When DC rebooted decades of continuity in 2011’s The New 52 initiative, reactions were, to be kind, mixed. Some felt that tossing away years of stories was disrespectful to the iconic characters and fans who had loved them since childhood, while others jumped at a chance to start reading these titles with a fresh start. Many of the titles faced criticism for increased editorial interference, poor character design, and elements that harkened back to some of the more unsavory aspects of 90s comics. While sales were up, showing that DC’s gutsy move was paying off in the short-term, the readership had never been more divided.
That is, on everything except one title. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.
It’s hard to believe that was over four years ago. Snyder has been writing Batman for more than fifty issues, and has become one of the biggest forces in both mainstream superhero comics and, with the overwhelming success of Wytches #1 which sold more than 90k copies, the creator-owned scene. Capullo has also risen to become one of the premiere artists in the industry, and will certainly go down as one of the best artists to ever enjoy a long run on Batman. Their run has been unique in its focus of long, game-changing arcs placed one after the other, starting with Court of Owls, an ode to Gotham City, moving onto two devastating Joker stories with Death of the Family and Endgame, and recently reinventing the Bruce/Gordon relationship in a shocking way with the post-#50 issues. Snyder and Capullo’s work has been DC’s heavy-hitter since the relaunch, and is unquestionably their most critically acclaimed title, receiving near unanimous praise from fans and peers. It’s a historic run in the making, but the seeds of the style Snyder brings to his dark, humane explorations of Gotham City were planted before he took over with the relaunch of Batman.
Before he was paired with Capullo, Scott Snyder began his time as the dark architect of Gotham City in Detective Comics #871, staying on the title through #881, the final issue of the landmark series before its New 52 reboot. The arc has been collected as Batman: The Black Mirror, which, like his Batman run with Capullo, garnered praise that placed it among the likes of the most classic and legendary titles in the Dark Knight canon. Comparisons to Frank Miller’s Year One have been made more than once – and that stuff, that’s the kind of praise that writers and publishers dream for. High praise by way of comparison to a classic is the most attractive blurb fodder, of course. Hell, it drew my eye. The thing is, though, having freshly re-read The Black Mirror, I don’t think it needs to be said, now, in 2015, that Snyder’s writing puts him among the ranks of the other Batman greats. Having read everything he’s done with the Caped Crusader since this book, it’s clear he’s one of the greats – I can’t think of a single writer who has made me care more about Batman, either as an ideal or as a person – but I don’t think that status as a legend needs to be defended or clarified. Looking back, it’s amazing to see that the confidence and straight up, kick-down-the-door, cut throat storytelling that makes the Snyder + Capullo run so refreshing and shocking from month-to-month was already in place in The Black Mirror.
In The Black Mirror, Dick Grayson is Batman. We don’t even see Bruce Wayne in this book – Bruce is alive, but is currently off running Batman Incorporated. Dick makes a great Batman here, and Scott explores the differences, as well as the meta of it all… we know that Dick won’t be Batman forever, and Dick’s own uncertainty in allowing himself to settle into his role, is explored with nuance and empathy. Dick’s Batman makes mistakes as he fills Bruce’s shoes, relies on his support system in a way that gives him immense strength, doesn’t confine himself to shadows and mystery like his predecessor, and – most noticeably – smiles. Commissioner James Gordon is every bit as much of a lead character here as Dick, and at times seems to dominate the book more than the Dark Knight himself. (I mean, yeah, there is something to those Year One comparisons after all.) Snyder draws a dichotomy between these two heroes, exploring them through their fears, doubts, and wavering hope about the nature of Gotham City. The title The Black Mirror is taken from the first three issues of this huge collection, but it’s not confined to that mini-arc. Instead, it encompasses the idea of Gotham as a mirror that reflects humanity’s darkest impulses, the picture of Dorian Gray as looming buildings and alleys cloaked in shadow.
This nightmarish vision of Gotham and the heroes that hope to preserve the last bit of its goodness is brought to life by two alternating artists: Jock, who would later go on to co-create Wytches with Snyder, and Francesco Francavilla, who had made a name for himself on pulp comics both in and out of the superhero genre. These artists are two of the most distinctive in the industry, with Jock’s nightmarish, almost scrawling style creating unimaginable terrors in both his people and monsters, and Francavilla’s warm, precisely chosen colors washed over scenes of subtle glances and dynamic angles. Though Snyder’s work on Batman will always bring to mind a blast of hyper-detailed, immaculately rendered Greg Capullo action, Jock and Francavilla – along with colorist David Baron and letterers Jared K. Fletcher and Sal Cipriano – create an equally complex, beautiful, and terrifying Gotham City in The Black Mirror.
The narrative, bridged by a few small arcs that only reveal themselves as linked toward the end, introduces Gordon’s son, James Junior, back into Gotham. His story shakes Gotham to the core, changing both Gordon and Dick’s perception of the city and those within, and perhaps changing the future of the city itself. James Junior, as Barbara later points out, is no Joker, no Two-Face. He’s not the villain Gotham is used to, but rather the human embodiment of a father’s fear, of a sister’s doubt. Without clown make-up or limbs made of clay, he’s just a man. We’ve all seen him. He’s that person with whom you make eye contact whose gaze chills your spine, who makes you want to leave whatever room he’s entered. There’s nothing wrong with him that you know of, but sticking around to find out the answers to your unanswered questions about him is the most terrifying thing you can think of.
James Gordon Jr. could be the scariest of them all.
The most common critique I hear of modern Batman stories, and really of DC in general, is that they’ve lost the brightness, fun, and hope of superhero comics in favor of darkness. The Black Mirror, and Snyder’s work on Batman in general, is indeed dark. However, beneath the shroud of night, there is a beating heart that swells with hope.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Robyn Hood, Charmed: Season Ten, Family Pets), novels (Charmed for HarperCollins), and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). Formerly hailing from San Diego, he currently lives in New York with his partner Amy, their zoo of cats, and a mountain of longboxes.