In the footnotes for the first volume of Batman & Robin, Grant Morrison discusses the strange coincidence of the third issue’s cover resembling an image of the Joker that Brian Bolland had done years previous. Morrison writes that the cover was not an intentional image, but he does note that the series, “was intended to feel ‘haunted’ by the Joker from the very beginning. Although he does not appear in person in this volume, you will find numerous deliberate and carefully inserted traces of the Clown Prince of Crime’s sinister presence throughout the series, some in the form of scenes that hint at or recall famous Joker moments of the past.” Up until R.I.P., Dr. Hurt fulfilled a similar role to the Joker’s in Batman & Robin; both characters seem to exist in the background, between the panels, and secretly plotting something that our heroes can’t quite comprehend.
The first issue is titled “Domino Effect,” and just as Dr. Hurt set off a chain reaction that lead to R.I.P. by having a Batman imposter shoot the Joker in the head, the Joker will set off a chain reaction by setting up Mr. Toad and his men with a bad drug deal. As Batman and Robin chase Mr. Toad, one of Toad’s henchmen shouts, “You said this would be easy! A simple exchange, you said!” After Toad is captured and Batman and Robin punch him out, Toad’s suitcase explodes open and dominoes fly everywhere. Dick Grayson wonders, “What kind of a drug dealer gets paid in dominoes?” but the dominoes are actually a clue from the Joker. As it turns out, Mr. Toad was part of the Circus of Strange, which works for Professor Pyg, who works for Dr. Hurt. The dominoes are the Joker telegraphing that he had set Mr. Toad up as part of his game against Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove.
Professor Pyg, upset that Toad failed him, comes to the home of Niko (one of Toad’s men) and tortures Niko by transforming him into one of his dollotrons. This scene is meant to show Pyg as a frightening villain, but it also establishes Sasha’s own transformation into Scarlet in the next arc with the Red Hood. So, the dominoes keep falling down as Toad’s capture has greater consequences.
In the next issue, the Circus of Strange attacks GCPD Headquarters, and our heroes have to stop them from freeing Mr. Toad. During the battle, Mr. Toad is somehow murdered and left with a domino in his hand. While it’s unclear how Mr. Toad was murdered, the police officer who declares “The Toad. He croaked.” almost HAS to be the Joker in disguise. The pun is a perfect joke, and even though this is the first actual victim of the Domino Killer, it should be obvious that it’s the Joker.
While Professor Pyg is a bizarre and wonderful villain on his own, he seems to be somewhat inspired by the Joker. Pyg’s lair is a similar circus to the one the Joker operated from during Batman: The Killing Joke (during what “The Clown at Midnight” issue seemed to dub the “ringmaster-from-Hell phase”). The point seems further enhanced by Commissioner Gordon when he says, “I hate it here. They should have let the whole damn place burn to the ground.”
Pyg’s plan is to infect the city with an addictive, “identity-destroying” drug in the form of a virus that will be spread by his dollotrons. Many of the Joker’s own plans revolve around Joker gas or other forms of drugs to infect people. Also, since the drug is identity-destroying, the character is part of the theme of identity exemplified by Batman and the Joker and their ability to alter their own identities to survive. Pyg’s plan (which is also Dr. Hurt’s plan) is a direct result of the conclusion of R.I.P., as Dr. Hurt tries to combat the superpersonas of his enemies.
In the end, Batman finds the antidote to the virus next to the next domino in the sequence. So, even though the Joker is the Domino Killer, he is slightly mislabeled because he is also aiding Batman in protecting Gotham City. After all, the Joker was the one who set up Mr. Toad, which allowed him to get captured, which lured out the Circus of Crime, which led Batman and Robin to Professor Pyg, which allowed for Gotham City to be saved from losing its identity. Domino effect.
The Joker connection is far more apparent and blatant in the next arc with Jason Todd as the Red Hood. Making a reference (once again) to Batman: The Killing Joke, the Red Hood was the Joker’s identity prior to his transformation. Furthermore, during Batman: A Death in the Family, the Joker was responsible for killing Jason Todd. So, Todd can be considered a pawn of the Joker because his identity is completely defined by the Clown Prince of Crime, and considering that Jason Todd is the perfect foil for Dick Grayson, the comparison to the Joker is complete.
Issue #4 introduces a British author by the name of Oberon Sexton who informs Dick Grayson, “It seems we have a mutual interest in crime.” The black clothing, white gloves, and red glasses are dead giveaways to the Joker’s identity, but the nickname of “the Gravedigger” connects Sexton to the dominoes, which are also called “bones.”
As Batman and Robin are staking out a meeting between Gotham crime bosses, a mobster by the name of Gabriel Santo mentions his boss, “El Penitente.” The name is a reference to a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood in parts of the Southwest (of Native American and Hispanic origin), who celebrates the Passion with rites involving fasting and self-flagellation, but Gabriel Santo is also a name worth noting. His name literally means “St. Gabriel,” and biblically, Gabriel is the angel who is God’s messenger, but in this case, he is acting as the devil’s messenger.
Santo goes on to say that El Penitente believes, “The new model of crime is grass roots, viral.” If we consider the words “Zur-en-arrh” to be magic sigils that act as a virus implanted in Bruce Wayne’s mind, then this latest plan of viral narcotics follows right along with Hurt’s previous plans. He has seen the power of the virus on Bruce Wayne and how it was able to break the greatest man in the world, and now he will use the same tactics on the general population.
Batman and Robin battle the Red Hood and Scarlet amidst the crime bosses. Damian taunts Jason Todd by saying, “I heard you had your brains beaten out by the Joker, but I had no idea you were this big of an idiot.” Afterward, Dick finds Santo still living and holding a domino. Apparently, the Joker had an agent inside El Penitente’s organization who was feeding him information.
Oberon Sexton reappears in issue #5 as part of a Gotham City talk show, where he discusses Batman and Robin “shielding criminals from two killers, let’s not forget. The Red Hood is a name used by more than one notorious Gotham criminal in the past. Is this any different?” With this, Sexton is reminding us that the Joker was the Red Hood originally, but he is also setting up that there is a real Oberon Sexton and the Joker has stolen that identity now.
The Red Hood and Scarlet are about to murder Santo in an act of irony by pouring bleach in his IV drip (a move that is more appropriate to the Joker), when Batman and Robin save the day and are promptly captured. El Penitente’s assassin, the Flamingo, comes to Gotham to kill the Red Hood. Flamingo is a silent, insane killer who can be compared to the Joker through his ruthless methods (he eats a man’s face) and his flamboyant sense of style.
Jason apparently kills Flamingo in the end, and even though he regrets the path his life had gone down, he still remarks, “tonight I did something even Batman couldn’t do. I beat my arch-enemy.” His words reflect that the Joker still lives even after all he had done, while Jason Todd has apparently murdered Flamingo and saved the city.
At the end of the arc, Oberon Sexton receives a phone call from El Penitente. Penitente is shown with a “W” scar on his back and the end of a whip over his shoulder to symbolize the self-flagellation of his name. He says, “your little secret is no secret to me. … no … say nothing and listen very carefully. I have unfinished business in Gotham City, and scores to settle. Here’s what you’re going to do.” Again, Dr. Hurt feels as if he can order the Joker around. He somehow believes that the Joker is under his employ.
And the domino effect goes on. Pyg created Scarlet, who joined the Red Hood’s crusade against crime, and the two struck out against the El Penitente Crime Syndicate. All of this because of the Joker’s deal with Mr. Toad, but there would be much more to come.