A Retrospective on Batman: The Black Mirror
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
In 2011, DC Comics’ Detective Comics title ran a story entitled Batman: The Black Mirror. From writer Scott Snyder and artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla, the story has established a lasting impression amongst comic book readers. Firstly, the saga features former sidekick Dick Grayson’s ascent into the cowl of The Dark Knight. Through this specific event, we witness a unique interpretation of the symbol of Batman.
Additionally, the story embodies numerous aspects of the horror genre. Of course, Batman has historically been associated with dark and gritty tones. However, Batman: The Black Mirror pushes those notable tones drastically forward. Some of the arc’s most memorable sequences root themselves in disturbing portrayals of violence. The villain of the story is arguably one of the coldest in the Batman mythos, and the ambiguity of the story’s conclusion leaves readers with great discomfort.
Thus, let us dive deep into Batman: The Black Mirror.
Though I should warn you, this story is not for the faint of heart.
The Black Pin
As we all know, Gotham City has served as Batman’s home for generations. The city has been a consistent setting for characters and storylines throughout DC Comics history. Though, what many people may not have realized is that Gotham City is ultimately the essence of the Batman mythos. The city itself becomes anthropomorphized through Batman’s existence in addition to the existence of each and every one of his enemies and allies.
The opening of Batman: The Black Mirror features Dick reflecting on how his parents would mark a map with a set of different colored pins. The color of the pin would determine the level of difficulty the family, as The Flying Graysons. would reach in their famous acrobatic shows. All cities either had a red or blue pin, all except for Gotham City as the city was marked by a black pin. Dick’s father ultimately explained that Gotham City was a special place, a place with a hunger for more.
Thus, Gotham City is an entity unafraid to deprive what lies within it. Gotham City consumed the parents of both Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. As a result, the city deprived the two of the roots that tethered them to their humanity, attempting to transform them into monsters. Of course, they did not. Rather, they live to fight the very nature they were bred to exemplify, that of monsters.
Monsters infest the city of Gotham, literally depicted in the work’s opening pages as a young child morphs into a terrifying abomination that rips a teenager’s arm off. Interestingly though, these literal monsters are the least to be feared in Gotham, a place with the capability to transform innocent individuals, including children, into beings they cannot even fathom.
The Battle For The Cowl
Batman: The Black Mirror features Gotham City entering a transitionary state of being. Bruce Wayne is no longer operating as Batman. In his stead, Dick Grayson has taken up the mantle.
Now, despite the fact that Dick Grayson has worked alongside Bruce Wayne as Batman for quite some time, Dick’s approach to the symbol is starkly different. Firstly, he struggles with adopting to Bruce Wayne’s former life. He does not feel comfortable in the vastness of Wayne Manor nor does he know how to establish his own identity within the home. He feels Bruce’s energy throughout. So, he feels odd marking his place when he doesn’t feel as though it is truly his. Additionally, he also struggles in establishing a distinct identity as The Dark Knight.
In fact, Commissioner Gordon refers to Dick and Bruce as “you Waynes” as though their relationship runs in their blood and their identities as civilian and vigilante are directly intertwined.
There is no question that Dick experiences a tremendous amount of pressure in regard to living up to Bruce’s career as Batman. With this, we are aware that Dick has always strived to maintain some autonomy over his identity. He desires to be his own person outside of his association with Batman. Though, he does acknowledge that Batman’s influence has shaped him as a person. So, now, he must strive more than ever to make Batman his own and translate what has developed his personal identity into a unique interpretation of the Batman symbol.
The question is, how?
Sins Of The Son
Despite what one may interpret as a definitive moment in Dick Grayson’s career, there is no grand reveal of him in the Batman suit. This ultimately suggests that Dick has not completely rooted himself in the role of Batman, he is still navigating that identity. We not only come to understand this process in the aforementioned aspects of Snyder’s characterization of Dick but also in the comic’s artwork as well.
In fact, Jock’s initial depictions of Batman are rendered as obscured silhouettes. Additionally, a rough portrayal of the Bat signal in the story’s opening pages suggest that the symbol of the Bat is undergoing a shift.
However, though Dick is on a journey to fulfilling his role as Batman, that journey does not imply that his Batman is meant to parallel that of Bruce. Dick must establish his own identity as The Dark Knight without compromising the symbol of justice it stood for under Bruce’s tenure because Dick is of course a different person than Bruce.
Thus, there are various apparent differences between the new Batman and his predecessor.
The most stark difference is arguably that Dick is a much more transparent and carefree Batman. Of course, “carefree” and “Batman” are not two words one would expect to see in the same sentence, but Dick exemplifies those characteristics to a tee. In fact, we see him smile in one sequence when he uses the Bat-taser on an enemy. Sure, it is a brief moment, but it is incredibly telling that Dick seems to actually have a little fun in his role as Batman.
The Faults of the Hero
In regard to Dick’s transparency, one may interpret that characteristic as either a flaw or a strength. Either way, it is a transparency his predecessor did not always maintain because Dick does not display much of a distinction between his two personas. In the first segment of Batman: The Black Mirror., Batman interrogates a man named Buck.
When Buck suddenly begins suffering a horrific death, Batman actually panics and screams Buck’s name. This moment, in addition to others, exemplifies Dick’s susceptibility to losing self-control and failing to have a plan B in dire situations. There are moments in which he does not see all the possible outcomes and is therefore unprepared for those unforeseen.
Consequently, many of his actions and choices may be perceived as impulsive and rash, a characteristic Barbara Gordon believes to be a symptom of his experiences in the circus and constant mobility.
Thus, Dick isn’t one to stay still. This ultimately explains his struggles in putting down roots in Wayne Manor. As a result, he may not exemplify the most patient and collected Batman. Though, his impulsiveness does suggest that he is bound to trust his instincts, whether right or wrong.
The Dealer Pays a Visit
Now, one of Batman: The Black Mirror‘s most iconic moments lies in its most mysterious character, The Dealer. He is known by the alias Etienne Guiborg, the name of a man who performed Black Masses in the 17th century. The Dealer though spends his days running auctions that sell goods associated with some of the world’s most notorious, horrific crimes.
It is certainly a disturbing notion to ponder, the idea that people will be willing to bid dollar upon dollar on items used to enact unfathomable acts of violence. Of course, that infatuation with violence is the crux of Gotham City. Violence runs through the veins of the city, feeding it and the evil that grows within.
Consequently, Batman is the foil to Gotham City, fighting the very nature that the city conditions him to become.
There is often a question as to whether evil is a product of misguidance or inherent nature. Gotham City seems to argue the latter. In regard to The Dealer and his auctions, he certainly plays up the city’s ties to instilling darkness in individuals. He even holds Gotham City’s auction in the Mirror House, a place that endured a fire that killed a multitude of citizens and still stinks of death to this day. Additionally, The Dealer gifts all attendees a gas mask that filters out the poisonous gas present within the Mirror House, a gas that was allegedly used in some mass murder within Gotham long ago.
The Weak & The Brave
Ultimately, The Dealer maintains a sickening fascination with Gotham City’s dark history. He pays immense attention to detail and almost perceives himself to be a prophet. As a result, his lengthy monologue details his personal belief that evil is indeed Gotham City’s essence as well as “humanity’s divine speak.”
To The Dealer, evil is a true source of power that only the fearless can maintain. So, to him, Batman is far from fearless. His empathy is a weakness that must be purged from the city. Additionally, The Dealer perceives Batman’s acts of heroism as acts of futility. He believes that evil can never be snuffed out because it persists and exists in the nature of those called to evil.
Perhaps Batman is aware of this. Perhaps he knows that his presence invokes challenge from those who oppose him. Yet, Batman continues his battle against evil despite the fact that some may believe that there is no point in doing so. Bruce Wayne began his journey as The Dark Knight to protect innocents from the city that took his parents. Dick Grayson continues that journey for the sake of preserving Batman’s legacy and for his own personal motivations. However, one cannot help but wonder if that constant fight against an unchanging city will ever result in the favor of the good guys.
"What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?"
The Haunting of Jason Todd
What makes this sequence of Batman: The Black Mirror particularly disturbing is observing it through Dick’s perspective, who has actually gone undercover to the auction. He is the sole individual within the multitude of attendees who does not agree with a word of what The Dealer says.
Dick is the only one in the room disturbed by the current events as people “ooh” and “ahh” over the items up for sale. Despite all he has seen, Dick continues to be shocked at the behavior of people in this tale. He cannot fathom that everyone in attendance came to the auction voluntarily. Again, these people were not misguided or pressured to descend into this state of being. Rather, they want to be at this auction because they genuinely enjoy its purpose.
Now, the first item up for sale is none other than the crowbar The Joker used to brutally beat Jason Todd. Upon its reveal, attendees shout how beautiful the object is, the object used to end a life. Dick’s reaction is quite poignant as he clearly express discomfort in response to his peers’ admiration towards the object.
Dick understands the object's significance to Bruce Wayne’s history as Batman. Thus, when The Dealer blows Dick’s cover and informs the auction’s attendees that Batman is among them, Dick takes hold of the crowbar, an encapsulation of Batman’s history prior to the events of Batman: The Black Mirror.
Interestingly though, this sequence depicts Dick’s expression of fear once again. He fears the depths his peers have sunk to, and he fears getting caught and losing the battle. Thus, he finds himself seeking composure in the assertion of facts, one of which is that he is Gotham City’s Batman.
He cannot understand the nature of those in the Mirror House, but he can understand the duty he is upholding.
We Are Gotham
Within the first few segments of Batman: The Black Mirror, Dick expresses confidence in his role as The Dark Knight. However, in spite of that confidence, there are multiple instances that imply a fear he continuously maintains of Gotham City. He fears the inexplicable evil individuals have willingly become a part of, witnessed at the auction. He also fears the very nature of Gotham City that attempts to consume anything seeking good, witnessed in Dick’s nightmare of being eaten alive by Barbara.
Interestingly, need drives both sides of the Gotham City coin. The evil are consumed by their need to do evil deeds and amass power associated with evil while Batman and his allies are consumed by their need to stop acts of evil. It is a never-ending cycle that seems to have no victor.
Thus, Dick fears succumbing to the other side of the binary, seeing himself fall into the jaws of Gotham City and becoming the villain himself.
A Prisoner’s Truth
To combat that endless cycle, Dick roots himself in psychological anchors. After the events of the Mirror House, he asks Alfred to toss the crowbar in a river. He wishes to sanitize aspects of Batman and Gotham City’s past in an effort to reignite a new era, one in which the cycle may rupture for once. Thus, his anchors are not rooted in the history of Bruce’s Batman. They are rooted in his own persona, one that strives to move on from the past.
Maybe Bruce held onto his shortcomings in the past so much that they prevented him from making a change for the city’s future. Maybe, maybe not. Now, there is an idea that Gotham City is capable of being owned by the most powerful criminal in the city or by the boldest vigilante. That idea is quite difficult to exemplify when Gotham City has proven itself to be its own entity, and Dick knows that.
He knows that the city lives through darkness even if it is hard for him to accept. Thus, he fears failing to save the city, as exemplified in the nightmares the poisonous gas of the Mirror House bestow upon him. He fears the shoes he is meant to fill though most importantly, he fears not being a better Batman.
One of Dick’s most apparent hurdles in his path to becoming Batman is his struggle to accept the inherent inhumanity of people. Unfortunately for him, that hurdle will only grow more difficult with one character’s detested return.
The primary narrative of Batman: The Black Mirror lies in the return of Commissioner James Gordon’s son, James Gordon Jr. Interestingly, this family reunion is no happy event as Barbara and her father maintain varying perceptions of their relative.
Barbara does not trust James in the slightest. She believes him to be a psychotic killer who maintains no remorse for his actions. Gordon on the other hand is far from that level of acceptance. He simply cannot fathom that someone so close to him is capable of such disturbing acts of crime. He cannot fathom that Gotham would take his own son into its clutches and transform him into a dark angel.
Unfortunately for Gordon, his ignorance that provides him with a false sense of security becomes a vessel for James’ evil to spread.
In a conversation with her father, Barbara reveals that there are only two things she fears. The first is the moment in which she opened the door of the Gordon residence only for The Joker to shoot and paralyze her. The second is her brother, a man that constantly evades her surveillance even though she is one of the best trackers in the world.
Thus, she finds discomfort in the fact that he is always one step ahead, leaving her in the dark as to what his motives are.
Despite her tenure in Gotham City and despite the countless villains Barbara has fought, she fears her brother because he is not one for the theatrics like so many other Gotham villains are. He does not seek monetary rewards or even notoriety. James kills for the satisfaction of torturing another human being, and he does not feel a single pang of remorse in doing so.
The Life and Death of Commissioner Gordon
When James meets his father upon his return to Gotham City, he informs Gordon that he is on a path to reformation. At this point, Gordon is reluctant to believe that his son is a killer despite the fact that Barbara fervently believes her brother was responsible for the death of her childhood friend, Bessie.
So, by leaving Gotham City, James allegedly began a journey to self-improvement, a journey he claims to be successful. However, one cannot help but wonder if leaving the city truly extracts its influence from an individual, an individual who has already become shaped by the city. Also, James' claims of self-improvement are incredibly subjective. What exactly does self-improvement mean in the context of a psychopath’s psyche?
Thus, Commissioner Gordon finds himself in an enigma. He maintains a continuous inability to leave his work at the office, and that inability has come to define his life. His life revolves around crime, and he is fascinated by it.
However, he tries to suppress that fascination in addition to the ties he has with crime through his son.
Thus, Gordon attempts to justify himself and the crimes of his family through his deeds of crimefighting. Now though, the longevity of those deeds has run out since The Gordon family’s truth is ready to expose itself.
What Men Fear
The fear of change is one of Batman: The Black Mirror‘s most persistent motifs. Dick fears failure in his tenure as Batman. He fears adapting to Bruce’s former mansion.
He also fears losing the battle for Gotham City. Gordon also shares those fears of change. He fears that he will have to acknowledge James’ truth as a killer when it is far too late.
So, as aforementioned, psychological anchors combat these fears. We are aware of Dick’s, but what are Gordon’s?
He abhors Gotham City, yet he stays. Despite his abhorrence, he maintains great confidence in his ability to recognize the darkness within people. Sure, he may ignore it within his own son but he is certainly aware of his son’s true nature. Gordon simply wishes for it to go away.
Additionally, Gordon cannot help but wonder if he himself maintains his own darkness. He reflects on a time in his youth in which he was aggressive towards his son. Therefore, he cannot help but wonder if his actions contributed to James’ development.
Following James’ return to Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon asks Dick to meet with his son. He wishes Dick to let him know if he suspects anything serious about James’ nature. Now, the two discuss the matter as Dick dissects a killer whale taken from a bizarre crime scene. As Gordon makes these requests, a young woman slides out of the dead whale’s stomach, establishing one of the most disturbing images of Batman: The Black Mirror.
Though the image is brief, it makes an impact. The whale exemplifies Gotham City’s perilous nature, one that swallows the souls of individuals whole and spits them back out as cold-hearted beings. James himself identifies with those beings, those dark angels. He also perceives himself to be much greater than that. In fact, he seems himself as a predator and prophet, one that fulfills the destiny of Gotham City itself.
Now, the motif of a father’s mistakes influencing their child is another persistent one in Batman: The Black Mirror. One of the narrative’s significant players is none other than Sonia Zucco. Though she goes by the alias Sonia Branch in an effort to disassociate herself from her criminal father, Tony Zucco.
When he meets her, Dick is unsure of Sonia. He does not totally believe one can totally dissociate themselves from the ones who raised them. So, this begs the question of how far one can truly escape the shadow of their father. Perhaps Commissioner Gordon does not fear his son as much as he fears that his son is actually a parallel to himself.
James Gordon Jr. perceives himself as Gotham City’s knight, the one destined to brings its influence out into the world. Of course, Batman himself is often defined as the Gotham Knight. Now, is it possible for the latest Batman to maintain that proclaimed role?
In his tenure as Batman, Bruce was a realist, perceiving Gotham City as it is. Dick on the other hand appears to be much more of an idealist. This is exemplified through the manner in which he carries himself as Batman. Now there is one other figure in this story that directly tethers the past and present Batmans together, Barbara Gordon. Her perception of Gotham City seems much more in line with Bruce’s as she maintains a forthright view of her brother and ultimately evil itself.
Thus, one may perceive Barbara as Batman: The Black Mirror's voice of reason. Her perceptions of her brother were correct from start to finish. She justifiably fears him, but she does not run away. In fact, upon the end of the story, when Gordon informs Barbara that James is on the hunt for her she replies,
“I'm not hiding from him, dad. He wants me? Let him come knock on my door. This time I'll be waiting."
Barbara is not looking to change her brother, she simply wants to stop him. So, perhaps those sentiments apply to Gotham as a whole. Perhaps she has come to accept that the city will never change, but maybe in the meantime, she can stop a few from hemorrhaging the city’s evil.
Perhaps that will be enough if it means saving just one person’s life.
From time to time, Batman: The Black Mirror refers to The Joker as Gotham’s architect. It appears that out of all of the city’s villains and notorious figures, The Joker exemplifies the city’s chaotic nature the most. In addition to this, his role in Batman: The Black Mirror is one of a transcendent nature. He does not physically play a large role, yet, like the accomplished architect he is, he sets things in motion.
As James prepares to kill Barbara after abducting her, he tells her an unexpected tale. He claims that during his time in Arkham Asylum, he lived in a cell adjacent to The Joker. Interestingly, the two got along and James divulged plenty of information regarding his family to The Clown Prince of Crime. James implies that those conversations catalyzed The Joker’s decision to visit the Gordon household on that fateful night of Barbara's paralysis.
However, after recounting the tale, James fervently claims it was all a joke.
Of course, whether or not James and The Joker maintained a relationship is up to interpretation. However, it is worth noting that The Joker inspired James. He even dressed up as Joker for Halloween once as a child.
Thus, it is interesting to see The Joker’s role behind the scenes of this particular Batman story. As one of the most persistent figures in the Batman mythos, it comes as no surprise that someone like him would possibly aid James’ journey to evil.
What Lies Beyond Batman: The Black Mirror
The conclusion to Batman: The Black Mirror is a shocking one. James’ plan is revealed to be an effort to contaminate Gotham City’s nutrition supply for newborn babies with an inverted form of Diaxamyne, a drug meant to enhance one’s empathy. James believes empathy to be a weakness just as The Dealer did. So, to him, Batman is Gotham’s weakest figure. Thus, James strives to exterminate people like Batman from Gotham by rendering all newborn children psychopaths through Diaxamyne’s inversion.
Thankfully though, Batman manages to intervene and also rescues Barbara from James' clutches. This then leaves Commissioner Gordon to confront his son. However, Gordon prevents his son from falling to his death. Despite all that has taken place, Gordon still saves his son’s life.
Perhaps the pull of blood is stronger than anything that could break it. Perhaps Gordon is still deluding himself into believing his son is capable of redemption. Either way, Batman: The Black Mirror is undoubtedly a horror story. Its conclusion suggests that James may have succeeded in his master plan. It suggests that a good man can become corrupted and that one is most susceptible to the lies they tell themselves. It also suggests that Batman himself is capable of failure.
Ultimately, Batman: The Black Mirror is a terrifying tale because it shows us that Batman may not be capable of instilling the hope his symbol strives to exemplify. It shows us that sometimes, evil can prevail.