Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Doctor Hurt RIP

Not with a whimper, but a bang. The dark and convoluted path of Doctor Hurt comes to an end (apparently, for now) in Convergence #3 as the second Batman of the fourth-or-so Earth Two sets off an explosion that kills himself, Hurt, and some of Hurt's lackies in order to save Dick Grayson. In an unacknowledged quirk, this is Thomas Wayne (the father of the New 52's Bruce Wayne) killing Thomas Wayne (an 18th-century ancestor of New Earth's Bruce Wayne). So, it's a fitting time for an obituary for the villain of Batman R.I.P., and one of Grant Morrison's finest creations.

Hurt was visually designed to match the unnamed doctor who appeared in the "Robin Dies at Dawn" story back in 1963. This benign and largely-undefined character was brought back in cameos starting with Batman #673 (though his hands, perhaps, were seen holding binoculars at the end of Batman #665 and his handiwork was on-panel as far back as #655) and was gradually, hint by hint, developed into the major villain of Morrison's two-year run on Batman, and then played a similar role in Morrison's Batman and Robin and concurrent Return of Bruce Wayne. Otherwise, he has hardly appeared at all. Presumably, his long life span would let him remain alive and very unhappy where the Joker buried him on the grounds of Wayne Manor. He appeared in a singularly dark role in Batman, Inc. vol. 2 #5, as an adviser to the President of the United States who convinces the Commander in Chief to destroy Gotham City with nuclear weapons. This was in a possible future which was averted, but it did assert that Hurt remained a piece on the table who could appear again. In Convergence #3, Jeff King writes his apparent finale.

I think the saga of Doctor Hurt proves the power of the unseen, and conversely, the weakness of the obvious, the flaw in storytelling that lays everything bare. In a few tantalizingly brief appearances strung out over a year and a half, Grant Morrison made Doctor Hurt into a villain of tremendous intrigue and potential, someone who could perhaps out-plan Batman, someone who could perhaps have become a major villain on a par with Luthor or the Joker, but who was instead dismantled into a mere raving thug, first by Morrison, and now finally by King. There was an unrealized potential here, and DC Comics are the poorer for it.

At the end of Batman #680, with Doctor Hurt hosting the Black Glove party in Arkham Asylum, with a maddened Batman falling prey to Joker toxin while Jezebel Jet smiled with evil joy, who was Doctor Hurt? We didn't know. The set-up, as we understood it, was that the mystery "Who is the Black Glove?" was the greatest mystery we'd seen in comics for a very long time. It had gradually become apparent that Doctor Hurt was the Black Glove, not the henchman of a higher-up, but who was Doctor Hurt? It was a mystery, and everybody had a guess.

What, at that point, did we know about Doctor Hurt? Very little. We knew that he was evil, ran the Black Glove organization that met annually to bet on life and death, and that evil itself, rather than power or riches, was his apparent motive. We knew that he especially hated Batman, and that he had been planning for a very long time to make this one, decisive bid to destroy the caped crusader. And with a promise that Bruce Wayne would be sidelined from DC Comics, it looked like he was going to win. In a sense, he did.

I believed that Doctor Hurt was the Devil. And this was the correct idea, to a point. To the extent that Batman #681 was going to reveal anything, that's what it was going to reveal, and I thought this had been made clear a few issues earlier. Eventually, a Grant Morrison interview revealed as much: "This is the story of how Batman cheats The Devil." But it was an ambiguous reveal, to fit the tone of Batman, R.I.P. to its logical (non)conclusion.

Morrison's run on Batman was intended to homage and exemplify spooky, ambiguous stories. The original Zur En Arrh story seems to be a dream, but Batman ends it with a gadget called the Bat-Radia in his hand, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. A revamped Bat-Mite (called "Might") appeared with no explanation as to whether he was real or a fantasy. It was only later that I realized the artful ambiguity of the word "Might" itself: It can mean power, or it can be the modal verb "might" meaning "may" or "can be." Bat-Might was ambiguously real. He might be a figment of Batman's imagination, or he might be a magical fifth-dimensional imp. Finally, in a laugh line, he tells a frustrated Batman that imagination is the fifth dimension. Was he imaginary or from another dimension? Yes and no. Neither answer is right, and both are. This ambiguity, playing everything right down the middle, was also behind the nature of a minor character named Honor Jackson. A struggling, drugged, mind-zapped Bruce Wayne spends one day wandering the streets of Gotham with Honor Jackson only to find out that Honor Jackson had already died. Did Batman imagine him, or did a magical Bat-Might resusitate Honor Jackson so he could spend a day redeeming his failed life by helping Batman? Yes and no. The story works hard to avoid giving us a clear answer. And we were being given half the answer right then of "Who is the Black Glove?" Meaning that we weren't going to get an answer, or that we were going to get a spooky answer that begs a follow up. "Doctor Hurt was The Devil… or was he?"

So, yes, Doctor Hurt was played right down the middle the whole way, as a "man who may or may not have been some manifestation of the Devil" (in Bruce's words) or as something else. But that something else was never defined. The story teased that perhaps Doctor Hurt was Bruce's father, but this possibility was never in keeping with DC's sacrosanct lore, and was eventually refuted. But that something else remained vague. Whatever Doctor Hurt was, where was he five years ago, or twenty, or fifty? Where did his timeline begin? When Doctor Hurt was at his best, we didn't know, and we would never know. Like the long-teased, but never-delivered (well, for a long time, anyway) origins of the Joker or the Phantom Stranger, the ambiguity of Doctor Hurt was what made him interesting. He was evil, a master planner, a perfect foil to Batman, and inspired Damian's remarks in a possible future: "I know The Devil exists, or at least something which might as well be The Devil. I've met him."

When Doctor Hurt returned in the second season of Morrison's Batman work, the mystery was maintained for a while. We saw that Hurt had somehow survived (even Batman didn't know how) and stepped into the role of a Mexican drug lord, and had an army of intriguing cronies who had been broken and made into slaves. This was all in keeping with the ambiguous (and oddly psychological) evil of Doctor Hurt as the focus of evil in the world, "the hole in things." A brilliant scene in Batman and Robin #13 showed us a fantasy that couldn't be real, of Doctor Hurt killing the Waynes then taking over as an evil Thomas Wayne. This ambiguity remained and remains: Did Doctor Hurt order the murder of the Waynes? Would Bruce have died had not Joe Chill lost his nerve because he'd had a boy of his own? Did Bruce's survival of the hit ruin Doctor Hurt's plan to become the dark lord of Wayne Manor? It's a compelling vision and made more powerful by its ambiguity. We don't know. We may never know.

And then it unraveled. A few scenes, beginning in the "Western" chapter of Return of Bruce Wayne, then elegantly reprising "Dark Knight, Dark City" and an old World's Finest tale, unmasked Doctor Hurt as an older member of the Waynes, coincidentally named Thomas, who had sought a deal with The Devil and inadvertently summoned a force sent by Darkseid and was changed by it. It all fit, it all made sense, it tied things together, but Doctor Hurt the master became Doctor Hurt the servant, and there went the mystery.

Still, ambiguity remained. Still, he arguably embodied the central evil in the universe. But the myth was weakened. I think there was a lost opportunity to build Doctor Hurt into a pivotal force in DC Comics. There was no logical way to salvage his debut as a villain with one really big, years-long plan, but maybe he could have been kept lurking in the shadows, part of something big and dark and mythic. But the end of Batman and Robin's first year and a half dismantled that possibility.

And now he ends here. His final line is a disappointingly cliché, "And I say, first we kill this Batman, then we kill the other one, and his boy!" He's simply an opportunist, looking to stick someone with a knife when the occasion arises. It's like seeing Doctor Fate sit down in his boxers, turn on the television, and eat peanut butter out of the jar. The mystery is gone. And so is Doctor Hurt. But it's the mystery we'll miss more.


  1. Doctor Hurt is my favorite new/original comics villain of the last decade or so. I agree that (as you note is usually the case) what makes such a character compelling is the mystery, the unexplained, and the unseen. I'm not sure DC turning Hurt into a Lex Luthor-level mastermind criminal for Batman and/or the broader DCU would have been a good thing. Perhaps it would be for the DCU as a whole from a storytelling standpoint, especially if Hurt was cast as a perpetually ambiguous or literal proxy for the devil (sort of the way Mephisto is in the Marvel 616 Universe).

    However, I think it's fitting that a character created on something of a whim by Morrison should remain more or less contained in his run on Batman. There have been other villainous characters who have debuted to great fanfare in the DCU (e.g., Doomsday, Hush) who then went on to become something much less, even punchlines exemplary of a bygone era. Admittedly, they don't have the gravitas of Hurt. But it would be a bit sad to see Hurt diminished by being written as a more cliched villain by, let's be honest, less talented writers.

    Here I must say, I mean no offense to Tom King, whose writing I have enjoyed quite a bit. But he is not, at least yet, anywhere close to Morrison's stature and ability in terms of comics writing. And he has done just what I outlined with Hurt; he has turned him into an opportunistic comics cliche. Not to split hairs too finely, but we shouldn't see the Convergence version of Hurt as anything more than how DC is pitching the whole of Convergence: stories out of time that have no actual bearing on the DCU proper -- whether that be the post-Crisis DCU, or the New 52 Universe. To me, the Hurt in Convergence #3 is simply an "imaginary" version of Hurt relative to the "canonical" version still buried (alive?) on the grounds of Wayne Manor.

    My personal opinion is that it would be nice if the only writer who touched Hurt again was Morrison, if he thought he had a use for him. Frankly, I'm not sure it matters if Hurt was immortal or not, is dead or alive, or was literally or figuratively the devil. In the end, I see Hurt's story as this: he was a charismatic, power-hungry, expert con man who stumbled on a supernatural force (Darkseid's Omega Bomb that chased Batman through time) and was granted a measure of immortality by it and become a living embodiment of that force and thus was destined to become foe worthy of Batman. If we see the stories in The Return of Bruce Wayne as literal DCU history, then he was there from the beginning, as Gordon noted, an evil as old as time. I think that fits very appropriately with one of Morrison's key themes, that of everything being cyclical, especially in comics. Ouroboros. The hole in things. Circles. I think The Joker "killing" Doctor Hurt was simply Morrison's way of closing the loop on that story -- especially given that The Joker was the other central character in his Batman run, there right from the very beginning in Batman 655. It was his way of closing out the Hurt saga, or in Morrison's words, "putting the toys back in the toy box" when he was done playing with them.

    1. I realize I confused the writer of Convergence, Jeff King, with Tom King, the contributor on Grayson. Jeff King is a screenwriter with apparently little to no background in comics. It does not mean his writing is not good nor that he won't become a comics mainstay. But I think it illustrates my point. He is nowhere near being a writer of Morrison's experience.

  2. Yes, very well put Rikdad. Dr. Hurt will remain a favorite of mine, and I will never forget the incredible journey Grant Morrison had us on back around 2008. I totally agree that the character became slightly weaker over time and that his random appearance in Convergence does no favors. (how come he didn't have a joker grin? the continuity tends to be inaccurate in Convergence)
    Great obituary for Hurt, I very much enjoyed reading it. I hope this isn't the last time we see the character, although next time I hope a writer finds a more appropriate and sinister role for him.

  3. Oh wow, I had no idea about this, in fact not even reading any DC titles except Multiversity and Batman. I figured that Morrison wouldn't even want anyone touching Dr. Hurt even though I know he technically doesn't own him since its a DC book but still. Looks like Morrison won't be writing for DC much any more but it would be great if he came back and did one more Hurt story eventually. I don't want anyone else writing him in all honesty. @kukheart

  4. Convergence has been nothing short of awful so far. That it's nothing moar than a complete kill btw DC's office move just shines thru.

    The most egregious moment had to have been Bruce meeting his father, a scene 75+ years in the making, and then to just cut away and have Dick narrate how powerful it must've been.

    This completely breaks the first fundamental writing tenement of show, don't tell. You're a professional writer handed a scene where millions of your audience already know the emotional stakes. You're sitting on the proverbial goldmine, now's the chance to let your dialogue and skills shine thru, and you run away from the scene like frankly a little bitch. It's pathetic.

    FYI, for how such a scene should be done right, I point to issue Amazing Spider-Man 38 by JMS, the sitdown issue btw Peter and Aunt May. No costumes. No fights. Just sum honest to goodness dialogue btw two people carrying this tremendous amount of guilt for 50 years.

  5. Nairu, you're quite right that Convergence doesn't end anything. The post-Flashpoint Dr. Hurt is still potentially somewhere and will almost certainly emerge at some point. The larger point, I think, is that the Convergence treatment is what we need *not* to have happen with that Dr. Hurt. Or any character, for that matter.

    I'll also add that how you and I feel about Morrison and Hurt, that perhaps only Morrison can write him well, I have also found to be true with Kirby and Darkseid. Kirby's use of his own characters was so wonderful and nobody, to my knowledge, has done justice to them since. And that includes Morrison using them in such wonderful (IMO) stories as Rock of Ages and Final Crisis. Kirby maintained a sense of mystery with Darkseid that other writers have deflated, and I don't understand why a writer would do that. Or I understand and I disapprove.

    The weight dragging comics down is the turn back to the cliche and the formulaic. When something special has been done, as with Kirby's Fourth World or Morrison's Black Glove, writers ought to take note and aspire likewise, not apply the same formulas that have made hundreds of issues throughout the years dull and mediocre.

    1. Rikdad- Thanks for the reply. I think it's interesting you mention the "weight" dragging comics down -- the cliche and the formulaic. I think that the great irony of the New 52 has been that it actually isn't so new. I think it's safe to say that Geoff Johns' Justice League is the heart of the New 52 insofar as it establishes the most significant characters and storylines that are central to understanding the New 52 Earth Zero.

      While I and obviously many others appreciated Geoff Johns reverences for tradition and the history of the DCU (as evidenced in his revitalization of the Silver Age Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, as well as his extended run on JSA and the development of the intergenerational dynamics in that book, and even his Superman work that takes great pains to respect and integrate many of the various takes on Superman over the years, including the original movies). But Johns' New 52 Justice League has been peppered with characters (Darkseid, The Antimonitor) and stories (Forever Evil, which is basically a retelling of the Earth 3 Crime Syndicate of America) that amount to new coats of paint. Perhaps Darkseid War will give us something truly new, but the Antimonitor's involvement leaves me skeptical. Anyway, I think that this is the biggest problem that faces the DCU right now -- a confused and imperfect kludge of what DC's editors and writers perceive as "contemporary," married with a misguided, too literal reverence for history.

  6. Rikdad -- Thanks for resurrecting memories of a great villain and a remarkable few years of Grant Morrison's Batman.

    I agree with you that Morrison didn't see through Hurt's potential the way he could have. His B&R peaked with that imagined scene you mention at the start of #13 -- as chilling a few pages as DC has ever produced. But by the next issue's "Who brought the popcorn?" it was clear Morrison would leave the Joker as the top dog, villain-wise, and knock Dr. Hurt down several pegs.

    It is endemic to comics. There was only one great Bane story (Knightfall). There was only one great (well, good) Doomsday story (Death of Superman). Ditto for Hush, Manchester Black and a lot of others.

  7. Great article Rikdad, as always. Since I write from Spain, I haven't read Convergence # 3 but for your comments and the ones made by the great fellow readers I imagine that I will agree with your view on the return of Dr. Hurt.
    I suppose that this issue is one that we all have been fearing, Hurt becoming a common villain and being written by other than Morrison. Even if I don't like the description of the comic I'm not worried about Hurt's fate in the future because maybe Morrison or another talented writer can come with something more powerful, perhaps you, since you should be writing for DC !
    My point is in relation to the comments that Morrison is doing in Multiversity, right now DC is the main villain of the DC universe and career writers (as was so well put by Moore) are its foes. And my question is, what part of responsibility do we have in all that? I keep buying most of Batman series but right now I don't like any of them with the exception of the brilliant work of Tomasi in Batman and Robin (at least till I have read). Detective is boring and let's not talk about the overrated and pretentious work of Snyder that I cannot stand. So, am I part of the problem since I support these comics? I imagine that yes. As Dr. Martin Luther King said and Tomasi quoted in some recent issue, "looking away from evil is a condonation of it". Are we watching the Twilight of these great characters? Your more recent essays are about old and GREAT comics from the 90's or 80's, I enjoy reading them but I have the feeling that there isn't too much good to comment about the new comics. I mean DC comics at least, that is the main subject of your website. I don't want to sound very pessimistic but is the feeling I have and just wanted to share it with you guys.
    On another tone I always thought that Hurt was the Devil, at least before TROBW and I was expecting Morrison was going to reference Gothic as their first encounter. How knows? In any case let's hope for the best for Batman.

  8. Nairu,

    I read as many old comics as new ones, flipping back to the Forties and Sixties, as well as newer eras, and I think the evolution in large part is going like this:

    Stories were once cyclical on a pattern of, essentially, the duration of one story. The hero faces a menace, the menace lasts just long enough to get to the mandated page count, and then the hero defeats the menace just as the last page is wrapping up. These stories were for kids, and kids' attention spans.

    Nowadays, we are again in a cyclical form of narration, but the cycles are much longer, about 5-15 years (but with great variation). And if you consider other media (live action, TV, animated) and other continuities, you see these cycles happening all over the place. Marvel has two movie versions of their character Quicksilver. A third movie Spider-Man is being indicated not that long after the first one. Flash and Green Arrow have each been instantiated in two different TV continuities. Flashpoint largely rebooted a DC comics universe that had been partially rebooted a few years earlier. New JLA origin stories ran in 1998, 2006, and 2011. Add in Injustice and Earth 2, etc., and you see whole universe stories being started and remixed, over and over.

    This cycle is just as repetitive as the single-caper stories were in the Forties, but the cycle is much longer.

    As such, a rechurning of old works is a necessary part of the formula, and not necessarily a bad thing, but what to keep and what to discard? This can be done right as well as wrong, and I have no easy answers. And to return to the subject of this post, I think nobody can say that Doctor Hurt was a rehash of the nameless doctor from 1963! Morrison more than amply added original content to the old stories he drew upon. In contrast, Geoff Johns' well-known use of Alan Moore inventions has often led to a less-inspired work than Moore's originals; as I mentioned before, the use of Kirby's Fourth World characters has almost universally disappointed in comparison to their exceptional origins.

    The die is cast: Whatever is in progress now, it will be rebooted again. Will the endless reboots produce a legend at their core, or will they dissipate the original work into plotty mediocrity? Probably some of both.