I was really excited about the relaunch, and four months in that hasn't changed. I thought it was a bold move on DC's part, a company not known for its willingness to change and stray from tradition. Although there was tons to be excited about, there was one drawback to the announcement. New books were coming out, but that meant a lot of really great titles were getting cancelled. In the four months between the relaunch announcement and the first wave of new issues that debuted in September, dozens of books were forced to wrap up their ongoing storylines in a short amount of time.
In the final months, I thought the overall quality of DC's releases started to dip considerably. In some cases, A-list talent dropped off to start working on their new projects and were replaced by mid-level writers and artists. You felt the rush to the finish line on every page and a lot of the books in my weekly stack weren't worth finishing. There was, however, one book that seemed immune to this problem. It actually got better with each new issue and it made me wish that the relaunch wasn't going to happen because I didn't want the story to end. The book was Detective Comics.
(Before I continue with this review it's important to mention that Dick Grayson is wearing the cape and cowl for the entire book. If you are not familiar with the death/return of Bruce Wayne, fear not! You are given everything you need to know in a well-written summary at the beginning of the book. After that you can jump right in for one hell of a ride. We now return to your regularly schedule review.)
Scott Snyder, with art by Jock and Francesco Francavilla, The Black Mirror is more a psychological thriller than it is a straight-up superhero romp. Snyder's run contains what appear to be three unrelated storylines, but as the book unfolds the threads start to come together in a very unexpected way. The first finds Batman tracking down an underground auction house catering to the super rich. Instead of fine diamonds and mink coats, the merchandise of choice is weapons and paraphernalia that once belonged to Gotham's premier villains. The second centers around Sonia Zucco, daughter of Tony Zucco, the man responsible for the death of Dick Grayson's parents. In an effort to distance herself from her father, Sonia has taken the last name Branch and is a legitimate businesswoman running one of Gotham's largest banks. She has been approached by a number of Gotham's undesirables who want to use her bank to launder their money. She refuses and quickly finds herself in harm's way. These first two stories are compelling enough to have made a hardcover worth adding to your collection, but it's the third one that elevates The Black Mirror to the top of my all-time favorite Batman stories.
While Batman is off doing what he does best, Commissioner Gordon is faced with a dilemma of his own. His son James has returned home after having been separated from his family for several years. Sounds harmless, right? In any normal circumstance it would be, but here's the rub: James Gordon, Jr. is a clinically diagnosed psychopath. Through a series of beautifully rendered flashbacks by Francavilla, we learn that James has never been quite right. Even as a little boy something always seemed odd about him. He was quiet, cold, and emotionless. As he got older, James and his "eccentric" behavior began to instill great fear in even his closest family members. None more so than Barbara Gordon. Her fear only intensified after her childhood friend went missing during a family vacation when Barbara and James were very young. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance cast James as the number one suspect, even though he was just a small child. With James back in town, father and daughter band together to determine whether or not James truly is the monster they've feared for so long.
Scott Snyder is, in my mind, the single best writer in comics at this point. Every book he touches is somehow better than the last. And he's no one-trick-pony. Snyder excels in a diverse set of genres. You want vampires? Check out American Vampire. You want an engaging detective story, pick up his current run on Batman. You prefer horror? Say hello to Severed and Swamp Thing. The man delivers every time he releases an issue. The Black Mirror is elegantly paced and you can tell that Snyder put a lot of thought in to the plotting of this arc. But Snyder didn't just write a great story, he introduced a new villain. And not just any villain. He has given us someone who could very well be Dick Grayson's Joker. I'm not implying that James Jr. is somehow a rip-off of the Joker, I simply mean he is equally methodical and dangerous. A monster that our hero feels responsible for. If used properly, and sparingly, James Jr. could be one of the greatest villains in Batman's already stellar rogues gallery.
The elegance and power of Snyder's writing is equally matched by the art of Jock and Francesco Francavilla. Jock focuses primarily on the Batman-heavy issues, giving us a Gotham that is as moody as it gets and a Batman that is the poster child for frightening. Jock draws Batman's cape like no one else in the game. It moves like a sentient being. His layouts are dynamic and the action sequences are cinematic in their scope. Every page he drew made me kick myself for not reading The Losers (Book One). And then I kicked myself again for actually watching the movie.
It's difficult to complain about a switch in artist when the replacement is Francesco Francavilla. I've admired his work for years, obsessing over his pinups and cover work. If you want to learn something about storytelling through sequential art you should take a look at this book. His ability to convey thought and emotion through the expression on his character's faces is so superb that you don't even need words to follow the story. And there are a couple of double-page spreads he put together that I'm still drooling over. They are epic! I mean, just look at this page....
When it comes to the greatest Batman stories ever told, The Black Mirror deserves mention along with Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The hardcover itself is gorgeous, and, for you art lovers out there, it is filled with a nice batch of supplemental materials, such as sketches and preliminary page layouts from both Jock and Francavilla. So if you love Batman, step away from Arkham City for a few minutes (I know, that's easier said than done) and indulge yourself in The Black Mirror.