Deconstructing Batman & Robin:

A Game of Villainy, Part 6

While R.I.P. could be argued to be a game of chess between Batman and Dr. Hurt, the game of dominoes is at the forefront of Batman & Robin. Oberon Sexton and El Penitente aren’t mentioned in this arc, but their conflict is mirrored by the war between the Pearly King and King Coal. The white and black imagery of the dominoes is built into the names of the Pearly (white) King and King (black as) Coal, and their conflict of two criminal empires at war with each other with Batman caught in the middle is a hint as to the underlying conflict of the Joker and Dr. Hurt.

After rescuing Eddie English, the Pearly Prince from King Coal’s runaway train of death, Batman visits the Pearly King in prison. The Pearly King won’t give a straight answer as to the location of a mystical pit nor of what it actually contains, but he does continue to play a game of dominoes called the “Mexican Train” (a clue as to the whereabouts of El Penitente, Dr. Hurt). Batman summarizes the conflict between the Pearls and the Coals with “Eddie says there was a game of cards played using real people. Coal gambled and lost.” Somehow, the two families were gambling with lives and now the Pearls are in control of the Pit. Though there isn’t any direct comparison between the Joker and Dr. Hurt here, it does mirror the chess game played during R.I.P.

The scene mirrors many where Batman visits the Joker in Arkham for answers. Both the Pearly King and the Clown Prince of Crime have given themselves names of royalty.  So, given that the Pearly King speaks in riddles and helps Batman take down King Coal, we can further understand that while the Joker is still certainly interested in his own gains, he is willing to help Batman out in the war against their common enemy. Of course, last time he wasn’t so keen on the idea as he told Batman, “you might be thinking this is the part where you join forces with your old enemy to turn the tables on these upstart newcomers but you shot me” but with Dick Grayson as Batman instead of the Joker’s true foil, perhaps the Joker feels as if Batman is at a disadvantage.

If the Pearly King represents the Joker, then it stands to reason that King Coal is Dr. Hurt, and not surprisingly, his dialogue reflects the satanic imagery of Dr. Hurt. In issue 8 as he straps a bomb to the Pearly Prince and claims that “NewCastle’ll be capital city of wor New Jerusalem of crime soon enough, like” an idea that Mannheim had for Gotham during 52 but then King Coal explains to the Prince, “DIvvent yr knaa there’s a hole in everything, smooth Eddie.” Both Hurt and Darkseid refer to themselves as the “hole in things.”  Later in the issue, Coal boasts, “the beast is loose, the new age of crime has come and the broon’s on me!” a claim that echoes the ideas of Dr. Hurt.

As Dick Grayson explores the Pit, he realizes that during his conversation with the Pearly King, the King had made a map of the underground using the dominoes in front of him. The map looks like a reverse swastika which is a symbol of life (as Wonder Woman explains in Morrison’s JLA #8 some 13 YEARS before this story . . . an impressive call back to say the least) and it turns out this map leads our heroes to a Lazarus Pit for them to revive Bruce Wayne.

Of course, it’s not really Bruce Wayne at all, but a clone of Darkseid’s, but even this clone acts as a narrative foil of sorts. In R.I.P., Bruce Wayne had created the Batman of Zur-en-Arrh to protect his mind from being destroyed. In this story, a clone of Bruce Wayne already has his mind destroyed and he is on a rampage. Even his first dialogue of “Heer U. RRR” looks remarkably similar to “Zur-en-Arrh.”

One final minor mirror comes at the end of the story when Knight and Squire locate King Coal to bring him to justice. Throughout the series, Dick and Damian finish their opponents with a simultaneous punch or kick away from the panel, but Knight and Squire simultaneously punch Coal toward the reader and claim that he will be thrown into prison across from the Pearly King – like two dominoes.

As I’ve said before, the “Blackest Knight” story isn’t the best in Morrison’s run, but structurally, it is an interesting piece. The story doesn’t have much impact as a whole, but the narrative mirrors enhance the themes Morrison has established in the series so far and their narrative mirrors are so complete, that the conflict between the white and black kings leads to the return of a grotesque and twisted Batman, but the real conflict between the Joker and Dr. Hurt will lead to the return of the real Batman.

Batman vs. Robin

Oberon Sexton and Dick Grayson examine the evidence of the Domino Killer and it seems that Grayson probably knows that Sexton is the Joker as he comments that “the so-called ‘evidence’ against the Waynes was a joke.” While the victims of the Domino Killer may seem to be unconnected, a quick return to the pages of R.I.P. shows that they are all members of the Black Glove. The Russian General, oil sheikh, media guy, and cardinal are all shown at the funeral of Batman near the end of the arc. Also, since they wear domino masks, it’s pretty clear as to why the Joker chose this latest nom-de-crime.

But in terms of the game itself, the Joker’s domino effect as about to run its course. He pushed the first domino down by setting up Mr. Toad which lead to Batman discovering Professor Pyg which led to the creation of the Red Hood and Scarlet which led to Grayson questioning his mission and attempting to bring back Bruce Wayne which failed and has led him to the mystery of Wayne Manor in this story. The Joker has stopped El Penitente’s drug trade in Gotham City and killed the members of the Black Glove – all of which has happened behind the scenes of the main narrative – and now, Dr. Hurt will strike back.

Prior to the scene with Grayson and Sexton, Damian takes control of a Wayne Enterprises board meeting and reveals “I discovered a fund for victims of railroad accidents established the name of Thomas Wayne.” The scene is a little odd and seems out of place, but it’s important for a number of reasons.

First, in terms of plot, it establishes that some of Wayne’s money is being filtered out for Dr. Hurt’s use.

In terms of symbols, the specific use of a fund for railroad victims calls the reader to be mindful of the Mexican Train that has been brought up throughout Batman & Robin.

More importantly, Morrison uses trains as transformative experiences in his fiction. Trains are important in the Invisibles, during the Manhattan Guardian storyline of Seven Soldiers, and most recently in his Action Comics run, Superman’s first real challenge from Lex Luthor is to save a runaway train which completes his transformation as a hero to Metropolis. By bringing this imagery into the story, Morrison is setting readers up for Bruce Wayne’s return and transformation into Bat-god.

Back at Wayne Manor, Dick becomes obsessed with clues that seem to be hidden within the home. Damian notices a picture is missing and Alfred spoils the true identity of Dr. Hurt (a.k.a. El Penitente, the Black Glove, Mangrove Pierce, the Devil, Lucifer, the Hole in Things, or Bruce’s father) when he says, “That gap is the only acknowledgment of the existence of Thomas Wayne, the black sheep of the family. Back in the 1760s, Thomas led a rather distinguished sect of devil worshippers apparently. They summoned an ancient Bat-demon of the Miagani tribe and all kinds of terrible and bloody bargains were struck, or so the story goes.” All of this foreshadows the revelations that will come in the final story arc and in Return of Bruce Wayne.

Oberon Sexton receives a phone call from El Penitente at the Gotham Grand Hotel. “I reached out to you ‘Mr. Sexton’ and you rejected my offer. Do you know what you’ve done? The Mexican train is on its way.” At this point, Morrison is trying to throw some mystery as to who Oberon Sexton is, but it’s too little too late for those who have been paying attention. Hurt offered to recruit both the Joker and Bruce Wayne, but all of the signs clearly point to the Joker. The final image in the issue is of Oberon Sexton side by side with Robin in a graveyard (or as the term goes in “Mexican Train” dominoes, the “Boneyard”).

Issue 11 begins with Dr. Hurt being blessed by a priest as his drug mansion is being raided by DEA agents. He has carved a “W” into his back to “remind me who I am.” He calls it the “mark of the shadow” and the “dark twin” and demands that a priest bless him so that he may commit further sins. It’s a curious development because if Dr. Hurt really were the Devil, then he wouldn’t want absolution from his sins. Then again, it could be that he was manipulating the priest into committing blasphemy just before the mortal’s death.

Damian and Oberon Sexton fight some of the fiends in the graveyard while Dick Grayson finds a tunnel used by the underground railroad and built by the Wayne family line. Again, the use of trains is being used to foreshadow the transformative experience that Bruce Wayne is going through. Damian proves to be no detective as he inquires if Oberon Sexton is actually Bruce Wayne. Sexton responds by showing the signature of the domino killer and claiming that the killer is after Bruce Wayne.

Near the end of issue 12, one of the four fiends who battled Damian and Sexton asks, “And the Batman?” to which another replies, “It’s already too late for him. This train started rolling a long, long time ago.” Dr. Hurt is shown on an elevated train which connects the idea of the transformative experience as he feels redeemed and ready to take Gotham for his own. Curiously, he doesn’t mention Batman at all in his discussion with Senator Vine, but only hints at the Joker when he says, “Coming at us out of the East. But he has a knack for engaging foes he cannot defeat.”

In all of his talk of taking back Gotham, Dr. Hurt never mentions Batman because he is no longer a threat and in a way, it’s a little insulting. As much as Morrison had built up Dick Grayson’s mythology by pitting him against foils along the way, he undoes all of this by having Dr. Hurt never worry about him once. Hurt is completely focused on the Joker as his nemesis to the point where Batman isn’t even on his mind.

The arc concludes with the “revelation” that the Joker is indeed Oberon Sexton, but the clues had been there the whole time. Oberon is the name of the Fairy King in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as Tim Callahan once pointed out, Oberon is also known as the “Fey-king” which sounds like “faking” – which is a pretty clever pun. A sexton is one who digs graves hence the nick-name of “Gravedigger” but also ties nicely into the dominoes which are also known as “bones.” Still, despite the fact that all of the clues were right there in front of us the entire time, many readers (myself included) were guessing right up until that last page. It’s only upon rereading that one can see the clearly telegraphed message of the Joker, but that’s why this series is so brilliant.

As the series had gone on, however, the subtle game between the Joker and Dr. Hurt had deteriorated and become a much more straightforward contest. While the Joker started by playing dominoes with his nemesis, the game had evolved into another game of chess with the Devil.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cody Walker graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelors and a Masters of Science in Education. He is the author of the pop culture website PopgunChaos.com and the co-creator of the crime comic NoirCityComicBook.com . He currently teaches English in Springfield, Missouri.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow. Thank you for making me wholly reappraise Blackest Knight. That story had always seemed a bit of a filler but you just imbued it with so much meaning.

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