Friday, January 6, 2012

Review: Batman - The Black Mirror HC

Back in September, DC relaunched their entire superhero line and flooded the market with 52 all new #1 issues. Origins were updated, characters became younger, costumes were tweaked. You name it, it changed. As with any big announcement in the comic book industry, DC's relaunch was met with equal parts excitement and frustration.

I was really excited about the relaunch, and four months in that hasn't changed. I thought it was a bold move on DC's part, a company not known for its willingness to change and stray from tradition. Although there was tons to be excited about, there was one drawback to the announcement. New books were coming out, but that meant a lot of really great titles were getting cancelled. In the four months between the relaunch announcement and the first wave of new issues that debuted in September, dozens of books were forced to wrap up their ongoing storylines in a short amount of time.

In the final months, I thought the overall quality of DC's releases started to dip considerably. In some cases, A-list talent dropped off to start working on their new projects and were replaced by mid-level writers and artists. You felt the rush to the finish line on every page and a lot of the books in my weekly stack weren't worth finishing. There was, however, one book that seemed immune to this problem. It actually got better with each new issue and it made me wish that the relaunch wasn't going to happen because I didn't want the story to end. The book was Detective Comics.

Every few years a story comes along that makes you step back and think, "This is going to be a run for the ages." When it does, it's really something to behold. All it takes are a few issues for you to realize that something special, something character defining, is happening. It's rare in this day and age for a writer and artist to stick with one book for any prolonged period of time. Whether it's an artist being replaced to prevent delays, or a writer being lured away by a more lucrative project, creators usually aren't paired up long enough to put together a story as complex and well-paced as The Black Mirror.  Clocking in at eleven issues of well-executed comic book storytelling, The Black Mirror is one of those legendary runs.

(Before I continue with this review it's important to mention that Dick Grayson is wearing the cape and cowl for the entire book. If you are not familiar with the death/return of Bruce Wayne, fear not! You are given everything you need to know in a well-written summary at the beginning of the book. After that you can jump right in for one hell of a ride. We now return to your regularly schedule review.) 

Written by Scott Snyder, with art by Jock and Francesco Francavilla, The Black Mirror is more a psychological thriller than it is a straight-up superhero romp. Snyder's run contains what appear to be three unrelated storylines, but as the book unfolds the threads start to come together in a very unexpected way. The first finds Batman tracking down an underground auction house catering to the super rich. Instead of fine diamonds and mink coats, the merchandise of choice is weapons and paraphernalia that once belonged to Gotham's premier villains. The second centers around Sonia Zucco, daughter of Tony Zucco, the man responsible for the death of Dick Grayson's parents. In an effort to distance herself from her father, Sonia has taken the last name Branch and is a legitimate businesswoman running one of Gotham's largest banks. She has been approached by a number of Gotham's undesirables who want to use her bank to launder their money. She refuses and quickly finds herself in harm's way. These first two stories are compelling enough to have made a hardcover worth adding to your collection, but it's the third one that elevates The Black Mirror to the top of my all-time favorite Batman stories.

While Batman is off doing what he does best, Commissioner Gordon is faced with a dilemma of his own. His son James has returned home after having been separated from his family for several years. Sounds harmless, right? In any normal circumstance it would be, but here's the rub: James Gordon, Jr. is a clinically diagnosed psychopath. Through a series of beautifully rendered flashbacks by Francavilla, we learn that James has never been quite right. Even as a little boy something always seemed odd about him. He was quiet, cold, and emotionless. As he got older, James and his "eccentric" behavior began to instill great fear in even his closest family members. None more so than Barbara Gordon. Her fear only intensified after her childhood friend went missing during a family vacation when Barbara and James were very young. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance cast James as the number one suspect, even though he was just a small child. With James back in town, father and daughter band together to determine whether or not James truly is the monster they've feared for so long.

Scott Snyder is, in my mind, the single best writer in comics at this point. Every book he touches is somehow better than the last. And he's no one-trick-pony. Snyder excels in a diverse set of genres. You want vampires? Check out American Vampire. You want an engaging detective story, pick up his current run on Batman. You prefer horror? Say hello to Severed and Swamp Thing. The man delivers every time he releases an issue. The Black Mirror is elegantly paced and you can tell that Snyder put a lot of thought in to the plotting of this arc. But Snyder didn't just write a great story, he introduced a new villain. And not just any villain. He has given us someone who could very well be Dick Grayson's Joker. I'm not implying that James Jr. is somehow a rip-off of the Joker, I simply mean he is equally methodical and dangerous. A monster that our hero feels responsible for. If used properly, and sparingly, James Jr. could be one of the greatest villains in Batman's already stellar rogues gallery.

The elegance and power of Snyder's writing is equally matched by the art of Jock and Francesco Francavilla. Jock focuses primarily on the Batman-heavy issues, giving us a Gotham that is as moody as it gets and a Batman that is the poster child for frightening. Jock draws Batman's cape like no one else in the game. It moves like a sentient being. His layouts are dynamic and the action sequences are cinematic in their scope. Every page he drew made me kick myself for not reading The Losers (Book One). And then I kicked myself again for actually watching the movie.

It's difficult to complain about a switch in artist when the replacement is Francesco Francavilla. I've admired his work for years, obsessing over his pinups and cover work. If you want to learn something about storytelling through sequential art you should take a look at this book. His ability to convey thought and emotion through the expression on his character's faces is so superb that you don't even need words to follow the story. And there are a couple of double-page spreads he put together that I'm still drooling over. They are epic! I mean, just look at this page....

When it comes to the greatest Batman stories ever told, The Black Mirror deserves mention along with Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The hardcover itself is gorgeous, and, for you art lovers out there, it is filled with a nice batch of supplemental materials, such as sketches and preliminary page layouts from both Jock and Francavilla. So if you love Batman, step away from Arkham City for a few minutes (I know, that's easier said than done) and indulge yourself in The Black Mirror.


djbow2 said...

I absolutely loved this story. I hope it doesn't get overshadowed by the relaunch. It deserves recognition. You can't go wrong with Scott Snyder. I'm hoping for an absolute edition!!

Christopher John (@Christopher2814) said...

Jock + Francavilla + Absolute Edition = Here's my money!!

According to DC, the relaunch hasn't wiped out prior stories, but the timeline has been shrunk considerably. At this point we're supposed to believe every Batman story we know took place in like 5 years. I'm just happy to know that Snyder's run still "happened," and I'm hoping to see James Jr pop up again soon.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that this series is getting more recognition. It's a compelling and well-crafted read, head and shoulders above the more publicized Morrison material.

Christopher John (@Christopher2814) said...

@dailypop Have you been reading Snyder's current run on Batman that started with the "reboot." It's as good, if not better, than The Black Mirror.

Anonymous said...

You think so? I may still be misty from his Detective run. It feels like he's still getting warmed up on Batman.

Christopher John (@Christopher2814) said...

For me, the current run is actually better. Bruce has always believed that Gotham is HIS city. That no one understands it better than he does. In some ways that has been his biggest strength. By introducing the Court of Owls, Snyder is turning that upside down. It's almost impossible for Bruce to believe that this organization has been operating in Gotham for hundreds of years, pulling the strings, without him knowing it. To top it off, the Court of Owls has even crossed paths with the Wayne family.

I think Snyder is, much like with TEC, putting together something really special here. And we're learning so many new things about Gotham as well.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, I have high hopes. But this will be the first Batman crossover in the New 52-verse. A lot is riding on it.

BTW, have you noticed that the Black Mirror HC is almost out of print? It's price is soaring!

Christopher John (@Christopher2814) said...

I did notice that. I'm glad I got my hands on it when I did.

I'm actually surprised it was released so quickly. DC's trade program is usually a joke. TPs aren't released until MONTHS after the arc wraps up. When pressed on the issue, Dan DiDio basically said "Look, we want to encourage people to by the issues." I think they are undervaluing the importance of a good trade program.

Anonymous said...

"I think they are undervaluing the importance of a good trade program."- yes.

There's so much great material uncollected that DC is missing out on profiting from. Also, the readers are missing out as well. I mean, where's a single trade of the Aquaman run by Pat Gleason? NOT ONE! Madness.

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