Batman: The Black Mirror (in contrast to the end of its sister title in Batman: Eye of the Beholder). Black Mirror is a stout, involved collection worthy of its praise.
Perhaps the great point of debate, then, is where exactly Synder excels in Black Mirror. Is it in convincingly depicting Gotham City as a character with its own presence? In creating a story that succeeds in taking Batman and his allies back to their earliest days despite that this Batman is Dick Grayson and not Bruce Wayne? Or is it in presenting a slow-building horror story populated with the kind of twenty-first century villains that act as a signpost for where the Batman titles need to go in DC's New 52 continuity? All of this is the case, to be sure, and more.
[Contains spoilers from this point forward]
Perhaps the greatest delight for me in reading Black Mirror was to discover -- and I was rather surprised to find this hadn't been spoiled for me some time before -- that Snyder out-and-out suggests that Commissioner Gordon knows Batman's identity (at least Batman Dick Grayson's identity) in this story. Wherever one stands in the "Gordon knowing" debate, it's quite appropriate that Synder should "go there" here in the final pages of Detective Comics.
I'm of two minds whether Bruce Wayne deserved a cameo in these pages or not. Gordon's pointed "thank you" to Dick at the end of this book is a strong moment (on par with Barry Allen's "You're welcome, Bruce" at the end of Flashpoint [yeah, I'm still digging it]), something a long time coming and right for Detective's closing pages, though it would seem better spoken to Bruce. Black Mirror is Dick Grayson and Commissioner Gordon's story, however, and Bruce's presence might have overshadowed that; Black Mirror is in part about Gordon coming to see Dick as a man and not a boy, and Bruce's absence (resurrected, though overseas) reinforces Dick's new role, that he and Gordon are "on their own."
In considering the Dick/Gordon relationship, Snyder creates whole cloth here a portion of the Batman mythos effectively erased by 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths and only shown in bits and pieces since -- that is, Dick Grayson's tenure as Robin. We have seen (a couple times) new takes on the death of Dick's parents and his debut as Robin, but what about the rest? Didn't Dick Grayson go to high school? Have friends?
Snyder illuminates a kind of "Gotham High" period, where Dick went to school with Barbara Gordon and thought her brother James, Jr., was kind of weird (we can imagine Dick's Smallville-esque freak-of-the-week adventures). On just the sixth page, after Synder puts the words in the characters' mouths, it seemed so obvious as if it had been there all along -- of course Dick and Barbara went to prom together, and of course a disapproving Commissioner Gordon drove them. And so unfolds a complete history of the Waynes and the Gordons, a kind of Gotham City Capulets and Montagues, bringing to light that missing time between Batman: Year One and when Dick Grayson left the Batcave.
Inasmuch as Black Mirror is rooted in Frank Miller's Year One -- fittingly, bringing the modern Batman era full circle -- Synder seems to take pains not to make Year One required reading here. Though Snyder, with artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla, revisits more than once the bridge where readers last saw baby James, Jr., be knocked over the side and caught by Batman Bruce Wayne, Snyder resists the urge to actually reference the scene, leaving the story accessible to new and experienced readers alike.
In keeping with Snyder's theme of Gotham as a corrupting influence, that Black Mirror comes full circle from Year One is not necessarily a positive. Batman's first victory, saving James, is in fact a tragedy given the monster that James has become. Batman could have no sooner let James die, but the reader intuits that the fall off the bridge, or even some way that Batman caught James, might have caused James's psychopathy. Over the course of the story, Synder implicates all of the characters in the way that James turned out, but Bruce was there at the beginning, perhaps the trigger of it all.
I had heard talk of Snyder using Gotham as a "character" in this book and I was skeptical; I don't cotton much to the idea of Gotham as a supernatural "being," and we've seen a "walls have hypnotic suggestions" kind of plot recently in Batman RIP. Synder offers suggestion after suggestion, however, of the potential evil inherit in Gotham -- from the decades-old secret society devoted to evil artifacts, to how Gotham is built such that the corners of the city are hidden from the sky, to the implication that all the baby food in Gotham might be poisoned, and how Snyder references tragedy after tragedy: the deaths of Dick Grayson's parents, Robin Jason Todd, Gordon's wife Sarah Essen, and Barbara Gordon's crippling by the Joker, among others.
Black Mirror is a horror story, to be sure -- possibly the scariest Batman story I've read, and one whose horror wouldn't have worked if it was the experienced Bruce Wayne in the cowl and not Dick Grayson -- and in example after example, Snyder wears down the reader. I believed in James's theory of the destructive "Gotham moment" by the end; very possibly I "get" Gotham City in a way hundreds of Batman stories didn't make so vivid before now.
We've recently heard news of Snyder's forthcoming "Court of Owls" crossover in the DC New 52 Batman titles; I've not yet seen Snyder's new villains like the Talon, but I hope they're commensurate with those Snyder created here. Short of the Joker, none of Batman's established rogues appear here -- rather we have James (without even a villainous codename), the Dealer, Tiger Shark, and Roadrunner. If these villains are costumed, it's only barely; instead they're auctioneers, businessmen, modern pirates, a kind of outlandish and yet sedate foe that suggests to me a more modern Batman.
Superman is always going to fight giant robots, but for the New 52 to keep attracting new readers, I think this is the direction Snyder and others have to take Batman -- not necessarily fighting fanciful villains like the Riddler, but rather those easier to imagine as a threat just around the corner, like James, Jr. Just as Synder is not leaving the DC Universe, Black Mirror is an end but also a beginning of things to come, if DC so chooses. I hope they do.
At the same time, it's equally surprising to me that neither Jock nor Francavilla are drawing titles in the New 52; Francavilla's rounded edges perfectly evoke David Mazzucchelli's Year One pencils without copying outright, while Jock appears quite at home not only in the book's most gruesome moments but also as Batman swings above the city. I did have a little trouble with Jock's civilian Dick Grayson, who in his polo shirts more resembled Bruce Wayne (further, I thought Synder made a rare mischaracterization of Dick in employing him at a science lab; granted Dick was trained by the Dark Knight, but I don't often recall him depicted as a forensics expert), but these are small hiccups in an otherwise stellar volume.
I'm sure you know by now, but Batman: The Black Mirror is indeed, as you've heard just about everywhere, one of those rare collections you hope for, a satisfying, cohesive story from beginning to end. Collecting eleven issues (some oversized), Black Mirror is an example to me of a collection done almost right, something you buy that takes a while to read and that you can really sink your teeth into. Snyder, to an extent, makes it seem effortless; for a long time to come, no doubt, we'll be saying that books are good, but they're no Black Mirror.
[Contains original covers, sketchbook section, promotional art, sample script. Printed on glossy paper.]
Done "almost" right, you say? Yes. Because as perfect as Black Mirror is, I still fervently wish DC had stripped out the issue credits that appear at random intervals, sometimes at the beginning of a story and sometimes at the end (so, sometimes one right after another). We know who wrote and drew the book -- it says so at the very beginning -- and these incessant credits, like never-ending station identifications, are the worst kind of interruption from outside the story. Black Mirror could read as a graphic novel -- it's so close -- if not for the issue credits. DC, if you're listening, think about it, please. For me?