Review: Batman: The Black Mirror hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

With issue #881, DC Comics's own stalwart "gray lady," Detective Comics, closes its doors after almost seventy-five years. By all accounts, writer Scott Snyder ends Detective on a high note with 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?
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14 comments:

  1. Good review, as usual.

    I will say that I wasn't as annoyed with the credits as you were. I remember the design being appealing (I wish I wasn't at work and the book were in front of me to see your case better).

    I suppose we'll have to suspend our "Dick the Forensic Detective" beliefs by calling to mind his time as a police officer in Bludhaven - either way, I loved this. Between Black Mirror and Batman and Robin, it's looking hopeful that Dick's time with the cowl will be more than a flash in the pan.

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  2. Thanks for the comment. For just one credits example, see the end of the "Hungry City" story, butting right up against a "Skeleton Key" credit page (not sure what that's supposed to introduce, because "Skeleton Key" gets credits *again* at the end of that next chapter, too!). Also credits at the end of the book, just before "The End."

    If the book had many writers and artists, a Countdown to Final Crisis kind of thing (the only place you'll hear Countdown and Black Mirror mentioned in the same sentence), it would be one matter. But there's just one writer and two artists for the entire frikkin' book! Silliness, silliness ... it's like the book keeps elbowing the reader to say, "Hey, did I tell you who wrote this yet ...?"

    Agreed on your last point ... dare I say Dick was a better Batman than he was a Nightwing ... ?

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  3. I got this one. Can't wait to read it!

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  4. Snyder's take on Batman offers a great alternative for people who can't get into Morrison's stuff. It's traditional in the sense that his Batman doesn't travel to the end of space and time or fight creatures from another dimension, and yet it doesn't feel like a rehash of his predecessors' work. I can't think of a better writer to take over as the Bat-books' new "showrunner" now that Morrison has only one year of Batman stories left to tell.

    My only issue with The Black Mirror is that, by establishing that James Gordon, Jr. is at least 18 years old, it ages Batman too much, and that will be hard to conciliate with the rejuvenation all DC characters went through after Flashpoint.

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  5. Speaking of Morrison and Batman, Inc., I too had thought Morrison said there was only a year left of that series, but today DC has announced it as an ongoing. Are they playing loose with the facts, or do you think Morrison decided to keep Batman Inc. going?

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  6. Well, since DC kept Batman & Robin going after Morrison left the book, I wouldn't put it past them to do the same with Batman Incorporated, but I'm pretty sure Morrison's run will be done after 12 issues.

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  7. I have not read Batman Inc., granted, but I have grave reservations about Batman Inc. without Grant Morrison. Granted, I would have said the same for Batman & Robin, and it seems that turned out just fine.

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  8. I received this for Christmas, and, dare I say, this is my favorite Batman book I own. The development of the characters was phenomenal, especially with the suggestion of Gotham City creating a new "joker" for it's new Batman in the form of James jr. I love that Gotham City is being portrayed as a corrupting and hungry city, and the reveal of the entirety of James jr.'s plan sent chills down my spine. Excellent book ,and an excellent review, collected editions. I was looking forward to this review ever since I read the book. Well done.
    Oh, and on the credits; they honestly didn't bother me, and some, like the first credit for "Skeleton Cases", actually seemed to fit in the scene pretty well.

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  9. Your point about James as Batman Dick Grayson's "Joker" is a good one. Will Synder ever pit Bruce Wayne against James, I wonder, and would that be as effective?

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  10. What should I read as background for this?

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  11. Amazingly enough, not much. You could read Batman: Year One (probably should), which will add some nuances to the story. I guess you could go back and read some about how Dick Grayson became Batman, but it's not *really* necessary -- probably Year One would do it.

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  12. In response to your musing about James Jr. against Bruce, I don't know if it would work as well. Dick is resourceful, but he's not the detective that Bruce is, so Bruce would more than likely outclass James jr. by figuring out his plan and neutralizing it pretty quick. That's my take, anyway.

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  13. I think James Jr. might make a compelling villain for Bruce, though. Just as the Joker reinvents himself based on how Batman acts, I wouldn't be surprised if James Jr. reinvents himself too. In the New 52 Batman #1, James Jr. sits reading calmly in Arkham while Batman fights all the other rogues. Could he be reading up on his new foe? After all, Joker was able to recognize fairly early that Dick wasn't "his" Batman...

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  14. I'm just hoping Dick returns as Batman at some point. Amazing story.

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