“I remember one time I asked my father why. What made Gotham so special? And my father, he looked down at me, and he said…some places just have a hunger about them, son. And you either feed them what they want…or you stay far, far away.” – Dick Grayson
Some graphic novels are powerful enough to make you feel as if you’ve left a part of yourself behind on the page. I felt that sensation after reading Batman: The Black Mirror, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Francesco Francavilla and Jock. It follows Dick Grayson as Batman and how he deals with Gotham as a living entity that is trying to challenge him. There’s murder and mayhem around every corner and Commissioner Gordon is dragged into the fray when an old ghost comes calling.
What sets Black Mirror apart from other Batman stories is that it genuinely feels like a noir novel. It’s told from the perspective of Dick and Commissioner Gordon as they become tangled in the same case. It begins with Dick suffering from nightmares and investigating a mysterious organisation called the Mirror House. Wealthy Gotham citizens are buying the memorabilia of notorious villains from a man called The Dealer and Dick is determined to put a stop to it.
Dick is a very different Batman to Bruce. There’s a poignant scene where he meets Gordon on a rooftop to discuss leads. Gordon turns away and when Batman is still standing in front of him he says he needs to get used to him being there when he looks up.
After taking on the Mirror House, Dick investigates the murder of a young woman who has fallen out of the belly of a killer whale. This leads him to the employer of the woman, Sonia Zucco, the daughter of the man who killed Dick’s parents. Seeing the original Boy Wonder struggle with his past is satisfying, especially when he’s able to look beyond it and help Sonia.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s estranged son, James Jr, returns to Gotham. James has a history of being mentally unstable, but he tries to convince his father that he’s changed. He’s been taking a new drug called Diaxamyne that allows psychopaths to feel empathy for others. Barbara doesn’t buy her brother’s act and warns Gordon to stay away from him.
Soon, The Joker escapes from Arkham and Gordon’s ex-wife is infected with Joker venom. Batman gives chase into a crypt and confronts the Clown Prince of Crime. Joker claims he came to the crypt to rest in preparation for when ‘his’ Batman returns. After a brief battle, Joker says he didn’t attack the Gordons and Dick realises that James Jr was behind everything.
James has kidnapped Babs and plans to infect Gotham’s children with a reverse-engineered version of Diaxamyne, creating a new generation of psychopaths. As Dick rushes to find them, James reveals he knows Batman’s identity and that he intends to kill Babs. Batman gets to them in time and before James can escape, Commissioner Gordon arrives, shooting his son in the knee and stopping him from falling off a bridge.
The story has an ambiguous ending, but it’s implied James was successful in corrupting a new generation. There’s a feeling that Batman failed to save the day and that makes the narrative resonate even more.
James Jr is a chilling antagonist, presented as a true psychopath. His relationship with Dick mirrors the relationship between Bruce and Joker. He is Dick’s ‘black mirror,’ a monster with no empathy who fights against a man who cares about everyone and wants to see the good in people.
Jock and Francavilla’s art is perfect for such a dark tale. Both have gothic influences that manifest in different styles.
Batman: The Black Mirror is the story that propelled Snyder into comic book stardom and it’s not hard to see why. It can be bought on Amazon now.