Friday, September 4, 2009

Batman and Robin: Professor Pyg

Running from the Devil

Way back in Batman #666, the first we saw of Damian as the future Batman, he was on the trail of a villain named Professor Pyg. In one of those double-villain twists, a worse bad guy, who happened to be Replacement Batman Lane, serving as the Antichrist, had already killed Pyg, as well as four other bad guys including one named Phosphorus Rex. Two years later, Grant Morrison brought us the earlier lives of Professor Pyg and Phosphorus Rex in the first story arc of Batman and Robin, which has been DC's top-selling series thus far during its brief life.

The story in the present seems to be just as tangled as the one in the future, with multiple layers of villainy, sometimes flagging alliances between good guys, and a whole lot of opportunities for mistaken identity, a thing that often goes by the name of "mystery".

Just as Morrison's run on the Batman title began with hidden messages that could be noticed ("Zur En Arrh" graffiti) but not possibly decoded until later, the early issues of Batman and Robin point in some mysterious directions. Things are in code, with "wooden gallopers" being a clue that leads Damian to a carousel. We're surely being shown things whose anomalous nature can be noticed now, but whose real importance will be made evident only later.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend?

If you go back to the Silver Age, you could read a hundred comic books in a row where every good guy was on the same side, and each issue's villains, if there were more than one, were also on the same side. Three issues in, Batman and Robin has presented us with so many different sides of bad guy that it's not clear who is out to get whom.

What we know: Professor Pyg had a deal going with Russian mobsters who never appear on-camera. Mr. Toad and two henchmen who are brothers (or brothers-in-law) are caught by the new Dynamic Duo on their way back from a drug deal that involves a double-cross of some kind. Instead of hauling cash, they have one trunk full of dominoes and one full of random trash. When Pyg finds out that the cash is not going to materialize, he gets revenge on the henchmen, one of whom is the father of Sasha, a character who will play a bigger part in the Red Hood story to come. So Pyg mistakenly believed that they were to blame for the failure.

But when Mister Toad is in jail, everything on the surface makes it look as though Pyg's Circus of the Strange underlings are on their way to break him out. Until he ends up dead. And then we're not sure who exactly killed him, but given that a domino appears again, it's probably whoever double-crossed Pyg in the first place. This leaves two unanswered questions: Were the Circus of the Strange really trying to help Toad after having disfigured his helpers? And, who is the Domino Killer? Is it Pyg, suffering from multiple personalities? (MPD would not be his biggest problem if he did suffer from it.) The Siamese Triplet fighting Batman warns him that "Tober Omi", the owner of the circus is on the loose -- but is he referring to the imminent death of Mister Toad or to the terror campaign underway elsewhere in the city? Or is the Domino Killer one and the same as the Red Hood, utilizing two distinct modus operandi? Or is it possible that there are three distinct circles of villainy in the story so far?

Perverse Psychology

Professor Pyg sees himself as a kind of Henry Higgins. But another "H.H." figures into this story, a research psychologist named Harry Harlow. Harlow's experiments, intended to show the importance of nurturing human children, subjected rhesus monkeys to isolation and deprived them of affection. In one such experiment, the monkeys were given milk by a "mommy" made of hard metal wires, which provided sustenance, but no comfort. These monkeys ended up irreversibly damaged psychologically, whereas monkeys given a similarly artificial but soft cloth-covered mommy did not. And so, as the image above makes clear, Pyg's "mommy made of nails" was patterned very obviously on Harlow's apparatus. Even more striking, Pyg's delirious rant that he delivers upon Damian's waking up mentions a "despair pit". Harlow called an even-more horrific piece of lab equipment the "pit of despair", which was a dark isolation cage in which he placed baby monkeys, leading them to grow up even more damaged psychologically.

That Pyg is similarly damaged is clear. An intriguing question is whether or not there is a story about how he got that way. When Dick Grayson says "Something happens to... Lazlo Valentin... he becomes Pyg", we might detect undertones hinting at a bigger plot yet to surface, one in which making Valentin into Pyg is just part of the horror. And given that the Devil ends up hauling Pyg in sometime in the future, it's a plot that could go all the way to the top... or the bottom.

Maybe Lazlo Valentin had, like famous Psycho Norman Bates, a cruel mother who made him this way, although Dick's line hints that it was a post-childhood transformation. Pyg himself keeps identifying monstrous females as part of a mythological (and initially alliterative) rant that names Mormo, Tiamet, and the Gorgon Queen as the sort of mother figure he's trying to please. When Batman and Robin collar him at the end, he acts just like a little boy who was caught misbehaving.

But don't move past the "cruel mommy" theme without pausing to consider our Robin. In #2, Alfred comes out and says to Dick, "Yours were loving parents, your role models were of the highest caliber. Master Damian was raised by assassins and master criminals, far from his father's influence." And on the same table in the penthouse where Dick has placed a photo of himself, happy, with Bruce, Alfred, and Ace [the Bathound], Damian has a coldly impersonal photo of himself with Talia. The real point of the Mommy Made of Nails may be not to show a snapshot of a delightfully scarred villain, but to sketch out just what is wrong with the son of Talia, all the better to illuminate his path towards a more heroic future to come.

Double Twelves

The tokens of games are intriguing symbols, with discrete items, distinct in color, number, and kind, all ready to represent real things in the real world. After the card deal in DC Universe #0 ended up meaning just about nothing (although the Joker's mimed gunshot may have foretold the showdown between Batman and Darkseid), we shouldn't get too eager to decode the dominos in this story on a deep level, but at least they seem to mean something on a shallow one.

Two dominos have been put out in isolation: A double-twelve in Toad's hand upon his death and a twelve-eleven in Pyg's lab. That sequence happens to be a legal pair to play (any domino with a twelve in one half would match a double-twelve). It also happens to hint at a sustained countdown, which would take twenty-three more dominoes to reach double-zero. Does that mean that twenty-three more "hits" are coming? Was the second domino even the scene of a hit? There was no dead body at the scene, so why did the Domino Killer leave a token behind? Or if Pyg is the culprit, why did he sting himself in the drug deal... and get mad about it?

Two things about dominoes: They consist of matched pairs, so they are a potential echo of the crime-fighting duo that headline the book, as well as the malevolent duo of Red Hood and Sasha who are to fill the next few issues. And, every Robin wears a domino mask: Dick Grayson, Damian, and Jason Todd all have some history with that.

The teaser at the end of #3 and the title of the first issue point to the other use of dominoes besides playing games with them; namely, to line them up so that each one that falls can push the next one over, a dynamic that was once supposed to menace all of Southern Asia with Communism. The dots on the dominoes in that teaser appear to count up. It seems like one way or another, a sequence is underway. What began with Mister Toad will end with... what?

Riffing on RIP

Besides the use of game tokens and the wrapping up of unfinished business involving Le Bossu, Batman and Robin has echoed Batman, R.I.P., whether deliberately or because Morrison enjoys using a good line twice. So the Joker's "I'd like to bet you have no idea what you're dealing with" is echoed by Phosphorus Rex, who probably means something more than just Professor Pyg. Bruce's collapse in Batman #677 to the tune of "I'm not ready yet" is echoed by Professor Pyg. And the Green Vulture's request that Batman and Robin hit him is echoed twice by Professor Pyg. Pyg's rant before his dance includes the Hebrew phrase "Tohu va bohu", shapeless and formless, a line from the very beginning of the Bible, maybe suggesting a full circle with the Revelations-themed events in Batman #666 and RIP.

And, for a touch of the ominous, the black-gloved hands on the binoculars watching Bruce and Jezebel in Venice all the way back in Batman #665 have their counterpoint in Batman and Robin #3, as Alfred, tidying up the penthouse, is watched by someone whose dark boots are astride a gargoyle across the street. Boots that could turn out to belong to just about anybody, good guy or bad guy, besides Alfred.

Boots that tell us: something dark is still to come.


  1. One post , very good Men, Salute from Venezuela,

  2. It seems exceedingly strategic to create a new villian now in continuity that will HAVE to be around until Damien takes up the cowl...guarantees a very long shelf life for Pyg!

    So...where's the Joker? He's been suspiciously unheard from for a long, long while.

  3. If you only count Morrison stories taking place in Gotham, the Joker's only been off-screen for the three issues of Batman and Robin.

    I love how Morrison has handled the Joker in the past. His Batman run put the Joker in the limelight four times: The very beginning, the prose issue, the DC Universe #0 scene, and the second-to-last (especially) issue of RIP. And the Joker also appeared in some other contexts, like Last Rites. I suspect that he will choose not to use the Joker that much in this run after having gone to the well so much already.

  4. Great work again, Rikdad.

    Me and a buddy of mine were wondering if you take requests. We're not as well versed in the DCU as you are and were wondering if you could do a post on exactly how Gods/gods work. For instance, how do the Darkseid and his brood rank compared to the Spectre's boss? Were the Guardians of Oa around before the Judeo-Christian God, or has that even been hashed out? Since Morrison has brought Judeao-Christian mythology into the spotlight as of late, and Bruce having "killed" a god, I could use a sort of reference to see how all the divine pieces relate to one another.

  5. I already posted this on the DC boards, but what the hey....

    Pyg said mentioned something about growing upside down in a world where a hug is a crucifixion, and it seems to be implied that something happened to him post childhood. Could "grow upside down" refer to some sort of regression into the semi-childlike state that we encounter him in? Was Pyg perhaps subjected to Harlow-esque experiments by an outside entity? Pyg makes people sick, so perhaps he now functions as Pestilence, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse for Dr. Hurt. That doesn't seem to pan out though, because he is one of Five that the Anti-Christ Lane later uses in order "sign his name".

    Could part of Damian's whole role in this arc be that of Bruce's surrogate as one who is tempted? Dr. Hurt failed to corrupt the father, so will he settle for the soul of his son even the score? It would seem the corruption of souls is his real goal, and what better way to get back at Bruce than stealing the chance for redemption Bruce gave Damian, leading the boy down the path paved with good intentions? In issue #666, it seems Damian may have found a way to renege on the deal, as he practically dares Lane's boss to come and claim what he's owed.

    As for the dominoes, what if the Countdown isn't to 0-0 but to 12-6 piece? Or some other variation on 666? Of course, recent biblically scholarship has led some to conclude that the number of the Beast is actually 616, but still, I don't think that's the premise Morrison is using...

    Just some ideas.

  6. Raius, I missed this before, but Pyg mentions being upside down and crucifixion in the same panel. Pyg dies in #666 being crucified upside-down. Coincidence? I think not.

    He could be Pestilence. His getting sick, which made me laugh, works that way. We have four arcs coming. Red Hood = Red horse = war in the second arc? The horsemen came in the sequence White, Red, Black, Pale. I suppose Pyg is pretty white. Red for Red Hood, Black for Batwoman, Pale for Doctor Hurt?

  7. Being crucified upside down is often a reference to St. Peter. Could this be Hurt's reward for the First among his disciples? Black for Batwoman, or possibly Black for the spectral Batman we see in the teaser panel at the end of issue #1. I guess it depends on who Morrison would think properly represents famine (physical, spiritual, or otherwise). Pale could be hurt, but it also could be someone (who is outside by deductive range at this point, perhaps the domino killer with his "bones") who would personify Death and be a herald for Hurt, who could be above the rest. If we're really into Revelations, Hurt has lost his "Beast", Lane at this point to the Azreal book. Of course, Morrison may not even be think about the horsemen, and I might be completely off base.

  8. I think it's pretty clear that Pyg was created: his references to Harlow's experiments, creation myths and monstrous mothers. The big clue, of course, is the issue's resmeblance to the Killing Joke: the fairground, the constant Joker smiles daubed on the walls and the panel of Pig's mask lying in a puddle. Whoever manufactured Pyg managed to do what the Joker could not: destroy a mind and make a monster.

    The question though, is who? The Joker, perfecting his technique, or perhaps Pyg isn't just referring to the apparatus of his destruction when talks about his mother? There may be some sort of Lillith out there, the bride of Dr. Hurt, spawning a whole new menagerie of freaks to inhabit Arkham.

  9. Shiny Jim, the Killing Joke backdrops are hidden in plain sight, so obvious and yet until your post, I hadn't seen any consideration of what it might mean, other than a walk down memory lane.

    I don't know if monster-making is being perpetrated by the Joker himself or someone else, but it would be an interesting duality with Morrison's run on Batman, which frequently raised the notion of how to create a Batman. And ZEA Batman's haranguing of Charlie Caligula pointed out how CC's persona was a blatant attempt to copy the Joker.

    And of course, Pyg was making more monsters. But the question might be: How far up (down) does this conspiracy go?

  10. Hey Rikdad, I have been reading your blogs for a while now and I have to say, your blogs are always an excellent read. Keep up the great work!

    A couple of questions if you can answer. One, a couple of comments above, someone asks if you take any requests, and I was wondering do you? I'd like to hear your thoughts of a couple of things. Two, whatever happened to the First Ghost of Batman, the Ghost who shot The Joker? After the Ghost shoots The Joker, the Ghost just simply dissapears. Any thoughts? And lastly, wasn't Grant Morrison suppose to handle the return of The Joker? I thought I read it on a interview. Do you know anything about this? Because on the DC solicitations, it implies that Paul Dinis Gotham City Sirens is going to handle it.

    Thanks. Hope to hear back on you.

  11. The Gun Batman died right after his encounter with the Joker. You can see him under a white sheet being taken away.

    Morrison said that he'd like to see Quitely draw the Joker, but he didn't make a clear statement that the Joker was going to appear in any particular upcoming story.

  12. Been a fan of your work on the dreaded DC Boards for a while now (I can only take the inane whining and incessant bickering there on occasion, haha) but this musing on Pyg and company was downright fascinating and thought-provoking, exactly the kind of conversation I relish at my local comic shop. Your insight and articulation are much appreciated, and I look forward to future pieces, especially once we move into the "Ghost Batman & Batwoman" arc--it will be intriguing to see how Morrison places this character within the scheme of things...ja !

  13. 4 horses and then the antichrist... So, if Hurt is the Devil, he can't be one of the horses...

    Let's see. We have a story about the devil. Morrison is trying to tell the Book of revelation on Gotham (Babylon). Enter the Devil and the tempation of son of God. The war of good against evil, and evil won (Batman RIP / Final Crisis). The four horses (Dr. Pyg, Red Hood...).

    Then what?

    After all, the comeback of the son of God (Batman) with the forces of heaven defeating the Antichrist.