I’m sitting at a little coffee shop in Springfield, Missouri, called the Brown Egg with my comics spread out on the table. As the waitress delivers my pancakes, she remarks, “That looks really cool,” as she points to the cover of the third Batman & Robin hardcover.
I reply, “I’m writing an article over it.”
“That’s even more cool,” she says without any sarcasm or irony, and she goes back to her work.
I want to explain more to her – not because I care whether she likes comics or not, but because (much like a detective or an episode of Doctor Who) I feel as if I need to talk it all out with someone who knows little to nothing about comics in order to understand it better myself.
I want to explain to this waitress that this is more than just some mere article. I undertook this project after Rich Johnston brought up Morrison’s use of Game Theory during his Batman run. Johnston challenges, “ Little Bleeders, you have your mission. Looking for games and game references in DC comics, especially Morrison written titles or by close compatriots. Then working out who has won. Then stepping back and seeing the big pictures.” I wanted to take on the challenge, but after reading article after article and watching lecture after lecture over Game Theory, I can only grasp at a few straws.
Of course, during Batman, the chess motif was prevalent as the characters were pawns being moved by the Black Glove. In Batman & Robin, dominoes have been used to symbolize the chain of events that the Joker has set off, and the “Mexican Train” has been used to literally call for Dr. Hurt’s return under the name El Penitente and to also foreshadow Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Bat-god.
In the final storyline, “Batman and Robin Must Die!” Dick Grayson explains all of the domino puns the Joker had been using throughout the run.
Dominoes. Fact 1: Informally known as bones. The box they come in is the Boneyard. Fact 2: Masked detective Oberon Sexton turns up in Gotham allegedly investigating, or maybe I should call it drawing attention to, crimes you committed. Sexton ‘The Gravedigger.’ Coincidence? Sexton, who conveniently arrived in time to poison Mr. Toad and set up Gabriel Santo. A branching trail. It’s that cranky, creepy attention to detail that always gives you away. Throw in the double meaning of ‘domino’ as in Robin’s mask … I know you like to leave clues, but I’m kind of insulted you made it so obvious.
As we all should, really. Even though Grayson has effectively dissected all of the main meanings behind the Domino Killer identity, he neglected to mention the domino masks that the members of the Black Glove wore to conceal their identities, and also the chain of events that followed. But the Joker is kind enough to explain, “If only you could trust me, just this once. I’m too late to stop the chain reaction I started with the first little domino of death. And now it’s all fall down time.”
The games don’t stop there, however. At the beginning of issue 14, the very first panel has Alfred looking to a mantle at Wayne Manor where a large, white knight chess piece stands. This symbolizes the shift in games to a chess match between the Joker and Dr. Hurt. The Joker has manipulated Batman and Robin into taking Dr. Hurt’s chess pieces off the board, and as Grayson has been captured by Dr. Hurt near the end of the issue, Hurt calls out, “You’re next, you hear me? Your knights have fallen and the board is mine! You have nothing left to fight with!”
The Joker cackles as he replies, “Give yourself a big hand, Black Glove! It’s all getting way too serious for me! So who do I know that’s good with serious?” The Joker is referring to Damian Wayne who has spent the entire run of Batman & Robin transforming into the kind of hero that his father would be proud of. Talia envisions that he will one day be like Alexander the Great, and he has almost finished his transformation into a full-fledged hero, but not yet.
“Stop poking me with that gun,” he tells the Joker in issue 15, “I’m not a pawn in your stupid game.”
The wit Morrison puts into the Joker’s dialogue is delightful as he replies, “In the hands of a grandmaster, the prawn can be the most dangerous piece on the plate. No fancy moves, hear?” implying that Damian is a “shrimp” and also solidifying his pawn status by saying “no fancy moves.”
The Clown Prince of Crime says, “Being a pawn is your best option, trust me. I offered Doctor Hurt dominoes, but he wants to play chess. Chess with the Joker,” and then he orders Damian around by saying, “Pawn to tree! Your move!” This sets Damian off on a quest to save Commissioner Gordon, which leads him to getting trapped by Dr. Hurt, which allows him to save Dick Grayson. Even in chess, the Joker seems to play dominoes.
Finally, near the end of issue 16, the Joker confronts Dr. Hurt in the graveyard of Wayne Manor, and once again, Morrison packs meaning into every word the Joker says. Hurt tries reasoning with the Joker by suggesting that they could build a new Black Glove together. The Joker replies, “No games. Mano a mano. Betcha can’t reach the gun before me, gambler.” Of course, “mano a mano” means “hand to hand,” which is a pun on the Black Glove.
Dr. Hurt races toward the gun and slips on a banana peel, which Morrison explains in the afterword that the most common banana pratfall was used with a banana known as the “Big Mike,” which could mean “St. Michael” (the angel who cast Lucifer out of Heaven after the Fall). If Dr. Hurt is really Lucifer (or Barbatos / Darkseid / any demon), then the Joker has caused his second fall, which he also refers to as the “primal joke.” The Joker wraps up their conflict by saying “Batman’s gone, in case you hadn’t figured out what all this is about . . . I thought you’d make a ‘worthy adversary’ but who am I kidding? I go to all this trouble and you haven’t made me laugh once!”
So, ultimately, the Joker’s games with Dr. Hurt stem from an absence of Batman. Without Batman, the Joker has no one to play games with, so he turned to Dr. Hurt. After defeating Hurt by burying him alive in a coffin with the oh-so-significant number six in the shape of a domino on it, the Joker declares that he will become a crime-fighting hero. With no one left to play games with, the Joker has taken the transformative Mexican Train to his new identity as a hero . . . until he is punched out by Batman.
Back to Rich Johnston’s initial challenge about who is playing these games and who has won. Obviously, the Joker and Dr. Hurt were opposed to one another, and the Joker was the winner, but during this game, Damian Wayne completed his transformation from pawn to something else as he single-handedly disarmed a nuclear bomb on, you guessed it, a train speeding through an underground railroad. Bruce Wayne had gone through his own transformation into Bat-god as well, but he wasn’t truly part of this game. The only loser outside of Dr. Hurt is probably Dick Grayson.
While Morrison had done much to transform Damian from a hated character to a hero, and while he had begun his tenure on Batman & Robin by pairing Grayson up against numerous foils, in the end, Grayson is shot in the back of the head by Dr. Hurt. He somehow survives, but the only thing he really manages to accomplish is to show that Bruce Wayne is a better Batman than he is.
But, what do all of these games mean?
My brain has been tumbling this around and around for nearly two years now. Yes, there are games, but they have to mean something. I’ve searched high and low for information on Game Theory that would be applicable here, and the more I read, the more my eyes begin to cross. My brain just isn’t wired for economics and statistics. Hell, I can’t even explain the Prisoner’s Dilemma without stumbling for words.
But, there was one game called the “Angel Problem” that is directly applicable to Batman and the Joker. Essentially, the angel wins by being able to move indefinitely and the devil wins by trapping the angel so that he can’t move anymore. In a role reversal, the Joker is the angel who is constantly on the move and trying to be pinned down by the devil who is Batman. In fact, the Joker’s constant maneuvering has resulted in its own trope in fiction known as “Joker Immunity,” which states that sometimes a character is so popular that no matter what the situation appears to look like, the character will always survive to return another day.
Furthermore, Game Theory supposes that the players in the game are rational – meaning that they will choose the options that yield the greatest outcomes. So, in a sense, it’s ironic (or, given the circumstances, one could say “humorous”) that the Joker is one of the rational characters in question. The Joker isn’t supposed to be rational. He is supposedly an agent of chaos – a character who thrives upon inflicting misery upon others without any rhyme or reason. Damian confronts the Joker in a holding cell about this very idea, “you say you’re a force of chaos and you don’t plan anything, it just happens. But I’ve read your files and everything’s a plan. So what is it this time? Because I don’t think you know what chaos is.”
This is hardly an all-encompassing symbolic statement over Game Theory in Batman, however. So, my mind kept spinning round and round as I pondered what these symbols could mean. It got to the point where I felt like Batman in “R.I.P.” as the Joker called out, “The real joke is your stubborn, bone deep conviction that somehow, somewhere all of this makes sense! That’s what cracks me up every time!” Maybe there was no real method to this madness.
Then, I went back and reread Johnston’s initial post one last time, and something stood out to me. Rich writes, “One of Alan Moore’s recent arguments is that no one is writing or creating comic books, let alone superhero comics, as complex as Watchmen twenty-five years ago . . . But one of Alan Moore’s nemeses, Grant Morrison, is certainly doing something very interesting on a wider canvas. He’s playing games. Seriously,” and suddenly, new layers of meaning were revealed to me.
Dr. Hurt is Alan Moore. Sure, visually they look nothing alike, but consider their actions. During his tenure in the DCU, Moore made a habit of breaking characters and dragging them through the mud. The central plot points around his work revolved around breaking super-heroes and finding their humanity. Hurt’s goal is to break Batman and drag other human souls to Hell.
Meanwhile, the Joker is Grant Morrison – chaotic, mad, and always changing his identity. As I’ve stated before, the Joker isn’t necessarily played as a villain when Morrison handles him. Of course, he had changed into an even more ruthless killer during “The Clown at Midnight,” but it was all part of his mental disorder that helped him cope with an ever-changing world.
For years now, Morrison has been playing games with Moore. In his run on Doom Patrol, Morrison poked fun at Moore’s beard through the use of the Beardhunter. In the Manhattan Guardian issues of Seven Soldiers, the titular hero battles two subway pirates named “All-Beard” and “No-Beard” – perhaps an allegory for Moore and Morrison that certainly follows Morrison’s love of the transformative train motif that he uses in Batman & Robin. Perhaps more significantly, Morrison is using a methodology similar to Moore in order to prove a point.
In a 1988 interview with Vincent Eno and El Csawza in Strange Things Are Happening, Moore cites writer / magician William S. Burroughs as an influence on Watchmen in “the way that the word and the image are used to control, and their possible more subversive effect.” Essentially, Moore and Gibbons established a few symbols that would keep recurring throughout the series for readers to return to and interpret as they will.
Obviously no stranger to magic and William S. Burroughs (who Morrison cited as his influence on Doom Patrol by using cut-up technique), Morrison, with the use of games, is using a similar technique of symbolism for readers to interpret the meanings behind. In an interview with The Mindless Ones, Morrison took the comparison to Moore to the next level by saying in reference to Morrison’s stories, “they’re all my Watchmen. He just did one and I do one a week!”
With Moore, the symbolism was used to tell the ultimate revisionism tale, and with Morrison, it was used to tell the ultimate reconstructionist tale. Moore tears super-heroes apart to see how they work and Morrison celebrates them to show that they do work. Two sides to the same coin, or more significantly, two sides to the domino.
Maybe Morrison didn’t exactly intend to cast Moore as Dr. Hurt, but given that Moore and Morrison have been rivals for years and Moore and Hurt have deconstructed identities of heroes, perhaps Morrison was subconsciously attacking not just Moore, but the entire notion of revisionism. It would certainly go along with his assertions that every Batman story that has ever been written is still in continuity. So, perhaps Dr. Hurt isn’t exactly Alan Moore, but is instead, a representation of all writers who have taken a joy in tearing apart and deconstructing super-heroes.
Of course, I don’t say all of this to my waitress. She was simply intrigued by the cover of the third hardcover with the bloody Joker being pummeled by Robin with a crowbar. How little did she realize that within the pages, a strange and mysterious game was being played between villainous players that went so far beyond the panels of the comic book and spilling out into the real world. How could she know that for some, games are meant to be taken very seriously?
Now, let me get back to my pancakes.