Through the Mirror Darkly
The Longbox View #005 | Singular Visions 1.3
Batman: The Black Mirror Part3
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Color Artist: David Baron, Francesco Francavilla
Spoiler Level: Green (solicit) Yellow (review) Red (recap)
Two Times Before Now…
Dick “Currently still Batman” Grayson confronted the Mirror House, a mobile auction dedicated to the sale and trade of items associated with tragedy or crimes. During the battle, Dick was infected with a toxin that triggered hallucinations, causing many of his fears to manifest. Meanwhile, Commissioner Jim Gordon was faced with the return of his psychopathic son, James Jr, who may or may not have set a bunch of birds free at Gotham Aviary.
When Last We Met…
We explored the question of inherent good and evil as we delved into the history of James Jr, and how he may or may not have murdered Bess, a young girl and a friend of Barbara (version: sister) while on summer vacation when he was an even younger boy.
However, everything we thought we knew about James was suddenly called into question when known childkiller Roy Blount admitted to having followed the Gordons to their summer home. Shortly thereafter Batman informed Jim that the aviary birds were freed by a few random punks, not James as suspected.
Meanwhile Dick (in Batman form) investigated the murder of a young woman who had been delivered to Global Gotham Modern Bank via killer whale corpse. Working the case revealed that he had been manipulated by Gotham Modern CEO Sonia Branch, daughter of the man who murdered Dick’s parents.
Dick (in Dick form) then met with James Jr. at Jim’s request to assess James’ mental state. Dick determined that James was fine… but he was very wrong. Just ask the severely mutilated still living body of an old acquaintance of James’s, currently hanging from the ceiling in his own basement…
I really didn’t expect this to take so long. In the future I’ll try to cut down on the verbosity, but I’m new to this and you live and learn. For now, though, we reach….
The Final Act (Skeleton Key/My Dark Architect/The Face in the Glass)
Traditionally, the third act is rather late to begin introducing new characters to the play. Of course comics are a bit different than any other kind of story – they are only ever in Act 2, with miniature plays strewn throughout the larger runs that never truly reach completion. That said, the best miniature plays are a complete to themselves, like a tiny puzzle that comes together into a piece of a larger puzzle still. In the end, you’re left amazed at how we’ve arrived where we are, and feeling as though it could only have ever gone that way.
With that in mind, the final act here begins with the introduction of a new piece – the Joker. Currently confined to Arkham, Joker has a story he’d like to share: Boy meets girl, and they fall in love. Everyone is happy, until the fall. It comes slowly, inexorably, as the sickness hiding inside her rises to the surface, until she is consumed by pain, and he can’t touch her anymore because her body is destroying itself from the inside. Happiness slow-sliding into tragedy.
Love is like that sometimes, and not just romantic love, either.
Case in point: Jim Gordon meets with Leslie Thompkins ostensibly to check up on his son and how he’s doing at the clinic. We already know James has been doing great from Dick but here we get more detail: he’s putting in those long hours, doing extra things to help out, like going on nutrition runs, delivering baby formula. The scene is pleasant enough, but there is an everpresent tension lingering in the air between father and son as first one then the other hides their eyes behind their glasses.
The hiding is because they’re each lying to the other. In James Jr’s case it’s more of a lie of omission – he just happens not to mention that he is a serial killer and has Ben Wolff maimed and mangled in his own basement. In Jim’s case, he isn’t really there to check up on James at all. He reveals this to Barbara when he hands her a stolen pill from James’ stash – his experimental psychopathy medication, Diaxamyne. Regardless of how much he wants to believe his son… he can’t take it on faith with so much at stake. He asks her to test the drug so they can be sure that James is actually taking what he claims to be taking. That he is truly trying to change.
Barbara’s analysis reveals that the medication isn’t Diaxamyne at all – it’s the absolute opposite. Far from stimulating empathy, it blunts or prevents the development of empathy. And while the drug isn’t strong enough to affect adults, James has been going on nutrition runs. Feeding babies. If he mixes the drugs into the formula, it has the potential to create a generation full of psychopaths just like him.
And here is where many of the old threads laced through the volume begin to tie together:
Jim rushes to find James, the Joker’s love story interposed over Jim in his car, Jim lifting his boy to the sunlight, the golden colors of all that promise fading into the dingy greyblue and violet of today as he forces himself to accept the truth. His son, whom he loves, is a monster. But he doesn’t know the half of it.
Jim knocks down James’ door. Inside the closet is a box, and Jim pulls it open just as Harvey Bullock steps in…
And we have this brilliant sequence.
Jim opens the box, his face stricken with horror. Harvey tells him the Joker has massacred his keepers at Arkham and escaped.
In this moment, the Joker and James, their crimes and their natures, are paralleled with the Joker’s gruesome scene revealed as the equivalent of what’s in that box.
Because there it is: James’s box of souvenirs – a key ring from each victim he’s left behind. There are so many of them, each the bloodless equivalent of a corpse. And right there at the top, clutched in Jim’s hand, is the key and bat trinket that once belonged to Barbara’s disappeared friend, Bess.
It wasn’t Roy Blount who killed Bess. He wasn’t the thing that lurked in the dark that night. It was James.
….and here’s where we bring it back to the Joker. Because I have a theory. I’m not sure if Scott Snyder has ever spoken about this, so it’s really just my theorizing but I think James Jr. shows all the signs of having been designed to be Dick Grayson’s archnemesis. His Joker, so to speak. The Joker enters the story just as James is fully unmasked. The Joker’s crimes are presented in parallel with James’s crimes. Just as the Joker can recognize Bruce anywhere, can immediately tell that Dick isn’t the Batman he knows, so too is James able to cut through the obfuscation and drama surrounding Batman and recognize Dick Grayson beneath his mask.
But perhaps most importantly of all, his personality, his character, is designed as fully opposite to Dick… rather like the Joker is to Bruce.
Because Bruce is all regimented rationality. He is the embodiment of justice and order. Self-sacrifice and altruism dressed in the costume of a nightmare. The Joker, on the other hand, is chaos. Darkness and bright neon colors. He is a nightmare wearing the costume of a children’s character. That’s what makes the Joker the perfect archnemesis for Bruce – they are so different that together they form a kind of unit. Two sides of a coin.
For Dick, that person, the other side of his coin, is James. Dick is flashy – a natural performer, and James blends into the crowd. Dick is an infinite well of emotion, empathy, compassion, and James… he’s a void. A bottomless well that echoes down into darkness and nothingness. Dick loves the Gordons though they aren’t technically family, but for James there is blood but no love. James can’t love, not really. For Dick, people are, as Immanuel Kant would say, not a means to an end but an end unto themselves. For James…
Here’s the end of that thought:
My Dark Architect opens with Jim trying to warn his ex-wife, James’ mother, Barbara that the Joker has escaped and she needs to protect herself. He tries too late, because by the time he arrives she’s mutilated, infected with Joker toxin, naked and covered in blood.
Naturally, she can’t explain what’s happened to her so the family is on alert. Not for the first time, Gordon wonders if there’s a curse on Gotham – something bleeding and dark and hideous under the surface of the city, pumping it full of black blood and death. If so, the blood must have seeped into Gordon’s own bloodline. Because it soon becomes clear that they were all wrong.
Barbara wasn’t attacked by the Joker at all. It was her own son who left her, naked, bleeding and mangled.
And so we return to where we started – a map of a hungry city, Dick remembering his father’s colored pins on the dressing room wall. Batman – Dick Grayson edition – and Gordon working through the crime of the moment, today’s mystery. James left Barbara (Oracle)’s wheelchair out, blood all over it. Taunting them.
I believe it was last column where I suggested that Dick’s compassion can be, at times, a weakness. Essentially, his desire to see the best in people, to give them a chance, can be blinding. It was blinding with Sonia Branch, because he saw too much of his own struggles with Bruce’s shadows in her fight with Zucco’s legacy. It was blinding with James, too, but I said then that part of his issue with James is the relative dearth of information. He knew James as a kid but not very well, and he hasn’t really been preoccupied with James since then. More than that, no one told him all the things they suspected where James is concerned, so he didn’t know to look beyond his want to absolve – Dick is a brilliant man and a great detective, but without the information he needed he was, batlike, flying blind. So he miscalculated… and now is the moment where they are falling toward shallow water, just about to break their necks.
This is also our masks off, knives out moment. That’s a little more literal than one would think, as when Barbara comes to, she has knives shoved into her legs. Removing them would be disastrous – she would bleed out, and quickly. Under the circumstances it seems safe for them to have a sibling chat, and so that’s exactly what they do.
The atmosphere between them is strange, disturbing – almost more interrogator and interrogated than anything else, but without the clarity of distinct and disparate roles. Finally stripped of their pretenses, they can ask each other the things they’ve always wanted to know – and answer in kind.
What James most wants to know is… when? When did Barbara first realize that James was a psychopath? Not suspect, know. According to Barbara, it was when he mutilated the face of a bus driver, seemingly for calling him four eyes, nearly a year after the incident. For a moment you remember that he’s slaughtered Ben Wolff – the man who made fun of his glasses – as well. A trigger, perhaps?
But no. Any desire the reader might have to attribute James’ destructiveness to rage or ego is immediately laid to rest: it isn’t that insults set him off – it’s nothing that “benign.” A poor self-esteem or a fragile ego as a justification for murder would be unforgivable, but not unrelatable. Isn’t it human to be angry at someone who’s hurt you? But James wasn’t hurt. He is a sadist. He wants to kill them, torture them – the bus driver. Bess. Ben Wolff. Barbara, his sister and Barbara, his own mother. He doesn’t need a reason to do it. He just needs an excuse to start.
Now, there’s long been a theory that Jim Gordon already knows the identities of the various Bat types – at least on some level. In many cases the idea is that he’s too good a cop, and too intelligent a man, not to put the pieces together… except that he chooses not to know. He looks away when the image starts to clear. This is something that has been recently, and explicitly, addressed in Joker #2 by James Tynion and Guillem March, and there it’s confirmed that he at least knows that Barbara is Batgirl, and Oracle.
This is worth mentioning because James knows Dick is Batman – this Batman. He knows Bruce is the original, too. It’s not surprising. The Gordons are, by and large, brilliant people. We know that – it’s why we have such a hard time believing that Jim has never figured out Bruce and Batman are the same person, considering his relationship to both. It’s easier to accept that it is an act of will that he doesn’t make the connections – it’s plausible deniability. And it’s about respecting his friend and ally’s privacy, too.
But James doesn’t have those hangups, and so he really couldn’t help but figure it out. And that’s what brought him back to Gotham.
Because, again, he’s Dick’s Joker. His absolute opposite. Which means, like the Joker and his bizarre attraction to Bruce, James is drawn to Dick – fascinated and perhaps slightly disgusted by the ways in which Dick is nothing like him. The fascination only grew when James started a trial with Diaxamyne because, funny enough, the medication worked. And when he felt those feelings, those squiggly little human bits, welling up inside – just a few drops, but what difference is there between a puddle and an ocean if you’ve never seen water? — James decided. He decided that, you know what, empathy just isn’t for him.
It’s a weakness. It clouds judgment and what’s it for anyway? In the sense that we’ve moved beyond tribes in caves who needed one another to survive, what point is there to walking around with your heart on your sleeve and your metaphorical guts hanging out of your body, showing everyone your soft places, holding back when you don’t need to, worrying about people. He knew that Gotham had made him to change the world – to give rise to a generation of psychopaths. People who wouldn’t flinch at pain – giving or receiving.
And for one other reason, too. Because just when he wasn’t sure which direction to go, he saw Batman smiling, and he knew it was Dick. And if compassion makes you weak….
What is Dick but the weakest man in Gotham?
So there’s Dick, a hero made of altruism and passion – for performance, for helping others, for life. He’s someone James can strive to challenge, to “fight” both physically and philosophically. And that’s why he’s in Gotham, bribing children to unleash birds from the Gotham Aviary. Setting up the Mirror House. Nearly murdering his mother.
He’s there to oppose Jim and Barbara and, most of all, Dick. Because Dick is a hero.
And James is his black mirror.
Scott Snyder is, I think, more a horror writer than he is anything else. That’s not to say he doesn’t do other genres well, because he does, but when he digs his fingers into the deep, the magic really starts to flow. The final confrontation hits like the final moments of a slasher film – the mask of James’ humanity crumbling off his face as he hunts his sister, blood-streaked knife in hand.
Like the metaphorical monster he is made literal, he’s barely phased by pain, barely threatened by death. And though he manages to escape, he soon finds himself back in the moment where he was made – a callback to his first appearance in Batman: Year One, and the fall that may or may not have changed who he could have been.
But this time, his father is there before he falls, and this time he won’t let go.
In choosing to fire on James to stop him from escaping, Jim is finally able to come to terms with the impossibility of who he wishes his son could be – the little boy he was before his nature became set.
But in saving James from falling to his death, he is able to demonstrate his love, his capacity to forgive… and his willingness to always try to draw him back if given the chance.
As for James’ plan to turn the children of Gotham into sociopaths… Dick is unable to find any evidence that he was able to set the plan into motion before being caught.
But does that mean anything?
Look into the baby’s eyes and judge for yourself.
10/10 would read again.
In all seriousness, The Black Mirror is one of my favorite Batman stories of all time, which is pretty impressive considering it’s not even Bruce and I am, at heart, a Bruce fan more than anything else. Aside from the top notch writing, both Jock and Francavilla put in top notch artistic efforts the entire way through, and once they start trading off, things could have gotten strange but I thought the split duties were well-used by placing the correct artist in the correct atmosphere – or writing for the artists’ individual styles, whichever was actually done.
I have a lot of thoughts on James Jr and the directions he did and didn’t go in the wake of this volume. Overall I feel like his potential was largely untapped, and now he’s dead for however long he’ll stay dead. But when he’s written well and fully, when someone is willing to commit to what it means to write a psychopath, there is no scarier villain in comics.
…this should really be an animated film.
So, I started this project saying I would track the recurring themes and foreshadowing and of course I will absolutely do that when I know what to look for – like I said, some of the work will be new to me, too. But more likely, I’ll spend a lot of time pointing out things that refer back to stuff I’ve read in the past.
That said, don’t think I didn’t notice that owl in that dramatic panel of Dick.
Anyway, now that we’ve completed The Black Mirror, I’m going to take a break from the Snyder tour and do some other things, for example…
Next time on The Longbox View… Catching up with I Breathed A Body! This should be fun…gal!
Until then, stay safe and keep reading!
ARIEL BEE IS… An Old Person. A Comics reading veteran. Mostly involved with DC and indies but happy to go on the occasional Marvelous Mission into the unknown. An analytical overthinker. Also found as a reviewer on Comics-Watch and Twitter @thearielbee.