Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Batman: The Black Mirror

Before he began his critically-acclaimed, fan-favorite run on Batman for DC in the fall of 2011, writer Scott Snyder was...writing Batman comics for DC (As has been pointed out many times before, DC Comics didn't look very far for creators to reinvent their comics line as part of "The New 52" effort; in fact, for the most part, they didn't look any farther then the credits of the comics they were already publishing).

The Batman comics Snyder was writing before Batman were issues of Detective Comics (and the miniseries Batman: The Gates of Gotham, which he co-wrote with Kyle Higgins and Ryan Parrott), a series Snyder was on from issue #871 until the September 2011 reboot, at which point he and Batman writer/artist Tony Daniel swapped books. The entirety of his TEC run is collected in the relatively fat trade paperback Batman: The Black Mirror.

Overall, it's a pretty fine example of superior super-comic making, and one of several comics evidencing a Not Broken, Doesn't Need Fixed level of quality being produced on the ever of The New 52.

Snyder was certainly lucky to have such high quality collaborators: The art for all 300 or so pages of the collection is drawn by either Jock or Fancesco Francavilla, two of the better artists to put pencil to paper in order to draw a man dressed like a bat in the last few years. Their styles aren't too terribly compatible, aside from both being good and both being quite dynamic. There's a sketchier, more indistinct and energetic line to Jock's work, which features lots of open scenes and un-filled in spaces. Francavilla's art, meanwhile, has a much more classic comics look, with a touch of Mazzucchelli in the design, which turns out to be so appropriate I imagine it was one of the reasons he got the assignment.

Now, the format of Detective Comics was, at the time, a book with a full-length lead story and a short, back-up feature (although DC called them "co-features," as "back-up" apparently sounded slightly dismissive). At the start, Jock was drawing the lead stories and Francavilla the back-ups, which starred Commissioner Gordon and turned on his personal, family life; specifically, the return of his son James Jr. to Gotham City. The younger James is popularly suspected of being a criminal, and Barbara "Still Oracle" Gordon suspected him of even being a serial killer, although there was never any proof.

The stories are collected chronologically in here, so, other than the change in artists, there's no real sense of what's a lead story and what's a back-up; Snyder, who wrote both features, did a pretty fine job of writing them so they would eventually read as a whole. The shift in art styles, and the shifting tones that accompany those shifts, even work out, as in essence each artist is given a different plot thread to illustrate, and the sub-plot of the Gordon family psychodrama eventually comes to the fore, as Francavilla's art eventually becomes the dominant art in the book.

This is all a very long, complicated way of saying that despite its serial production and publication, The Black Mirror reads like a well-made graphic novel that was meant to be read like a graphic novel.

At the time of these comics' creation, Batman Bruce Wayne was still sort of dead-ish and/or traveling the globe and setting up Batman, Inc, so the title Batman is actually Dick Grayson, working with Alfred out of "the Bat Bunker" in downtown Gotham. Red Robin Tim Drake appears a few times as well, and, Francavilla's failure to make the Red Robin costume look good indicates an inherit flaw in it—it's not a very good costume (the bandolier sinks it, I think), because even Francavilla can't make it look natural sharing panel space with Batman and his costume.
Dick appears as both Batman and Dick Grayson. As the latter, he works with Commissioner Gordon, using a state-of-the-art, high-tech crime lab that the Wayne Foundation built for the Gotham City Police Department and filling in for Bruce Wayne at certain social and business functions. As the former, he does Batman stuff.

Snyder writes Grayson and the various Gordons so well, I'm kind of sorry to learn that this is it for them as stars, and that Snyder would get the less-faceted, less-relatable Bruce Wayne as his lead when he took over Batman.
One thing he does extremely well here is write colorful villains in the gangster-plus mode of the best Bat-villains, some of whom are familiar (The Joker, Man-Bat and Killer Croc variants), but many of whom are new (The Dealer of Mirror House, seen above, Roadrunner, Tiger Shark), and come up with scenarios to provide his artists with cool, fantastical, somewhat creepy and off imagery (For example, James Jr. releases an aviary of exotic birds, filling the city scape with huge, strange birds that don't belong there; Tiger Shark, meanwhile, keeps orcas with him, and the body of one murder victim is found in the belly of a dead orca, found in the lobby of a bank).
As I said, reading this, it's unclear why DC thought their universe and their comics line was so messed-up that it needed rebooting to save it, but, at the same time, it's clear why they wanted to keep Snyder around (I'm more eager than ever to read his Batman now, although I wonder if the more-or-less total freedom he got with that might have impacted the quality of his writing; here he's working within imposed limitations regarding characters and status quos. I can't imagine how Gail Simone follows up with this plot, either; she's apparently used James Jr as a villain in Batgirl, but Barbara Gordon's history has been so thoroughly rebooted I don't see how this would be of any interest at all).

I do sort of wish Francavilla and/or Jock had gone from TEC to Batman with Snyder, as they are such a big part of why this book works as well as it does, but I know the latter has been busy on a creator-owned project (The Black Beetle), so perhaps that was his decision as much as it was DC's.

At any rate, this is a pretty damn good Batman comic book.

1 comment:

Rev'd '76 said...

I tried Snyder's 'Court of Owls' storyline...

Your and my mileage may vary significantly. As you note, Bruce is less nuanced-- Snyder's take on the nu-52 rendition, sadly, is one I find unlikable past the first two chapters, as much for his behavior toward Dick Grayson as his generally overbearing, puffed-up, self-righteous hubris. You might see him differently, but I wouldn't lay money on it.

As for the tale itself, 'Court of Owls' seems like a training-wheels version of 'Batman: RIP'. The art is at least enjoyably consistent, albeit a touch 90s OCD in terms of frivolous detail / shading. Bruce has a tendency to look a little vapid if not Val Kilmer-ish, but otherwise Capullo does solid work. There's a part toward the latter half where the page orientation rotates which I didn't consider successful; my problems there may be the result of a printer error, as I was reading it in trade.

Anyway, looking forward to hearing your throughts. I wanted to like it, but it seemed like Snyder was taking potshots at Grant Morrison's run at the same time as he cribbed from it for ideas, so by the end of the tome I was pretty frustrated.