Well can we?
Like a lot of silver-age detective-themed comics it’s up to us to put together the clues and figure out what exactly happened. Some people would say that most Morrison comics work like this anyway! Nevertheless, this comic is presented as a 'locked room murder mystery' so I thought I'd see if we can crack it without resorting to the annotations websites.
When we read these 'Can you solve it mysteries' in old comics, they are sometimes quite easy, but there are mysteries here that would stump intelligent grown fanboys!
Best not to read this thread if you haven't read the comic yet. I'm not even sure if Morrison is playing fair here and giving us enough info to fill in all the blanks. After 3 readthroughs and some customary Morrisonian head-scratching here's what I've got so far: (You may want to read yourown copy again before jumping into my theories below)
I presume Batman Dick has basically got the solution. He says that the 80 year old dead Professor Carter they found was suicide by time-travel somehow. We see in Batman Damian's story that the corpse is from 20 years in the future. Well and good, but I'm very unsure about the details beyond that.
The key phrase is where the young Prof Carter, looking 15 years younger than we saw him in the first adventure, says to Damian: 'The Joker took my dignity and he took away my future -- I'm only taking them back.' What does he mean by this? All I see in the comic is the Joker whacking Carter around the head with a rubber chicken!
It seems Carter's adventure probably begins in that very last panel of the first section where he is sitting in the ruins of his lab and starting to study or manipulate his 'baffling box' as the Riddler called it earlier. This box seems to be a different contraption to the 'Maybe Machine', which worked by a hypnotic helmet device. The Baffling Box must be a different kind of time-travelling device and can be seen in young Carter’s hand when he shows up in Batman Damien’s time. The hypno-helmet canonly be used to bring back information from the past – the combination of the Cat Sarcophagus for instance, or Alexander the Great’s brim size. It’s counter-intuitive to think that a hypno-helmet would allow you to stop a bullet in the past, but Batman’s life seems to be in genuine danger when he is in Egypt, so perhaps he is physically in the past. Still he wouldn’t be able to bring anything physically back from the past with it. The baffling box seems to allow Carter to carry things from era to era, like the portable laser.
Somehow Carter began his time-travelling as a young man, but as the middle-aged character in the first section he seemed to be shocked that things were starting to play out a certain way. Batman Bruce sees him shaking, and he does seem to be in a state of shock.
The Joker's diary seems to be a wild card in all this. The Joker seems to pick it up between panels in the 60s bit. Notice it is very frayed and tatty. It is from the future. The Joker is reading about things he hasn't done yet. The laughing fish from the 70s and the funfair death parks of Killing Joke. How did it get to the 60s? Did Carter bring it back? Or the Joker himself? From a comment by young Carter later, it seems that middle-aged Carter in the 60's then sets about destroying his life's work and the possibility of time-travel. Perhaps whatever was involved with the Joker getting his hands on his own Diary was too much for Carter.
A final thing I'm fairly sure of is that Batman's conviction that nothing can change the past - otherwise they wouldn't be having the conversation - is shared by the writer. I think Morrison has written this story, as in most of his time-travel stories, with the restriction that it’s impossible to change history. If you go back into the past, then you have always been part of what happened back then. We are seeing this being played out in Batman and Robin and The Return of Bruce Wayne, where clues from Bruce’s journey through the past have always been sitting around, just unnoticed by our heroes until now.
Beyond these things, I need some help.
How does the young Carter get involved, and how did the Joker take away his life and his dignity? These are the big elements of th emystery that I can't figure a solution to.
How are his actions in this comic restoring those?
If Carter did all this as a young man who seems to know all the details, why is it such a shock to him in Batman Bruce’s adventure?
Where is the real Joker when his diary is being sold in Batman Dick’s time (our present continuity.)
How does the diary get from the 60s to the present and from there to Damian’s future world? (Of course at some time we could be seeing the diary just after Joker has finished it, when it is ‘new’.)
My big problem is with the scenes of the 80 year old Carter in Damien’s time. He sems to be dead from a laser, with his shirt open and a hole in his chest from the outset. Then he starts talking and moving around as the scene continues. I hope this isn’t some snaff-up between the script and the art.
One other point about the mystery:
We don’t know if the Joker actually wrote the diary. Batman (or someone) scoffs at the idea of the Joker keeping a diary, but haven’t we just learned from B & R that Joker has been side-lining as a best-selling novelist for years?
I don’t think any elements of the mystery continue beyond Damien’s time (Batman Beyond Damien’s time rather, hee hee!).
There is a lot else to talk about this comic in its relationship to Silver and Bronze Age comics and future iterations of our hero, not to mention its place in Morrison’s current run, but I thought we could have a go at the mystery first.
[This thread is part of the Batman section of our Morrison Reading Project.]