The ideas of Batman and Gotham City are forever intertwined. For Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s crime and corruption are what led to the murders of his parents, which forever drive his war as Batman. For Gotham, Batman is an icon of hope, battling those that would take advantage of the innocent and inspiring its people to embrace something better. While that cycle may be one of hope and heroism, there is a darker side to it as well. One of voracious darkness that consumes those that try and wage war against it.
It’s this abyss within Gotham that writer Scott Snyder and artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla dove into with their modern classic comic book storyline Batman: The Black Mirror, which was originally published in the pages of Detective Comics #871 through #881 in 2011. Its dark twists and unrelenting gothic nature make it one of the newest essential era stories for Batman fans of all kinds.
Set during a time in DC Comics when Dick Grayson (also known as Nightwing, the former Robin) has taken on the identity of Batman in Gotham City while Bruce Wayne operates as Batman elsewhere in the world, The Black Mirror focuses on the toll that Gotham City itself takes on Grayson, as well as on Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Using a dueling narrative, The Black Mirror switches back and forth between the two men, as Grayson fights against several new criminal operations that redefine crime in Gotham while Gordon deals with the return of his son, James Gordon, Jr., a man in his early 20s whose sociopathic tendancies may or may not have led to murder. As their stories become more and more intertwined, they must reconcile themselves with the inability to ever completely understand Gotham and the almost living darkness that the city breeds within people.
The All-Consuming Darkness of Gotham
During its original publication, the 11-issue run was told with the stories of Batman and Gordon being typically included in the same issue, with Batman’s story taking the majority of the issue and Gordon’s being told in a backup. With both stories happening at the same time chronologically, Snyder was able to interweave them and juxtapose their ideas.
Jock’s scratchy, dark art was used for Batman’s story, with his sharp angles and heavy shadows being perfect for stories that took place in the darkest and cruelest parts of Gotham. His use of heavy lines and creases in his portrayal of characters help to convey the toll that Gotham is taking on everyone, especially the typically exuberant Grayson. Meanwhile, Francavilla’s much more lush and smooth artwork was dedicated to Gordon’s story, which heavily focuses on the interpersonal dynamic between Commission Gordon, his quietly menacing son James, and his daughter Barbara (the former Batgirl). A heavy use of deep oranges, reds, and blues emphasize the noir feel of the story and Francavilla’s detailed portrayals of emotion keep every little line of dialogue, every minor expression, crucial to uncovering the mystery at the center of Gordon’s story. And when the two stories collide in the story’s final chapter? Jock and Francavilla’s respective art switch back and forth to illustrate their unique parts of the climax.
It’s simple yet strongly executed ideas like that which help to keep The Black Mirror so thematically resonant. The ideas of hunger and being consumed permeate much of the story, as moments like a victim being eaten alive by a killer whale, Batman being nearly crushed in a junkyard compactor, a rat devouring a bird’s eggs, and numerous victims either being dismembered or threatened with dismemberment all occurring throughout the narrative. It’s a unique fear that Snyder, who started off writing pure horror like the American Vampire comic series, drives home from start to finish. And make no mistake, The Black Mirror belongs in the genre of horror just as much as it does in the noir and superhero genres. It’s supremely unsettling and Snyder’s use of grotesque ideas, imagery, and characters consistently shock and surprise in both grandiose and intimate ways.
At the start of The Black Mirror, Grayson reflect on his time in the circus, travelling as an acrobat with his parents. Their map was marked with pins in each of the cities they planned to visit, which denoted the degree of stunts they would perform. But Gotham alone had a black pin, which meant that all the stops needed to be pulled and the most dangerous maneuvers were necessary when they put on a show in the city. Why? “Some places just have a hunger about them, son,” Grayson’s father would tell him. “And you either feed them what they want, or you stay far, far away.”
The Hunger of Gotham in the Form of Man
It’s clear that Gotham feeds off the weak and that many of its worst citizens feed off them, too. Some leave to escape its darkness, some are altered by it, some are strengthened, and some, like Bruce Wayne, stand fast against it and seek to reshape it to their will.
However, Grayson isn’t like Bruce Wayne. It’s clear to Grayson himself and the people that understand him that he isn’t driven in the same compulsive, unhealthy manner that Wayne is in the way he fights for Gotham because Grayson wasn’t fundamentally altered in the way that Wayne was at an early age. For Wayne, being Batman and fighting crime are a compulsion, for Grayson, they are a choice. Grayson is far more optimistic, far more willing to see the good in people and hope for something better. While he’s still prepared for the worst and trained to do his best, he’s vulnerable to the darkest aspects of Gotham, which he faces in the new breed of criminal working to exploit Gotham for all its worth and in the form of James Gordon, Jr. While villains like The Dealer and Tiger Shark are defined by voracious appetites that reflect the ever-hungry nature of Gotham, it is the sociopathic nature of James that makes him the opposite of Grayson to a large degree.
While Grayson must choose to either succumb to Gotham or be strengthened by its challenges, it is clear that James was changed by it at an early age. The cause of James’ sociopathy is unclear. It may be genetic. It may have been caused by a fall at an early age (heavily hinted to be during the climax of Batman: Year One), But the themes of The Black Mirror tell us that it was Gotham itself that altered James. Not in a literal, supernatural way, but in the way that a city so dark and voracious ultimately changes the nature of so many of its people. Even Gordon himself questions the nature of Gotham, telling Grayson, “I’m talking about the bricks. The stone. The damn bedrock. There are times I feel a dark heart down there, Dick. A dark, malformed heart. Beating and beating.” However, the darkness of both Gotham and James, Jr. are never completely understandable to Gordon.
That unknowable factor means that his son’s issues forever haunt Jim Gordon. While young James was featured in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One the character disappeared from comics afterward. In The Black Mirror, it is retroactively clarified that James was clearly a disturbed child from an early age, showing signs of sociopathy and violent tendencies that worried his parents. But while no proof could ever be found to show that James was indeed violent and even possibly homicidal, his father was haunted by the possibility. When they divorced, James’ ex-wife took her son with her and James eventually left to explore the country as a young adult. His return to Gotham brings countless questions into Gordon’s life, and much of The Black Mirror leaves the questions of James Jr.’s sociopathic nature unanswered, leaving Gordon and readers both confounded and haunted.
Eventually, hard answers come crashing down on Gordon, Barbara, and Grayson, forcing them to confront the truth and its effects on their lives, but to spoil the details would be to ruin the suspense and finely-balanced mystery that Snyder weaves throughout The Black Mirror. By asking questions of its characters that have no hard and clear answers, Snyder probes deeper into the nature of Batman and Gordon, as well as Gotham City itself. By having the role of Batman filled by someone more human like Grayson and having the fallible yet heroic Gordon play an equally crucial role, The Black Mirror becomes far less about thrilling heroics and much more about the flawed nature of humanity.
How do we withstand an onslaught of darkness that seems to never stop? Is it human nature to be forever tortured by the mistakes we have made? Can goodness and decency ever outweigh the deluge of evil and greed that floods the world?
In the end, Gotham remains an unknowable, constantly changing landscape that challenges the minds and souls of those who choose to try to both understand and better it. Snyder leaves his readers with a sense of unease, knowing that Gotham will forever attempt to consume its citizens so long as it stands, but also knowing that good people will always be there to fight the darkness. It’s only up to each person to decide whether they will be strengthened by Gotham City, or consumed by it in one way or another.