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The Great Morrison Bat Study #8: 666 | Comic Nothings | Nerdy Nothings

The Great Morrison Bat Study #8: 666

Batman 666

My original hope was that my discussion Batman #666, “Batman in Bethlehem,” would provide a nice low-energy break from the lengthy “RIP” write-up. Having revisited this issue for the first time in years, though, it seems my hopes were for naught. Indeed, #666 is a tough little nut to crack. When I first read it in 2007, I basically wrote this issue off as Grant Morrison being weird and playing around with the devil imagery he really seems to favor. But through the magic of hindsight, I believe I might have stumbled upon the most important issue yet in Morrison’s Batman saga.

In #666, you may remember, we flash forward some years to a hellish future. China’s racked with an epidemic that’s killed eight million people, temperatures routinely rise into the 120s, and Damian Wayne has taken over the mantle of Batman. As we catch up to his adventures, he’s hot on the trail of the “Third Man,” Bruce Wayne’s antagonist who we last saw as Dr. Hurt’s getaway pilot in “RIP.” The Third Man now believes himself to be the son of the devil (perhaps figuratively), and has returned to Gotham to finally claim the city for evil, as his birthright foretold. Damian has something to say about that, of course, and plots to lay a smackdown on him in an especially violent fashion.

The Third Man’s dialog is the key to understanding this issue’s place in Morrison’s greater saga. Of particular importance is the segment in which he explains his devilish origin to Damian:

The Batman failed to kill me when he had his chance. If he had, perhaps things might have been… different for all of us. Bust destiny had plans for me. And I prayed and I prayed until he came… the old man, the dragon… he came with wings of black skin like a bat and anointed me his messiah.

Also important: this issue’s presentation of Damian’s origin as Batman. In a two-page spread which details “how he came to be,” we see a panel of Damian, in a modified Robin costume, taking the classic “Khaaan!” pose over the lifeless, bleeding body of Batman. Simultaneously, the narration tells us that he’s “driven by guilt and haunted by his legacy.” Barbara Gordon’s dialog later in this issue heavily implies that the dead Batman is Dick, not Bruce, and we get the sense that Damian is responsible for his end.

The way I see it, there’s three possible ways to read what’s happening here:

1. This is all an alternate future that doesn’t come to pass. I suspect this will be most people’s temptation. After all, now that Bruce Wayne has returned to his Batman role, could things ever get this bad? That, plus the fact that chronologically this issue saw its release between “Three Ghosts of Batman” and “Club of Heroes,” seems to suggest that it’s only a horrific “what if?”, a taste of a terrible future that might be, and a fun play on the fact that it happened to be issue #666.

2. We might also think this is really what happens in Batman’s future, at least partially, and the “dragon” referred to by the Third Man is Hurt. A fair amount of his description fits, particularly the “wings of black skin like a bat,” which could easily refer to Thomas Wayne’s Batman costume, appropriated by Dr. Hurt in “RIP.” We can still save some sanity here. Maybe Damian doesn’t kill Dick on purpose… that doesn’t seem to fit with what we now know… but somehow the Third Man survives until Damian’s time and holds on to the crazy notion that he works for the devil we know.

3. But here’s what I think is really going on. I think we haven’t met “the dragon” yet. At least, I think the dragon’s not Hurt. This dragon, I believe, is the nemesis introduced in Batman: The Return who will plague the Bat-family for the next several years. My support for that is two-fold. First: the evil organization set up as Bruce’s enemy in The Return is named Leviathan. Leviathans are long, serpent-like monsters that could easily stand in for dragons. In fact, according to Wikipedia (not the greatest source, I know), later Jewish literature refers to Leviathan as a dragon. In addition, also thanks to Wikipedia, in Demonology Leviathan is “one of the princes of Hell, and its Gatekeeper.” Besides that, though, let’s look at the mysterious bad guy from The Return.

I don’t know about you, but to me that sure looks like The Third Man. Yes, his outfit’s changed, but there’s no mistaking the bat horns or metallic red eyes. It’s also very telling that this antagonist instantly recognizes Damian, and says to him: “I… I know you… but… that day has yet to come. When it does… you will know me.” This fellow seems to have a significant relationship with Damian, which #666 certainly makes clear, as Damian ultimately ends up his executor (if you buy that he’s the Third Man, that is).

So what I’m saying is… I don’t think we have enough knowledge to really understand #666 yet. I see it more as a bridge to the next phase of Morrison’s writings on Batman than a substantial contribution to the Dr. Hurt story. I’m starting to think that I was foolish to undertake this project now, instead of in two years when Batman, Inc. concludes. I might miss as much by capping Morrison’s story at Batman & Robin #16 as one would have three years ago by critically analyzing his epic after the conclusion of “RIP.” That’s a scary, scary thought.

But, in the interest of science, we soldier on. And #666 does have some interesting things to show us, which I shall now detail for you!

-It’s not for nothing that #666 essentially opens with a two-page creation story, “The Legend of Batman: Who He Is and How He Came to Be,” or that this story is titled “Batman in Bethlehem,” which, as we all know, is noted to be the location of Jesus’ birth. Again Morrison shows a fascination with creation stories.
-This issue gives us our first taste of Professor Pyg (shown murdered and maskless) and his Dollotrons, who come back to plague our heroes in Batman & Robin.
-Barbara Gordon in the role of police commissioner provides an amusing reversal. While typically we see the Gotham PD anti-Batman (or at least divided on the subject), and the commissioner as his only defense, this time it’s Gordon who hates Batman (for “the death of… of a good friend”). Meanwhile, the cops love him (“The whole department thinks he’s on our side.”)
-Damian: “I know the devil exists, or at least something exists which might as well be the devil. I’ve met him.” Again, I think our instinct here would be to assume he’s talking about Hurt, but I don’t think that’s right.
-Damian seems just as skilled a fighter as Bruce Wayne (though he denies this), but he’s far more brutal. He pretty much kills err’body, in fact.
-Damian says he “turned the city itself into a weapon.” Again Gotham City is referred to as a machine (as in: “a machine to make Batman” from “RIP”).
-Again the Third Man brings up this notion (first mentioned in “The Third Man” arc) that if Bruce had killed him, he could’ve stopped everything bad that was about to happen. At the time, I thought that referred to his torture via Hurt and time-travelling mayhem at the hands of Darkseid, but now I’m not so sure.
-Like Hurt with Bruce, the Third Man tempts Damian to “join him in hell.”
-Damian: “What happened to my dad paved the way for a Batman like me.”
-Damian mentions he made a bargain with the dragon, too: his soul for Gotham’s survival.
-According to Damian, the dragon is still around.

I was going to tack on the additional Black Casebook reading from “RIP” that I missed last time, but I think I’ll let that slide again. #666 has given us an awful lot to digest.

Up next: what really happened to Batman between “RIP” and Final Crisis?

More GMBS here:

tags: batman, gmbs, grant morrison

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