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Scott Snyder’s Run on Detective Comics – Batman: The Black Mirror (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

These past few years have been a great time to be a Batman fan. On top of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, you’ve also had the Arkham Asylum video games, Grant Morrison’s genre-busting run on Batman & Robin and now Scott Snyder joining the franchise. Indeed, even the lesser on-going series (like Tony Daniel’s Batman or Paul Dini’s Streets of Gotham) are still relatively entertaining, if significantly flawed. However, when good creators have gotten their hands on the Batman mythos in the past five years or so, incredible things have happened. And Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics run, The Black Mirror, is one of those incredible things.

Jump in…

It’s interesting how quickly and clearly Snyder connects his story to the wider Bat-mythos, while clearly identifying it as its own entity. For better or worse (and, in my own opinion, mostly for better), Grant Morrison has been steering the Batman comic books for quite some time. Writing across an assortment of titles, Morrison’s high concepts have shaped and defined the franchise, with his ideas and plot developments spilling over into other books. Most obvious, for example, is the “death” of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis and the decision by Dick Grayson to wear the cowl. Everybody working with Batman during that period, from Paul Dini to Peter Tomasi to Paul Cornell, has been writing Dick Grayson as Batman. They’ve been playing into his story ideas.

The best writers have found their own way to develop the idea of Batman without Bruce Wayne. Scott Snyder, however, sets the standard in dealing with Morrison’s new status quo. Instead of simply adopting the facts as a starting point, Snyder manges to tie into Morrison’s themes and ideas, and develop them in his own way. The book suggests that Gotham is “the black mirror” to whoever happens to be trying to police it, but I’d also argue that Snyder’s book is itself a mirror to Morrison’s core ideas about who and what Batman is. The only difference is that Morrison focuses on the idea of Batman itself, while Snyder explores the fragile relationship that exists between Batman and the fictional world he inhabits.

Sink or swim…

I should specify, however, that Snyder’s run stands perfectly well alone. Indeed, it’s one of the most accessible runs in mainstream comics. All you need to know is that Dick Grayson used to be Robin and is now Batman. That’s really it. Everything else is explained or hinted at through the text. While Snyder shrewdly contextualises his story with references to bits of old continuity (to stories as diverse as A Death in the Family or The Killing Joke or Gotham Central), he doesn’t exclude readers. Everything you need to know is in this book, and it can be picked up and read cover-to-cover, providing a satisfying experience. Which, to be entirely honest, arguably gives it “one up” on Morrison’s equally energetic, enthusiastic and clever run.

You can read the book with an intimate knowledge of the Batman mythos, or you can approach it as a new reader. All the information is there for a new reader, but an older fan of the character will appreciate the little connective tissue that Snyder unobtrusively includes in his story. It’s stuff that’s nice to pick up on, but which isn’t necessary to understand the story. Even if you don’t know about the crowbar that beat Jason Todd to death, for example, you can still read about the auction house selling illegal crime memorabilia.

Making a bid for Batman…

Like Morrison, Snyder zones in on one core idea. It’s an idea that is incredibly fundamental, but seems easily forgotten by writers and editors. It’s the idea that Bruce Wayne is an essential and fundamental part of who Batman is – that the character must be more than the product of vengeance or anger or hatred. I feel the need to clarify here that I really enjoyed Dick Grayson as Batman, and that giving the identity to the character was one of the most exciting and energising ideas in recent comic book history. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more “fun” set of comics than Morrison’s Batman & Robin. However, both Morrison and Snyder seem to agree on one thing: Dick Grayson is not Batman. At least, not the Batman.

As I noted, I loved reading Dick Grayson as Batman. I think the use of the character allowed the writers to comment on how dark and depressing Gotham had become, and Morrison used the ascension of Dick to the mantle as a means to inject colour and fun back into Batman comics. However, while Grayson was the only choice to “fill in” as Batman, he was not the original or the “real” Batman. Alfred had to convince Dick to “play” Batman as a role, like Bond or Hamlet. Bruce doesn’t play Batman; he is Batman. Dick does a great job filling in, but it’s Bruce who intervenes and stops Hurt at the end of Batman & Robin, despite being absent for most of the run.

Joke’s on you…

I mention this, because Snyder seems to agree. The writer plays into Morrison’s core ideas about Dick and Batman, but approaches them from another angle. While Morrison used Dick to inject a bit of fun back into the mythos, Snyder seems to hint that Dick isn’t built to handle trauma in the same way that Bruce could. As James Gordon Jr. confesses his plans to murder his sister and father, he goads Dick by pondering if the former Robin would hold on to the title after such a devastating loss. “And my guess is, without them, you’ll give up,” he remarks. “Batman wouldn’t. He’d soldier on. No matter who died, even you. But you can’t, Dick.”

I think that’s a fair point to make, and one that distinguishes Dick from Bruce. Bruce lost Jason Todd to the Joker. He saw Barbara Gordon crippled on his watch. He lost Stephanie Brown to the Black Mask. Even if a lot of those were eventually reversed, that’s a lot of guilt for one character to carry, and I’m not sure that Dick could do it while remaining Dick. Of course, perhaps Morrison is suggesting that such darkness simply isn’t necessary, and that’s why Dick is ready for the job – because comics aren’t as nihilistic and excessively brutal as they were a few years back – but Snyder seems to suggest that Dick is fundamentally too nice for the job.

Not joking…

It could be a clever commentary on the decision to push Dick back to the role of Nightwing, while allowing Bruce to once again become “the one and only” Batman. After all, Snyder is now writing the main Batman title starring Bruce. Perhaps he knew that – due to the nature of comics – such a change was going to come eventually, and simply decided to help it fit. Indeed, The Black Mirror as a whole seems to make a pretty convincing case for why Dick could never really become Batman without losing quite a bit of what makes him special.

The temporary nature of Dick’s time in the role seems to be alluded to by the fact that the Joker here hasn’t given up crime like he did in Batman & Robin, wearing the colours of mourning and taking up the cause of crime-fighting in grotesque tribute. He has instead decided to go into a type of hibernation until “his Bat” returns to Gotham. The Joker knows that Bruce isn’t gone for good, and simply plans to bide his time until Bruce is the main Batman again. “I came down here to rest,” he explain, “to sleep and dream, and then to be born again, wet and new, when my Bat returns!” It’s a nice allusion to Morrison’s The Clown at Midnight, as the Joker waits to be “born again” for a new era.

A whale of a time…

What’s fascinating about The Black Mirror is the way that it manages to compliment Morrison’s run so well, while retaining its own identity. Much like Morrison, Snyder opts to pit Dick Grayson against new bad guys, instead of just having the former Robin take on the classic and iconic Bat villains. Even when the Joker turns up, it’s only as a distraction, a frail and rambling old fool who is easily dismissed by Dick. There’s the same idea of inheritance at play here – while Morrison had Damian take on the role of Robin and Talia Al Ghul assume the mantle of her father, Snyder presents the daughter of Tony Zucco (the man who killed Dick Grayson’s parents) and a secret auction house that sells on old super villain gimmicks to new owners.

However, while Morrison was primarily concerned with “the idea of Batman” (used to fight “the idea of crime”), Snyder takes a different approach. Instead of focusing on the cape and the cowl itself, Snyder looks at the world around Batman, and suggests that it is linked strongly to the Dark Knight in any incarnation. Of course, any fictional character is defined by their surroundings to an extent, but I think it’s especially true of Batman. The character is the product of urban crime, his parents killed in a mugging gone wrong. Superman might have landed somewhere else and received the same sort of life, and Green Lantern got a magic ring from the skies, but Bruce Wayne is linked to Gotham in a much tighter sort of way.

Fingering the bad guy…

And, as Snyder alludes to, Gotham has changed countless times to reflect its vigilant superhero. The gothic trappings of Tim Burton’s Batman were reflected in a fascist art-deco design. Nolan’s realistic Batman demanded a Gotham that could really exist. When Batman went through a breakdown in the late nineties, Gotham itself as destroyed and reconstructed with a character who seemed to be approaching the edge of his sanity. Meanwhile, Adam West’s Gotham was a place so cosmopolitan that a man in tights could walk around without drawing a stray glance. Even more than Metropolis, Gotham’s architecture seems to shift with the concept of Batman, and the real beauty of Snyder’s Detective Comics run is catching the city in the middle of a seismic shift.

“Because the city,” Harvey Bullock observes, “it keeps changing every day. Every hour, throwing curveballs at you.” Dick even reflects that Bruce’s decision to move at street-level, rather than flying over Gotham, is rooted in a mistrust of the city’s grand design and its seeming impermanence. “Because even back then he understood that Gotham is a place you can never get above,” Dick explains, “a place you can never see clearly. Every time you try to get some purchase, the city changes beneath you, surprising you in new, terrible ways.”

A dangling sense of doubt…

Snyder’s Black Mirror is not about “the Arkham crowd.” It’s not about supervillains and guys in silly costumes with silly gimmicks. Sure, they turn up, with Tiger Shark and the Broker, but they feel almost incidental. Indeed, like Morrison’s Thomas Wayne, Dick reveals that the Broker is nothing like the masterful supervillain that he might claim to be. “You’re not some high priest of evil,” Dick responses. “You’re just a geriatric… broken-down crook… hopped up on Venom and some outdated version of Doc Langstrom’s Man-Bat Juice.” It’s interesting that both those substances placed a role in the early arcs of Morrison’s original Batman run, just as a side note. (And, interestignly, Snyder’s later Batman run would be a thematic counterpoint to Morrison’s original Batman run.) But I digress.

Much like Batman, these villains are in Gotham and of Gotham, but stand apart from it. They play a more significant role in the grand scheme of things, but Gotham itself is about the “ordinary” people who provide the soul of the city, the souls Batman must fight to protect. The Joker isn’t some tainted digit of that weakened soul, but an external force who shapes it and sculpts it. As Gordon notes, he is “Gotham’s darkest and most brilliant architect.”

Poking around…

Similarly, Batman is an external actor, literally in this case. Unlike Bruce, Dick was not born in Gotham, he lived on the move. Batman isn’t really a Gothamite. He concedes he doesn’t have “roots” there. And yet he influences it, and inspires it. He perhaps serves as a beacon of light attracting wave of madness, prompting an auto-immune response from the city itself. If – as the Joker alleges – Gotham means “a safe place for goats”, then perhaps his argument might make some sort of sense. Perhaps the character is correct, stating, “the Bat makes the Goat sick.”It’s always been interesting to wonder if Batman was a signal flare in Gotham, drawing insanity down upon it.

Gotham is, despite its exception inhabitants, a city with a population of people. “Ordinary” people. It’s these people who make up the invisible heart of the city, these masses of anonymous individuals, the people we never look at twice. Like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it’s these people that Batman must fight for and save – perhaps even from themselves. It’s these people who are broken and tainted and corrupted, beneath their seemingly normal and average exteriors – “the soul of Gotham.

Going for broker…

“See, that’s the thing about normal and average,” the Joker explains. “It seems harmless, but it’s not… it’s not at alll!!!!” Dick faces down a giant monster bat at the climax of the first arc, but he’s most unnerved by the large number of people who show up at grisly murder sites to bid on grotesque memorabilia. “I tell myself they’re just excited by the taboo,” he tries to rationalise, “by the breaking of the rules… tell myself that it’s like little kids daring each other to be bad. But that’s not true… because these people aren’t pretending. They’re not in it for a cheap thrill. No…”

Similarly, during the second arc, Dick isn’t shocked by the guy with cybernetic legs. Nor is he shocked by the pirate with an exotic collection of pets. Instead, he’s caught off-guard by a bank-manager who changed her name so she could live a life without note or status brought on by her famous father. It’s the banality of evil, reflected in Gotham, the city itself showing its true colours. Much as it does with Commissioner James Gordon’s son, the perfectly average-looking psychopath.

He’s finally gone bats…

James is scary to his step-sister Barbara precisely because he’s normal, because he’s not one of the freaks we associate with Batman. “That’s what always scared me about you,” she explains. “Because I knew when you came for me there wouldn’t be any grandstanding. There wouldn’t be any speeches of crazy traps with vats of acid. You’d just appear in my bedroom one night and your hands would be at my throat.”

That’s what terrifying about real evil, but is disguised in plain sight. That’s what Gotham throws at Dick, as opposed to Bruce. Of course, perhaps that says something about Dick as measured against his predecessor. “Gotham made me to challenge you,” James suggests to Dick, and he’s right. And yet if the Joker is a counterpart to Bruce, with his theatricality and flamboyance, how does James reflect Dick? Perhaps that Dick is more “normal”, more capable of “passing” as an ordinary and normal human being?

Gordon is certainly driven…

That said, I like the characterisation we see of Dick here. There are nice touches, especially in Dick’s interactions with Gordon. There’s a lovely scene where Gordon is disconcerted by the fact that Dick doesn’t disappear into the night as smoothly and as quickly as Bruce does, actually taken the time to say goodbye before he vanishes. That along with the anecdotes about Dick’s earlier life help give the book a sense of character, and it’s nice to see that it isn’t lost amid the high concepts.

Still, the real star of the show is Jim Gordon. I’ve always argued that Gordon was the most fascinating character in the Batman stories, if only because he’s the one sane man who makes the decision to trust the compulsive vigilante who has a thing for dressing up as a giant Bat. He’s a character who frequently ends up a pawn in larger games, but I think that gives him a unique perspective. He doesn’t have a secret identity or improbable martial arts skills. He survives in a city like Gotham through real determination.

A lighter knight?

In the end, it’s Gordon who serves as Gotham’s soul, caught in the middle of a war waged by allegorical heroes and villains who fly above or prowl below the streets. Gordon is a mere man in a game between primal forces, one who doesn’t hide behind a mask, but worries about his family and his job and his co-workers. What stops Snyder’s Black Mirror sinking so completely nd absolutely into the pit of despair is the fact that Jim manages to hold on (literally, when it comes to his son).

Over the course of the series, first through a series of beautiful back-ups and then as part of the main book, we see Snyder basically unhook the tether at that tied Gordon to Batman at the end of Year One all those years ago. Itself a cynical and dark comic, Frank Miller ended his tale on an optimistic note, with Bruce saving the life of Gordon’s young son, and Gordon passively condoning the vigilante by pretending not to see the billionaire’s face.

Consulting the Oracle…

Snyder references that beautiful bit of nuance here, making it clear here that Gordon is aware that Dick is Batman, even if he can’t acknowledge it as such. When he thanks Dick at the end, Dick fobs it off, but Gordon insists. “No,” he tells the young Batman. “I mean thank you. On all fronts.”  I’ve always liked that hint of complexity to Gordon, and I’m glad that Snyder made it relatively unambiguous.

Anyway, Snyder’s run is fascinating because he removes that tether that ties Gordon to Batman, disconnecting the happy ending that may have pulled Gordon back from the edge of the abyss in Year One. Bruce no longer saved James Jr., because James Jr. was beyond saving. Hell, Snyder even hints the fall might have caused his psychosis, while leaving the origin ambiguous – a point I like to see as a reference to the multiple origins that Joker suggested in The Killing Joke. After all, Snyder proposes James Jr. as Dick’s version of the Joker. “Now whether I was born this way,” James remarks, “or the fall caused it, or something else… it doesn’t matter.” It makes a nice contrast between Dick and James Jr. – Dick was the child Bruce could save, while James was the child who couldn’t be saved.

Mapping it out…

So Snyder rephrases the question from the end of Year One, asking if Gordon would still stand up for Batman if his son hadn’t been saved. Would Gordon have been able to soldier on without that one ray of light? Though the story is fairly dark and sinister, there’s a hint of optimism there, as Snyder suggests that Gordon is strong enough to endure. That his character is so strong that he doesn’t need a crutch to allow him to do the right thing. It seems like Gotham has taken everything from Jim Gordon – even the one thing the Batman gave back – but Jim still keeps going.

And  – despite how dark and cynical it might seem – that is, for me, a happy ending. It’s one that suggests the soul of Gotham is more resilient than we might fear and that the Joker and James are not correct in their grim outlook which suggests that we are all merely heartless animals being held back by the comforts of social norms.

It’s a madhouse!

The moment that Batman lands a critical blow against the Joker in The Dark Knight is the moment that Bruce realises the Joker’s nihilism is a desperate attempt to prove that he isn’t mad or a freak or alone in his warped way of thinking – that the Joker is driven by a desire to prove he’s not the only one who is that broken. “What were you trying to prove?” Batman goads his opponent. “That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?! You’re alone!” The thought throws the Joker into a frenzy, a brutal blow to the villain’s smug philosophical outlook.

There’s a similar moment towards the end of The Black Mirror, as Dick confronts James Jr., who holds a similar moral outlook to Nolan’s Joker, this time coming from Barbara. Talking about an attack on a bus driver, Barbara explains, “Point is, you weren’t out for revenge or to teach her a lesson. You were out to hurt her for the sake of hurting her. Because you enjoyed it. You always have. That’s you, James. You want people to pick on you. You want them to give you an excuse to do what you’re dying to do already… torture them.”Hell, James Jr.’s plan to poison Gotham’s baby food suggests that he doesn’t want to be alone in his grim outlook, as much as he might try to hide it.

A dark night for the dark knight…

Snyder is ably assisted on the book by Jock and Francesco Francavilla doing the artwork. Both put together some impressive and wonderful work here, with Jock’s Joker seeming particularly terrifying and menacing. However, it’s Francavilla’s more classical style that really works, evoking the feel of classic comics like Year One and giving us an atmosphere that reminds me of Michael Lark’s work on Gotham Central. While both do fabulous work, I’ll confess that I’m heartbroken that Francavilla isn’t following Snyder on to his next Batman book.

Speaking of which, Scott Snyder made such a solid impression with this relatively short run that he was tapped to write Batman for the DCnU relaunch last September. The first trade of his run on the flagship title is out, and it’s good – even if I’ll wait until the next volume to review a chunk of the author’s run on the book. If Batman Incorporated is the end of Grant Morrison’s long-term “Bat epic”, I wouldn’t mind Snyder taking over as the driving writer behind the Batman line. That’s a lot of faith to put in a writer after less than a year on a book, but I think Snyder is that good and that deserving. Hopefully his run lasts a nice long time.

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