Monday, October 18, 2010

But Getting Back to Batman...

So all this Halloween talk has been lots of fun, but it’s time today to turn the spotlight back onto what’s really important: Batman. Well, okay… The Batman story I’m going to talk about does have a sect of devil worshippers performing hideous sacrificial rites to summon a demon who’ll give them the secret of eternal life. Plus, it’s got this picture in it:


And that’s pretty creepy, right? So there’s still a strong horror component for Day 18 of the Countdown to Halloween. It’s just wrapped in spandex this time around…

The Return of Bruce Wayne #5 (of 6)
by Grant Morrison, Ryan Sook, and Pere Perez

Morrison takes his “super-condensed” writing style to new peaks this issue, with reams of fascinating backstory packed into a few tantalizingly brief lines of dialogue. He’s also expecting the reader to do an awful lot of heavy lifting on those background plotlines this time out. Which is fine with me; I love doing that kind of work as a reader. Of course, as always with the Moz, it may not be to everyone’s taste. But I get ahead of myself…

And from here on out, we drive directly into the busy heart of Spoiler-Town, so you might not want to hit the jump link unless you’ve read the issue at hand…

This issue opens with Bruce Wayne in the hospital after being shot by Jonah Hex last issue, and then getting hit by a car. He’s jumped to a (wisely) unidentified time period in his own childhood that ought to be the 70s or 80s but looks an awful lot like the 30s (“retro‘s in,” a nurse tells him).

His memory’s still gone, but he’s picked up at the hospital by actress Marsha Lamarr, who asks Bruce to play the part of detective as she tries to solve the murder of her best friend: Martha Wayne! So he’s left trying to not only solve the mystery of his amnesia, but (unwittingly) his own parents’ murders, and why this woman who obviously doesn’t know him has picked him to help her. The answer to that final mystery involves those devil worshippers I mentioned above, and their hideous sacrificial rites. It slowly becomes apparent, with a sort of sickening inevitability, that Bruce hasn’t been engaged as a detective, but a sacrifice...

It’s a fine testament to Morrison’s talent for pop fiction that he’s able to weave such a gripping noir mystery into his larger story of Bruce Wayne’s battle to escape the Life-Trap of Darkseid. Because, if you took this out of the Batman context, and just made it the story of an amnesiac detective hero being duped into human sacrifice by a gang of creepy devil worshippers, I’d still be all over it. It would be a horror-noir classic, with overtones of David Lynch, Angel Heart, and Memento all the way through. Honestly, the story might work even better taken out of the context of Morrison’s larger Batman epic; the Batman-related stuff (though it intensifies the urgency of the Wayne murder mystery) is so complex that it threatens to overwhelm the noir aspects entirely. That the stand-alone story elements work as well as they do is pretty incredible.

But about that Batman-related stuff… We were told, way back in RIP, that Martha Wayne’s family had engaged a detective to investigate her death, and now we see that Bruce is that detective. But it seems that the investigation is every bit as much a fabrication as the fake documents Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove fabricated to make the Waynes and Alfred out to be sybaritic Satan worshippers. But the seeds of that story go back to this period, Bruce’s childhood, the time of what we now know to be Dr. Hurt’s last attempt to make the soul of Gotham City his own.

His MO is pretty much the same one we’ve seen him using in all of his modern-era appearances: he preys on the worst qualities of the rich, powerful, and/or useful to build a power-base, and then uses that base to carry out his nefarious plans. In this era, he’s operating as Dr. Simon Hurt, head psychologist of the Willowood Military Psychiatric Hospital. If you’ve been playing along with the Dork Forty Bat-Blogging Home Game, you’ll remember that Willowood is the asylum where Bruce’s brother Thomas Wayne Jr. was locked up when a childhood accident left him brain-damaged and homicidal (in another nod to the Thomas Wayne Jr./Boomerang Killer story, in fact, Dr. Hurt has a boomerang on display in his office!). Why and how the Waynes got their kid put away in a military hospital is a story we don’t yet know, though if I had to guess, I’d say that they used their influence to get him in the closest facility possible, since Arkham hadn’t been reopened yet at the time of young Thomas Jr’s accident.

At any rate. Hurt’s Black Glove coterie at this time includes Gotham Mayor Jessop (a replacement, we learn, for the recently-murdered Mayor James), Police Commissioner Loeb (famously corrupt), bored gazillionaire/filmmaker John Mayhew (who’s also the founder of the Club of Heroes), and (surprise!) Professor Carter Nichols. Professor Nichols, of course, is the inventor of Time Hypnosis, which he hopes to use at Willowood to help soldiers re-visit and confront their war-time traumas. He and his invention were recurring figures in 1950s Batman stories, and we last saw him in Morrison’s Batman #700 anniversary issue, a comic that I now think is one of the run’s thematic hubs (but more on that later). Nichols is a reluctant participant in Hurt’s schemes, but Hurt bets him “everything” that he’ll play ball, working on Nichols’ desire for fame and funding, and for a beautiful woman of his acquaintance: Marsha Lamarr.

This isn’t the first indication we get that everything’s not completely on the up-and-up with Bruce’s benefactor, but it’s the thing that really clinches it. Marsha’s pretty key to Hurt’s plans here, in fact. She’s not only the bait he’s dangling in front of Nichols, but she’s also his primary tool to work on Betsy and Roddy Kane, the parents of Martha Wayne. Estranged from their daughter for some time, the Kanes believe that Thomas Wayne was a villain. Or, rather, Betsy believes that. Roddy’s in an iron lung, and can’t speak following a stroke (a stroke that Hurt implies he’s responsible for). But Betsy informs Bruce and Marsha that Thomas Wayne has had to deal with allegations of rape and drug theft, and that his father and uncle covered it all up and locked Thomas away in a hidden room for treatment while her grandson (we assume Bruce) was sent away to boarding school. Furthermore, she says that Thomas himself came to them after the Wayne murders to gloat, informing them that he turned Martha into a drug addict, “and worse.”

Now, the post-murder appearance of Thomas Wayne could easily have been Hurt, or perhaps the actor Mangrove Pierce, who was paid by Hurt and John Mayhew to have plastic surgery that made him a close double for Thomas. But all that stuff about Thomas having been locked up… The hidden room Betsy’s talking about is undoubtedly the Secret Batcave we’ve seen so often recently. And Bruce Wayne did spend some time in boarding school as a kid (a detail Morrison himself added in his story “Gothic,” way back in the early days of the old Legends of the Dark Knight series). But I have to wonder if Betsy’s not getting her Thomas Waynes mixed up a bit when she talks about him being locked up for treatment. Because I’ve had it in the back of my head for a while now that it may have been Thomas Jr. who was locked up in that room. That would explain why Bruce was forbidden to ever go down there as a small boy, and jibes much better with the life of Thomas Wayne as Bruce remembers it.

This reading would assume that Betsy Kane is really confused about things, but if she was so removed from the Wayne family that Bruce’s parents made provisions that Bruce not be brought up by her, but instead by the butler… Well, I’m willing to believe she could have things that wrong. So all she knows is society gossip about Patrick and Silas Wayne (Bruce’s grandfather and great-uncle) having to cover up some family shame, and then whatever garbage she was fed by the Thomas Wayne double who showed up at her door. Her husband, for what it’s worth, may not be quite so out of the loop. He was approached by Hurt before the stroke, and seems to be desperately trying to shout information to Bruce and Marsha: “Martha,” “army,” and “Hurt” seem to be amongst his exclamations.

The Roddy Kane stuff, by the way, is massively creepy. They’re sitting there having a very genteel cup of tea on the veranda while he’s laying there moaning at the top of his lungs, and suffering his wife’s cruel neglect as wasps are allowed to crawl around on his head. It’s like a moment out of David Lynch, and one of the more effective scenes in the series to date. I also wonder if the wasps aren’t meant to signal Hurt’s influence over the scene; insects are often associated with Hell, after all.

Regardless, Roddy’s indecipherable exclamations aren’t heeded. Bruce winds up at Wayne Manor with Marsha, waiting for the Black Glove to show up for a ceremony while wearing a replica of his father’s old “Bat-Man” Halloween costume (as seen above). Presumably, this is to scare the man behind the Wayne murders into tipping his hand. Considering Bruce’s resemblance to Thomas, it’s not a bad plan. Bruce himself did it to the mobster who ordered the hit, in the story that introduced Thomas’ costume in the first place. Here, though, that’s not the real plan. In reality, they just need to sacrifice a man in the guise of a bat, and Bruce is it.

(I suppose I should point out that none of the Black Hand members, Hurt included, know who Bruce is. As far as they know, he’s just an amnesiac drifter who’s of the right height and build. Someone who won‘t be missed.)

All this “sacrificing the bat-man” business also gives us one pretty key piece of information on Hurt’s intentions toward Thomas Wayne: “A man’s soul,” he says, “is in his reputation, his legacy. Destroy a reputation, destroy a soul.” So he’s out to destroy Thomas Wayne’s soul here, I’m assuming as part of a greater sacrifice to Barbatos, who he hopes to summon with his sacrifice of the bat-man. Of course, I also wonder if Hurt isn’t trying to destroy Thomas Wayne’s soul in order to leave some kind of Wayne/Van Derm void into which he can step, similar to his efforts to take Batman’s place as the soul of Gotham in the present. Because I think that’s Hurt’s ultimate goal, after all: to bond with (or perhaps control) Barbatos, and thus turn Gotham’s grim protector spirit to evil. Or perhaps he really is just seeking the kind of immortality that comes with that bond. “Batman and Robin will never die,” after all. Dick said so, and Batman 700 backed him up on that.

Another really interesting revelation this issue is that Hurt can’t find the bat-casket. He’s had the run of the Wayne estate twice now, once in this issue, and again in RIP, and it’s been denied him. Dick certainly seemed to find it easy enough, after facing that bat-demon-thing, so I have to wonder why. Perhaps only a pure soul can find it. Perhaps that’s why Hurt had himself forgiven of all sin by a Catholic priest before returning to Wayne Manor for a third time in the current Batman & Robin story arc. Or perhaps this protector bat-spirit that Bruce Wayne created with the New God energies of Darkseid (“Everything they touch turns to myth,” after all) will only give the nod to those who’ve earned the Bruce Wayne seal of approval. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Considering the nature of the Simon Hurt/Colonial Thomas Wayne/El Penitente character (perhaps a mortal man possessed by whatever malevolent force was left behind by Darkseid’s fall from grace, perhaps simply that malevolent force itself), I don’t know if we’ll ever get all the answers about him. But what we are finding out certainly seems to jibe with my theories about the larger mythological concerns of Morrison’s longer Bat-Arc.

Oh, and we also found out one other thing: by Bruce’s childhood, Hurt understands, at least a little, the connection to Darkseid and the New Gods. In the sacrificial rite, we hear him talk about his greater understanding of Barbatos through “dark science.” And the ceremony itself echoes some of the Darkseid-inspired terminology of the Religion of Crime. “The first red rock and the rage” is made mention of, as well as “the dark side inferno pits.” Wonder how much Hurt really knows? By the present, he’s describing himself as “the hole in things,” so you’d guess he understands quite a bit of it.

Hmm. So if Hurt is a side-effect of Darkseid’s death, isn’t Barbatos essentially the same thing? The myth of Batman made real through contact with the New Gods? So in trying to find and conquer Barbatos, is Hurt simply engaging in some high-stakes sibling rivalry with his own missing twin? Batman’s truest opposite number doing what that sort of evil doppelganger always does? Hmm. Perhaps I’ve theorized enough for one night.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my favorite moment of the issue before I go, though: Carter Nichols refuses to push the button on his “time doorway” device (an essential part of Hurt’s plan, though how and why we don’t know), and in doing so wins his wager. Bruce (who’s been drugged and set on fire at this point) grabs the device and hauls ass, a mysterious shadowy bat-something clinging to him like smoke. We don’t know where he went as yet, but right before he goes, he stares down the assembled Black Glove and leaves them standing in stunned terror at his horrible visage. “Don’t… Don’t look at me that way,” Carter Nichols stammers, and in doing so echoes Joe Chill on the night of the Wayne murders. He was supposed to kill Bruce, too, according to some versions of the story, but the young Batman’s baleful gaze scared him off. It’s a nice touch to see that mirrored here.

Art chores on this issue are handled mostly by the most excellent Ryan Sook. Sook’s got a lush cartoon realist style that serves the story’s 1930s noir feel well. But he got taken down by the dreaded Deadline Doom, unfortunately, and the issue was finished out in decent, but not-quite-as-good, style by Pere Perez. It looks like Perez tried to ape Sook’s style to some extent, so as not to make the transition too jarring, but the conclusion lacks some of Sook’s panache. Ah well. It’s not nearly as bad as the art we got on the last issue of this series, so I guess I can only complain a little.

And that, I suppose, brings my thoughts on this issue to a close. It’s always exciting getting to the end-game of a Morrison epic, and we’re almost there. Can’t wait for the next issue.

Grade: A

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