The Suspense is Over--Batman's Most Mysterious Foe Unmasked at Last: A Review of Batman #677 and a Re-Evaluation of Batman #663 and #666A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Dave Wallace , Thom Young
"Batman in the Underworld"
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Tony Daniel (p) Sandu Florea (i), Guy Major (colors)
Dave Wallace: The latest issue of Batman sees Grant Morrison build on the strong foundations of the opening chapter of "Batman R.I.P." driving his story forward as the Black Glove's Club of Villains make their most significant move yet against Batman.
More than any other issue of Morrison's run so far, this is where we're seeing disparate elements of his past storylines getting pulled together and focused into a single, multi-faceted story in which Batman has to face an opponent who seems to be one step ahead of him at every turn.
Thom Young: That's an intriguing choice of words, Dave, "One step ahead of him at every turn." That's exactly what frustrated Batman and Robin for nearly two years (real time) from Detective Comics #334-56 (published more than 40 years ago).
They were being menaced by a mysterious mastermind known only as The Outsider who was manipulating events and crimes behind the scenes—seemingly knowing all of Batman's secrets, and staying one step ahead of the Dynamic Duo at every turn. Now, of course, we essentially have the same circumstances:
A mysterious mastermind known only as The Black Glove who is manipulating events and crimes behind the scenes—seemingly knowing all of Batman's secrets, and staying one step ahead of the Dark Knight at every turn
Dave Wallace: That's a story that I've heard people talk about, but never read myself. All I know about it is that the "Outsider" turned out to be Alfred suffering from a split personality and transformed into a super-villain, so I guess he's not exempt from the long list of suspects that fans have been putting together ever since Batman started to suspect that the Black Glove is co-ordinating a complex attack against him.
We can add further names to that list as of this issue. There are new revelations here, with the discovery of a dossier containing files that appear to show that Bruce's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, were involved in seedy activities with both John Mayhew and Alfred—and that Thomas Wayne may even still be alive.
Whilst I don't believe that Morrison is going to reveal that this development is true (it was already established last issue that the Black Glove society has the ability to doctor official files and fake evidence in order to cover up their crimes, so it's clear that this development should be taken with a healthy dose of salt), it's an interesting twist that adds even more fuel to the fires of speculation over the identity of the "Black Glove."
Thom Young: Yeah, I really hope it isn't true since it would undermine the mythos of the character to find out that Bruce Wayne's mother was a drug addict who was passed around as a sexual toy by a group of wealthy men that included her husband—who supposedly faked his own murder when he had his wife killed so that he could plot the destruction of his son's caped crime fighting career two decades later.
Of course, if Morrison does actually go that route, then it would still make for an interesting story since I'm sure he would execute it well. The reader in me would enjoy it on that level, but the fan in me would react against it.
However, it's interesting to see that Alfred is supposed to have also been part of the group that had their way with a doped-up Martha Wayne. Hmmmm. I'm not 100% convinced about my idea that Alfred has returned to his split personality persona as The Outsider and is now the Black Glove, but I'm leaning that way.
Dave Wallace: Yes, I was also shocked by the idea that Martha Wayne was a drug addicted sex toy and that Thomas Wayne was implicated in her murder. Morrison stops short of making the contents of the dossier explicit, but it's pretty obvious from the dialogue and from Commissioner Gordon's reaction that the photographs show some quite seedy goings-on between the Waynes and Alfred.
I agree that Alfred's presence is probably more suspect than that of Thomas and Martha Wayne. As you say, it would undermine the mythos of the character to modify Batman's backstory in this way.
In addition to this, the Thomas Wayne theory just doesn't hang together that well, as we haven't been given any real motivation for him to attack his son.
Of course, many of the ideas that Morrison is playing with here aren't new to the Bat-mythos. Detective Comics #235, published in 1956, featured a story called "The First Batman," that expanded on the story of Bruce's parents' murder—revealing that there was a more complex conspiracy behind it than first appeared, and that Joe Chill was actually a hired killer working for a third party.
The issue also revealed that Thomas Wayne was "the first Batman," and that he attempted to prevent a crime whilst wearing a rudimentary Bat-costume. That same costume is depicted in Batman #677, in what seems to be a clear nod to that old story.
Thom Young: Yes, that was one of my favorite stories when I was a kid. It was reprinted in 1974 in Batman #255. I've always enjoyed those stories that show that there's more to the legend than we know—as long as the new information adds layers of complexity while not unravelling the mythos.
Dave Wallace: Exactly. That's the tightrope that Morrison has to walk here: to add layers to Batman's story without undermining it completely.
I'm also reminded of the Len Wein series from 1980, The Untold Legend of the Batman. In that book, Wein attempted to reconcile Batman's long history into one single backstory—combining it with a mystery in which Batman is targeted by an unknown enemy who seems to know all of his secrets and is able to stay one step ahead of him.
Eventually, it was revealed that Batman's enemy was none other than a psychologically damaged Bruce Wayne—who is eventually brought to his senses by Robin wearing Thomas Wayne's bat-costume from Detective Comics #235 in an attempt to snap Bruce out of it.
Thom Young: I had that series back then, but I sold it during my deeply regretted sale of my entire collection in the early 1980s. I had forgotten the details of the plot. DC should reprint that story as a trade paperback collection.
Dave Wallace: The idea that the Black Glove could be Bruce Wayne has been a favourite pet theory of mine for a long time. Morrison acknowledges the possibility in the current issue, and he doesn't dismiss it as a possibility (and the same can be said for many other theories, too—including your belief that "The Black Glove" is Alfred).
That said, although it's an idea that has precedence in Wein's series, I'd be surprised to see Morrison reveal a psychotic Bruce Wayne as the solution to his mystery after bringing it up in the current issue.
In fact, Morrison addresses many of the theories behind the identity of the Black Glove this issue, but refuses to refute any of them outright—allowing fans to continue to speculate over who might be co-ordinating such a grand attack on Batman. I can't help but feel that all of the theories that Morrison addresses in this issue are likely to be false, though, because I doubt that he'd explicitly acknowledge the solution to his mystery before revealing it.
Thom Young: Well, he doesn't float the idea in this issue that Alfred's split personality is the Black Glove, which is what I suspect—so I agree with you regarding the possibilities that are floated in this issue. None of them seem likely.
For instance, I'm skeptical about this idea that Bruce Wayne/Batman is actually the Black Glove because it's Jezebel Jet who is trying to put that idea in Bruce's head. The more we see of her, the less I trust her.
Keep in mind that Morrison has said in interviews that "Batman R.I.P." will be intertwining with what he's currently doing in Final Crisis—a series that deals with Jack Kirby's New Gods and that has a great deal of religious and mythological allusions in it (which I mentioned in my review of the first issue in our recent slugfest here: http://www.comicsbulletin.com/reviews/12123391049363.htm)
Doesn't "Jezebel Jet" strike you as a name that a New God on Apokolips might have? Well, perhaps not you, Dave, since you haven't yet read Kirby's classic Fourth World stories.
Nevertheless, the name is reminiscent of the type of names Kirby gave some of the New Gods—such as Glorious Godfrey, whom John Byrne gave a sister named Amazing Grace when he was using the New Gods during his run on Superman in 1987. Amazing Grace had powers similar to her brother's—the ability to manipulate people and influence their minds, which seems to be what Jezebel Jet is doing in this issue.
First there is the scene where she is planting the idea that Bruce might be the Black Glove. Later, there's the scene at the end where she reveals the graffiti that Bruce can't see: "Zur-En-Arrh," which we learn in this issue is not the name of a planet that Batman visited in 1958 in Batman #113.
Rather, "Zur-En-Arrh" appears to be the hypnotic trigger that Dr. Hurt planted in Batman's subconscious during the "space medicine" isolation experiments he conducted in Batman #156 in 1963. Of course, the chronology is backwards in that case—but perhaps Morrison isn't requiring that those 50-year-old stories maintain the chronological order in which they were published.
Finally, there was a New God named Jezebelle (sic), whom Gerry Conway introduced in New Gods #12 in 1977—which was when DC tried to revive Kirby's Fourth World just as he was leaving the company to return to Marvel. Like Jezebel Jet, Conway's Jezebelle had red hair.
However, unlike Morrison's Jezebel, Conway's Jezebelle had blue skin—but that could actually tie into Morrison's use of world mythologies since Jezebel Jet has brown skin. In Hinduism, Krishna is depicted with blue skin in popular paintings but with brown skin in murtis—sacred religious images.
I'm not certain, but it might even be that the idea is that Krishna's physical form has blue skin and his spiritual form has brown skin. Thus, if Jezebel Jet is housing the spirit of a New God, such as blue-skinned Jezebelle, then it would be appropriate for Jezebel Jet to have dark skin.
In Hebrew, the name "Jezebel" means "not exalted." However, if different vowels are inserted into the tetragrammaton of her name (JZBL), then "Jizebul" (or perhaps "Ij-Zebul") means "Where is the prince?"—which is an invocation for the Phoenician storm god Haddad or Haddu, also known as Ba'al who is often recast as the demon Baal.
In other words, I think Jezebel Jet is an evil manipulator who is helping to undermine Bruce Wayne's confidence and sanity—such as when she also tells him in this issue that she's the only one who loves him, and so she's the only one who can tell him that he's living out the fantasy life of a confused and scared boy who saw his parents murdered. She claims Alfred, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake don't love him. Instead, they're scared of him and so won't tell him what he needs to know.
Until this issue, I wasn't sure what to think of Jezebel. However, now I'm certain she's part of the plot to undermine Bruce Wayne's psyche through her abilities to manipulate his subconscious (if she is indeed related to Glorious Godfrey or is the "Jizebul" to Darkseid's Ba'al).
Dave Wallace: That's a great theory. I didn't pick up on any of those allusions, but they all make sense considering what we know of the character—and what we know of Morrison's idiosyncrasies as a writer.
My only religious reference point for the name "Jezebel" is the Judeo-Christian one: "Jezebel" has connotations of a seducer, someone who misleads and undermines the holy, leading them to commit sinful behaviour, and neutering them as a result. In this issue, she appears to be attempting to do exactly that with Batman.
When Bruce welcomes her to the Batcave and shows off his trophies, her reaction is surprisingly negative. As you said, she leads Bruce to question his sanity, implies that his superhero activities are an expensive indulgence and that the money could be better spent elsewhere, and outright rebukes him for his immature outlook on life. Batman is left looking emotionally beaten-down (in a wonderfully lonely image by artist Tony Daniel), suggesting that she may be succeeding in her mission.
I didn't make the links with Kirby's New Gods that you did, so it never entered my mind that she might have superhuman powers of mental manipulation, but I guess it's possible.
Thom Young: It would also explain why Bruce Wayne seemed to fall in love with her so quickly, and why he didn't attempt to cover his identity when she told him she knew he was Batman—which was a plot point that greatly bothered me until this issue. Now, if I'm correct, it all starts making sense.
Dave Wallace: One new possibility occurred to me this issue, too—that a schizophrenic Bruce Wayne could be posing as Dr. Hurt ("No one knows him better than I do"), and co-ordinating the Club of Villains—but I haven't gone back to Morrison's earlier issues to search for evidence to support that theory, and it doesn't seem likely based on what we know about the structure of Black Glove's organisation.
However, it's a possibility—or perhaps Dr. Hurt could be Thomas Wayne? It's still too early to say at this point, but it's a lot of fun to speculate on the identity of the Black Glove now that Morrison has brought the storyline to the forefront of the book.
Thom Young: Nah, I don't believe Dr. Hurt is either Bruce Wayne or Thomas Wayne in disguise. For one thing, we've seen Dr. Hurt and Batman together—during the military (or perhaps NASA) experiments in "Robin Dies at Dawn" in Batman #156 as well as in a flashback in "Batman Dies at Dawn" in Batman #674.
Dave Wallace: That's true, but I'm not convinced that Batman is a reliable narrator—and so I'm not sure that we can trust his account of the experiment. Also, Morrison has already modified elements of "Robin Dies at Dawn" in his re-integration of the story into current continuity, so I equally don't think that we can trust the evidence of the original issue, either.
Thom Young: Possibly, but I think Dr. Hurt is merely a military/NASA physician who is working for The Black Glove. I also don't believe that Thomas Wayne is alive, so I naturally don't think Dr. Hurt could be Thomas Wayne.
Dave Wallace: Yeah, I agree. I don't think Thomas Wayne is really alive either. However, it's fun to speculate on the story of "Batman R.I.P." based on the information that we're given in each new issue, and Morrison is being quite careful to supply us with a few fresh clues each month without ever tipping his hand.
Of course, Morrison has also hinted that previous issues of his run contain clues that will play into the story of "Batman R.I.P."—particularly issues #663 (the prose issue about the Joker) and #666 (the futuristic story that appears to show Damian as the Batman of the future, facing off against a demonic replacement Batman).
Thom Young: Wow, if that's not a perfect lead in to my theory then I don't know what is.
After last issue (which we reviewed here: http://www.comicsbulletin.com/reviews/121115037694371.htm), I was immediately struck by the hunchback, Le Bossu, that Morrison introduced into the story. As I noted in my review, Morrison appears to have borrowed this character from a 19th century French novel by Paul Féval. However, the name "Le Bossu" also made me think of the reference to The Joker as "The Boss" in Batman #663.
As you know, I hated that issue when it first came out because I was convinced it was poorly written. It has terrible prose—which, of course, I hoped was intentional and not an indication that Morrison was a bad prose writer.
However, I couldn't figure out who the narrator was supposed to be. Our colleague, Shawn Hill, suggested it was The Joker, but that didn't quite work since the narrator referred to The Joker as "The Boss" two or three times. Additionally, there's a scene in the Batcave that The Joker wouldn't have been able to include if he was the narrator.
Due to those lines in which the narrator referred to The Joker as "The Boss," I was under the mistaken impression that the narrator was one of The Joker's henchmen. However, that theory didn't work either since the narrator reported on things that none of the Joker's henchmen could have known about—again, such as the exchange between Batman and Alfred in the Batcave.
Anyway, because of my curiosity about whether "Le Bossu" in #676 was somehow related to "The Boss" in #663, I finally re-read the earlier issue that I initially had such a strong negative reaction to. I discovered that there is not any connection between "Le Bossu" and "The Boss"—though I could see Morrison playing with the similarity of the titles as a kind of red herring of the mystery. Instead, while I was re-reading it, I believe I hit upon who the narrator of the issue actually is.
First, let me state that none of the characters are present in every scene, which was one of the problems I had with the issue initially. A first-person narrator shouldn't be able to report on scenes in which he (or she) wasn't present unless he's reporting those scenes as second-hand accounts.
What caught my eye, though, as I re-read the issue is that there is one scene that could only be known by two people—the exchange between Batman and Alfred in the Batcave. That fact, plus one other, has led me to believe that Alfred is the narrator of issue #663.
It was established long ago in the Batman mythos that Alfred is a fan of lurid crime novels—as Morrison had Bruce Wayne relate in Batman #675 after Jezebel asked where Alfred was:
Relaxing in the car, working his way through the most lurid collection of novels anyone can imagine. His library is a shrine to blood splattered prose.However, what Morrison failed to have Bruce mention is that Alfred has also been a writer of crime fiction. Before Julius Schwartz introduced the "New Look Batman" in 1964, there was a series of "Imaginary Stories" set in the future. Collectively, these stories were called "Alfred's Tales of the Future," and they focused on Alfred's speculations about the future exploits of Batman II and Robin II (respectively, Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne, Jr.).
Thus, it seems likely to me that Alfred (or perhaps his dual personality, The Outsider/Black Glove) wrote the narrative for issue #663. It has the type of lurid prose that Alfred is drawn to in the crime fiction he reads. Additionally, the scenes that Alfred could not have known about (such as those at Arkham) he could have constructed from his own speculations after reading Batman's casebook about what transpired (particularly since Alfred has been transferring the casebooks from hardcopies to computer documents during Morrison's run on the title).
I also realized while I was re-reading issue #663 that the narrator is not referring to The Joker as "The Boss" due to The Joker actually being the narrator's boss. Rather, the narrator means, somewhat sarcastically, that The Joker is a crime boss as well as the leader of the henchmen who are also mentioned in the narrative.
Additionally, if the narrator is The Black Glove (Alfred's split personality as The Outsider), then the reference to The Joker as "The Boss" could be included sarcastically by a narrator who views himself as the legitimate Crime Boss of Gotham City.
Dave Wallace: I like that theory. It would also address one of the few inconsistencies that I noticed within the story. In one section, the Joker is said to be thinking of all of the possible things that he could say to Batman. One of them is "Why be an orphaned boy when you can be a superhero?"
As far as I'm aware, the Joker doesn't know that Batman is Bruce Wayne, and so wouldn't be aware that he was an orphan. However, Alfred would be aware of that fact. The Joker never vocalises this thought, so it's entirely a supposition on the part of the narrator—and if Alfred (or The Outsider) is the narrator, this explains how he would be able to have the Joker's inner monologue reflect on Batman's status as an orphan.
Thom Young: Yes, exactly. The narrator has to be either a psychotic Bruce Wayne writing in purple prose or else Alfred imitating the style of the novels he likes to read—and perhaps having returned to his split personality persona of The Outsider.
Obviously, since the narrative is done as a lurid crime novel with horrendous prose, I'm leaning towards Alfred since that is a reflection of his own tastes in novels going back almost 50 years in the Batman mythos.
Dave Wallace: We also know that Alfred is a keen botanist (in a previous issue of Morrison's run, Bruce presents Jezebel with a "Pennyworth Blue" rose, which has been specially cultivated by his butler)—and the story of "The Clown at Midnight" revolves around genetically-engineered flowers that are being used to poison the Joker's ex-henchmen, so perhaps that's another clue that Alfred is involved in the plot.
Thom Young: You're right. I had forgotten that bit. However, it fits perfectly into this notion that Alfred as The Outsider is The Black Glove.
Dave Wallace: Also, let's not forget that, ever since the start of Morrison's run, Alfred has been trying to convince Bruce to spend more time rediscovering his civilian identity, and less time as Batman—which is exactly what Jezebel has been trying to do, too.
Thom Young: Well, I want to emphasize the distinction I'm making between Alfred as faithful butler and Alfred as the nefarious "Outsider/Black Glove." In the original Outsider stories from 40 years ago, Alfred had no memory of being The Outsider once Batman and Robin were able to return him to his faithful butler persona.
Alfred and The Outsider were more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort—with Alfred's Dr. Jekyll having no knowledge of The Outsider's Mr. Hyde. However, The Outsider certainly knew all about Alfred's life and how to get at Batman.
Again, the other point of connection is the several stories that Alfred wrote that were speculations on what the future would hold for Batman and Robin. The first was called "The Second Batman and Robin Team," and it appeared in Batman #131 in 1960—a story in which Bruce Wayne was married to Kathy (Batwoman) Kane, and they had a child named Bruce Wayne, Jr. who was Robin II to Dick Grayson's Batman II.
I'm now convinced that Alfred not only wrote the narrative for issue #663 but also for #666—the future story in which Damian is Batman. I no longer believe that we're supposed to assume that #666 is an indication of an actual future in which Damian will become Batman.
It's more likely that the story is one of Alfred's speculative tales about the future—such as those that he wrote almost 50 years ago in Batman #131, 135, 145, 154, 159, and 163.
It's because of my belief that Alfred is the writer/narrator of both issues (#663 and #666) that I believe that he's also suffering a relapse of his Dissociative Identity Disorder in which his "Outsider" persona has taken up the identity of The Black Glove.
Dave Wallace: It's an interesting theory, and quite a plausible one, I think. I'm not as convinced as you are that issue #666 was meant to have been written by Alfred, but then I'd never heard of his speculative stories until you mentioned them. However, if Morrison does choose to reveal this, I think it'll make a lot of sense.
The final scene of the current issue sees Batman incapacitated by the trigger phrase of "Zur En Arrh" (which, as you said, was the name of the planet that Batman visited in Batman #113). Batman's apparent inability to perceive the phrase did make me wonder about the significance of the phrase in the previous issues of Morrison's run.
It could be that the entire run is a hallucination on Batman's part (with the Zur En Arrh graffiti in the backgrounds of several panels representing the phrase's presence in his subconscious). However, I think this would be a bit of a cop-out. It could instead be the case that the graffiti was planted by the "Black Glove" organisation for some reason. However, I can't yet work out why that might be.
Thom Young: Yes, that's my assumption—that The Black Glove's organization had been spray painting "Zur En Arrh" around Gotham City in places where Batman was likely to have seen it. I suppose it would have been done as a sort of subliminal trigger for his subconscious mind following Dr. Hurt's space medicine isolation experiments.
Dave Wallace: We also see another brief appearance of the purple Golem that was part of his hallucination in "Robin Dies at Dawn"—and that reappeared shortly before his "death" in the recent issue #672.
Morrison seems to be suggesting that Batman's hallucinations are again beginning to become indistinguishable from the real world (just as they were in "Robin Dies at Dawn" and The Untold Legend of the Batman), which makes it difficult to be certain that anything we're seeing is "real."
Despite this, it's an exciting closing scene that makes me eager to read the next issue, and to see whether we get answers to any of the minor mysteries that Morrison has woven into his story.
I'm conscious of the fact that we haven't spoken much about Tony Daniel's contribution to the issue, but in all honesty, I haven't much to say about his artwork that I haven't said before. I think that he's done a good job of maintaining a coherent look and feel for the book, adopting elements of his predecessor's style, but managing to put his own stamp on it, too.
The Batcave scenes this issue feel suitable empty and cold—reinforcing Jezebel's reaction to Bruce's "trophies"—and the final action sequence is well-paced and tense, as the Batcave is stormed by villains (and Alfred is attacked, possibly to distract Bruce from the possibility that he is the Black Glove, after all).
Thom Young: Again, if my theory is correct, I don't think Alfred the faithful butler is conscious of being The Black Glove or The Outsider, so the Club of Villains wouldn't be aware that Alfred is the Dr. Jekyll persona of their leader. Thus, they wouldn't have any qualms about attacking Batman's servant—especially since The Outsider/Black Glove might hate the Alfred persona.
As for Tony Daniel's work—I'm not particularly enthusiastic about it, but neither do I find it to be bad. I was very optimistic when Daniel was first announced as Andy Kubert's replacement on the series. His first cover reminded me of the work of the late, great Gene Day—and I thought Daniel might be the Neal Adams and Marshall Rogers to Morrison's Denny O'Neil and Steve Englehart (respectively).
I no longer have those expectations regarding his work, but Daniel has delivered competent illustrations for the most part—with only a few panels in each issue where he's had some difficulties with perspective and lighting (et cetera).
Dave Wallace: In any event, "Batman R.I.P." is shaping up to be an enjoyable story that capitalises on Morrison's entire Batman run up to this point, weaving a strong central mystery that's supported by several of the secondary plots that were featured in Morrison's previous story arcs.
It's a story that seems tailor-made for the Internet age, with Morrison dropping huge hints and red herrings for readers to dissect at length—and littering his issues with possible clues as to the eventual outcome of his story. I haven't felt like I've engaged with a mystery like this in a long time.
Thom Young: Exactly!