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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Batman: The Black Mirror

I'll be honest. Batman's city, Gotham City, can be a very scary place. This is the city which has been proclaimed the murder capital of the world in the DC Universe. I mean, just look at it! It's got spooky architecture, a corrupt or otherwise incompetent police force, ineffective prisons, and don't get me started on the mental health system. This is hard to believe when faced with the reality that even the U.S.'s most murder-rampant city in the real world, Detroit, has nothing on some hole in Honduras or Nicaragua. No U.S. city does. Then again, I guess there's a reason Gotham is traditionally located in New Jersey... nah, I won't go there. I just started reading Batman: War Games, which is a deadly crisis up there with Batman: Knightfall and Batman: No Man's Land. We're talking 200 people dead! But despite Gotham City's inexplicably, ludicrously high crime rate, for an American city, people for some reason still live there.

Grant Morrison,  in spite of my overall dislike for his writing style, summed it up best: "If Gotham was so bloody awful, no one normal would live there and there'd be no one to protect from criminals. If Gotham really was an open sewer of crime and corruption, every story set there would serve to demonstrate the complete and utter failure of Batman's mission, which isn't really the message we want to send, is it? You've got Batman and all his allies as well as Commissioner Gordon and the city still exudes a vile miasma of darkness and death? I can't buy that. It's simply not realistic and flies in the face of in-story logic (and you know I like my comics realistic!) so my artists and I have taken a different tack and we want to show the cool, vibrant side of Gotham, the energy and excitement that would draw people to live and visit there."

Scott Snyder did not get this message.

Scott Snyder is an admittedly talented writer, but the one thing he gets wrong here is his depiction of Gotham City as this utter pit of doom and gloom. The police are corrupt, the heroes are ineffective, the villains are never gone for long, yada yada yada. It all boils down to Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder being two very different authors, with Scott Snyder winning out because his works don't make me go, "Mr. Author, just what were you smoking when you wrote this?" Seriously, just read (or rather, don't read) Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. And yet... Snyder writes really good, chilling, on-the-edge-of-your seat stories. This book is possibly the best stuff I've read from his pen, way better than the stuff he's churned out in the New 52.

Batman: The Black Mirror follows the last exploits of Dick Grayson as Batman, a position he took in Gotham City after Bruce Wayne's "death" during Final Crisis. He's got a lot on his plate. There's someone selling old villain paraphernalia to wealthy citizens, gangsters Roadrunner and Tiger Shark are on the loose, and Sonia Branch, the daughter of Tony Zucco, the man who killed Dick's parents, has just entered the life of Batman. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon has to deal with his son, James Gordon, Jr., coming back to Gotham City, a guy who hasn't been seen much since Batman: Year One, when he was a mere newborn. James Jr. has apparently been something of a troublemaker since childhood, generally being a creepy child and whatnot. Standard Snyder spookiness. He's a self-professed psychopath, but he wants to be a better person... or does he?

This story gets nearly everything right. It's tightly plotted, with everything that builds up in the first and second acts coming full circle in act 3. The noir feel is really well done, despite my dislike for such an unrealistically chaotic American city. Gotham Central really got the feel of Gotham City down, and maybe Snyder could learn a thing or two from it. But really, that's the key to all great Batman stories, as my boss over at Primary Ignition pointed out in his review of this book. That is, the key to all great Batman stories is casting Gotham itself as a character. Here, we get long explanations of how Dick feels about Gotham, similar to what we got in Batman: Gates of Gotham. If Gates was a biography of Gotham City, then Black Mirror is a basic character study.

The main attraction of this book is Commissioner Gordon. I read once over at Comics Alliance that Commissioner Gordon isn't often used to great effect because his most interesting story is when he's fighting the good fight in a corrupt system, as a lieutenant or a captain. When he's Commissioner, Gordon has already won, and he's just running a formidable police department. This is why there's a lot of stories where Gordon is demoted or removed from his position by the mayor or something. But The Black Mirror defies that standard, daring to tell a story, and a good story at that, about Gordon doing his thing, trying to deal with his personal life while closing an old case at the same time. Bottom line, Commissioner James Worthington Gordon, Sr. is one of my favorite characters ever, and this story is why.

James Jr. is a great villain, and half the time we're kept in suspense about whether or not he's a villain. He swings around like a pendulum, flashback after flashback giving us this terribly scary backstory about him. He's heartless, ruthless, cruel, sadistic, and whole lot of other adjectives. He's the sort of guy you'd just love to see Batman or Gordon take down hard.

Speaking of Batman, Dick is portrayed really well here. We get inside his head in a way that Batman: Battle for the Cowl and Batman: Life after Death didn't come close to. Snyder writes his voice excellently, helping him tell the story through both his and Gordon's alternating points of view. And the art, oh, man, the art. We've got some guy named Jock doing the art for the Batman centered content, and Francesco Francavilla drawing the Gordon portions of the story. I love the noir crime thriller feel that we've got going here, and I hope to see more of that in coming stories. Also, I really dig the way the Bat-family makes various, needed appearances. Tim Wayne/Red Robin shows up, and he sounds like Tim. Barbara Gordon, Jr./Oracle is featured prominently, and boy does she do stuff. I'd just love a book which focused on the extended Bat-family working in concert, like a Bat-Family book or something. And as long as I'm dreaming, I'd  like a Gotham Central title after that.

What didn't I like about this book? Mostly the standard stuff. That is, some truly gruesome scenes are depicted in this book, and by gruesome, I mean downright horrifying. Not as disturbed as some of the stuff David Hine dishes out, but pretty macabre, let me tell you. I'd take a long look in the mirror before I recommended this book to anyone under fifteen. How I long for the days of Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, when Batman stories weren't unnecessarily ghastly and lurid. Show me a good Batman story has that stuff and I'll show you three that don't. All in all though, this was a rather good story. A must read for fans of Dick Grayson and Commissioner Gordon.

RATING: 8.5/10

Image courtesy of dccomics.com