Monday, April 26, 2010

Batman and Robin: Demonology

Natural and Supernatural

Batman, R.I.P. ended with the gradual accumulation of evidence that Doctor Hurt is the Devil, a plot point amply reinforced by Grant Morrison in interviews that came out after -- and even during -- the story. It remains the fact that there was never a single panel that conclusively showed him to be supernatural. There were suggestions -- he seemed to know, instantly, too much about the victim of Le Bossu's murder outside Hurt's mansion. Later, we saw him calmly interact with the Joker though the Clown Prince of Crime was in the middle of a bloody killing spree. Via Batman #666, we know that Lane and Damian eventually gain limited invulnerablity as part of a deal with the Devil. But we only saw figurative horns and gasoline-fueled fire, not real horns and sulfur from the netherworld.

Batman and Robin, in contrast, began, on page #1 of issue #1, with a green-skinned, red-eyed villain plainly outside the realm of real possibility. Someone who, Dick finds, is in no known databases. Being silly, rather than awesome and menacing, Toad struck nobody as a demon, but his presence immediately struck down the air of natural / not-supernatural action from the Batman run. In the DCU, green skin doesn't have to mean supernatural -- it may be hard to count the green-skinned characters, but Coluans and Martians green for their own dermatological reasons. And yet, what is Toad? A project from some kind of island of Doctor Moreau?

Roll Call

We have seen with our own eyes just three characters found with single dominoes on their person: Toad (double 12), Santo (12-10, apparently), and Naberius (4-1). We don't yet have a definitive answer as to what role the dominoes serve, but one possibility borne up by those three that we've seen is that they are not "calling cards" planted by an attacker but some sort of talisman or identification held willingly by the associates of Doctor Hurt. And if that is so, could the numbers indicate (inverse) rank? If they come from a set with 12 as the highest number, Toad could be the lowest ranking imp in the order. Santo (who seemed to be a normal gangster) would be just a bit higher, and Naberius (whose birdlike eyes are our other instance of nonhuman anatomy on-panel) somewhat close to the upper ranks.

In terms of numerology, it's not clear how dominoes would round out the "99 Fiends" no more, no less. That number is 9 times 11. In a set going up to twelves, there should be just 91 dominoes. Increasing the maximum number of pips any more would add more than eight. This discrepancy may sink the relationship between dominoes and "99", or it may be explained away or even ignored.

The notion that our demons may be ranked comes up in the name "3rd Hierarchy" as well as the titles of nobility borne by the squad sent to attack Oberon Sexton. All of the demons' names presented in this run come from The Lesser Key of Solomon, which lists 72 demons (not 99) in a precise rank.

There is a major discrepancy in the names we have seen: one of the 3rd Hierarchy is called "Duke Zepar" in Batman and Robin #10, but "Duke Vepar" in #11. This is probably an error on Morrison's part: both of those names are among the demons listed in The Lesser Key of Solomon. As it happens, Duke Zepar is ranked rather high and Duke Vepar more towards the middle, so Vepar is probably the name that was intended for a mere hitman.

All told, the demons mentioned in Morrison's run, and their ranks, are as follows:

Barbatos: #8
(Duke Zepar: #16) -- probably unintended
Naberius: #24
Asmoday: #32 -- called Asmodeus in a simile that described the Joker in Batman #663
Duke Vepar: #42
Belial: #68

When Naberius asks the 3rd Hierarchy to introduce themselves, he calls upon them to speak in ascending order according to that scheme. Especially given the uncertainty regarding Zepar/Vepar, this is not obviously a significant fact -- 1 in 3 arrangements of 3 items are either in ascending or descending order.

The Master

Of his Batman run, Morrison said, in an interview "Well the whole story is built towards a very big peak, and the big reveal comes in the very last issue. There's a kind of pyramid of influence." Then he described how the Club of Villains worked for the Black Glove organization, and how above that, there was the Black Glove.

This narrative structure, bigger even than Morrison describes above, was a huge success. The first underlings, the three Replacement Batmen, were doled out to us one at a time, with each far more portentous than the previous. John Mayhew was the villain of another arc, and the Club of Villains were introduced as a concept. These characters were menacing in their own right, like the villains of any throwaway Batman story over the decades, but were part of a much larger scheme. This is what made it effective storytelling to belittle many of the Club of Villains as RIP went on, to show how much bigger the finale was than what had come.

Batman and Robin is structured neatly into arcs of three issues per story, building even more so into the climax that is coming. Toad worked for Pyg, and Pyg worked for Hurt. Flamingo, like Pyg and the Replacement Batmen, are psychologically ruined good men turned evil by Doctor Hurt. As Lane said, "Sometimes he visits the world to destroy the good and make slaves of men like me." King Coal, too, worked towards the kind of evil Hurt represented, even if he didn't know of Hurt himself. Major villains like the Red Hood, Talia, and Deathstroke are auxiliary to the still-bigger menace of the Big Bad. The story is building to a climax again, and again, the readers appreciate the effect.

This, combined with the identity of Doctor Hurt as the Devil leaves two things to be explained: Why did Naberius say "99 Fiends have no master?" And why do the clues in Wayne Manor point towards Barbatos, not The Devil, as the object of evil worship?

It is perhaps worth noting that the moment after Naberius says it, he screams, though no one strikes him at that moment. Is it a war-whoop, or a psychic/mystical blow from a master angered by that claim? He could be boasting or telling us that the Devil in this story is a devil-by-committee; like the "pandemonium" of Paradise Lost, which has one primary fallen angel, Satan (also called Lucifer), leading a host of many demons, some of whom are named in other works as the primary devil of the universe (e.g., Beelzebub is a lieutenant of Satan in Paradise Lost but Bael -- the first root of "Beelzebub" -- is the #1-ranked demon in The Lesser Keys of Solomon).

Whatever Naberius's claim, it is undermined by Hurt's angry threat to Oberon Sexton that the 3rd Hierarchy is coming, his "stern judgment to enact". Newsflash to Naberius: If you work to enact someone else's judgment, you have a master.

Name, Rank, and Serial Number

If the dominoes indicate the rank of one of these infernal beings, then we have been seeing a countdown, though not in the complete and exhaustive sense that the first three dominoes might have implied. It was a big jump from the 12's, 11's, and 10's to the 4-1 domino on Naberius. Of the 91 possible dominoes in a set going up to 12's, the domino Toad was carrying was last: double 12's itself. Those in Pyg's lab and in Santo's hand were just above that. But the 4-1 of Naberius, the only other domino we know to be associated with an individual, was much higher, twelfth overall; this beats his rank in the Lesser Key of Solomon.

Obviously, the story is going to show us many more demons (they are in the background as #11 ends), and will also show us someone higher in rank than Naberius, who went down after a few smacks of a shovel. Naberius himself tells us that Barbatos is awaking just now. From the statuary, he looks like a more dangerous opponent than Naberius. He may be looming as the ultimate or penultimate threat in the coming battle. It is also possible that Dick Grayson has returned to the surface having already faced him, or even having beaten him, in which case we would certainly see some greater menace instead.

Thou Shalt Have No Other Devils Before Me

In #10, Dick asks a rather self-answering question: "Did something happen way back to associate this place with bat gods and bat tribes and devils?" Not two panels back, Alfred began telling him that the Thomas Wayne of 1765 was a devil worshipper who summoned an ancient bat-demon. In #11, we're told that the demon, worshipped by the Miagani tribe, has the more recent name Barbatos. This name is also written in the occult Batcave, surrounded by many copies of "thomas". The paint is new, almost certainly from the time that the Club of Villains occupied Wayne Manor during RIP. Regardless of what has happened in the last year, Alfred's account indicates that Thomas Wayne (whose face has not been seen, as his portrait is missing) summoned Barbatos. Given that Doctor Hurt is a supernaturally evil man with a Waynelike face and that the elder Thomas Wayne summoned a demon, it may seem like the simplest backstory is that Doctor Hurt is that very Thomas Wayne, possessed by Barbatos. This is additionally bolstered by the fact that Doctor Hurt, who has called Bruce an usurper (though this was part of an implicit claim of Hurt's to be the younger Thomas Wayne), calls Gotham home and is coming to Gotham to reclaim what was always rightfully his. We know that someone will begin a claim of being the younger Thomas Wayne in #13 -- this could likely be Doctor Hurt, pursuing his return to Wayne Manor via lawyers instead of via fire and brimstone.

However, the story thus far, including Alfred's account of older Thomas Wayne's activities, has been more specific in identifying the Devil as the opponent. Batman #666 named "the biblical Antichrist" and "the dragon of Revelations". Batman #681 named "the Devil himself". On the other hand, #666 named the source of Lane's power as having wings of black skin like a bat -- like Barbatos -- but one who named Lane his messiah.

Yet it is clear that Barbatos is asleep as #11 begins, and that probably means in a sense of long dormancy, not just the last several hours. Whoever Hurt has been recently, it is not Barbatos. Has Barbatos been asleep since the helicopter crash? Or much longer? Is Barbatos the effective hand of the Devil in this story? Or the closest thing to the Devil that we'll see? There is some source of light and energy down there. And the portrait of Joshua Wayne is set right at the statue of Barbatos as he looks into a light. What is in the casket in his hands -- the one that Dick has found? Assuming that Joshua is one of the good Waynes, it is probably the weapon that will defeat Barbatos. But the pyramid of evil in this story will not stop when the fistfight ends. When Barbatos has had his chance at Batman and Robin, the plot of the false Thomas Wayne will continue into the next arc.

The end result of the domino countdown may have been before us in the first issue of the series. We see Doctor Hurt holding old (1765?) keys to Wayne Manor. The fob to which they are attached is very much the size and shape of a domino. What's on the other side? If the numbers indicate rank, with low counts being high rank, then the reverse side may just be blank, the double-zero that tops the set of dominoes. The solicit for #12 says that the secret of the dominoes is terrifying. Does that mean a plague or a toxin bringing mass deaths? Or simply a countdown to an individual? If Doctor Hurt, the Devil, is a holder of the top domino, then he is part of the 99 Fiends, and they indeed have no master but those who make up the 99 Fiends.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Batman and Robin 11

Batman and Robin has built up a story through a year of smaller arcs that have their own payoffs, but have logical ties to each other, and to something big coming which has been unrevealed. This fourth arc derives great dramatic possibility by inheriting all of the open plot points from the previous three issues, not to mention Morrison's run on Batman and even the full history of Batman, whose details are still free to be rewritten since Infinite Crisis ended over four years ago. Credit Morrison for not putting out a six-issue "Batman: The Origin" that dutifully told the details in sequence, because the payoff is so much better built up as it has been. And that's just to relay what is sure to be just some of Batman's backstory. The rest could be the subject of years more of storytelling. But not to get ahead of where we are now. The three-issue arc that is in progress seems likely to end up remembered as a classic, and reading the first two issues has been a great pleasure.

The opening scene shows us, in full view, Doctor Hurt, who was indeed the "El Penitente" that other characters have talked about since this series reached #4. He speaks of his nature in shadowy language, giving us clues, but -- again, to dramatic effect -- no encyclopedia-level facts. He has been repenting, with self-flagellation, for the apparently earnest motive of being forgiven his sins (and not, as I had guessed earlier, his defeat) although he intends to resume sinning immediately. Maybe this is a one-time event, but it may be some condition of infernal immortality. Hurt is obviously unconcerned by the deadly gunfire around him, but we don't see him shrug off the impact of any actual bullets. Is he invulnerable or just lucky?

Hurt refers to himself, suggestively, as a "what" as well as a "who", and in three poetic fragments, that he is a double, twin, or shadow -- of whom? The older Thomas Wayne (henceforth OTW)? The younger, Bruce's father (henceforth YTW)? Of Bruce himself? Of God? The 'W' scar could be a signature for any of at least the first three, and Hurt says later that Gotham is his home. The priest's blessing cuts in mid-way, with "the Father" omitted, and "the Son and the Holy Spirit" spoken on-panel: an indication of a missing father, which could symbolically represent either YTW or Bruce.

Hurt's intentions are clear in kind: He is headed to Gotham to wreak spectacular (a word often used to describe mass terrorism) atrocities. He is after something that is rightfully his, but is not motivated ("Let it all fall down") by keeping his drug empire in Mexico.

Given the missing portrait of the devil-worshipping OTW in Wayne Manor, who summoned a bat-demon in 1765, and the subterranean compound that Dick discovers, a simple possibility is that Hurt is OTW, has been "what" he is since summoning that demon, and considering himself a Wayne, has always been out to get the Wayne fortune/name back, something we know that someone will try to do (apparently through peaceful and legal means) beginning in #13. The teaser from #1 showed very old keys to Wayne Manor -- those could be from 1765. In the past, when Morrison has laid enough clues pointing to one conclusion, and there is no "mystery" with multiple suspects, the straightforward interpretation has proven to be correct. However, the Hurt we've seen before was not just an angry lost Wayne with supernatural powers -- he asked Bruce not to yield the family estate to him, but to "dedicate his life to the corruption of virtue" and spoke of his plan as "the destruction of the ultimate noble spirit". He did refer to Bruce as an "usurper", which lends credence to the notion of Hurt as a real Wayne, but he openly claimed, twice, to be YTW, an obvious lie. Also, we find out that the "Barbatos" paint is not old, but from the last year, probably when the Black Glove controlled Wayne Manor. The complex Dick discovers could not have been built in the last year, but it has rail lines, which should not have existed in 1765. Finally, we know that Joshua Wayne had access to this area, probably as part of Underground Railroad activity (the term was not usually meant literally). Joshua acting for good and Solomon for evil? Some of the demons mentioned in this story go back to a book called "The Lesser Key of Solomon", so that Wayne, with his stern face, may just have a role in this. With the talk of twins, a case of known twin Waynes has to stand out, but the face of Solomon Wayne is not Hurt's, and the face of OTW may be. One more tidbit that we can piece together from multiple issues: The "House of Hurt", the mansion seen in Batman #676, is apparently, the same mansion where Le Bossu was in #3, and that was in Gotham. So Hurt may have a base of operations posing as one of Gotham's current elite. Possibly matching the "Gotham's Hurt Missing" from Batman #678. So while there's a strong hint of a link directly from 1765's devil worship to the present Hurt, there is a long trail from then to now.

Oberon Sexton is the issue's other mystery man. He can fight well, suggesting such suspects as Bruce Wayne and the Joker, although perhaps not so well as you would expect of either of them. Damian's keen ear tells us that Sexton's accent is not properly English, ruling out the obscure Sir Anthony guess. He could still be Morrison, acting like King Mob in The Invisibles, but this possibility has gotten little attention of late, and would be hard to squeeze into an issue as packed as #12 seems bound to be. The teaser panel showing Sexton unmasking indicates a chin that is perhaps too square to be the Joker, but artistic license keeps that from being a certainty. However, he is determined to solve the Domino Mystery, and is either hesitant or uncertain regarding his real identity. He implicitly says that he is not Bruce Wayne, and his unmasking in the next issue would seem to guarantee that -- the solicit for #13 indicates that Bruce has not returned, although Sexton could be Bruce but as Damian opined last issue, "whatever happened changed him". Structurally, one would not expect so many clues pointing to the real answer before the identity is revealed. Note that in the Red Hood arc, Jason's name was given away before his identity was truly revealed. Maybe that was done, spoiling a tiny mystery, deliberately to give Morrison the ability to fake a red herring now and have Sexton truly be English.

Sexton's discussion of the demons attacking the cemetery implies that they came there not for him, as part of a simple chase from his hotel, but to dig something up, and it is likely what Dick Grayson has seen, and been battered by, but has not told us. It seems to involve a light, an energy source, and left him in poor condition, with his uniform tattered. He came up with the casket (box) that Joshua Wayne held in his portrait. At the moment, being attacked by a Deathstroke-controlled Damian (can't he just shut his eyes and make Deathstroke blind?), Dick has bigger worries than showing us what's inside or explaining what he found. He started his expedition in good form, sliding under a falling gate with his acrobat timing. As the issue ends, nothing but the comic book genre suggests that he can survive the next minute.

The demons actually provide the first clear indication of actual supernatural presence in this entire extended story, as a raven hovers behind Naberius and perches alongside him. Naberius has the eyes of a bird. But for all of that, he and his demon-named squad (Duke Vepar recites the Lord's Prayer in reverse) is no match for Damian and Sexton's ordinary martial arts. There are many demon names in cultural history, but Naberius was probably chosen because he is known for restoring lost dignities and honors. But whose honors will be restored -- those of Hurt (who wants status in Gotham, and he nearly had it in RIP), or those of Bruce? In the aforementioned "Lesser Key of Solomon", Naberius is the 24th ranking demon out of a host of 72. Barbatos is #8, and Bael #1. We see the rest of the 99 Fiends show up as the issue draws to a cliffhanger end. Naberius says that the 99 Fiends have no master. Could it be that we'll see an ultimate Big Bad who is not an individual at all, but a legion of demons? Or will this go all the way up the hierarchy, as indicated in Morrison's comments on RIP, to the #1? Naberius indicates that Barbatos is waking below... will we have a true demon, of superhuman size and power, like the Bat-Demon in World's Finest #255, join the fight?

If the detective in the story is always right (we've seen this before, although with Bruce as the detective), then we apparently have the identity of the Domino Killer: It has to be someone operating in Hurt's interest, because nobody planted the domino on Naberius, who is working for Hurt, and who has used "Mexican Train" in his language. But Sexton is the last remaining suspect who could have planted this domino (a 4:1, not in sequence with the "countdown" we saw before), and we've long had reason to suspect that there is no domino "killer".

Whatever happens next, with Hurt, Deathstroke, Barbatos, and ninety-some demons converging, with Robin out of action, and Dick Grayson on the ground, will take place near the grave of Alan Wayne, in the Garden of Death. Maybe some of the horrors of #666 may ensue. Or Dick Grayson's finest hour.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Batman and Robin: Domino Questions

Earlier this year, I posted a series of multiple-choice questions about Grant Morrison's current run on Batman and Robin. The intention was to focus our collective efforts on solving the mysteries at hand, and I created these questions (and some of their possible answers) in a very deliberate attempt to copy what I'd done with a fair bit of success regarding Morrison's run on Batman. I wasn't as happy with my work this time around; I felt like I might have been missing the correct answers from my lists of choices. Moreover, there is just plain less information this time: This run has been much shorter, so far, than the Batman run that led into Batman, R.I.P. I was trying to pin down Oberon Sexton's identity when we'd only seen him in about three pages of story, and it's far from clear even that his identity had been decisively hinted at, then or now.

In the interests of focus, I analyzed the domino clues only, and offer here a short list of questions that feel more likely to be comprehensive on this subtopic than the sixteen questions I posted before.

The first bit of analysis (or "data reduction") on the sprawling set of clues we have was to consider how many independent points of information we have concerning the dominoes. In all, we have seen dominoes over a dozen times, if you count out-of-story references (like the cover of issue #2), but it seemed to me that these can likely be clustered into four. Then we can consider separately how the possible answers to those questions align with the facts and with each other.

The four elementary domino appearances in the story, in my formulation are:

Domino Appearances
D1) El Penitente alluded to a force acting on his behalf as "The Mexican Train". We know this to be the name of a domino game.
D2) The dominoes that have appeared in Gotham on three occasions when someone likely to be working for El Penitente was defeated in some way.
D3) The dominoes said to have been found in cases where the Black Glove members from #680-681 were killed or abducted.
D4) The dominoes Pearly was playing with when Batman spoke with him.

And furthermore, let's throw out a list of the likely suspects:

Domino Suspects
S1) El Penitente or his agents
S2) The Joker
S3) Talia
 S3a) Out to get El Penitente
 S3b) Framing Damian
S4) Bruce Wayne from the past leaving dominoes
S5) Grant Morrison
S6) Oberon Sexton if he is not one of the above
S7) Two of the above taking turns
S8) Nobody

Finally, here is a timeline of events relevant to the Domino plot. I give an approximate count of the days since the end of RIP. There is a big jump from RIP to the "six months later" when Dick and Damian collar Le Bossu. The smaller scale of the timeline (eg, events shown in Batman and Robin) are in order (although the actual day of Cardinal Maggi's death cannot be pinned down). The absolute count of days is guesswork, and probably not important.

Domino Timeline
T1) RIP+000 Malenkov killed by the Joker
T2) RIP+001 Jezebel's plane attacked by Talia's man-bats
T3) RIP+178 Drug deal with dominoes in the trunk
T4) RIP+179 Toad dies, domino in hand
T5) RIP+180 Domino in Pyg's lab
T6) RIP+181 Cardinal Maggi slayed
T7) RIP+185 Santo

Oberon Sexton arrives in Gotham: RIP+183
El Penitente and Sexton phone call #1: RIP+188
Pearly and Batman: RIP+190
Oberon Sexton and Batman: RIP+200
El Penitente and Sexton phone call #2: RIP+200

Unknown Time:
 al-Khidr DEAD <183, Sir Anthony MISSING/DEAD <183, Malenkov found <183

Given these facts, the three primary questions concern the cause-and-effect relationships (or lack thereof) between the "D" items. For the sake of brevity, "EP" = El Penitente.

1) What is the relationship between EP's "Mexican Train" and the dominoes in Gotham?
1A) EP is using dominoes as a symbol
1B) EP is using dominoes as a weapon
1C) Someone opposed to EP is using dominoes as a reply/taunt/clue to EP
1D) Gotham dominoes to frame Damian

2) What is the relationship between the dominoes in Gotham and Sexton's report to Batman?
2A) Dominoes with dead BG members same agenda as ones in Gotham
2B) Someone is using BG dominoes as a copy of Gotham ones
2C) Someone is using Gotham dominoes as a copy of BG dominoes
2D) Sexton's story is made-up to link to Gotham dominoes

3) What is the relationship between EP's "Mexican Train" and Pearly's dominoes?
3A) Pearly knows something and was trying to tell Batman nonverbally
3B) Pearly has dominoes because he is a defeated criminal
3C) Pearly has dominoes as part of a plan to spread them to many people
3D) It is a coincidence that Pearly has dominoes

Other clues/hints
Phosphorus Rex says El Penitente's forces (or those of Pyg, who works for El Penitente) will "kill us all".

The secret of the dominoes is "terrifying".

While everyone seen in Gotham with dominoes is an underling of EP who has just been defeated when the domino is found, the Circus of the Strange are underlings of EP and are defeated and do not end up with dominoes.

Grant Morrison interview: "this isn't about Bruce Wayne at all, except in as much as it deals with his absence".

The one BG member whom Talia took out was not found with domino.

The one BG member whom  Joker killed was found with domino pattern. But if the dominoes
are "terrifying", then the symbol may be an imitation (or fiction) by a copycat who failed to understand the significance of the physical dominoes.

The solicit for #1 said that Batman and Robin would be tracking the Domino Killer, who had abducted a child. Sasha was abducted by Pyg. So either the Domino Killer is on El Penitente's side, or Dick would have been making a mistake in his detective work, or the story was changed significantly after that solicit was written.

Solicit for #12 says that the Domino Killer's identity will be revealed (but there strong indications of misdirection; e.g., that there is no Domino Killer).

Was Malenkov's body taken from Gotham and put into alligator elsewhere? Either someone took great trouble to create an impression or Sexton is lying

Grant Morrison interview: re: the Joker, "an idea I don't think has been done before with him".

If you compare the art between Batman and Robin #3 and Batman #676, it looks like Le Bossu was in the "House of Hurt" where we first saw the Club of Villains. The newspaper announcing Cardinal Maggi's death was there, and the policeman had been inquisitive about something, perhaps tracking the Black Glove murders to Le Bossu and thus to Hurt / El Penitente.

My opinions

I don't think it's possible given what we know to pin down the answers to the Domino questions, the identity of the Domino Killer, and the identity of Oberon Sexton. That said, I think some answers look more likely than others. If the secret of the dominoes is "terrifying", then they are not a message from Bruce Wayne, and they are not a mere symbol or hint-for-hint's sake, like Jason Todd's calling cards. Talia is unlikely to be leaving the Dominoes, because Jezebel was not found. If she were merely using them to frame Damian, that would not be terrifying.

I have argued for a Fourth Wall scenario in which Grant Morrison was the Domino Killer and/or Oberon Sexton. This remains possible, but we are now very close to the climax of this plot without much commitment to that outcome, and a lot of story left to tell regarding the main characters.

Perhaps Pearly's role is of lesser importance, but I think he knows about the dominoes and used them (instead of a drawing on paper) to tell Dick not only where the Lazarus Pit was but also that the "Mexican Train", Doctor Hurt's big attack, was coming. Note that the guard makes at least two references to Pearly being too talkative, and Pearly chooses to communicate his key point to Batman silently.

As I noted in a previous post, I think Sir Anthony makes a lot of sense as Oberon Sexton, but this is far from conclusive. Sexton could also be Mangrove Pierce, as I conjectured much earlier.

And so, I think the Domino Killer is most likely either El Penitente or the Joker. I think the single strongest interpretation of what we know is 1B, 2D, 3A, as presented in Theory #1 below. However, as a demonstration that the mystery is not, as far as I can see, solvable, I offer two other theories which also fit the facts and are not, as far as I can see, falsifiable. In fact, Theory #1 fails to do anything original with the Joker, so for it to be true, the plot will have to conclude with the original idea for the Joker coming in later.

Theory #1
Doctor Hurt is going to use drug/toxin on dominoes to cause a mass slaughter. The dominoes are also being used as a suicide/punishment to kill his underlings when they fail. The Black Glove murders, committed by Joker and Talia, are not actually being marked with dominoes; Oberon Sexton (Sir Anthony) made this up to get Batman's help.

Theory #2
The Joker is doing the Domino killings and leaving dominoes in other places, just to vex Doctor Hurt. He knows about the "Mexican Train" and has chosen to use dominoes as a taunt. "Tony Li" was a Joker henchman in disguise who planted the one on Santo. Oberon Sexton is Sir Anthony, trying to get Batman to stop the killer who might be after him next.

Theory #3
Doctor Hurt is going to use drug/toxin on dominoes to cause a mass slaughter. The dominoes are also being used as a suicide/punishment to kill his underlings when they fail, or as a symbol of his work, and this includes the Black Glove members. Oberon Sexton is an amnesiac Joker trying to be a detective and work for the good against evil, in the guise of a voodoo loa Baron Samedi.

Other permutations are possible. The point is that we can, I suspect, narrow the possibilities down, and see as we read which choices Morrison made from a list of known alternatives. Even so, there are sure to be utterly unforeseeable twists, not to mention the truth about Doctor Hurt, the Wayne family, the return of Bruce Wayne, Talia's attack on Dick Grayson, and whatever makes this part of the story tie into Batman #666 "considerably".

Whatever the truth is, we now have a yearlong plot coming down to the final two issues, with the penultimate installment out tomorrow. And as the preview for #11 shows, it's a big one. The showdown: Doctor Hurt versus Dick Grayson. The action starts now!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Blackest Night Review

"The dark things cannot stand the light." So we were told at the end of the first eight-page Green Lantern story back in 1940. It's one of the world's most basic metaphors. The evil we fear is darkness; good is the light that makes it go away. Hal Jordan's oath borrowed the idea from Alan Scott's, stretching his responsibility to include even the "blackest night". For the heroes of the DCU, with Green Lanterns front and center, Blackest Night has come and passed.

For DC Comics itself, Blackest Night has been anything but. In February 2010, DC's seven top-selling comics had at least some link to the event, with the series itself easily outdistancing Marvel's top offerings. Fan reaction has been positive to glowing. Particularly given the grousing that crossover events can generate, Blackest Night has been one of the standout success stories of its kind. The second major event built around Geoff Johns' longer opus magnum run with Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, this series will live fondly in many readers' memory beyond the eleven months it dominated the comic book stores.

The story clearly does a lot of things right to get readers happy: There is big action, mystery, and surprises. Because this was a story where characters could actually die (for good, as well as temporarily), suspense meant more than in a typical issue where the hero has to survive. Encounters between heroes and Black Lanterns were full of emotion -- with the emotion being an important plot element, no less. While the biggest DC characters got their own crossover miniseries, minor characters who had not been seen in years or even decades made appearances. And besides all of the flashbacks, the Flash was back, with Barry Allen seeing some of his first action in years. While the "Trinity" and others had their crossovers, Blackest Night was frequently a buddy flick, the Hal and Barry Show. Barry had the best lines, telling the second-stringers that they were now Superman and Wonder Woman, and staring resolutely ahead when he tells us what we had to know -- that the Black Lantern rings may be fast, but he's faster.

For all of that, the story delivers on its thematic promises in odd or erratic ways. Remarkably, though Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps ranged across many star systems, almost fifty percent of the main series takes place in one fixed spot in Coast City, no bigger than a baseball field! The identity of the villain was withheld for a while, then revealed in an interview; when he arrived, he was almost without personality, a point the story itself asserted. The "rules" of the Black Lantern conflict, as they were revealed, absolutely defined the course of events, but were arbitrary, unforeseeable, and unexplained. Why did the Bruce Wayne clone's skull provide the black power rings? It just did. Why did Dove have the ability to dissolve Black Lanterns? She just did. Why did the seven beams of the seven lanterns have no effect on the Black Central Power Battery? They just didn't. That many prophecies (such as Sinestro saving the day) were fulfilled was never mentioned. The story ran its course and ended with all of those questions unanswered, most of them surely never to be answered, and no reason left for us particularly to care what their answers would have been.

This sort of disconnect was a serious liability in Johns' previous company-wide crossover, Infinite Crisis. That story began with the "Trinity" airing grievances aimed at one another. It ended with that superest of trios walking happily off into the sunset (and a year's furlow) together, with the grievances forgotten, not resolved.

Blackest Night, however, has a deeper meaning, one not rooted in the superheroes of the DCU. What plagues the heroes in this story is the way they remembered their lost loved ones, a concern we all face in real life. The "hearts" that grieving tears out in the real world are the metaphorical ones, the emotions of those left behind in a pain that can occupy and weaken the survivor for however long, until the living turn back to life. This meaning was implicit by the time the series had hit issue #2, but was never developed further nor explained for the benefit of all readers. So the deep meaning with real-world relevance -- a rarity among comic books -- came early and then the action and unpredictable twists driven by rules we learned as we saw them took over.

For the meaning inside the world of the DCU, we find out the upshot in the final pages. Death, for now, really means death again. And the future for the living is bright: Geoff Johns (and Dan Didio) have finally gotten the band back together: The Satellite Era of the Justice League has all [but the Dibnys] of its members alive and well (or will as soon as Bruce Wayne climbs out of the past). Kendra Saunders has been replaced by the Hawkgirl who joined the JLA in the Seventies. Aquaman looks like he hasn't looked since the early Eighties. The Martian Manhunter's two years off have ended (he was sidelined for longer than that in the Seventies just from lack of interest). And with the return of the original Firestorm, it looks like the Justice League, deemed untouchable by Hal in Blackest Night #0, has had their clock reset. At least those individuals have -- whether or not they reform the team remains to be seen. But it's clear that a larger design, restoring all of the figures of DC's shining years of the Bronze Age, has been completed. Getting there came from a hot-selling, fast-moving series that kept us all entertained for almost a year. The world has been refigured into the Satellite Era's image. Now, how is that going to go?