Debriefing #23: ‘The Black Mirror’

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Batman: The Black Mirror
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Jock, Francesco Francavilla

As Bruce Wayne recovers from the events of Grant Morrison’s Batman arc, Dick Grayson takes on the persona of The Batman. When low-level crime manifests technology from Batman’s greatest foes, Grayson begins to investigate a selective black market that frequents in the most dangerous weapons from Batman’s foes.

James: Our interest in tackling The Black Mirror is because Scott Snyder’s most recent run was such an intriguing and fresh entry in the series. However, I think this story has a much different flavor and texture to it than his Court of Owls arc. For one, Snyder finishes out the final issues of the first edition of the comic that started it all: Detective Comics. It’s a decidedly different side of Batman. My question to you Edgar is did you like this slow, evolving detective story or were you yearning for some Owls for Batman to grapple with after reading The Black Mirror?

Edgar: Reading this book I was reminded of another book you and me reviewed some time ago for the site: The Long Halloween. Both offer an impressive sense of scope, a sense that a lot of time passes from the moment the story begins to the moment it reaches its conclusion. I recall very much enjoying Long Halloween and while there are a few things that prevent Black Mirror from reaching the same staggering heights of greatness I did appreciate it a fair bit overall. I like it when writers can use scope as Snyder does in this case. By scope I’m referring less to big action set pieces (although he serves up some solid action at times) and more to the idea that a case requires a lot of time to be solved, and a detective will follow obvious and less obvious clues which may lead him astray and down paths that keep him away from the core of the mystery. We can get into the specifics of the ‘mystery’ as we go along, but overall I thought it was fun. What are your impressions?

J: I’ll echo liking the smaller structure of this story. Here Batman isn’t dealing with something on the scale of the Court of Owls, but more low-level crime stuff: the black market, corporate fronts for criminal activity, thugs, etc. However, the way Snyder takes these separate stories and weaves a larger arc into the tales makes it feel more connected. At first, I was surprised by how quickly the whole Black Mirror story gets resolved. As the story developed, I like seeing how that arc was just the first movement Snyder set up to tell a bigger crime story. It does have some missteps, which we can certainly get into. I guess I’m curious where you think this one falls short.

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E: Good question. I haven’t read as many Batman books as I’d like to claim and because of that I was not intimately familiar with the history of the entire Gordon family. Now, in this story, Commissioner Gordon’s son makes a sudden appearance. I didn’t know who he was. Frankly, I didn’t even know he existed to be honest. When Snyder starts revealing (or reminding, depending on one’s familiarity with the character) that he’s a psychopath with a history, I felt I could tell where the story was heading. It’s one of those examples where the journey matters more than the destination which I why I still like the book but I can’t say the conclusion was terribly surprising. He’s a decent character in his own right but it sort of spoiled the sense of surprise at the end. How familiar were you with that character, if at all, and how did his inclusion affect your opinion on the overall story?

J: I wasn’t aware of this character’s existence until this story arc, but I think the story does a good job of telling us the little bit we need to know to get the history. I liked that he was a looming threat though these stories and it’s not like he’s one of the big baddies, just a mentally unstable man. I guess you could say you know where the story is heading, but I feel like Snyder keeps it up in the air enough that there is still an air of mystery. I thought it worked. It felt more grounded and exploring the Gordon’s family dynamics in a Batman story felt like a good angle to make it personal for Batman without digging in that familiar parents territory. And speaking of Batman, I believe this is the first time we’ve encountered a Batman story with Dick Grayson as the man wearing the Cowl, so my question to you is what did you think of Dick as the Batman?

E: We had to get to this topic sooner or later I imagine. It’s one of those funny things where I’m simultaneously happy to have had the chance to read another story with a different man donning the costume and prowling the night as the Caped Crusader and also glad that Dick Grayson has not always and never will always be Batman. It’s a different experience, one that brings with it a decent amount of positives but I do prefer Bruce’s more somber, serious approach. Bruce kind of brings dark humour to his approach as well which I also love. Dick has a personality that is instantly recognizable. In this very book he’s described as someone with great affection and compassion. He’s a good guy, through and through. Bruce is the freaking Dark Knight. So, it was fun, I’m glad to have gone through the experience but I’ll be glad to get back to stories with Bruce (who doesn’t even show up at all here). Where do you stand?

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J: I thought he was delightful. There were several things that made it work for me. First, it never tries to make him be the same as Bruce’s Batman. He’s more nimble and athletic as Batman instead of the calculated brawn of Bruce’s Batman. You get that circus background sprinkled into his physicality as Batman and I dug that. Also, the comic is self-aware enough to realize that Dick is a bit out of sorts as Batman. There’s one line where he talks about how he would be telling this joke if he had a sense of humor. He’s aware he’s too light-hearted to be Batman and I think that makes it work as he realizes that he’s not Batman, just a standin for the moment.

E: Yeah, the book is very good at paying attention to the details of what a Dick Grayson Batman entails. I love the moment when Batman and Gordon are conversing as they are want to do atop the building with the Batsignal and when Gordon turns off the light he’s surprised to see Batman still there. Those moments are fun. For whatever reason the line he says to the Zucho character ‘You say tomato, I say you’re culpable’ made me laugh out loud. I liked those touches. There is the inclusion of the Joker for an issue or two, which is interesting in that I think he’s the only classic villain to appear. Everyone else, to my knowledge, is a new villain, save Gordon’s son of course. Did you feel the Joker fit in well with the story and what did you think of his interaction with this Batman?

J: I think The Joker does well in this small role. He gives us a nice comparison to Gordon’s son, both are similar in some ways, but also contrast in some interesting ways as well. I do also like his small interaction with Batman and how he instantly recognizes it isn’t Bruce. I think if it became anymore about The Joker, it would have felt forced. Snyder gives us just a taste and it works well in service to the story. It’s just enough. I wanted to ask you about a couple of bigger issues I had with this story. I guess the first one I’d like to tackle is the writing. What did you think of it? Did you dig it or did you have some problems (which I’ll get to)?

E: Writing encompasses a lot. You have story, you have plot and you have dialogue. I think the strongest of the three for me, strangely enough, was plot, something I frequently rank at the bottom both because I’m naturally less interested in plot and I feel story (character arcs and themes and whatnot) are more important anyways. I felt the plot here really helped give Dick Grayson a great starring role as a different Batman. It helped that every few issues we’re whisked away to investigate or fight another criminal or faction that may or may not have direct links to the climax. I actually felt a few were really fun, like the issue with Tiger Shark. I thought that was inventive, fresh, it was quick and action packed. I think in terms of story it was fine but I’ve read better ones. I’d even say Knightfall has a better story overall. I’m not sure if I’ve even answered your question properly but I’ll toss it back to you. You seem to have something on your mind.

J: I think I agree with you about this facet of the writing. The story overall didn’t grab me as much as I hoped, although I liked seeing how it all came together. It was more an issue by issue basis where the story seemed to shine the best. One issue would do something really fun, then the next would be a slog. What killed certain issues for me was the insane amount of monologuing Snyder writes for some of these criminals. They just wouldn’t shut up. I’d turn the page and see tons and tons of text all from one character and I’d roll my eyes. It felt trite and on the nose, especially some of the moralizing Synder works in about human nature. It felt like he was preaching at me on a few occasions and it rubbed me the wrong way. Did you ever feel that or was it just me?

E: First off, I love how you just answered that. LOL. I think I can see what your saying. I’ll go back to the climax of the book. So, spoilers!!!!, Gordon’s son has been orchestrating everything from the start and he starts explaining to Dick why and how he did it. Now, the ‘how’ was kind of cool (again, I feel Snyder really know how to handle plot) but the ‘why’ certainly falls into that category you just described, about preaching and monologuing and whatnot. Earlier you gave some praise towards the fact that the villain is different in Black Mirror and for the most part I’ll agree with you but when Jim Jr. explains that he’s ‘understood’ that in truth it’s people such as himself, lunatics, who are the strong and that they are the future and bla bla bla, oh my god!!!! I agree that stuff just isn’t as appealing and in some ways even hurts that character because in the end he sort of does sound like the archetypical Gotham megalomaniac. Is there anything else about the writing you’d like to address?

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J: I think that was my main problem. Jumping to the other side of the collaboration, we should definitely talk about Jock’s artwork. Wow. Those covers. I loved that sense of atmosphere and the play of light and dark that he brings on just the cover of each issue. When you get into the issue, the art doesn’t always hold up to that level, but I loved how he had the interplay of warm and cold hues through this run. I wasn’t always enamored with how he drew people, but he had a great sense of atmosphere and I loved the coloring. What did you think of his art?

E: I have to say I agree 100% The covers were extremely impressive, very evocative of the mood the story was trying to convey. Yes, the artwork in the issues themselves didn’t exactly replicate the same audacity but I still felt there were some very  interesting decisions made. It looked as though nearly every time Jim Jr. was a part of a sequence of panels the colour scheme changed dramatically to rich red, orange hues. It was as though the art was trying to emulate film noir chiaroscuro lighting but replaced black and white with variations of warm colours, mostly red. Those were very captivating sequences. What did you think of those?

J: I really dug that interplay. It felt vibrant without being too poppy or flashy which I think would have killed the sense of atmosphere. I also liked how the issues used white and dark space to play against each other. There are some issues where the background is simply white. You could argue that’s lazy, that every comic issue should be as filled as possible, but I liked how it was used to make these stark, bold contrasts in some moments where you had the blackness of Batman against this completely white background. It created quite the impression. Do you have any more thoughts?

E: One or two. I remember a question I wanted to ask earlier. Some writers, Snyder being one of them, like to start issues with internal monologues. You’ve touched on them a little bit earlier in our conversation. I couldn’t help but feel that sometimes it killed a bit of the momentum of the action. One issue with will end on a cliffhanger and the next begins with a page and a half about pins on a map of the United States. Notwithstanding the internal monologue boxes that came as too preachy, is this tactic one you enjoy, don’t mind or dislike?

J: I liked those internal monologues a bit more, in part because they always accompanied action. When we had the spoken monologues, it was just with characters standing there and one of them talking at the other one. It felt like it grinded everything to a halt to give this big speech. However, you do talk about that map one and I do think it works the first time, but when he repeats it a few issues later, it does grind things to a halt and feels like it’s trying to hit you over the head with theme at the expense of the story.

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E: Lastly, I’m wondering what you think about the level of graphic violence in Black Mirror. I’m obviously not worried about such stuff in general and a Batman story can always make use of some edge but there were a couple instances that really took me by surprise. The Owl story we read over the past couple weeks hinted at pretty dark violence but Black Mirror goes for some shock value at times. What did you think of that?

J: There are two I can think of where it does feel like it crosses a line. The ideas of both are disturbing alone, but to actually draw them the way they end up feels a bit gratuitous. I’m not saying every Batman story has to be kid friendly, but this one felt like it went a bit too far into more of the pulpy murder stuff than I like in my Batman stories. I think they could have got a similar effect without being quite so sensational and grotesque.

E: Well, another Batman story comes to an end. Black Mirror feels very much in line with the previous Scott Snyder book we read. He has an impressive command of how to handle plot, I’d even say the plot here is better than the one in the Owls story. Not everything runs like clockwork, but with the help of artist Jock the books frequently come alive in ways that had me pleasantly surprised. Even more impressive was how entertaining it was to follow along as Dick Grayson took on the mantle, if temporarily, of the Caped Crusader. Fun stuff.

J: I’m not quite as sold. I did enjoy the story and the artwork was great, but there’s enough missteps in the dialogue and some of the story elements that I think I would place this more in the average camp of Batman comics. There are better Batman stories that deserve people’s time first. If you hit more of those big, best of Batman stories, this one is certainly worth getting to eventually, but I think I could come up with a dozen Batman stories you should read before even thinking about this one.

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