Batman: The Black Mirror
Created by: Scott Snyder, Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Published by: DC
ISBN: 140123206X (Amazon)
Genre: Super Heroes
One of the weird things about this site is that I rate genre books alongside, quote-unquote, more serious fare. I try to extend some graces to the contexts in which these books operate, but completely divorcing genres from the general expectations of the medium would perpetrate some pretty wild discrepancies. After all, how far could you trust someone who rated Twilight and Brothers Karamazov as being Great Books because Twilight succeeds at its goal of being a mindless-but-amusing supernatural romance/thriller and Brothers Karamazov succeeds at its goal of being kick-ass, world-class literature that people will be talking about for hundreds of years or more. See? They’re both great because they both succeed within their unique contexts!
Well, maybe not so much. While it may seem unfair to compare the two books, one is entertaining trash and the other is awestriking and thoughtfully composed (at least according to most everyone who’s read it and isn’t thirteen). On a site that reviewed both books side-by-side, we’d expect reviewers to use at least most of the inches on the same yardstick to measure out their respective values. Certainly, a critic might make note of Twilight's purpose and express some evaluation of how well it succeeds on its own terms. But we shouldn’t expect a neck-and-neck race.
The same awkwardness exists here on Good Ok Bad. Because there are standards of good storytelling that sort of just exist over and above genre concerns, I’m not often kind (or perhaps better: generous) to superhero fiction. It’s not that a superhero story can’t succeed and rank among the best of the medium; that would be like saying The Long Goodbye isn’t great American literature. Rather, the problem is that so much of superhero fiction doesn’t actually succeed. There are Good books that find themselves nestled in the genre that has been Marvel and DC’s bread and butter since the ‘60s, but they’re rare and all the more special for it.
And that’s fine. We don’t expect romance novels or westerns or Elizabeth George mysteries to be Remains of the Day or Cloud Atlas. They fill a niche and do so nicely. I read and loved The Hunger Games, even though it wasn’t anything particularly special. Sometimes we just want to turn our brains off and take in an unbelievable story. And that’s why, for the most part, I don’t really review a lot of superhero books. On average, even the better books will only be able to rate an OK rating by the measures I use. And after a while, that just gets sad. So my general rule for this sort of thing is that I won’t review a superhero book unless 1) I really found something special in it (and I really need to do more of this) or 2) the book was recommended to me.
(And this saves my hide too. I mean, think how many enemies I’ve made by saying that Batwoman: Elegy was mostly awful and that All-Star Superman fell flat to me partly because Frank Quitely’s people drive me crazy.)
So then, Batman: The Black Mirror. Book critic Dan Goodman, knowing my reluctance to heartily endorse the superhero genre, gave the book a pretty nice recommendation and said he thought it was one of the best examples of the genre in years (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, but I think I’m doing him justice). He’s proven himself to have great taste in the past and it was on his recommendation that I gave Big Questions a shot against a warehouse of reservations and came out quite pleased. And in some ways, The Black Mirror vindicates his sentiment. It’s not the salvation of the genre and it does stumble awkwardly in places, but simultaneously, it does get some things right and those things are worth the time of the superhero enthusiast.
At this point, I should mention that the caveats from Batwoman apply here as well. I’m familiar with Batman and his mythos but I don’t read his books save for special occasions — books or stories that come highly recommended or hyped. As well, though I’m not a regular reader, I am familiar with some of the changes to the title over the last several years. I believe Identity Crisis was about to begin when I last entered a comic book store on a Wednesday, but since then I’ve been tangentially aware that somewhere along the line Bruce Wayne “died” (comic book scare quotes in full effect) and Dick Grayson took over in his place. Also, apparently Wayne’s son from Son of the Demon (which I did read back when it was released) is Robin now — or maybe was Robin because he doesn’t appear in The Black Mirror. And now Wayne is back but doing something else. I’m also familiar with Batman’s rogues gallery but not what they’re up to currently (though status quo seems to be lock-up in Arkham Asylum, so I guess that’d be a safe guess). So keep that in mind, recognize that this review is coming from an outsider’s perspective, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
Scott Snyder’s story, while taking several less than intriguing detours, has a solid backbone in its central exploration of What Happened to Commissioner Gordon’s Son? Those who have read Frank Miller’s thirty-year-old take on the titular hero in Batman: Year One will possibly recall that Gordon had an infant son who disappeared from comics (and continuity, I guess) until now. James is all grown up and returns to Gotham having recovered mostly from a debilitating sociopathy with the help of some nicely-tailored pharmaceuticals. His cousin Barbara, the former Batgirl, doesn’t trust his transformation, but the elder Gordon is cautiously happy for his son’s redemption.
The Black Mirror is less a story about Batman than it is about the Gordons’ chance at familial reconciliation and about just what Gotham does to its citizens. For a long time (so far as I understand), one of the popular in-comics deconstructions regarding the ridiculous state of Gotham’s criminal environment (cf. Batman has a rogues gallery) is that the influx of zany criminals is really kind of Batman’s fault. Once a man began dressing as a bat and patrolling the Gotham skyline, he became an amusement park attraction for every unhinged loser with a bag of make-up east of Vegas. Snyder attempts to rewrite that line somewhat by making Gotham the ultimate bad guy.
It’s not so much that Batman draws people like the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, and whoever else to himself. Instead, the city itself is this seed of darkness. Gotham is souped up on mania and violence and passions and so it is Gotham that makes Batman and Joker possible. The city twists the souls of those trapped within its grip. It was Gotham that took Dick Grayson’s parents and Bruce Wayne’s parents. And it was Gotham that corrupted young James Gordon and set him on a road of institutionalization. A road from which he’s only now returning.
The tension between Gordon, his son, and Barbara—their hopes vs their expectations vs their histories vs their realities—is what The Black Mirror gets right. It’s not earth-shattering stuff and it’s sometimes a bit over-dramatic, but it really does work for a DC-universe story. And the art in these segments is perfectly well-suited for the story being told. Francesco Francavilla creates a quiet atmosphere in which personal conflicts might work themselves to an end. The colouring here is simple and off-bold: these sections are heavy on dusky oranges and purples, with other hues creeping in to up tensions or instigate a flashback.
The art is a good place to talk about what doesn’t work so well in The Black Mirror's favour. While half the book is illustrated by Francavilla, the other half comes by way of a man named Jock. Even as he provides some of the best covers to a Batman book I’ve ever seen, Jock fails to deliver an enjoyable story in the book’s interior. His art on the book, to me, resembles a Bill Sienkiewicz who doesn’t know where to go. There’s a strange emptiness in the chapters to which Jock contributes—and not an emptiness that works toward the ends the book is trying to accomplish, I don’t think.
Jock and Francavilla alternate arcs in the story, each tackling three chapters at a time until the book’s finale—where they mix it up a bit, trading solos as the book strains for climax. As a kind of shorthand, Jock gets the superhero-y parts and Francavilla gets the human parts. And it doesn’t help Jock that Snyder seems more at home with writing the human than he does the superhuman. While I pursued Francavilla’s sections with interest, I found myself much more easily distracted from Jock’s. They just didn’t have any fire or intrigue. It was Batman, unconvincingly tussling with corny supervillains in abrupt, barely sketched out scenarios and I couldn’t imagine how a reader was supposed to care. It was hard to imagine that these arcs were written by the same man who crafted the almost entirely acceptable Gordon drama.
Here’s an example. Snyder introduces a new villain, Bixby Rhodes, an exotic car dealer who has associates who call him Roadrunner. The reason for this nickname remains unsaid throughout, but it’s possible they were mocking the fact that he says things like, “Meep, meep, sucker,” before running away. Here’s how it goes down—and if you’re averse to having a minor episode in the middle of the book (and the ending of Gattaca) partially spoiled, just skip to the next paragraph. Batman arrives at Rhodes’ exotic car lot and begins sneaking around. Some hoods open fire with semi-automatic weaponry and Batman chastises himself for forgetting that he’s not dealing with mobsters from the ‘40s—who apparently wouldn’t have opened fire on him? Batman surprises himself by ducking down a loading ramp into a below-lot warehouse filled with more exotic cars. Rhodes closes the roof on the warehouse, remarks to a crony that he thinks it’s possible they over-ordered that month (to which his crony agrees), and pushes a button that will crush everything inside. He has a button that anyone can push (it’s just sitting on a post like a light switch) that will crush his entire stock of exotic cars? That’s as silly as Jude Law in Gattaca having a button inside his incinerator that can start his incinerator. Anyway, Batman escapes by shooting electricity from his finger into the ignition of a car without a battery in order to start it. He drives up the ramp, busts through the roof in an explosion, flies through the windshield because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and dispatches the hoods. After defeating everyone else, he confronts Roadrunner—this level’s end boss—and says: “This is the part where you run.” Rhodes says, “All right, Bats. If that’s the way you want it, then all I can say is… Meep, meep, sucker.” (I told you he said that.) Then Rhodes rolls up his pant legs one at a time to reveals that they’re mechanical. I know you’re thinking: mechanical legs, they call him Roadrunner, he probably runs really fast. But Snyder (or Jock) has outsmarted you (and me), because Roadrunner then hops on the roofs of no less than four exotic cars (one of which is a minivan) with his ultra-bouncy machine-legs—all the while narrating for himself: “He’s at the twenty, the ten, and he—.” He gets cut off before the touchdown by being captured by Batman, who jokes with Rhodes and then says he never jokes.
That whole instance was awkward and is indicative of the tenor of all the Jock-drawn portions of the story. In other cases (e.g. Batwoman), these kinds of things were enough for me to rate a book as Bad, but I’m a bit torn here because I really did enjoy the Gordon story. So, in the interest of promoting what’s good in an alright story, I’m going to grant that The Black Mirror was OK. Snyder is by no means the saviour of either Batman or the superhero genre, but maybe if he can reign himself in and show a bit more care with his storytelling, he can produce something I can recommend without hesitation.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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