probably extends to the musty secrets of Wayne Manor and the caves below it. Both the past and present manifestations of Doctor Hurt's coming attack have been revealed only partially, in some of the best shadowy narration the comic book genre has ever seen.

One of the most significant reveals of this issue is that the relationship between the Waynes and demonic forces has been ongoing. Not just the Devil worship of Old Thomas and then the recent battle between Bruce (and perhaps his father before him) against that devil. At least Joshua and Alan Wayne have played a role, too -- either knowingly or unknowingly with Bruce's past lives coming to bear. And we know, moreover, that Bruce's presence in the cave in the remote past has left a tangible mark -- perhaps the origin moment of the bat-demons in Gotham somewhere under Wayne Manor. The timeline, such as we know it:

In the distant past (Seven Soldiers #1 mentions 40,000 B.C. as the first contact between New Gods and early Man, but North America was not inhabited until more like 10,000 or 8,000 B.C. It hardly matters.) Bruce Wayne makes his arrival in the vicinity of Gotham via the Omega Sanction. Coincidentally or not, the rocket / time capsule from Final Crisis is also then and there. And we know, in a spiraling narration bringing in Return of Bruce Wayne #1 (whose preview was posted to the web less than a day ago), that the people he encounters call themselves "Deer People". This adds a bit of significance to the antlers upon which the bat-cowl is hung. The details are pending for a few more days, but it is possible that the entire "bat" association with the location of Wayne Manor began with Bruce's arrival. This would be a paradox, a time loop, something that Morrison has used before with the bullet in Final Crisis and the Sheeda in Seven Soldiers as well as the Superman rocket in Red Son -- a rocket that looks just like the one by Bruce's cave, and that similarity is thematically meaningful. Bruce is now living Superman's story -- the surviving son of doomed parents, escaping via distant translocation to a place where he can grow strong. This thematic similarity to Superman is probably a direct intention of the Batman origin as written in 1939, and to make the tie could be the reason why Morrison chose to place the rocket here even if it didn't literally bear him to this time and place. The time loop may not, however, be the origin of the "bat" presence here, and we'll find out soon enough if an existing, savage bat demon was already lurking before Bruce showed up.

We've been told that the Miagani tribe will practice bat-worship as part of ROBW. Morrison said that they were revealed in Legends of the Dark Knight in the Nineties. I have searched the 122 issues that meet that description without finding any such mention, and either the reference lurks in some tiny corner of no great significance or Morrison is mistaken. The Miagani are mentioned in 1988's The Cult, but they are not themselves evil -- they run into Deacon Blackfire, who is evil. The LOTDK story that best matches the theme is "Shaman" in LOTDK #1-5, the story immediately prior to Morrison's "Gothic". There, there are Native people who practice bat-demon worship. In fact, two entirely unrelated tribes do so -- one native to Alaska and the other native to the fictional Santa Prisca.

The way the timeline of the Manor moves on is fascinating. It was constructed as a 'W' in the time of Darius Wayne (1795) and given garden paths in the shape of a bat-signal in the time of Alan Wayne (according to Batman Secret Files and Origins, he is Solomon's son and Joshua's nephew, and thus lived around 1870). Given that Joshua is holding the casket that makes one of the 99 Fiends shout out "Barbatos!" it is clear that at least eight Waynes (including Bruce's life as the witch-hunter Mordecai) have had a role in the story. It remains to be seen if they all knew about demons or if Darius, Joshua, or Alan were unwitting in their role and directed by Omega Sanction lives of Bruce. Of all of the Waynes seen in the portrait gallery, only Kenneth, Patrick, and Silas have not yet been drawn into the plot... yet.

Which brings us to the train that started rolling long, long ago. Inside the train, we see Senator Vine, the Black Glove member whose absence from the story I noted earlier. Sexton never mentioned him before, despite knowing that he was a more logical target for the next killing (by himself!) than Bruce Wayne. Here he speaks his first lines in a short conversation with Doctor Hurt that mentions Batman not at all but is, on the surface, about a coming battle between the Black Glove and the Joker. It's impossible to know how earnest Hurt's half of the dialogue is. His ego seems likely to pit him against the Joker (who has "a knack for engaging foes he cannot defeat"... like Hurt should talk). But it's impossible that he actually cares whether Vine lives or dies. Having seen Hurt blithely watch the defeats and deaths of Charlie Caligula, the Sombrero, and General Malenkov, we are likely to see him poker-faced as Senator Vine takes his last breath sometime to come.

But what is to come? What began in the tunnel under Wayne Manor? It seems that precisely when Dick found the casket, Barbatos awoke, although that may have been a hallucination. Still, the significance remains -- at least something made Dick see a giant bat demon (notably larger than the one whose head is on Bruce's on the cover of ROBW #1) and left him beaten. Maybe a spirit animated the symbol partially removed from his own chest. It may have the ability to animate things in the shape of a bat. Like the paths around the Manor itself would have been. This again suggests the bat demon seen back in World's Finest #255.

The forces on Hurt's side take many forms. We've seen members of the "99 Fiends" who appear to be hired muscle wielding conventional weapons; much more like typical henchmen than actual demons like Etrigan. Moreover, they dress more like punk and rock musicians or even hipsters than supervillains, much less demons. The scene at the train station shows some of the Fiends, including one holding the bat casket. But there are also several others who look like businessmen wearing domino masks. (Naberius is the only known Fiend to wear such a mask, although nameless others wear goggle or glasses.) These may have been "Fiends"; their different attire may mean they are members of some other group. These masked "businessmen" may be part of the same group that Santo was in; he was apparently a mortal man who needed hospital care. Note also that of the gang leaders in #4, once again Tony Li is left unmentioned when someone lists the ranks of the deceased. Tony Li wore a mask very like the "businessmen". That may explain how the domino got into Santo's hand, although he may have been carrying it all along. It seems as though the dominoes are ID cards indicating the rank of each of Hurt's followers (some of whom wear domino masks) and the Joker called himself the Domino Killer to mock them. Cumulatively, figures like Toad, the Fiends, these masked men, etc., are working for Hurt, but it seems as though he is going to bring a much greater threat than 99 henchmen to town.

Aside from Toad, and the creepy eyes of Naberius, the one obviously nonhuman force we've seen was the (possibly hallucinatory) giant bat, which had none of the human characteristics seen in the statue. The giant bat, which may simply be Barbatos seems more like "muscle" than anything that might be possessing the calm and calculating Doctor Hurt.

So what is coming? His people think that his victory over Batman is preordained and will wrap up in less than 48 hours. Hurt, having called Bruce an usurper back in #679, is possibly the Old Thomas Wayne and almost certainly the man who will pose as the Young Thomas Wayne in the next issue. The newspaper he is holding has a headline about a "New Wayne Scandal", which more likely pertains to that ruse to come than anything going on in the other Batman titles. (An accompanying photo is a headshot, possibly of the false Thomas Wayne.) If Hurt's next move is to take over Gotham as Thomas Wayne, he will have to discard the portion of the dossier that accused Thomas of murder.

But he's going to make a bigger move than merely claim he is Thomas Wayne, put his heels up on a desk, and start issuing memos. This is the story that Morrison said ties in to #666 "considerably". There's going to be a battle. There's going to be great peril to the entire city. Dick has suggested (perhaps just to investigate Bruce's time-flung whereabouts) the Justice League. The 99 Fiends succeeded in a quest to tap the power of Barbatos. A fistfight (or fire and brimstone -fight) with the Justice League slugging it out with demons hasn't been Hurt's style so far. In the plan of RIP, he worked methodically against Bruce over years, a plan that we could see just before it unfolded. In this case, we see an unlikely mixture of demons, thugs, gangsters, and the corruption of the law. What else does the Devil have planned? Apocalypse? Or a reign of evil so subtle that no one in Gotham even notices what changed? The next move is Doctor Hurt's. He's going to face a crimefighter who has with each passing issue been easier to call not Dick Grayson but Batman.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Domino Jokes

Batman and Robin #12 revealed that Oberon Sexton has been the Joker all along -- and also the Domino Killer. Most likely, the detective persona was a conscious facade, although it's also possible that amnesia and Multiple Personality Disorder led to a detective personality earnestly investigating the Joker's usual killer personality.

Many fans guessed Sexton's identity from the very beginning. I pitched a number of guesses, delving into whispers of clues that were ultimately misleading; the fact that the original Red Hood's attire basically matched Sexton's may have been one correct clue.

Dick Grayson, however, solved the crime with two clues we had and two we didn't: the murders of the four deceased Black Glove members were designed to hint at jokes, and two of those were presented to us in #10, with nobody, apparently, in fandom seeing the pattern.

Cardinal Maggi was killed with a dog collar. Since cardinals normally wear collars, it could be a subtle joke on the cardinal being a dog. There is also a joke about "white collar crime" turning out to be the misdeeds of a cardinal. There is yet another a joke about someone stopping a vicious dog attack by choking the dog with its own collar, and the person's actions being portrayed positively at first, but then negatively when something else is learned about them (e.g., a Yankees fan in Boston is said to "viciously kill beloved pet"). Maybe there is another joke that describes the situation more pointedly.

The tycoon having a heart attack during sex with his young mistress is probably funny enough to someone like the Joker. Additionally, there is a joke about a man being found by his dumb (blonde) wife after such a heart attack and when the wife, misperceiving the situation, finds the naked mistress in the closet, she is furious because the woman is playing hide and seek. If there is another joke that plays also on the unusual word "tycoon", I don't see the connection.

Neither of those were clues available to us, because the nature of their deaths was not mentioned until the end of #12. However, the other two appeared early in #10. They more clearly pertain to well-known jokes, which happen to be unprintable in comics.

General Malenkov's murder pertains to its respective joke via a pun: There is a joke about a man winning bar bets with a trained alligator that allows the man to place his genitals in its mouth. The link here is the similar sound of the words "general" and "genitals". The Joker put his "general" in the alligator's mouth.

Equally unprintable, and the one that we probably had the best chance of perceiving: The sheikh died in the bathroom as a result of poisoned peanuts. I don't know if this is cast as easily into a "joke" per se so much as there is a pun: the Joker gave a sheikh peanuts in the bathroom (gave the penis a shake in the bathroom).

And, alas, for all of the false leads and the top-down guessing ("Who would make a surprising reveal? The Joker."), there were a couple of bona fide clues, and nobody saw them.