Batman Incorporated #3: “Scorpion Tango” [Annotations]
It's been a long wait, but Batman Incorporated is finally back, and that means so is our ongoing series of annotations. This third issue, by Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette with two pages by Pere Perez, brings Bruce Wayne to Argentina to team up with the Gaucho as well as test everything I learned in high school about Argentinian history, Jorge Luis Borges and the Spanish language. Thank you, International Baccalaureate program and my high school English teacher Max Jones: I could never have done this without you.
So get ready for this 20-page puzzlebox involving Greek mythology, the Falklands conflict, Argentinian poets, the legacy of Bat-Hombre and the proximity to death that accompanies the possession of duende.
IN THIS ISSUE: We kick off with a prologue, where a group of superheroes (including the original Knight) trap an evil genius named Doctor Dedalus, who was apparently a double agent for a group called Spyral, in a lighthouse in the Falklands during the 1982 conflict. In the present day, Batman and Gaucho are tracking down three kidnapped blind kids when they get into a fight saving Argentinian superhero Cimarron from being caught undercover by supercriminal El Papagayo.
After Batman and Gaucho discover the name of his boss, "Oroboro," and Gaucho refuses Bruce's offer to join Batman Incorporated, Bruce engages in a deadly tango with the villainness Scorpiana, who leaves a ring that reinforces the "oroboro" clue. The two heroes jockey for alpha-male status while following the trail of clues to the murder site of a fictional author, where they're trapped inside and placed in a deathtrap created by the long-thought-dead El Sombrero: for the three children to live, one of the two heroes must die!
Page 1: We last saw the Metaleks in Batman and Robin #7, in the basement of the Tower of London. In the hardcover for that story, Morrison describes them as "weaponized, intelligent construction machines from another world on a mission to "xenoform" our planet, starting with London." Dorset's pretty far from London, but at the rate this series is going, I halfway expect Batman to end up in Lyme Regis for a John Fowles homage issue.
The dude with the wide hat and cane is Doctor Dedalus, the figure who's hinted at consistently throughout this issue and our antagonist du jour with a mythological-reference name that'll make a lot of sense soon - as well as a literary-reference side, since this particular spelling is shared with James Joyce fictionsuit Stephen Dedalus from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.
The second panel shows the action occurring at a lighthouse in the Falklands (note: those coordinates don't actually point to that exact location. We'll just say the DCU Earth is bigger.) We see things from the point of view of a disoriented Knight, after some sort of disaster, being approached by what I guess is a group of soldiers called the "Victory Vs," likely a reference to the victory hand symbol where the index and middle fingers are extended in a V. (Surprised Paquette didn't actually have the soldier DOING that action.) It comments that this is occurring "in time of war," which sets it squarely in 1982. I'm choosing just to ignore the implications on the sliding timescale.
The Falklands conflict, it's also worth noting, took place between Great Britain and the country of Argentina -- providing a clear link to the rest of the issue, which takes place in the latter nation in the present-day.
The Knight remarks Dedalus and the "never-ending RING," which could refer to either a ringing in his ears from what I can only assume was an explosion, or the oroborus ring that shows up later in the issue. Certainly the fact that he complains about "hearing the past" lends some credence to the idea that it has to do with some sort of time compression.
Page 2: We get to hear the past, too, as we're introduced to a whole bunch of superheroes Morrison just made up. Left to right: The Knight, the Iron Lady (a clear Margaret Thatcher reference), Fadar, Mr. Albion and Captain Carnation. The WWII planes that Knight remote-controls have been part of Morrison's conception of the character forever, including being mentioned in his character sketch in the back of the third JLA hardcover. He uses them in the inaugural Morrison/McGuinness JLA Classified arc as well.
We find out some more about Dedalus: he's a super-spy who turns out to be a double agent, and apparently the group he was working for was called "Spyral," apparently a brand-new group. I can only assume that the group he defected to was Leviathan/Kultek, or something that will end up related to them. Note the team's job here is to lock Dedalus in a tower, echoing the actual myth of Daedalus in which he was locked away in a tower to protect his knowledge of the Minotaur's Labyrinth.
Additionally, Daedalus's labyrinth was eventually bested by the hero Theseus using a thread given to him by the princess Ariadne, allowing him to try every single passage until reaching the center since the thread would let him return to the beginning, leading to its namesake, a problem-solving algorithm unquestionably used by Batman himself. Ariadne's also sometimes associated with spiders in media, but that's mostly because people mistake her for Arachne, although you can definitely make a comparison between her thread and spider silk, not to mention the labyrinth (many times described as spiral in shape) and Spyral.
Page 3: Alright, I'm just going to go ahead and admit I had to crowdsource some of this British stuff. "BLOOPEETA, CRIKEY AND THATCHA!" are a long-running British children's show Blue Peter, the expression crikey, and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher. The rest of her statement is definitely in keeping with Thatcher's speech patterns during her addresses. I presume Golgonova and the Arch-Druid Zeddlok are tossed-off ideas about sci-fi Celtic priests or something, and Captain Carnation comes from an "alter-England," which Chris Sims pointed out to me in conversation is hugely reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories - a deposit already pretty heavily mined by Morrison's Gideon Stargrave character, much to Moorcock's own dismay:
I've read the work of Grant Morrison twice. Once when I wrote it. Once when he wrote it.
Mr. Albion's "hammer of Weyland Smith" is named after Wayland the Smith from Germanic mythology, although I'm not sure how that relates to the hammer "burning cold," and the Iron Lady's insistence on retreat is "the lady's not for turning," a Thatcherian catchphrase that pretty well sums up a lot of why the Falklands conflict was a disaster.
Now, it's difficult not to point out that Dedalus here looks like, and has the powers of, the Shade - the hat's different, but the all-dark coat and cane are very reminiscent, not to mention the possession of powers over darkness. Additionally, whatever happened that they were able to lock him in the tower, it left Knight with the symbol of an open eye in a spiderweb - much like "I, Spyder," the alias of Thomas Ludlow from Seven Soldiers, scion to the family legacy of traveling around the world and trying to kill the Shade wherever he shows up. Shade was good friends with Dickens, as well, continuing the theme of literary references in this issue.
Pages 4-5: More super-weapon smuggling, likely related to the Leviathan megaplot. Papagayo here originally appeared in Batman #56, "Ride, Bat-Hombre, Ride!"; his name means "parrot." Cimarron is a member of the Super-Malon, Argentina's premiere superhero team, created by Chuck Dixon in Flash Annual #13. The "blue lady" referred to here is Scorpiana, former member of the Club of Villains first mentioned in the "Black Glove" arc and introduced in "R.I.P."
Pages 6-7: Riding a dirtbike on a dude's face is hardcore.
But the duende? The duende does not come at all unless it sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that it will be allowed to serenade death's house and shake the branches of pain we all wear, branches that do not have and will never have, any form of comfort.
Basically, love means nothing without the possibility of pain. The duende is a concept central to many Spanish arts, especially the flamenco, of which the tango is a form - and indeed, a tango with a scorpion (providing closeness to death) could have much duende.
Compare, as well, the outfits Bruce and Gaucho are wearing in this spread. Batman's protected up to the nines; he's on foot in his most technologically advanced suit yet, a military-industrial melange of padding, function and crotchpieces. Gaucho's wearing a wife-beater, a leather jacket, some trousers and a bandanna. On a motorcycle. Where Batman is reserved, Gaucho's almost open, placing himself out as a target with very little protection - close to death, as it were.
Pages 8-10: The exploding scorpions have been Scorpiana's calling card forever, all the way back to when she was first mentioned during the original "Black Glove" arc, when Mayhew was impersonating both her and El Sombrero.
Page 11: If you want to keep secrets, a talking parrot is probably a bad choice in sidekicks - however, considering we later discover this entire encounter was a trap set to lead Batman and Gaucho to a location, this all appears to be part of our antagonist's sinister plan. Notice Gaucho again refusing help and protection, saying no to Bruce's offer to join Batman Incorporated.
Page 12: From the Spanish:
In Buenos Aires, in the spring, the place where you have to be is the private race track in the splendid villas of Don Santiago Vargas.
Provider of miraculous racehorses to princes, sheikhs and potentates, the most eligible bachelor in Buenos Aires plays host to a who's who of beautiful supermillionaires!
Don Santiago Vargas! Extravagant! Irresponsible! Enigmatic!
Thanks to Google Translate and IB Spanish B. Basically, he's Don Diego de la Vega, also known as Zorro, Batman's childhood inspiration. It's really no wonder Bruce admires this guy so much.
"Tristessa Delicias" means "delighful sadness" in Spanish, and given that this is Scorpiana, I'm likely to believe it's a pseudonym - as well as something tying in to the themes of bittersweetness that envelop this issue.
Pages 13-15: This tango sequence basically consists of Bruce attempting to prevent Scorpiana from releasing her venom from the ring and killing him, so you'll notice he spends most of it avoiding contact with her left hand. He also steals the ring at some point, as we see later. I'm still not sure why Don Santiago gets so angry with Bruce's behavior and knowledge: is he frustrated that there's nothing Batman can't do, even tango and philosophize about the duende? Batman and the Gaucho are just too alpha male to work together? Or is this the moment where he realizes that the "Bruce Wayne" he was with was actually Batman? He must have known that before.
Page 16: I'm honestly not even sure why Batman is continuing the farce of being a separate person from Bruce Wayne when hanging out with Gaucho, especially since Gaucho was around for the entire Batman R.I.P. incident where Wayne Manor got boobytrapped. Gaucho's wariness about the Batman Incorporated concept is understandable, especially considering the very apt comparison between Bruce Wayne and John Mayhew - I can't help but think negotations would go easier for Bruce if he just said who he was. Gaucho's reference to five presidents in twelve days is about the December 2001 riots.
Page 17: The snake eating its own tail - Ouroborus in English, "el oroboro" in Spanish - ties in not only with the time compression Knight was experiencing at the very beginning, but also, as we find out on this page, was the name of a book written by the Florida group (of which Jorge Luis Borges was only a collaborator and contributor, not member) under the pseudonym Espartaco Extrano ("Strange Spartacus" - likely a joke about the fact that his name is several men at once). Much like Extrano's life, the Florida group was itself an artifice, the product of a manufactured literary feud between itself and the "Boedo group," which was intended to be the pulp antithesis of the hoity-toity ivory tower work of the Florida group. Borges himself didn't even want to be in the Florida group, and wanted to write "common" literature - which certainly lines up with the pulpish-sounding vibe of Doctor Dedalus.
The Florida group operated in the 1920s, so it seems fair to assume that Oroboro was published in that time period. Gaucho states that it featured the adventures of Doctor Dedalus, who we know from the "mysterious U.N. intelligence operation" mentioned on this page and shown in the prelude is the Shade-like dude locked in that tower in the Falklands. The character of Extrano is in keeping with the interests of Borges especially - many of Borges's short stories were truly twisted metafictional tales, including "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," the story of a fictional encyclopedia that becomes so massively popular that it overtakes the actual culture of Earth. While Borges hadn't actually reached that stage of his career by the 1920s when the Florida group was active, it's not ridiculous that he might have dabbled in these metafictions in that era, especially considering he was supposedly one of many.
It's also worth pointing out that Borges, like the three kidnapped children Gaucho is searching for, was blind. Indeed, if he was responsible for Extrano's fictional murder, then he could indeed be characterized as a "blind assassin." "Casa D'Oro," the site of his 'murder,' means "house of gold," although the fact that ORO is in both that and the word OROBORO is important, as we'll get stated to us in a page or two.
The reference to Chatterton and Rowley refers to Thomas Chatterton, a forger of medieval poetry who claimed to "find" works written by a fictional fifteenth-century poet named Thomas Rowley. I wish I could get a look at the pre-lettered art, since there's clearly an excerpt from the fictional book on the screen in the lower-right panel; only the last line is really visible, and "So it was to begin, but the end came first" certainly fits in with the timelessness of the snake eating its own tail.
First person in the comments to make a joke about Scorpiana being an Aes Sedai gets a dirtbike to the face. Also note Gaucho keeps trying to ditch Bruce, but Bruce just refuses to let it go.
Page 18: The graffiti on the Casa d'Oro, "El Odio Cosmico" - "the cosmic hatred" - is likely a reference to "The Eternaut," apparently a groundbreaking graphic narrative from Argentina. In that book, it takes the form of a cosmic force that possesses people - certainly similar to the "cosmic hatred" of Darkseid in Final Crisis, although I suspect we're totally past that particular plot point.
Pages 19-20: We last saw El Sombrero in Batman #680, when the Joker "killed" him by tying a noose around his neck and dropping him through a skylight, presumably breaking his back and his vocal chords, leading to his current disabled condition and what I can only assume is a mechanical voice judging by the font used. Sombrero explains the (really convoluted) cipher that Oroboro meant: Gold House Gold, I guess with "oro" there twice to emphasize the endless, snake-eating-itself nature of the concept. I'm not sure where Morrison's going with referring to the children as "three blind mice," besides perhaps being cute - I don't see any metaphors here for a farmer's wife, for instance. Sombrero, like Dedalus, apparently has a patron who brought him back to the big time, a patron who's probably the villainous Leviathan. As Sombrero says, the purpose of this deathtrap is to use Batman and Gaucho's need to save the three missing children to force one of them to kill the other. Considering Batman's already recovered from a stopped heart back in Batman #673, I imagine this entire affair should be old hat to him.