I think, in some way, everybody remembers the first Batman story they read. Granted, the plot points, Rogue’s Gallery members, or just who happened to be “on deck” in the all-too-rotational position of Robin may have faded from memory, but there’s something about that cape, cowl, and silhouette that tend to leave an indelible memory on the brain. This was a man that not only stayed out well past our bedtimes, but managed to crack some skulls overnight…and somehow didn’t look like grade-A sh!t come morning. And I don’t care what anyone says, that is a superpower.

For me, however, the experience was a bit…BATlated (YES I DID THAT AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO THAT, IF I FEEL LIKE IT). See, my childhood was spent suckling on the teats of George Lucas’ massive pair of trilogies (it’s an image, I know): Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It’s true that I spent a fair amount of my childhood in comic book shops, but such was reserved for buying booster packs of Star Wars: Trading Card Game cards and staring at Witchblade covers with equal amounts of confusion, self-loathing, and the faint hope that nobody saw me doing such. The card game ended when the license was sold to Wizards of the Coast a little over a decade ago, but I assure you, the Witchblade emotional clusterfu#k? The Force is strong with that one.

Before you ask "just how effective IS that armor?" just be aware that most pubescent males haven't concerned themselves with this quandry.

Before you ask “just how effective IS that armor?” just be aware that most pubescent males haven’t concerned themselves with this quandary.  Because, you know, boobs.

It’s not to say that I didn’t own any comic books. I’ve got a couple well-read issues of Dark Horse’s Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire that my dad picked up when ten-year-old me got the flu. It’s a pretty mixed message to kids when the line between childhood sickness and Christmas begin to blur, and you begin to wonder what sort of gifts mom and dad would cart home if you, against the odds of modern medicine, ended up with Consumption, or some other Oregon Trail disease.

That aside, I made my way through college with several graphic novels as “required reading” for classes: Art Spigelman’s Maus, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Suddenly I wanted to explore this medium that was clearly capable of heady ideas and provoking thoughts …but continuing to have two-thirds of the material consist of allegorical and not-so-allegorical biographies involving human atrocity just wasn’t going to cut it. So, I read everything by Alan Moore, loved League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell (as for the rest…not so much) and suddenly found myself adrift.

This book is the best.  The movie based on it is POSSIBLY THE WORST THING EVER.  There.  That was easy.

This book is the best. The movie based on it is POSSIBLY THE WORST THING EVER. There. That was easy.

Let’s not be melodramatic, on a day in December 2011 I just happened to have a Barnes and Noble gift card burning a hole in my pocket, no fellow geek lurking in the graphic novels section to consult with, and no smartphone to appeal to the Almighty Google from. But I wasn’t about to go home empty-handed, because that would suggest that I valued being an informed and educated consumer of goods. So I committed the proverbial “no-no” of proceeding to judge all the books by their covers…wittily remarking to myself that this might be the one scenario where that oft-quoted adage would prove wrong. I wasn’t yet aware of the “bait and switch” tactic that had interior pencils sometimes looking quite different from that presented on the cover.

And you know what stood out to me? What prevailed in a self-imposed contest of (potential) superficiality? It wasn’t Witchblade. It was Batman: The Black Mirror. Sure, I hadn’t the slightest notion who Jock was at the time, but there was something about his cover that I couldn’t shake. Maybe it was the Ben-Day dots giving an odd transparency to the bottom of the cape, the roughly hewn angular shoulders, or the way the bats surrounding him became white cut-outs as they climbed their way up the cape. There was a shadowy, secretive intensity to it that echoed my most recent encounter with the Caped Crusader, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. And it was only when I got home that I flipped to the back cover to find what still stands as the creepiest cover art I’ve ever seen. After that, I knew I was in good hands, even if I wasn’t entirely certain whose hands I was in.

The Black Mirror's cover, free of all that label-y stuff you normally get on a cover.  Because I care.

The Black Mirror’s cover, free of all that label-y stuff you normally get on a cover. Because I care.

Looking back, The Black Mirror, to be completely honest, was not the best of places to dip one’s toes into the ever-growing and ever-flowing font of Batman lore. I mean, well…you shouldn’t go dipping your feet in fonts, that’s kinda gross. But don’t let the unsanitary nature of my metaphor derail my point; The Black Mirror is, for all intents and purposes, a poor place for BATginners to enter the comic universe. What would I have recommended to someone else in the same position now that I’m more familiar with the ocean that is Batman? The Long Halloween, in which fans of Nolan’s The Dark Knight would find themselves in (somewhat) familiar territory, would be my first choice. Otherwise, Batman: Year One, Dark Victory (which follows The Long Halloween), and Batman and Son (to a certain degree) would have made perfectly good entry points.

Yet, for me, (as much as I love those other titles) The Black Mirror was perfect in its unadulterated unwillingness to be that hand-holding book, safely operating within the confines of my cowl’d comfort zone. Nothing quite convinces one to learn to swim like being hurled without reservation into the deep end, and The Black Mirror provided that in spades.

HERE'S THAT NIGHTMARE FUEL YOU WERE ASKING FOR.

HERE’S THAT NIGHTMARE FUEL YOU WERE ASKING FOR.

For those not privy to The Black Mirror, it begins with a narration of a childhood spent in a traveling circus. I knew enough from popular culture that was not the frequent regurgitating of Bruce Wayne’s “post-theater, alleyway confrontation, gunshots, dropped pearls, go straight to ‘orphan’ and collect slightly more than 200 dollars” narrative. Furthermore, weekday afternoons spent watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid left some faint recollection in my head that this was the background of Robin.

So…wait. Why is Robin narrating this? And why do his narration blocks have the Batman symbol in them? AND WHY, PAGES LATER, IS THIS DICK [GRAYSON] “SUITING UP” AS BATMAN?

See, this is the Batman I was most familiar with, before I started reading comics.

This is the Batman I was most familiar with, before I started reading comics.

Up until that point, I identified Bruce Wayne as Batman, and Batman as Bruce Wayne. Sure, I was aware that he wiled away the daylight hours with fast cars and beautiful women (the latter of which were frequently abandoned during dinner at fine restaurants), but when night crept over the city of Gotham, and it came time to fight crime, nobody else was supposed to don the pointy ears and engage in the act of self-inflicted laryngitis.

I naturally progressed down another chain of questions. Just where is Bruce Wayne? If Alfred remarks that he’s “back,” then where has he been, and for how long? Just what is this “Batman Inc.” thing he’s heading up, and why is it important enough that he’s stopped being Gotham’s protector? Who is this Tim fellow running the lab, and how does he know so much about Grayson’s moonlighting as the Dark Knight? Of course, some of these questions were gradually answered over the course of the remaining pages…others had me Googling incessantly, all the while fielding an ever-growing reading list.

Pretty soon, I understood the weight that a bloody crowbar held beyond its physical heft, as well as the reason for Barbara Gordon’s recurring nightmares and her wheelchair-bound state. For other (see: well-adjusted) people, I suspect they would have found this constant research unnecessary, something they were perfectly comfortable having go “over their heads,” or sought out a book that didn’t play into ongoing canon (another concept I didn’t grasp at the time).

Francavilla

There’s no denying that The Black Mirror might not be an ideal “introductory” book. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t gorgeous. Splash page by Francesco Francavilla right here.

There’s no denying that The Black Mirror provided a “trial by fire” that subsequently had me learning about such things as “trades vs. singles,” arcs, cross-overs, tie-ins, one-shots, post-Crisis canon (Batman had to fight his way through time itself!) the extended/global Batfamily (I still don’t understand what Red Robin’s crest is supposed to be), and Bruce Wayne’s ten-year-old terror of a son, Damian. It encouraged me to acquire the basic language and terms that comic books utilize, and at least grasp the Cliffsnotes of the Batverse. I don’t pretend to know everything or even a shred of “everything” (I can’t for example, tell you anything about the adventures of mullet-sporting Nightwing), but at least when someone says they like Robin, I know enough to ask “Which one?” as well as to quietly tiptoe out of the room if their response is “Jason Todd.”

However, the desire to learn the jargon of comics, as well as read the “classics” might not have resonated so much with me if Scott Snyder’s The Black Mirror didn’t clearly demonstrate one very important thing. Specifically, that, an equally storied and successful franchise, helmed by arguably one of the most iconic characters of the twentieth century, boasting an equally well-known cadre of “not-so-do-gooders,” as well as juggling an expansive media presence across movies, TV shows, and action figures, isn’t content to rest on its laurels, regurgitating “fan service” material ad infinitum.

Because inquiring minds want to know...Nightwing mullet.

Because inquiring minds want to know…here’s that Nightwing mullet.

Thankfully, Snyder (as well as DC editorial staff), even with Bruce Wayne alive and well, wasn’t willing to undo the events of Final Crisis and Battle for the Cowl, that seemingly put Wayne “six feet under,” and Grayson in the driver’s seat of the franchise (as well as the Batmobile, Batjet, and Batboat). I can only assume with Wayne back, the temptation must have been palpable…especially when faced with transitioning Grayson/Batman from his role in the team-up title Batman and Robin to a solo spot in what was DC’s flagship Batbook.

Richard Grayson, above all things, was not Bruce Wayne, Jr. With Dick, we weren’t able to rest easy when he found himself in an operational car crusher, convincing ourselves that he’d mapped out eighteen different escape scenarios in advance (a la Bruce). Instead, we saw a Batman that was racking his brain to come up with a singular scenario with a semi-favorable chance of survival. And you know what? I liked the sense of danger that came with a “human” version of Batman. Dick offered up an alternative Batman whose hopes and goals were not solely tempered in the crucible of his parents’ tragic death, one who seemed more emotionally well-adjusted and trusting…even though that didn’t always work in his favor. It was a risky decision (and one ultimately erased via the New 52), but it worked.

Things might not always go as smoothly with Dick as Batman...but that's part of why Black Mirror is such a fantastic read.

Things might not always go as smoothly with Dick as Batman…but that’s part of why Black Mirror is such a fantastic read…and this image is why Jock is a first-rate artist.

Of course, that wasn’t the only gambit The Black Mirror took that caught my attention. Introducing a brand new villain in James Gordon, Jr., one who was not flashy or gaudy, nor ostentatiously-garbed or operating under a goofy M.O., was another. This was a regular looking guy, who had inherited his father’s intelligence, alongside being a full-blown psychopath. Furthermore (despite what one might think from glancing at the back cover) this meant that the role of the usually ubiquitous Joker would be a minor one. Don’t get me wrong, I love the “Crown Prince of Crime,” it just always piques my interest when a Batman narrative decides to not include said character (or relegate him to the peripheral). Finally, splitting the book’s chapters between Dick and deuteragonist Jim Gordon was a fantastic choice. It not only allowed the book to adopt a dualistic narrative of action and horror, but also incorporate, respectively, the unconventional art styles of Jock and Francesco Francavilla to accomplish such. Again, it could have just followed Dick around as he punched one successive thug after another (I exaggerate, of course) in a “house” art style, but we got something immeasurably more complex and lavishly depicted.

And here's one more glorious Jock cover.

And here’s one more glorious Jock cover.

Of course, everyone always wants to ask me how I feel about the erasure of some of these more radical alterations to the Batverse. That the New 52 marched on in, and restored things to a “status quo,” of sorts. That it might be a long while before we have anything like The Black Mirror again. That things are, according to some, “business as usual” for DC Comics. First off, while not perfect, I think Scott Snyder has done an amazing job of walking the line between appeasing old fans and introducing new readers. And for those who remain unswayed by my brief attempt at New 52 apologetics, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my few years as a comic book reader, it’s that Scott Snyder plays the “long game.” Now don’t make me eat my words, Mr. Snyder. I did just defend Zero Year, after all.

About The Author

Growing up, Nick White dreamed of a career with the Chicago Bulls. This is because he was young and stupid, and his parents were of the "you can do ANYTHING" mentality.

When he was older, and probably not a whole lot smarter, Nick purchased Alan Moore's From Hell on a whim (that in itself probably says a lot). He was astounded to find that comics were as bizarre and twisted as his beloved Twin Peaks. After that he bought Batman: The Black Mirror strictly on the cover's aesthetics (Who the hell is Scott Snyder?" he said) and hasn't looked back since. Except, of course, in situations that necessitate such.

When he's not "busy" playing Castlevania or harassing Zander about what he ought to be reading, Nick continues to work on his makeshift shrine to Jeff Lemire.

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