Monday, August 30, 2010

Mad Men 406

Peggy recalls the announcement of Don's nomination for a Clio. Don let everybody pat him on the back even though, Peggy reveals, she came up with the idea. And, she tells Stan, Don thought that she was clapping for him. Stan asks her, "Who claps for themselves?"

In this episode, Don, certainly. Also Roger, Peggy, Pete, Ken Cosgrove, Harry, Ned Elliott, Ted Shaw, Danny, the supposed Major General Alvin, and Harry Crane. And, Stan, let it be noted, you yourself. Like most episodes this season, "Waldorf Stories" has a single theme running through each of several subplots and this time it is the desire for and overreaching for credit and acclaim. Three flashbacks simultaneously develop this theme with regard to Roger while also helping to answer the season's central question, "Who is Don Draper?" The flashbacks also mythologize the show's untold backstory, showing us how Don insinuated himself into Sterling Cooper in the days when Roger's hair had some pigment, Joan was the woman on his arm, and Don didn't know how to color coordinate.

We've seen Don bask in the glow of acclaim before. In last season's "The Color Blue", his face told it all when he was recognized for excellence at Sterling Cooper's fortieth anniversary celebration. But only his face. This time, when Don is given recognition but doesn't have Betty on his arm as a stabilizing influence, (and she herself as an ego-sating trophy), the event brings out every worst instinct he has, leading to a horrific all-weekend drinking binge wrapped around two one-night stands who met one another. In this episode's past as well as present-day narration, "Who is Don Draper?" is most easily answered in terms of ambition and a craving to be "a very important man at a very important agency". Past-tense Don wanted to be like Roger. And as the episode also told us pointedly, "Be careful what you wish for, because you'll get it."

The flashbacks show us that Don is much the same man now that he was then, a man whose very syntax works, despite his brilliance, in limited patterns. He tells Roger, "I don't think that's how it goes" and tells Danny, "That's not how it goes." He pitches his ill-advised bid to meet with Life Cereal's executives while drunk by saying "What do you say we put a cherry on this thing?" Later, his pass at Faye begins with "What do you say we get outta here and really celebrate?" And in a pattern larger than mere words and phrases, Don has wished to become like Roger and by now, to an extent that is almost hard to watch, it turns out that he has.

Don and Roger are both successful, but can't be told that enough. The self-defeating nature of such a strong desire for positive reinforcement is put on display many times. Beyond the desire to actually do good work (what Don tells Faye matters, though he's nowhere near actually possessing that mindset), these men and others like them desire the explicit recognition for it to the point of requesting it, and manipulating events to help keep it for themselves to the exclusion of others' success, not to mention to the exclusion of the truth. Roger defines himself to Joan as a man deserving of credit for finding men like Don. But what the flashbacks show us is that Roger didn't evaluate Don's talent; he did everything possible to reject Don and ended up unable to recall hiring Don while drunk; it is a fact either that Roger made such an offer or that Don recognized when Roger was drunk enough that Don could fabricate the story of Roger having hired him without the lie being caught. Certainly the ad men's usual lies increase in frequency when alcohol is mixed in. Don's mid-bender lies to Betty, Doris, and Peggy pale in comparison to his taking the credit for an ad campaign that Peggy thought of. That is, if her memory is accurate, and she's not imagining a larger role for herself in the Glo Coat ad, something that is suggested when she admits that Don came up, at least, with the cowboy concept for the ad.

Peggy doesn't have to worry about suffering the harmful effects of receiving too much acclaim. Any that she deserves for the Glo Coat ad has been directed entirely to Don, and if there were any acclaim left over, Roger would want it. She takes heaps of disrespect from Don and everyone ranging from Stan to Miss Blankenship. And she's not only putting the sexist pig Stan in his place when she uses her bare body to arouse and tease him; she's also getting an ego boost thanks to her body when her career is determined to deny her credit for her mind. Indeed, fact that women could only get recognition for their sexuality is highlighted by the fact that the one woman from the firm who is invited to the awards ceremony is not Peggy, who worked on the prize-winning account, but Joan. In an interaction that we cut in too late to witness, Joan entertains the advance of some unseen ad man, to which Pete says, "That was not a business proposition" and Joan replies, "Catch more flies with honey." Joan may just have received enough positive recognition in her lifetime that she actually cares more about the business ramifications of such an interaction than one more opportunity to have her ego stroked.

The minor characters in the episode provide a veritable tidal wave of moments when they, too, crave their moment in the sun. Lane responds to Harry's Red Skelton story, "I surmise due to the usual nature of your stories that that's someone of note." Danny, whose name is not coincidentally like Don's, puts famous ads by other people in his portfolio. The "general" calls attention to his quilt of decorations. The first of Don's two conquests won an award for a jingle that is the Star Spangled Banner.

Inflating one's self is only one approach to ego. Downplaying others is a path to the same result. While Don has taken the credit for Peggy's work, and to her chagrin is in the process of doing so with Danny.
Astonishing given the later revelations, Don early on tells Peggy, "You finish something, you find out that everyone loves it right around the time that it feels like someone else did it." He means that it feels like someone else, in the abstract, did it even as she knows that she actually did! And she's not above cutting others down when the time comes. When Peggy needs to get back at Stan, she says, with an anatomical second meaning referring to his earlier arousal, "I only changed one small thing".

While Don and Roger are busy illustrating "Pride cometh before the fall", the moment priming Greek tragedy in the episode is when they witness and respond to the public self-humiliation of Duck Phillips, the duplicitous former colleague who sold the company from under them and bedded Peggy in hotel rooms. Duck, a relapsed alcoholic, attempts, but badly, to heckle the presenter at the Clios. Roger and Don laugh at Duck's drunken attempt to capture the spotlight. In the same weekend, they'll both hit resounding lows helped by the mixture of alcohol and ego. The only consolation for Don and Roger is that they go on to do so before smaller audiences.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Batman 702

It's hard to read Batman #702 and be aware that it is, on a factual level, a sort of "clip show", composed more than half of scenes, art, and almost-exact dialogue from previous issues. It shows things we've already seen tied together, mainly, with transitions that are not surprising given what we know. And yet, it raises an extraordinary number of extraordinary questions. Grant Morrison's intertwined "second season" of Batman has five issues to go in Return of Bruce Wayne and Batman & Robin, and this issue seems to hint at momentous reveals for the events in those stories. Though much of this issue sketches out an easy-to-understand pattern, one sees in more than one place a hole in things.

Batman, R.I.P.'s final issue, Batman #681, had a first person narration by Batman himself, illustrated in the style of notebook excerpts. As we read these, we knew that Batman at least survived the threat to his life which was still playing out in the graphical presentation of the story. But that narration left more than one enigma, including the terms under which Batman composed it. By the time Last Rites showed that Batman recovered from RIP at least momentarily, it offered a possible explanation for when Batman performed that narration -- he might have done it during the brief respite between RIP and Final Crisis. But for one anomaly: He says "And so I write this final entry in the Black Casebook". Accepting at that moment that he survived RIP, we don't know of any reason why he would believe in its aftermath that there would be no more for him to record in the Black Casebook. Because he was near death? Because he could no longer be Batman? Because after an encounter with Doctor Hurt there was nothing left to consider mysterious? We still don't know. But it is suggestive that the narration in Batman #681 and #701-702 is all part of one message that is recorded in audio format (and not written) and is composed in a cave at the beginning of time, where Darkseid's Omega trap first sends him. Certainly the narration in #701-702 comes about like that, spoken into a utility-belt recorder while the Omega amnesia rapidly spreads over Bruce, leaving him the nearly-mute cipher he is when ROBW begins. What we learn in this issue is what Bruce knows just before the amnesia kicks in. He's losing his brilliant mind just after appearing in the past. Like the protagonist of "Flowers for Algernon", he knows this, which is why the last line of #701 is "Think fast, Batman..."

An overarching idea in #702 is that the New Gods and their artifacts are platonic in nature -- the essence of things rather than things themselves. There is the idea of horseness and then there are particular horses. You could kill every horse that's alive but the idea of horses would still exist. Morrison portrays the New Gods not as superpowered aliens but as ideas that happen to interact with the real world. As Morrison said in an interview before Final Crisis began, "We discover that all the previous experiences of the New Gods have kind of been projections into the DC Universe, and we’ve never seen the real thing until now." Darkseid, the bullet that kills Orion, and other things are more the idea of stuff rather than stuff itself. The bullet is the archetype of all bullets. Darkseid is the archetype of all terrible beings that have plagued men. And as in Morrison's Superman Beyond and Final Crisis, he writes a story about story. Zillo Valla's line from Superman Beyond #2, "I found a better story; one created to be unstoppable, indestructible! The story of a child rocketed to Earth from a doomed planet..." is reprised when Batman says in #702 that he has "a New Myth of my own. A myth where Ultimate Evil turns its gaze on humanity and humanity gazes right back and says 'Gotcha'." Just as the first line is a synopsis of Superman's origin from Action #1, the second is a synopsis of Batman's; in particular the gazing right back speaks of the origin as told in Batman #47, when young Bruce's "accusing eyes" turn on Joe Chill and terrify Ultimate Evil itself. The Wayne murder, depicted on four different pages, is very much a topic of #702 when it says that the bullets that killed them are mere examples of the idea of bulletness. As Batman says in Final Crisis #6, "A gun and a bullet, Darkseid. It was your idea." At the time, it seemed that Batman was speaking only of Orion's death, but in #702, he's speaking of every such death -- Orion's, his parents, and all others. Granny Goodness' attack is "like Joker venom. Fear Gas. Doctor Hurt's smile. All at once." It is the prototype from which examples are made.

And what is Batman going to do about them? Another moment from the past is when Jim Gordon says to him, "Look at you, all beat up to hell. Why did you have to choose an enemy that's as old as time and bigger than all of us, Batman?" And he answers, "Same reason you did, Jim. I figured I could take him." Like the platonic essence of bullet, this line simultaneously applies to many situations at once. Jim Gordon is referring to the sort of corruption he can see between the mayor and the police in Batman #665. But he sees it as something bigger than one mayor or a handful of conspirators. In time, the line took on a meaning regarding Doctor Hurt, and in its superlatives and the use of "hell", his identity as the Devil.

#702 seems to suggest that Darkseid is the bigger villain than Doctor Hurt, that Darkseid had a causal role in creating Hurt. Bruce, knowing that Hurt has called himself "the hole in things" (the title of #701), decides that Darkseid's fall "made the hole in things". This suggests a literal cause-and-effect relationship, and that Hurt is therefore secondary to Darkseid. I'm not sure that this suggestion is going to prove important to the larger story. The hierarchy of ultimate evils is tangled. In Final Crisis, Darkseid's crimes precipitate the arrival of Mandrakk, but the Monitors had been planning an evil coup when Darkseid's plan was at its inception.

And the "hole in things" seems to have the Evil Gods' number. Batman remarks, of his escape from the Evil Factory, that the Evil Gods hadn't prepared for any of what was then happening, that the best laid plan of Darkseid was also prone to the Hole in Things. Nothing's perfect. Batman finds gods and aliens hard to prepare for. And they, him.

And so, his counterattack becomes an archetype, too. Humanity (not superheroes, a point of contrast all throughout #701-702) gazes back at Ultimate Evil and says "gotcha". Bruce swinging his black-gloved fist at Doctor Hurt in the helicopter. Cowboy Bruce doing the same to Doctor Thomas Wayne in ROBW #4. A new story, a better story. Or, if you'd like, a very old one, Beowulf. Humanity has a representative who will stare down evil gods and strike fear into devils and never give up and never, ultimately, lose. By giving him Ultimate Evil to face on a platonic battlefield, Darkseid makes a colossal error, allowing Batman into a world of "ultimate stakes" where he can alter the myth of evil and give birth to himself. As Morrison said in an interview, "Batman himself is finally standing there to complete that big mythical circle and to have the image of Batman up against the actual personification of evil." The showdown in FC #6 creates what Batman #679 calls "a miracle in Crime Alley". Retroactively, of course.

The time travel itself is not such a complex part of the story. Darkseid sends Bruce back to 9,000 B.C., with regular jumps to other times (circa 1645, 1718, 1880, and 1980, respectively), but always near the vicinity of the cave. Bruce records his message in a brief interlude before ROBW #1 and this message is found by Rip Hunter and brought to the JLA. This takes place at some point in time after the events of Batman and Robin #12, sending Rip, Booster Gold, Hal Jordan, and Superman on a rescue mission that begins before Batman and Robin #13. Bruce's path goes on as illustrated in ROBW.

But this wonderfully ornate story has two other levels of complexity. One, in known references to earlier stories in the Morrison Batman era. We see his memory of the discovery of the well that connects to the Batcave and his imagined funeral from Batman #673 as well as the funeral from Neil Gaiman's Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? There are logical and thematic connections from Final Crisis, ROBW, Last Rites, and Batman #665.

But the more intriguing references are those which are left dangling without clear resolution. The missing portrait is a clear reference to the Old Thomas Wayne character mentioned in B&R #10 and seen in ROBW #4, and if we merely find out that he is the basis of Doctor Hurt, then it only confirms what has been coming into focus in recent issues. But the issue also has a stunning visual pointer in the depiction of the gates of a "Willowwood Asylum" which is a very obscure pointer to World's Finest #223 and the 1974 story of a pre-Crisis "lost brother" of Bruce's named Thomas Wayne, Jr. This brother was the subject of a brain trauma during childhood that left him mentally unstable, so he was therefore incarcerated in Willowwood Sanitarium. Why is Morrison showing us a pointer to that story?

Many fan-detectives have guessed that Doctor Hurt might be Thomas Wayne, Jr. The Bronze Age stories of Bob Haney have not been acknowledged by Morrison until this time (nor indeed, were much acknowledged by other DC writers at the time). Hurt has already declared himself to be a "dark twin". Could Morrison be opening the door to Thomas Wayne, Jr. being in continuity again, and if so, could he, rather than Old Thomas Wayne, be the body of Doctor Hurt? The answer to the second question is almost certainly "no." Thomas Wayne, Jr. was only three years older than Bruce, whereas Doctor Hurt was an adult in 1978, clearly too old to be the son of Thomas and Martha. The Devil in this story goes far back into the past, and if Morrison were to bring back Thomas Wayne, Jr., this would be quite separate from the origins of Doctor Hurt. The pages showing Willowwood remark on time being pliable, so this may be from a timeline that did stay with us, but only winked in and out of existence as Darkseid turned the Ancestor Box to craft a trap for Batman.

And that brings us to the issue's final chain of suggestive associations. The Ancestor Box (like "Rock of Ages'" Grandmother Box, taken to the platonic, inductive step of generality) has a many-tentacled thing creeping from and about it. Perhaps the hyper-adapter creates the hyperfauna seen in ROBW #2. It is likely that of which Jack Valor cannot speak and that which Alan Wayne calls "sickening." But almost certainly, a box with bells is the same one that is associated with the casket that has become the McGuffin of ROBW and B&R. This is not a great surprise. Somehow, Bruce gets to the end of time, and somehow he stops Green Lantern and Superman in their tracks; a Mother Box is a likely tool for accomplishing these things. It is interesting, though, that something pertaining to the New Gods would also supply "The bells of Barbatos". Whatever blocked the radio transmissions of Dick and uses eclipses as portals for Bruce's jumps, it seems to tie all of the larger story's demons and devils together into one myth, one mythology, and one central hero. Batman #702 is a grand telling of that myth.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mad Men 405

The Chrysanthemum and The Sword, Ruth Benedict's 1946 study on the culture of Japan, rests on the central premise that Japanese culture exerts influence on the individual through the threat of shame. In contrast, many Western subcultures such as Roman Catholicism rely on guilt as a comparable motivational force. The distinction comes down to whether or not one must be caught to feel punished. Shame as a motivating force is an apt lens to hold up to Don Draper, who is avidly immoral when certain of not being caught but is consumed with the fear of having his secrets found out. Whether or not that book or this idea offer accurate insight regarding Japan, the distinction between guilt and shame is the central principle for the episode as a whole.

In the episode's central non-business subplot, the idea of guilt and shame are at the forefront of Sally's two peccadilloes. When Sally cuts her hair in an obvious bid for attention, everybody's care is for the shame it might bring upon them: The sitter's reaction is "Your dad is going to kill me... Do you understand I'm in worse trouble than you are?" Don's reaction is that when Betty finds out that he will be "in a river of shit" and he presents Sally with a hat covering her hair, to stall the revelation a moment longer. Finally, in a darkly comic circuit of mutual shame, Betty believes that Sally's misbehavior is for the purpose of publicly punishing Betty herself for the divorce.

Later, when Sally is caught masturbating, Betty's reaction is a spotlight on her hypocrisy: She tells Sally that this is not to be done privately or publicly, but later tells the psychiatrist that it's something she herself did and still does ("mostly outgrew it"). Shame becomes an endlessly rising canon: the resort to psychiatry itself is something that Betty has hidden from Henry, and that Don wants to keep from the world, asking the dense Miss Blankenship, "Lower your voice, please."

Don has always been a reliable source of hidden truths. Early in the episode, a crushing blow to him is contained in a brief interaction with Miss Blankenship: A call to California has gotten no answer. Cultural references ranging from "Help Me, Rhonda" to Selma, Alabama place this episode in March 1965. Months after Don's visit with the real Mrs. Draper, she is likely succumbing to cancer, and Don no longer has anyone with whom this many losses can be acknowledged.

In fact, given the supposed overarching distinction between Japan and the West, the only person in the episode who comes across as a firm representative of the West is Roger Sterling. Though he's utterly isolated for putting a stubborn war grudge ahead of business interests, the principle driving him is all internal: "I made a pledge to a lot of men you'll never meet not to do business with them." He may as well be abstaining from sin in order to please the heavenly saints -- Roger absorbs heaps of shame upon himself to stand by that principle, with xenophobia that is as reprehensible as it is brilliantly executed, with barbs covering unconditional surrender, the atomic bombings, and seppuku.

Maybe because of the particular subculture of advertising, "where the truth lies", anybody driven more by guilt than shame should likely have found an exit long ago. Don, putting his much-lauded brain to use by reading the episode's eponymous work of nonfiction (he channels George C. Scott's Patton: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"), devises a stratagem to destroy his personal adversary Ted Shaw, depending on Don's ability to make the Japanese executives lose face in his meeting with them. Don, who could just as well be speaking of himself when he quotes "A man is shamed by being openly ridiculed and rejected. It requires an audience." correctly understands that the Honda executives can be controlled with shame, and so he launches a plan involving a fake commercial, and he manages to manipulate his nemesis into providing the stimulus for that shame. We should not be surprised if Peggy later cites Don's scheme after he criticized her for staging a fight over smoked ham in the season opener. If all of the racial stereotypes advanced by the episode were true, it is hard to imagine that the translator could bring himself to tell his bosses "You did not honor your own rules." This capped a masterful deceit to drain both cash and honor from Shaw's ad agency, set to the caper jazz from Season Three's finale.

To be successful, drama relies upon character development and not just character. The surprising twist in this episode may be that Don is growing rather that spiraling towards a fall. His "Japanese" outlook is eminently on display when he expresses amazement that a trapeze artist would confess to Dr. Faye Miller a key truth about his relationship with his father. "He said that?" Don asks with characteristic distaste for such personal revelation, especially where one's father is concerned. "Why does everybody need to talk about everything?" But the more he talks with Faye, the more he starts to open up. Soon he's talking about his divorce, his kids, Sally's problems -- just the sort of things one would expect Don to hide. The great mystery laid down by this episode is: Why does Don open up to Faye? Is it that he sees another shallow Betty in the all-too-similarly-named Bethany? As he loses Anna Draper, is he looking for someone to share the truth with? Does he see in the PhD with the fake wedding ring, which she ironically removed as a facade within a facade last episode, someone who lives as he does, with three-level lies? Or maybe he's not developing at all, and thinks that opening up might be a way to win another battle in his never-ending war for sexual liaisons with every attractive woman around him. Thus far in the series, Don's simple self-serving motives have yet to be trumped, and could just as well have been the subject when Joan asked "Not very subtle, are they?" and the translator ogled her signature physique while answering, "No, they are not."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Batman and Robin 14 Preview

First as tragedy, then as farce. The pivotal battle of Dick Grayson's tenure as Bruce Wayne's replacement is here. The next issue is almost three weeks away, but a web-released preview gives us indications of where the battle and the larger story are going.

First, we see Alfred in the Wayne Manor library, whose portal to the hidden evil Batcave has been illustrated in multiple recent issues.  Once again, we see the portrait of Thomas and Martha and the horsehead. Alfred appears to enter a different portal, first passing on foot, then manipulating the hands of a clock. The clock entrance has been displayed in many accounts of the Batcave architecture over the years; in Batman #676, Alfred and Tim Drake appear to enter the Batcave in this way, but no attention is given to the mechanism that opens the clock-portal. In Legends of the Dark Knight #6, Morrison shows Bruce seated in a very similarly-rendered library or den, with attention to a window that allows the sun to shine through, and a clock drawn by Klaus Janson that resembles the one Tony Daniel drew in RIP. This is similar to the clock drawn now by Frazier Irving. In "Gothic", Bruce sits in a room of stopped clocks, each turned to 8:25, presumably the hour of his parents' deaths. In Batman and Robin #14, Alfred turns the clock to 9:46 or 9:47. In Batman #701, when Alfred observes that what is likely the same clock has stopped (unbeknownst to him, at the time of the helicopter crash), it is stopped at 1:15. What is the relationship between these times? Did Morrison substitute, arbitrarily, a different death time for the Waynes? Or is there a second event that has some meaning? Or is it all arbitrary? Does it all break down into symbolism and hints and clues, or is that just Wikipedia?

Even if Alfred is going to the normal Batcave, then there is some significance to the scene or it wouldn't be shown to us. But even more so if he's going somewhere else. In #701, Bruce believes that Hurt got into the hidden evil Batcave. It's not clear how he knows that, but it's reasonable to assume that he has some sort of silent alarm. Suppose it wasn't Hurt who entered the room but Alfred. Given the reveals that are coming about the backstory, we can suspect that Alfred's been in that room before, when Thomas and Martha were. I.e., Alfred knows something that Bruce doesn't. As the Black Glove prepares to strike again, is Alfred going to the scene of a Black Glove event that he attended, one with great importance to the history of the Waynes?

The other event in this unlettered preview is the twist in the "interrogation room" encounter between Damian and the Joker. Having pleaded his (relative) innocence and desire to help, the Joker passively turns the beating into a victory. Damian stiffens, grins, and collapses. Apparently, the Joker has "tainted, sour blood" (something the Bat Clone says, in a different context, in B&R #9). This hearkens back to "The Clown at Midnight", when the Joker kills two Arkham guards with his own saliva, with the text explaining that his body has been dosed with so many toxins over the years that he is immune to that which easily kills others. The scene reads as a deliberate counterattack on the Joker's part, but it remains possible that the Joker didn't intend to win this way. Possible, but the man with the permanently frozen grin certainly seems pleased by the prospect.

First as tragedy, then as farce. The Alex Ross cover to Batman #680 showed Batman and Robin (Bruce and Tim) facing the Club of Villains in battle. Nothing very much like this scene actually happened. The villains who were taken down were beaten by the Club of Heroes and Nightwing. So the similar cover to B&R #14 may also illustrate a theme rather than a coming fistfight. The key parallel is that the Club of Villains were Hurt's muscle, and in the new cover, this is also true of the individually mediocre-looking but numerically awesome 99 Fiends. Naberius told us way back that the 99 Fiends have no master. Maybe not, maybe they are a "pandemonium" of which Hurt is a part, but this cover shows us, as did B&R #10-12, that they are doing Hurt's bidding.

Robin has been brought down (even if not deliberately) by the Joker, and whatever did so is sure to erode a path through the policemen guarding him, and the Joker will escape. The 99 Fiends have brought down Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon where Dollotrons are waiting to swarm them. Dick Grayson's capture is imminent, if not in the moment where we last saw him, then in the three days to come. This preview shows us that the Wayne Manor library remains the focal point of what's coming. And as a link to the past, Alfred may be showing us, with Return of Bruce Wayne #5 to show more, that it is also the key focal point in the story's past: Thomas and Martha, "Gotham's Hurt", a masquerade party, a cowl, and the Black Glove. The pivotal events in Batman's past, coming to light now.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mad Men 404: The Rejected

Youth will be served, but not right away. As the decade moves closer to its appointment with revolution and upheaval, the generation that brought change faced many obstacles along the way. Youth and innovation were the subject of more than one of this episode's title reference, "The Rejected."

That begins with photos rejected from LIFE magazine because the boss hates nudes. The photographer's show is raided by the police. Soon enough, Clearasil (a face cream for teenagers) is rejected in favor of Ponds (a face cream for aging women). Allison loses her job as Don's secretary to someone perhaps too old to be her grandmother. The new ideas of Doctor Faye Miller are predictably rejected by Don just as the youth and vigor of Ken Cosgrove have been wasted at the two firms that he's worked for since Sterling Cooper. Along the way, Pete Campbell's child is forgotten when Pete assumes that Peggy's congratulated are work-related. We even find out that Trudy's mother had her uterus removed. The older generation really doesn't allow up-and-comers a break in this episode. Least of all Malcolm X, who is shot.

The rejected strike back. The photographer insults Peggy's entire commercial existence ("Why would I ever do that?"), just a moment after his friend assumes that when she says that she's a writer, that she must mean something besides a copy writer. (Peggy kisses him in thanks for the insult. Or, more to the point, for being part of the generation she chooses when she leaves the white-haired men in suits on the other side of the glass door at the end.) Pete forcefully gets Clearasil to oust Pond's from the firm's business. Allison throws a decoration at Don. Faye once again lashes back at Don when he rejects the very axioms of her approach. And in the episode's final shot, Don closes a heavy wooden door on the old couple arguing with mind-numbing lethargy over pears. If the very old and their ways have no use for the young, the reverse is equally true. And when the sparks are done flying, doors close to separate them. The door that Peggy closes on the older admen could be right out of The Graduate, itself a movie about two generations turning their backs on one another.

Symbols of intergenerational strife are worn to death in studies of the Sixties. Fortunately, "Mad Men" builds these scenarios on the back of rock-solid characterization. When we first see the older-than-Moses secretary now serving Don, we don't need to see Joan Holloway's face to know what sort of misbehavior on Don's part she was insuring against.

When Pete Campbell unleashes a torrent of bile in the direction of his never less than pleasant father-in-law, we react first with the uncomfortable reminder of how thoroughly amoral he is; then with the memory that he is also impeccably pragmatic, wonder not if but how, in his calculation, the vicious attack must be in his best interests. He's not just venting steam ("Every time you jump to conclusions, Tom, you make me respect you less"); he scores the career-boosting business victory that he was angling for, and it only cost him the goodwill of a key member of his family.

And in the process of using the characters, well-defined over seasons past, to execute repetitions on a basic theme, this episode scored one of the best nuanced moments in dramatic television. When Allison's emotional disarray from the quickie with Don threaten to spill over into the focus group, and in so doing shame Don publicly, Don squirms, and a lesser payoff would have been to let the scene erupt noisily, with the largest audience possible. Such are soap operas. But Allison's comments, when she does voice them, end up with just the right audience of one. Her lachrymose outburst is not coherent to the typical mind, but Peggy knows exactly what Allison is saying. She knows that Don has taken advantage of Allison, and that Allison assumes that Peggy must have achieved her career success by giving in to Don's carnal impulses, too. The implied loss of prestige immediately kills Peggy's sympathy. And as we think that Peggy's above that, that Allison has it wrong, we remember that Peggy had thrown herself at Don and it was she who was rejected and how that -- and her momentary fling with Pete -- has to bruise her self image. Allison's not the enemy, just the messenger. The tension helps push Peggy, who was gazing at her engagement ring just before this upheaval, to choose the far side of the glass door at the episode's end.

Don and "Who is Don Draper?" were less focal in this episode than in the last three. But between his distracted approach (what we'd call "multitasking" today) in the call with Lucky Strike, the bottle that was empty because he'd drunk it all, and his squirming during the focus group, we see a Don Draper still in decline. The man who makes his livelihood knowing what people want to hear doesn't know that the woman who kept sidling up to him after their one-minute stand didn't want to have to write her own compliments as her send-off. And Don, philosophically channeling David Hume and Nicholas Nassim Taleb, is technically correct when he tells Faye "You can't tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved." But Faye's scientific form of determinism is just another noose he's trying to slip out of. Don, we can tell exactly how you're going to behave based on how you have behaved.

He should accept Faye. She belongs aside the admen. She so adeptly makes up for losing her planned ruse (a misspelled nametag) with another (a "lost" nametag). It's like she went to the same school where Don learned to make up fires to get out of calls he doesn't want to be in. And everything about Pete that Ken Cosgrove is referring to when he says with a brutal lack of conviction, "Another Campbell. That's just what the world needs."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Doctor Hurt

Be assured. The Black Glove is a seal of absolute quality and ruthlessness. With those words, Grant Morrison began to present to us the mind of a new villain. In a sense, Hurt had appeared before, with Grant Morrison using the general likeness and a few direct quotes of a nameless doctor from the far earlier Batman #156, "Robin Dies at Dawn". It would be fascinating to get the reaction of the creators from 1963 upon their learning that a minor throwaway character from one story had become the primary villain in Batman stories from 2007 through 2010. They would have to laugh at that idea. They would probably stop laughing when they saw him shoot Dick Grayson in the head. If they hadn't stopped long before that.

Doctor Hurt has been the force behind the scenes driving most threats to both Batmen in all of Grant Morrison's run for the last four years. Applying the foremost rule in suspense, Morrison has kept Hurt a mystery right up to the present, with clues to his nature and identity shown to us one at a time, in a striptease that seemed to conclude when Bruce Wayne beat him once, but was completely reset when Hurt somehow reemerged to send wave after wave of attacks towards the new Batman, Dick Grayson.

Who is Doctor Hurt?

He's literally the biblical Devil. He's probably the 18th Century's Thomas Wayne. He's gone by the names Doctor Simon Hurt, the Black Glove, and El Penitente. He's claimed to be Bruce's father Thomas. But all of those identities, sometimes utterly different in their activities and language, exist under a cloud of uncertainty; it seems almost more appropriate to refer to Hurt as "they" rather than "him". They, in chronological order, (and varying levels of certainty) have been:

1) Possibly "the Devil" in Gotham sometime around 1650 (ROBW #2)
2) Thomas Wayne, a devil worshipper in 1765 (B&R #10)
3) Doctor Thomas Wayne, a 150-year-old casino/brothel owner around 1880; the shame of the Waynes for unnamed crimes (ROBW #4)
4) Possibly Jack the Ripper (ROBW #4)
5) A prominent Gothamite named Hurt who went missing in 1978 (Batman #678)
6) The titular head of the Black Glove club starting twenty or [much?] more years ago (Batman #681)
7) A research psychologist working for the U.S. Army about 10 years ago (Batman #674)
8) Still a psychologist working for the Gotham police about 8 years ago (Batman #674)
9) The head of the Black Glove directing attacks on Batman (Batman #665-681)
10) The Devil (Batman #681, #666, #701)
11) El Penitente, a drug lord in Mexico staging a massive attack on Gotham (B&R #4-11)
12) A man posing as Thomas Wayne, returning to Gotham to reclaim that identity (B&R #13)

That is a bizarre patchwork quilt of aliases and activities. It is further complicated by the fact that Doctor Hurt lies and speaks cryptically. He has referred to himself as "the hole in things... the piece that can never fit, there since the beginning", "the double you", "the shadow", "the dark twin". Aside from the many suspected lies he has told, he claimed, with Alfred as his only audience, that he is the recent Thomas Wayne; that he sees Alfred as a betrayer and Bruce's biological father, Martha as unfaithful, and Bruce as an usurper. He has called Gotham "home" and before he takes on the identity of a surprisingly alive Thomas Wayne, he says that he about to reclaim what has always been rightfully his, "for so many years."

There is moreover the mysterious and ever-ambiguous suggestion that he has supernatural powers, but none have been demonstrated up-front. The power he seems most often to demonstrate is immortality, but in any given scene, this is only suggested -- we have never seen him experience any definite trauma, and it is only indirect testimony saying that he over 150 years old by the time of ROBW #4. The devil in the story has given those powers also to Lane and to Damian in Batman #666. Moreover, the priest in B&R #11 asks Hurt for protection from gunfire, indicating a belief that such protection is within his means. Hurt gives specific details regarding the victim of Le Bossu in the first pages of RIP, and it is never explained how he could know such things. Finally, and most important to the story, Hurt places a curse on Bruce to wear the cape and cowl only one more time. This is not proven to be real instead of a bluff, but Bruce writes in his casebook that the curse is a "deathtrap".

At the core of all of this are facts that, if chosen selectively, suggest a rather straightforward explanation: That Doctor Hurt is the older Thomas Wayne, granted some sort of supernatural powers during a rite of demonic worship, was driven off by the scandal of his bloodletting, and is ever in wait to return, having made bids to unseat the reigning male of the Wayne family once and perhaps more times.

But this explanation leaves a lot of additional information unaccounted for, and the other information is hard to square away. Why does Hurt claim when Alfred is the only audience that he is the younger Thomas Wayne? If he wants to live the life of a wealthy man in Gotham, why is he undertaking actions to destroy it? If his goals are driven by self-interest, why doesn't he just kill Bruce and get on with it?

Character Development

Roughly speaking, we have seen Doctor Hurt (or those who might be him) in five distinct stories: As the voice whose face is never seen in the "Club of Heroes" story, as the Evil Psychologist running experiments on people, as the leader of the plan in RIP, the shadowy El Penitente / Doctor Hurt in Batman and Robin, and as Old Thomas Wayne (OTW) in ROBW. His appearance changes from c. 1880 to the present, as he appears to be 10 years older than Alan Wayne then, and passes for about sixty to pose as Thomas Wayne in the present. This could be explained as a great slowing, but not halt, of the aging process.

More meaningfully, his language and attitude changes. This is a natural consequence of changing circumstances... people at the zoo talk about animals. But in Hurt's case, it is more than that. OTW is needful and desperate. He has not procured immortality and is consumed by the pursuit of it. He speaks of Barbatos in the third person and is not, as some earlier conjectures had put it, Barbatos in possession of a human body from the time of the devil worship that had already taken place over 100 years earlier. OTW is angry, jumps into action, and never seems at ease. His singleminded pursuit of having the box opened highlights an anxiety that "Doctor Hurt" never shows except when the helicopter is about to crash.

In the present, Doctor Hurt is almost overpoweringly relaxed and smug. His poses look relaxed, he drinks champagne, and he's as often as not smirking. He speaks in terms of good and evil and universals. I performed a statistical breakdown of the word frequencies in his language during each story: In RIP, phrases such as "ultimate" and "noble spirit" are repeated, while "good" and "evil" dominate his language across all of his present-day appearances. Evil for the sake of evil has become his goal.

Is it possible that Hurt is simply like the Devil and has acquired immortality but must, in return, corrupt noble souls for the sheer sake of corruption? Could his actions as the evil influence on the world's wealthiest individuals a sort of payment that this man is making with the Devil as his boss, a separate entity? Then Hurt is not the Devil, but is a man working for the Devil. And to be clear, this is the villain whose identity was wrapped up as a secret that was eventually revealed to be the Devil.

The actual explanation is probably complex. Neither Hurt's actions nor his personality are consistent with the simple account of a 250-year-old man who just wants the family fortune back. It seems that neither simple explanation works: He's not the Devil even when he's 150 years old. But he's still obsessed with the Wayne fortune and getting back what's his when he's supposedly the ultimate evil being in the world. In fact, the latter impulse increases over time: In RIP, he uses the second person far more often than the first person singular, and uses the first person plural almost as often as the first person singular. In B&R, there is no "team", and his dominant pronoun use has switched to the first person singular. Emphasis on "my" and "mine". He wants what's his, and it seems to be utterly material. What does the Devil care with a nice house? Why would he call Gotham City his home? We cannot decide if Hurt is a man, OTW, or the Devil, because he plainly isn't either of them alone in any straightforward manner.

Twin Peaks

Morrison has made repeated references to the television show "Twin Peaks", both in the comics themselves, and in interviews. It's useful to consider the answer to the central mystery of "Twin Peaks" as a possible template for the Doctor Hurt story.

In "Twin Peaks", a girl named Laura Palmer is killed. This mystery became probably the most-talked about mystery on television since "Who Shot J.R.?" and until "The X-Files". Who killed Laura Palmer? A mortal man possessed by an evil spirit. The mortal man happened to be her father. The spirit, BOB, was not referred to as a demon, but filled the definition well enough to be considered one.

Leland Palmer was born an ordinary child. As a boy, he encountered BOB (who may or may not have been possessing some previous host), and somehow made the decision to allow BOB into him. From that time on, Leland was the host of BOB, but only thought, spoke, and acted as BOB part of the time. Usually, he was Leland. At times, BOB would take over and commit acts of unspeakable evil. When Leland was once again in control, he had no memory of what BOB had done. He wasn't even aware that BOB took turns controlling him. He either never had access to such knowledge or repressed it. And so the man/demon continued until he was finally caught for his crimes. BOB would have remained captive along with Leland had he not taken control and then suicidally injured Leland. Upon Leland's death, BOB floated free, until the final moments of the final episode, when he found a new host.

Morrison works in patterns. His seemingly standalone story in Batman #700 had numerous points of similarity to his larger Batman run as a whole. And one element in that story was Two Face Two, a character who had two personalities that split time controlling the body. When the big, handsome face wakes up, he asks, "What has he done this time? The bad little face? I'm so sorry I fell asleep." The two faces of Two Face Two work just like Leland and BOB. If Morrison is absorbing that pattern into his Batman run, it is plausibly a pattern that also explains the two-faced nature of Doctor Hurt. Old Thomas Wayne calls Gotham home and demands to possess again what is rightfully his. He abruptly snaps in Batman #679 and rants that he is the younger Thomas Wayne and calls Bruce the usurper of what is his. At other times, as the Devil, he smirks and speaks of inevitable victory. The body of Old Thomas Wayne. Sometimes the mind of Old Thomas Wayne. Sometimes the mind of the Devil.

And so he calls himself "the double you".

Gothic, The Sequel?

As noted above, we know that Morrison repeats story elements from one story to another. His JLA story "Rock of Ages" reads in some ways like an early draft of Final Crisis, even down to Darkseid hitting Bruce with his eye beams in the moments before Darkseid's defeat. It's clear that much of Morrison's long run with Batman duplicates features of the first story he ever wrote for a Batman monthly: 1990's Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10, "Gothic". Morrison has said that "Gothic" came from asking himself if a man could cheat the Devil and he decided that he couldn't. But he went on to say that RIP is the story of how Batman does cheat the Devil.

The number of known similarities between "Gothic" and the ongoing saga of Doctor Hurt is rather incredible. There are times when similarities are probably not meaningful, and arise by coincidence, being common to this genre in general or Morrison's works specifically. But the great number of alignments between the two stories is far beyond coincidence. A book could be filled with the details; for the sake of brevity, I will list in elliptical form story elements common to both "Gothic" and Morrison's post-Infinite Crisis Batman work. The length of this summary illustrates why I am not including more detailed citations.

A story opens with a man hanging upside-down at the mercy of his captor. The story features quotes from Paradise Lost. The villain's plan is centuries old. There is a countdown in days to an event in Gotham that seems harmless but is reputed to bring an apocalypse. Villains use the bat-signal to summon Batman. Villains use an upside-down symbol as a perversion of the regular form. The stories involve architecture. The stories involve roses as an instrument of death. Death is set against the ironic backdrop of children's rhymes. The villain knows Batman's identity. A woman is burned at the stake. Someone in the story is skeptical of the supernatural, but the story is supernatural. A villain is cited who kills seven victims but the eighth victim-to-be saves himself. The villain has an association with Bruce's father. An instrument of destruction is inside a box referred to within the story as a casket. The villain stands over a captive Batman and talks to him as to a child, psychoanalyzing him as a weak victim of past trauma. The villain's plan is to culminate at the stroke of midnight. Someone needs to "cheat the Devil". The villain takes a ship to England. The villain has supernaturally-derived longevity and is shown at work in the 1760s. The villain plans to unleash a plague in Gotham City. Batman arrives in a place contaminated with plague germs already wearing a gas mask. A villain attacks Batman's left arm. The villain seeks an extension of his already prolonged life, from mere centuries to all eternity. The villain is required to shed innocent blood to procure his life extension. Longevity does not entail invulnerability, and people with devilish life extension respond with an understated "Ow" when subjected to severe trauma, including being raked with gunfire. The exact vocabularies of the stories align, with "rites", "atrocious" / "atrocities", and the biblical phrase "good and faithful servant". A villain kills five crime bosses. Bruce survives an attack and then calls Alfred, asking him to bring Band-Aids.

Given this rather enormous list of coincidences, it is reasonable to wonder, when the case of Doctor Hurt features some unknowns, if the answer may be found in "Gothic". This could explain the "double you".

DCMB poster and standout Batman historian jgiannantoni05 suggests that Doctor Hurt began like "Gothic"'s villain, a man -- Old Thomas Wayne -- who made a deal with the Devil, but like Manfred, a man nonetheless. Sometime between ROBW #4 and the present, having lost his bargain, OTW forfeited his soul and the Devil came into possession of the body. To quote the villain himself, "Wayne became Hurt". If so, I would add per the earlier discussion that Hurt still is likely sometimes OTW, and probably switching personalities at times before our very eyes. As when he somewhat abruptly assaults Alfred in Batman #679. An assault that begins, perhaps not coincidentally, with the words "Wake up."

Endgame: Doctor Hurt's Attack

Whoever Doctor Hurt is, we have seen him put into motion what the solicit for B&R #15 calls his "final confrontation"with our heroes. What's coming?

Given what we absolutely know, what is hinted at by #666, and what the parallels with "Gothic" suggest, most of the details seem to be in front of us. Doctor Hurt may be seen as a single entity, but the "double you" analysis makes more sense: Doctor Hurt wants to take on the identity of Young Thomas Wayne, which seems like a logical priority for OTW, and living that life in that mansion doesn't necessarily work for or against the goals of the Devil.

There's a new Black Glove in town. As Senator Vine asks Hurt for protection in #12, we see five businessmen in domino masks waiting at the station. The Black Glove has room for five fingers, no more. Senator Vine isn't going to fit. He can count his remaining lifespan in heartbeats.

The Devil wants to settle a score with "Batman". To do so, he will try to kill Bruce Wayne's protege and most beloved companion Dick Grayson, corrupt Bruce's son Damian, and inflict mass casualties on Gotham City.

Kill the people of Gotham? That wasn't the deal that Hurt's underling Santos pitched to Gotham's mob bosses back in B&R #4. He proposed addicting the population of Gotham to drugs that they sold. That would be enormously profitable. Killing everyone in the city isn't profitable at all. That's not the plan of a mobster -- it's the plan of a devil.

But it is what is coming. Phosphorus Rex said so in B&R #3 ("They'll kill us all"), the Joker said so in #13 ("It looks like everybody dies"). And it matches the pattern of "Gothic". Manfred planned to save his own soul from the end of his 300-year deal by offering the souls of millions of dead Gothamites in his stead. He would do so by unleashing a plague from the Gotham cathedral whose construction he began. This would be set into motion by a lunar alignment that would allow light to enter through a rose window, at which time gear wheels would turn and place a phial containing the plague virus into the path of a bell which would be smashed the glass at midnight, releasing the epidemic in the heart of the city. The same addiction that could be used for profit may be lethal if the victims are not given their fix.

We already know that Hurt's plan crucially depends upon germs and upon a rare alignment of the Moon -- on the day of a solar eclipse, he refers to the "black sun" shining soon. He says this in the Wayne Manor library, a room whose importance has been foreshadowed heavily. The room has a large window which allows moonlight to enter in B&R #10. The Sun and the Moon follow nearly the same path through the sky -- any window that allows moonlight to enter will allow sunlight to enter during the day. When the eclipse happens, it will be observable from that window. This is somehow, by cosmic or mechanical necessity, essential for Hurt's corruption of Damian. Maybe he wants a more youthful body than the one of an older man he now has. Maybe an eclipse is cosmically empowering for acts of possession and soul jumping. Damian will be tempted to deal with the Devil (who "exists. I've met him") in order to save Dick Grayson and countless citizens of Gotham. Dick sees that the city could be held for ransom. But Hurt probably doesn't want money. He has money. He wants souls, bodies, death. That's the threat. That's the setup.

The solicit for the next issue says that if Dick and Damian "can't truly bond as a team, they're dead!" Right now, Dick has been shot down on one side of the city while Damian is making a big mistake beating the Joker on the other. They lose that round: Three days later, Dick is lying near death, and Damian is in captivity, asked to make a pact with the Devil. Bruce Wayne beat Manfred in "Gothic" and Doctor Hurt in RIP. If Dick's not as good as Bruce was, everybody dies.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Batman and Robin Endgame

Game to Endgame

Grant Morrison's "season" writing Batman and Robin is drawing near to its end. The fifth and final three-issue arc of that run has begun, raising the stakes to their highest point. Given the spectacular conclusion that his run on Batman delivered for the final two issues of its main plot, there is every reason to expect lots of fireworks in the rest of the current arc and in the wrap-up issue, #16.

The Joker in Reverse?

The story is perhaps not a mystery in the classic sense (now that the Domino Killer and Oberon Sexton have had their mutual identity revealed as the Joker), but there are numerous substantial mysteries remaining. One of the biggest concerns the Joker himself. We got a clear reveal of the grinning face behind the Sexton mask. It's unclear, though, what is going on inside the Joker's mind. In captivity for all of his scenes in B&R #13, the Joker insists that he wants to assist Batman and Robin in their upcoming confrontation with the villain whom we know to be Doctor Hurt. No one in the story believes him: Dick and Damian are equally certain that the Joker is trying to gain their confidence merely to turn around and do evil. Probably, though, the heroes are wrong and the Joker's telling the truth.

It would certainly be more like history if Dick and Damian were correct, and the Joker were waiting for them to trust him before pulling an enormous treacherous joke on them. But Morrison said, very early on, that his plan for the Joker was to do something that he didn't think had been done before. But the Joker has pretended to be a good guy only to close a trap on Batman in the past -- it happened in The Brave and The Bold #111, and that story was collected in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, so there's a good chance that Morrison is aware of it. Moreover, we have seen what Dick hasn't, that the Joker really was investigating Hurt and spiting him over the phone. And we have seen Hurt concur, as when he speaks with Senator Vine in #12, that the Joker really is working against him. Probably what the Joker said is on the level -- he is trying to stop Hurt. Intriguingly, the Joker knows more about Hurt's plan than we do. So when Dick turns his back on the Joker's offer to help, he seems to be letting the second to last chance to stop Doctor Hurt slip away. That is, the Joker could clue Dick in and give him the information he needs to neutralize Hurt's plan. If that's the second to last chance, then what is the last chance Dick has? Well, it's whatever Dick is actually going to do. Because he probably means what he says to Hurt through clenched teeth: "You're finished."

The Joker's motives still seem more complex than merely whether he is "good" or "bad". His overtures to the new Batman made repeated reference to Bruce Wayne. It becomes increasingly unlikely that the Joker has come out of RIP strangely unaware of his longtime foe's secret identity. The Joker has managed to track down and kill three members of the Black Glove. Does he honestly believe that Bruce Wayne is a member of the Black Glove? He shouldn't -- there was no one who looked like Bruce Wayne among the masked billionaires except for Batman himself. So when "Oberon Sexton" asks in #12 "Did Wayne have anything to say?" he's probably looking for information about his missing adversary. The obvious reason why would be because of their essential roles in one another's lives. But the intersection between his investigation and the Wayne cemetery's "garden of death" offers an additional, if unneeded explanation; the Joker may have learned enough about Hurt's goals to know that Wayne Manor is significant for reasons we know only partially.

In #13, Dick observes that the Joker's pattern on the map is a Mexican Train, domino-style. The post-RIP killings lead east to west: Arabia to Italy to the UK. (The sequence of the Russian general is unclear; but from Dick's comments, he doesn't consider it to break the pattern.) This is by design; the Joker could have killed them in any order, but he chose that sequence in order to point to Gotham. For a Batman to put the pattern of murders onto a map is something Damian does in Batman #666. Once the Black Glove killings stop (or pause) at Gotham, they branch off (which is what domino arrangements in Mexican Train do) to begin the marking of El Penitente's underlings: Toad is killed; then, Pyg, Santo, and Naberius receive planted dominoes. This is possibly just a message to the new Batman that El Penitente and the Black Glove are connected. Whatever the intent, Hurt sees it too: He says in #12 that the Joker is coming at the Black Glove "out of the east". Dick figured out that it was the Joker's work, but doesn't seem to have seen as of the time the Batmobile was shot down in #13 how it points to Doctor Hurt.

It's possible that the last chance is for Dick to give the Joker a chance to help. But things are not on that track. It is easy to miss the keening menace in Damian's speech to the Joker, just before he brings a crowbar into the discussion. Morrison is putting us back into the interrogation scene from The Dark Knight, when Heath Ledger's Joker giggled at Christian Bane's Batman and said, "You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with..." Morrison pens a retort in Damian's words. He does have something to threaten the Joker with, and it's not plain violence. He means to take the Joker's "brilliant mind" from him. He means to lobotomize the Joker with blunt force. He thinks he's found the one thing the Joker really does care about. And he's probably right, and the version of the Joker who might "join forces with your old enemy to turn the tables on these upstart newcomers" (Batman #680) is probably going to cease to be. The solicit for #14 mentions "two foes who almost destroyed the original Batman".  While that could technically be fulfilled with Hurt and anyone else from Mr. Freeze to Killer Croc, the chances are that it means the exact same villain lineup from RIP: Hurt and the Joker, now both working against the new Batman. Dick and Damian are soon running out of chances to make mistakes in the showdown with Hurt. This may be the last.

Symbols and Signs

We know from ROBW #4 that Alan Wayne deliberately drew a bat into the gardens around Wayne Manor in order to mark the location of the casket for when the man in black (Bruce Wayne, not Johnny Cash) returned. As the panel at right makes clear, he also built the outline of a bat into the Wayne Manor library, which is a room of great importance to the story. Various features of this room, such as the portrait of Thomas and Martha Wayne, have been in the background of several recent installments in this story, telling us that this is not only the room where Dick (in B&R #10) and Bruce (in Batman #701) press the three roses to enter the hidden room. It is also where Solomon Wayne posed for his portrait. More important, it is the location where Doctor Hurt will shoot Dick Grayson.

Under the portrait of Bruce's parents, and just over the portal where one enters the secret passageways, is an art piece, the head of a horse. This seemingly requires no comment. But we should be looking for details: In an interview, Morrison called Andy Clarke's work (as in #10) part of a "Dan Brown thing" involving "attention to detail". And the same horsehead image appears also on the head and clothing of one of the 99 Fiends -- the very same one who picks up the casket in #12 and later springs Pyg from his cell in #13. It's seen, too, when Bruce approaches the passage in Batman #701. In all, three artists have now depicted the horsehead, although not one single word has called attention to it. What can a horsehead mean? A chess knight, recalling "the Dark Knight". A famous nebula in the sky just under Orion's Belt -- a trio of stars which has been mentioned several times in the story and is symbolized by the roses that appear in the very same location in the library. The horse Bruce rides in ROBW.

It is almost directly behind Dick's head in the panel depicting his shooting. Black fragments in the air may tell us something about the physics of the gunshot. In ROBW #4, Old Thomas Wayne refers to statues. We haven't seen plural statues of significance in the story yet -- just the one of Barbatos under the Manor. Is this horse figure another statue in the set to which OTW refers? It's not required that the horsehead will come to mean anything, or if so that its meaning would be more than a throwaway. But it certainly does keep surfacing.

Changing Faces

During the run of RIP, I looked for clues in the original appearance of John Mayhew in World's Finest #89. Mayhew has very little dialogue in that issue, and what he does say is banal. What I found striking was how utterly his appearance had been transformed. In Mayhew's first appearance (almost exactly 50 years before his second), the great Curt Swan drew him as a man showing the gray hair of his age and some excess weight, not unlike Perry White. In Grant Morrison's "Club of Heroes" story, Mayhew looks much younger (though he's "almost sixty"). To the point, he looks near enough like Thomas Wayne. Probably more like Thomas Wayne than is coincidence. But why?

Even before Doctor Hurt told us that he had broken Bruce's mind with "carefully prepared scenarios", it seemed as though Mayhew's murderous attack on the Club of Heroes was designed, perhaps, not so much to succeed as to prey on Bruce's worries. He told Tim Drake that he decided to attend that reunion because he always wondered "what eccentric men who have everything do when they get bored." And knowing Hurt's larger scheme, we can ask, was Bruce's curiosity planted so that Mayhew, resembling Bruce's own father, supplied a completely repugnant answer: that men like Thomas Wayne can turn to murder and evil when they get bored. And with Morrison asking his artists to retool Mayhew into a Thomas Wayne lookalike, Mayhew becomes a plausible alternate version of Thomas Wayne, one whose activities were set up by Hurt in order to help split Bruce's mind with the thought that his good father, the parent whose death Bruce's mission is meant to avenge, was not a good man at all?

There are other lines throughout Morrison's run that support this conjecture, such as when Bruce describes Thomas to Damian as "a good man", "a doctor". But all of these lines are filled with many-way ambiguity. Bruce himself is an "eccentric man who has everything". And the equation between doctors and good men can also read as an ironic take on Hurt, maybe even explaining why Bruce trusted himself in Doctor Hurt's isolation experiment in the first place.

It's to the credit of Morrison's run that such ambiguity works and adds life to the reading even without point-by-point confirmation of any of these possibilities. But I raise this topic now, and explore some of its branching paths, to posit another reason for the "total makeover" of John Mayhew: Maybe the opening scenes of Batman and Robin #13 show John Mayhew and his wife Dorothy Lamarr and how he "had her killed" (Batman #669). Excepting that the part of the hair is on the other side, the "evil Thomas" is quite credibly Mayhew -- he looks like Mayhew and does something that we know Mayhew did. There is an important omission, though -- previous tellings of Mayhew's story have never included a son. And, there would have to be a villain of cosmic grandeur pulling the strings for Mayhew's family to have seen Zorro on the night of their "mugging" and for his son to have fenced at the air just as Bruce did. If such a boy existed, then he was a sort of alternate Bruce who was cut down in his youth.

There isn't enough to conclude that the "evil Thomas" we saw was actually Mayhew, but the commonalities run deep and are part of the larger "couples plot" that has continually resurfaced in alternate versions. One common element is that the man in the couple sees to the murder of his wife or lover. Count the instances of this, in truth and lies, in Morrison's Batman work:

1) The Joker planned to kill Harley Quinn in Batman #663
2) The "Bane Batman" Branca "killed his wife and kids" due to Hurt's manipulation
3) Flamingo killed his wife and children due to Hurt's manipulation
4) Mayhew killed his wife
5) Mangrove Pierce was framed for killing his lover, Mayhew's wife
6) According to the dossier and Hurt's lies, Bruce's father hired Chill to kill Martha
7) Oberon Sexton killed his wife
8) The "evil Thomas Wayne" seen in B&R #13 hired a man to kill his wife and son
9) Though it was for the purpose of saving her, Dick helped Batwoman overdose fatally in B&R #8-9

Why does this theme recur so often? Is it simply because it has high emotional charge, and needs no further explanation? Or is it something that Doctor Hurt is making to happen over and over again? Did, perhaps, Doctor Hurt's earlier incarnation as the older Thomas Wayne kill his wife? We may not get an answer. But as things turn back to the past in ROBW #5, it's useful to have the details of Mayhew's biography fresh in the memory.

Lady in Red

There's one other late character who has received a makeover. Martha Wayne has, perhaps, lighter hair in the portrait seen over the secret passageway than we've seen on her in the past. This is within the realm of colorists' variation (and Morrison's stories include a lot of unnatural hues... scenes that look as though they were lit by a strongly colored light). Martha's hair looked brown back in Batman #673. It was black in Batman #682. Maybe this isn't even Morrison's decision-making at work. But it is intriguing that Martha and Thomas may be, respectively, in red and black, as they did in the masquerade ball story in Detective #235. Old themes circle round again.

Hurt's Last Move

Doctor Hurt is yet to star in two or three upcoming issues of Batman and Robin, one issue of Batman, and one or two issues of Return of Bruce Wayne. The solicit for B&R #15 promises "the final confrontation with Doctor Hurt". Whether or not this tremendous character, perhaps Grant Morrison's greatest invention, is to be killed off, his motives and plans, and perhaps his origin, will be the prime focus of the three titles that Morrison is writing over the next several weeks.

My next post will be about this character in the context of the current story. We might re-ask the top question in comics from 2008 now and expect to see a different answer: Who is the Black Glove? On Thursday, I'll post on Doctor Hurt and his latest -- perhaps final -- plan.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mad Men 403: The Good News

Vacation is by definition the leaving behind of one's normal routine. For Don Draper, this goes a bit further. When in California, he can safely go by his birth name, Dick Whitman. Three thousand miles from New York, even the family of his formerly legal wife Anna Draper know him as Dick. Asked to sign the wall he painted, he signs "Dick". And this suppression of his adopted identity seems to grow on him: When the stewardess calls for Mr. Draper, Don doesn't react until the second time. Who is Don Draper? He's a man who hasn't gotten fully used to being Don Draper.

Don's skill is in crafting messages that others want to hear. Don's brief stay in California is full of moments where he says who he is by saying the things that he wants to hear. He brands himself. We can disqualify the preening he displays for Stephanie, who has won his lust with no qualms on Don's part that he remembers her from before her permanent teeth grew in. But when he talks to Patty about Anna's cancer, he lets fly with a moment that channels his rage and incipient grief with a moment of self-celebration. He notes Patty's helplessness because of her "limited means. But I'm here now." Patty and the circumstance quickly remind him that he can't throw money at Anna's problem. He loves Anna; it was noble that he wished to try. But the choice of words he used showed more than mere anger at Patty. It showed how central his material attainment is to his self-image.

And the weakness that the show of bravado is covering up: Don tells Anna that he'd never told Betty about his past because he believed that she would leave him when she found out; Don saw in his divorce confirmation of that. In his worldview, it was not his lying but his background that turned her away. To the point: Don attributes his divorce not on the truths about him that were within his control, that indicate character flaws; he atttibutes it to the station in life into which he was born.

Whether or not Betty was the kind of woman who saw her husband as a man diminished, Joan certainly is. When she cuts her hand, she repeatedly tries to get him to take her to a hospital instead of treating her himself.

Back in New York, Don and Lane find companionship with one another. Lane is soon to pour out the contents of his suddenly emptier life to Don. But it was Don who shouted cross-office, summoning Lane back to his side so that their drinking and shared flight from misery could resume. And how empty is Don's life? When he mentions that he expected to "meet a ladyfriend" on that night, New Year's Eve, it matched Bethany's proposed second date with Don. But Bethany, who would see Don, perhaps, for free, has apparently been cast aside or at least rescheduled so that Don could see the same call girl, Candace, who had slapped him before. Lane joins Don, and repays him later for the services of the prostitute arranged impromptu for him.

During their besotted night of misbehavior (Lane, especially, for squawking in false Japanese in the showing of Godzilla and pressing beef to his abdomen during dinner), Don is retreating into solipsism. When Lane notes that Don is spilling liquor onto the carpet, Don borrows Anna's line from earlier in the episode about smoking her dress. Lane cannot, of course, get the reference; Don is again speaking for his own benefit only.

There seems to be some foreshadowing that Don's existential tragedy may sooner rather than later lead us to his mortality. (Not before the last episode of the series, of course.) Anna's fatal cancer is placed before Don so we can see his reaction to it. It's all the more ominous for being unknown to her. He proposes their next meet-up on Easter, a day of resurrection. Later, Lane compares Don to a chap who died young in a motorcycle crash.

The episode ends with Don enigmatically distressed by Joan welcoming the company to 1965. His look of discomfort may reflect that seeing what the future brings has not recently worked well for Don Draper.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mad Men 402: Christmas Comes But Once A Year

"Nobody wants to think they're a type." Market research specialist Dr. Faye Miller is talking about Don, trying to wound him -- maybe having deduced why he ducked out of her survey. It turns out that she has it right when she says "nobody". The episode is filled to the rafters with people bristling when they are said to be -- or shown to be -- of a particular type. As we saw with last week's "Who is Don Draper?", Don not only doesn't want to be part of a type, he's equally uncomfortable being an individual. Dr. Faye Miller, who feels slighted because Don walked out on her survey doesn't realize the enormous implicit compliment that Don paid to her work. He lies to her, saying that he left because he doesn't think that the results could possibly be effective. But he actually left out of a fear that the results would tell too much about him. The alternative would be to lie all the way through the survey and see if he can stonewall a PhD expert as well as he did the Advertising Age reporter. He'd rather not try.

Two other characters who are loathe to be cast as a "type" are Peggy and Freddy Rumsen. Creative differences and the need to assert control on a shared project lead to frictions with both of them deliberately using the same strategy of verbal wounding that that Faye uses on Don. Freddy, ostensibly speaking of the Ponds Cold Cream account, keeps reminding Peggy pointedly that of the truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of no fortune must be in want of a husband. Later, when she foolishly opens up to him about her current romantic prospects, he describes to her the 1950s (I know -- it's 1964, but remember: Freddy's out of date) version of The Game and counsels
Peggy to withhold sex if she wants to marry. It's implied that Peggy gives in to her boyfriend's pleading to be her "first" precisely in order to break out of the type that Freddy tries to place her. Many such individual choices, in aggregation, made the Sixties the time of change that it was. Freddy himself suffers Peggy's retort that he is old-fashioned. If it leads him to any pain, he doesn't show it with life choices. Peggy's of the generation of change: Freddy is not. Later, at the party, the decadal backdrop gets its sixty seconds of attention with references to LBJ policies on the way: civil rights and Medicare.

Lee Garner Junior's unwelcome visit forces meretricious behavior on the entire office. When Roger suggests, kidding on the nose, that Joan dress herself up as a present for Lee, she's comfortable enough in her work relationship with Roger to fend this off with a glance. Later, Don's secretary Allison speaks with a very effective performance, in tortured facial expressions, just how much she likes being the type of secretary who has a quickie with her boss, then accepting an envelope with money in it.

In the meantime, Lee's sociopathic behavior at the party, held only to please him, forces several people into uncomfortable situations. His primary target is Roger, who is forced to wear a Santa suit and is reminded of his history of heart attacks while Lee gropes Roger's wife. At this last point, one wonders if Lee, whose advances last season "outted" Sal and cost him his job, is a homosexual who likes making unwanted advances towards women because it is a more socially acceptible form of sadism; or, a bisexual who acts on his urges with regard to both genders; or, a more wild possibility, that he's a heterosexual who made a pass at Sal out of sheer sadism, relishing the destructive outcome. The person best able to cope with Lee's behavior is Lane, whose unbending stiff upper lip enables him to respond to Lee's unctious "You didn't need to do that" with a dryer-than-the-desert "Yes, we did." Roger casts the whole thing in graceful nothings, telling Joan "This is the office, and that's life, and this is good, and that's life."

The show's side plot, Don's family, shows Sally interacting with a junior sociopath who may be Lee in a younger (and unwealthy) first draft. The creepy Glen, relentless behind his monotone, wedges himself into her life with a phone call and then the psychotic tribute of leaving her room untouched while vandalizing the rest of the house. Don has left a void in Sally's life where a positive paternal relationship should be and we should only be surprised if she doesn't turn to Glen to fill that void.

Meanwhile, for Don's it's all void. Phoebe, the nurse across the hall, lets him know that just by coming home drunk he's the type that her father was, and she knows it so well she knows about the way one's feet bruise when business shoes are worn all night. When two women resist his advances, not nearly so well timed as in the past, he keeps trying until he gets the liaision he wants to fill his void for a few minutes. As soon as he's done with Allison, he rolls off her and zips up. No clothes came off. She stands up, uses the toilet, and they're done. He makes no mention of it the next day, only thanks that she brought him those Freudian keys.