I’ve been a comic book fan for a long, long time. I’ve been reading them since I was a wee nipper (dear lord the corniness has begun), and was introduced to them through various other mediums (mainly the Marvel animated series of the 90’s and the legendary Batman: The Animated Series). I remember when it wasn’t considered “cool” to like comics, but as more and more film adaptations of the comic books I love are released, society and popular culture in general have begun to accept comic books all the more. So I thought I’d present to you a regular review, highlighting some of the best, brightest and worst comic book stories from the past (and potentially the present too).
So where in the great lore of comics do we begin? Well when narrowing my options down, I figured I better tie this first review in with the most recent comic book movie out there and that just so happens to be The Dark Knight Rises. But which story arc do I pick from Batman’s great, colourful past? A good question, and while others may point out origins classics like Batman: Year One or even try to incorporate Bane’s (The Dark Knight Rises central antagonist) finest hour in Knightfall, I’ve chosen to go a more recent path and offer a modern classic in 2011’s The Black Mirror penned by current Batman scribe Scott Snyder.
Batman: The Black Mirror
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist(s): Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Originally Published: Detective Comics #871-881 (Volume One)
This story is not necessarily one every single person will enjoy. If you like comics because you enjoy reading about superheroes fighting insurmountable odds or because you like the bright, delightful world of camp, costumed heroes; you are probably not going to want to read this. Like many classic Batman tales, The Black Mirror (TBM for short) is a dark twisted story which deals not with overpowered costumed heroes and villains pummelling one-another, but with everyone’s deepest, darkest and most hidden desires. It’s a very hard-hitting, potentially very real story. It’s also set in a very complicated period in Batman’s history as while Bruce Wayne isn’t dead or incapacitated, he is not Batman. No, Dick Grayson, who was the first Robin and for years (and right now too) was Nightwing, a separate vigilante in his own right, is the Batman. In fact Wayne is only mentioned as he is off trying to establish Batman Incorporated, but that’s another story for another time.
Back to this story, it’s a macabre, twisted, monstrous tale which is not for the light-hearted. With that out of the way, this story’s main focus is spilt in three and each strand interlocks with the others. The three primary focuses are:
– Dick Grayson dealing with the power the Batman identity give him
– How criminals in Gotham are changing, and not for the better
– And the return of Commissioner Gordon’s long-forgotten son; James.
Each carries a key element in the story and each is a, wait for it, black mirror of Batman or other crime fighters within Gotham.
Dealing with the first element, Dick Grayson has always been a strong, brave, noble character, perhaps even more so than Batman. He himself removed himself from the role of Robin because he believed Batman’s methods were striding too far away from the core ideal of making the world a better place. He went and moved, becoming Nightwing, a vigilante with similarities to Batman, yet many differences. He created his own name and legacy. Now, he is Batman and that reputation he built as Nightwing is gone, instead, in its place is the fear and fame of Batman. Not only that, but he has assumed Bruce Wayne’s life, living in Wayne Manor and being waited on hand & foot by the ever-faithful Alfred. Grayson is used to living on his own, in much smaller accommodation. The grandiose of the manor is a lot for him to take in.
The Batman name also draws a lot of hatred to it and that ties in with the second key element; a new breed of criminal walks the streets of Gotham. They are neither straight mobsters like the Falcone’s and Maroni’s of old, but they most certainly aren’t psychotic, theatrical freaks like the Joker or Two-Face. These are a hybrid, each with their own unique twist and gimmick, but also sticking to the mobster past, wearing suits and smoking fat cigars. Take for example the primary villain of middle part of the arc; Tiger Shark. He looks slick and well dressed. He operates a simple, yet effective intimidation campaign against banks, and yet he has a forked tongue, wears a red bandana over the top half of his face (no eye-holes) and has a secret underwater base where he keeps killer whales as pets. Dude has style for sure.
Our final focus is on the Gordon family and more exactly James Gordon Jr. Commisioner Gordon’s son had been seen only once prior in the definitive Batman origin that was Batman: Year One. No one really knew what happened to that baby that Barbara had over the course of that story. That was until now. Supposedly distanced from the Gordon’s due to a lack of emotional capacity and an eerie sense about him, James is a withdrawn, if not highly disturbing character. Simply based on the wonderful art of Jock and Francesco Francavilla, you can tell that James Sr. isn’t overly fond of his offspring and finds him to be a tad…creepy. James’ dialogue and manner is so withdrawn and secretive that you can’t help but believe he is some sort of insane nutjob. Fully grown by the events of TBM, James is seen as a soul seeking redemption, or at least that’s how he wishes to be seen. I shall not spoil the events of this twisted tale of gothic style and flare, but suffice to say there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this character.
TBM is really the final tale for Batman before everything at DC went and got rebooted in the grand marketing scheme that was the New 52. The New 52 was a plan to reboot all the DC titles (or end some of them) in favour of starting with 52 brand new titles, fresh from #1. Most of the titles had creative team shuffles and Scott Snyder currently writes the flagship title: Batman. It’s no surprise either as this is a story which manages to build a disturbed and madcap sub-plot whilst juggling various questions about morality (my personal favourite moment being when Dick Grayson, as Batman, confronts Sonia Zucco, daughter of the mobster who shot and murdered Dick’s parents). It deals with harsh realities in relationships and still maintains a super-hero/detective story duality that the Batman titles require to work to their fullest extent.
This is only accentuated with the rotating artistic team of Jock and Francesco Francavilla. Francavilla’s warm Latin style works wonderfully especially in the snowy scenes where James Gordon is trudging through the muck in the Skeleton Cases sub-story. It creates a great contrast to Jock’s more refined, European art style which is sharp with it’s edges but still a little messy. The colour palate is comprised mainly of sterile greys and blues working excellently within the Hungry City portion of this arc. The combination of the styles meshes excellently in the final issue as the entire story comes to a visceral conclusion fitting of its set-up.
Overall TBM is a wonderful story and an excellent companion piece to Year One should any of you folks read that story. It also is a welcome introduction for many new readers as it presents an example of Scott Snyder’s style as he weaves a new string of stories in the lead Batman title at the moment. It’s a marvelous title and well worth the investment. I highly recommend it and give it a very solid thumbs up.