Monday, December 19, 2011

Trade Waiting – Detective Comics: The Black Mirror HC

This hardcover collects Detective Comics issues #871-881 and was Scott Snyder’s first non-creator owned major work for one of the Big Two. Assisted by two artists at the top of their game; Jock and Francisco Francavilla, the story tells of how Dick Grayson, currently under the cowl, struggles and eventually overcomes the disease that is Gotham City and how James Gordon Snr finally accepts that he has to face the past head on. Hit the jump to see how Dick gets his groove back.

This is a guest post review by Taylor Pithers. Follow him on Twitter as @taylorpithers

Detective Comics: The Black Mirror HC

Written by Scott Snydet
Art by Jock, Francesco Francavilla

The idea of Gotham being inherently evil is nothing new (David Lapham’s Batman: City of Crime performed this task admirably. As an aside, how amazing would it be if Bill Sienkiewicz actually got to draw that arc as planned?) and under a lesser team would have felt like a rehash. Thankfully Snyder keeps the storyline’s feet firmly on the ground and keeps the supernatural angle to a minimum, which in turn makes the book have a hard, unsettling edge. The closest comparison in style and tone would be David Fincher’s Se7en.

The book is split into two distinct stories, drawn superbly by the above mentioned artists, that seem very different but by the end dovetail together for a spectacular crescendo. At heart, the overarching plot involves a serial killer but rather than going down the familiar “Batman tracks down bad guy, punches bad guy in the face, good guys win the day” route, Snyder takes a different tack. In a move that would make the Columbo writers proud, he lets you in on the secret fairly early on, which gets the sometimes pesky whodunnit out of the way and allows him to concentrate on the motivations of the main cast and why they act the way they do to certain situations.

Snyder’s style of writing involves a lot of caption boxes and the sort of dialogue that only works in comics and yet the narrative never feels bogged down with too much exposition and the plot zips by at a quick pace. Feeling like the antithesis of the last decade’s decompression, all the fat is trimmed off and you are left with a comic where every panel feels important.

Snyder does a great job of introducing new characters to the lore of the Bat. A circus of horrors-esque auctioneer who, in a move not too dissimilar to Morrison’s Black Glove concept, allows the more well-to-do members of Gotham’s society bid on various items that have some form of meaning to Batman/the DC Universe as a whole, including but not confined to the crowbar that the Joker used to dispatch of Jason Todd, is a creepy addition to the landscape.

One of the main concepts that is dealt with to a great extent is one of family, legacies, and how the next generation embrace or rebel against it. The most overt of these is the path of Dick Grayson, a man who has been bred to take over the mantle of Batman since adolescence though never thought the day would actually come. Dick is under no impression that he is Bruce but you can almost feel his need to hold up the legacy of the bat whilst struggling to be his own man almost jump off the page. The difference between the two is shown to great effect fairly early on in the book when Gordon remarks that he’s not used to turning around and Batman still being there whilst in conversation. There’s always a risk in this type of story that the main character gets too bogged down with upholding a name that a previous character has kept in such high regard and Snyder thankfully sidesteps that to an extent. Dick is his own man who makes his own decisions and is man enough to bear the brunt of them.

Is this the best cover of the run?
On the polar opposite of the scale is James Gordon Junior, quite possibly one of the most disturbing new creations within the Bat universe that has been seen in many years (yes, more so than even Professor Pyg). He is a man who is extremely different to his father it actively scares people. James Junior is a mild mannered looking chap who on first glance is all smiles and handshakes but underneath is a man with no empathy whatsoever and holds a grudge like no other, an incredibly dangerous mix if there ever was one. To make matters worse, James Snr, as his father, is constantly trying to see his son in a positive light, even if all the evidence stacks up against him. This obviously is raising a question that no parent deserves to face, if it was your own child how much would it take for you to stop turning a blind eye to things that someone who was made from you continues to commit? Even when one of your other children (in this case Barbara,) can see the evil that is front of you as plain as day?

Sitting somewhere in the middle is Sonia Branch, AKA the daughter of Tony Zucco. Sonia is a legitimate businesswoman and CEO of GGM Bank. She is a prime example of someone who is trying so hard to escape from under the shadow that is her father, going as far as changing her name, but failing at every turn. To say anymore would ruin the joy of finding out the nuances of her character.

Or is this the best cover of the run?
The supporting cast is no less than excellent, including Tim Drake, Alfred, Barbara Gordon, and everyone’s favourite crooked cop with a heart, Harvey Bullock. And what would a definitive Batman story be without the Joker? Let’s just say as always his presence is felt throughout the book and you know he is not going to be too far away, especially when Dick is concerned. (For one of the creepiest characters in history, his obsession with Robins, past and present, is just downright super creepy.)

Reminding us that the book is called Detective Comics, Snyder introduces some new tech to the bat universe and what could have been seen as a deus ex machina in the payoff works incredibly well as you believe Dick really is the world’s greatest detective and nothing gets past him (well second best but who’s counting?).

When this story was originally put out, DC was going through another one of its “lets see if back-up stories work” phases with a chunk of each issue going towards pushing Dick’s story forward and the other part pushing Gordon’s. Intelligently, DC decided to keep the format fairly intact so you get sixty pages of Batman, then thirty of Gordon and so on. This works really well and just as you feel like the secrets are going to be opened up before you, it flips and goes back to the other storyline, adding to the suspense and tension of the book as a whole. Kudos to DC’s trade department on that one.

This leads to the art. What can be said about Jock that hasn’t already been? The guy is at the forefront of page design and his ability to draw effective splash pages is unparalleled. It can be argued that Jock does Batman jumping out of/off buildings better than anyone. His sharp, angular line is a joy to behold, making characters expressionistic but not cartoony. David Baron adds an almost metallic sheen with his colours which works well on the architecture of Gotham and the hi-tech equipment that Batman uses. Francesco Francavilla’s rendering for the James Gordon segments is the stark opposite of the style Jock implements but is no less effective. If Jock is sharp and angled, Francavilla is round and warm. His pulpy art really plays up the classic noir feel of Gordon’s story whilst reminding us all that this is still a comic book with his liberal use of purples and oranges. There is no doubt that this is just the beginning of Francavilla’s march to superstar status. One full page splash at the end of the book in particular will send chills up your spine and if it doesn’t maybe you’re not too different to James Jnr?

The one thing that both artists have in common is the ability to pace scenes superbly and it’s a testament to both artists that in the last issue it took me getting to page three of Jock’s segment before I even realised the artist had changed. The cover art continues the high quality of the rest of the book, two of which are arguably the best covers this reviewer has seen in a long time.

To round off the hardcover, there is a large amount of back matter including scripts, character designs and sketches and what is in effect, Francavilla’s job interview for DC. Truly beautiful stuff that needs to be seen.

Verdict – Must Read. Through mixing tried and tested concepts and characters with new ones Snyder, Jock and Francavilla have created a subtly disturbing book that is action packed, dynamic and believable whilst set in a world where men dress up as bats is considered the norm. Now that this hardcover has been released, we have a batman collection that will stand the test of time and go toe to toe with the pantheon of great Batman stories. All that and not a Miller in sight.

This book goes well with –

A cold night
Large steak, fries, and onions
Arcade Fire’s first album, Funeral

What were your thoughts on Snyder's initial run in the Bat universe?

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Anonymous said...

just long does it take for paperbacks to come out after the hardcovers? does it vary on the book or is there usually an average norm with all collections?

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