Dick Grayson holds a very important role in Bruce Wayne’s life. He brought an element of brightness and fun that grounded the caped crusader. After all, you need an anchor of some kind to help deal with the bleak nature of Gotham. But times change. Bruce Wayne is no longer in Gotham and Dick Grayson has taken on the cowl of Batman. This city and the criminals he deals with night after night are starting to have an effect on his mood and psyche. He still tries to hold onto the optimism, but it is becoming more of a struggle. And it will be put to the test as Dick now deals with threats unique to him. Welcome everyone and witness the tale that is….Batman: The Black Mirror.
When people talk about modern Batman classics, you don’t see this one pop up much in the conversation. There is a solid fanbase and it is even considered underrated. But you don’t hear get brought up along other stories like “Hush” or “The Court of Owls”. Part of it could be that this story was told just before Flashpoint and the New 52 reboot. Another part of it could be because Dick Grayson is Batman and not Bruce Wayne. I would argue that this story should be considered because of the fact that Dick Grayson is the focus. It pushes the idea that Batman and what he represents can’t be limited by one person and/or one interpretation of what the character can be. Seeing another person take on the mantle and bring their own ideas speaks to how universal the themes behind Batman are. It speaks to that in a way that other similar stories just can’t quite do.
Before we get too deep into the story itself, I want to give praise to the art. There are two different art styles being showcased. Since this story was told in the pages of Detective Comics, we have two separate but connected stories being told at the same time before ultimately converging towards the end. Until then, each story comes with a different art style. The Gordon Family storyline has a more neon-colored approach. It gives off a feeling of a warm invitation, but the angles and facial expressions help you realize that something dark is beneath the bright colors, waiting for the right moment to strike. That feeling does tie in with what happens at the end and who the ultimate antagonist turns out to be.
Then we have the main storyline focusing on Dick Grayson. The colors and style take a bit more of a realistic approach but still embrace the fact it is a comic book and allows itself to show off the kind of action and scenes only a comic book can get away with. It also captures the more subtle dark atmosphere that emulates from the pages. Regardless of which art style you are looking at while reading, the writing for “Black Mirror” is structured more like a crime noir than an actual superhero tale. Take for example this specific scene from the middle, where Dick is being dangled over a pool with Orcas waiting to eat him. This is a very familiar scene to anyone with even casual knowledge of the superhero genre. But the art style plus the writing for the characters have subtly been working to change your perception of the scene. When reading, you have this sense of dread and unease that permeates through most of the story that isn’t usually felt in most superhero stories, even for a character like Batman. Meaning that while we go through the familiar motions of Dick cutting himself out of the rope and dealing with the Orcas, it feels very different from what you might be expecting. It feels harsher, more in line with the nihilistic atmosphere that is trying to overwhelm our hero in every chapter of the saga.
Another element of the story that embraces the crime noir atmosphere is that the story doesn’t have any supervillains. True, the Joker does make an appearance, but he is more of a red herring or a tool used by our main antagonist, James Gordon Jr. Otherwise, we are focused on a group of people who have their own history of trauma and loss trying to figure out how to operate in a grim world. That is also something that leans into the crime noir genre, having characters that are morally corrupt or view the world as a complex and morally gray existence with no clear-cut answers.
But now let’s get to one major question - what is the title, “The Black Mirror”, in reference to? The way I see it, there are a few different options. As previously mentioned, the antagonist of this story is James Gordon Jr. There are a few details that support the idea that he is a dark reflection of Dick Grayson. Our hero never had a full family - Dick’s birth parents were murdered when he was a young boy and Bruce Wayne was more focused on training him to be a fighter with the hope that the lessons of being a good person would follow later. It was at the very least untraditional. But Dick turned out a good person due to his very nature. James Jr. on the other hand, had a family that early on seemed to be the ideal American Family Unit. But despite his upbringing, it became clear that something was wrong within his mind. No trauma pushed him toward this path. He became a psychopathic killer because that was simply who he was. It is sort of a reversal of the Joker’s story if you are using his origin from Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” as his canonical beginnings. In fact, there is a flashback scene later on where James Jr sees Dick Grayson as Batman on the TV screen and that scene is eerily similar to the one from “The Dark Knight Returns” where the Joker sees Bruce Wayne come out of retirement. All of this creates a new archenemy dynamic between Dick and James Jr that parallels Bruce’s & Joker’s. Instead of Order vs. Chaos, it is Nurture vs. Nature.
Another possible interpretation of this story’s title is examining the parallels between Bruce and Dick. Bruce’s journey to becoming Batman came from a dark origin, which of course shaped him into someone with a very serious personality. While his first adventures were grounded, over time they became more fantastical once he had to deal with the likes such as Killer Croc, Mad Hatter, or Clayface. And let’s not forget that Bruce would end up gaining a family through the many sidekicks he mentored over the years and the other allies he would constantly work with. Dick also started from a dark place, watching his own parents being murdered - vaguely similar to Bruce’s first traumatic experience. However, a lot of Dick’s earlier adventures, especially as Robin, had a lighter atmosphere to them. Once he got older and even became Batman himself, he struggled to hold onto who he was and not succumb to the nihilism and darkness he fights on a regular basis. In a weird way, Dick’s vigilante career is a reverse of Bruce’s. While the elder hero has found himself surrounded by more and more friends and family with a growing sense of hope for the future, the former sidekick feels more isolated than he has in the past and is starting to see the darkness everywhere he looks.
One final interpretation of the title can be found when you just look at the history of crime and vigilantism in Gotham City. The very nature of crime has had a strange evolution. While based on more grounded threats and organized crime right at the very beginning, Bruce’s time as Batman is more commonly defined by the supervillains he fought. A man dressed in green who loves riddles, a man obsessed with characters from “Alice in Wonderland” who created mind-controlling devices, a crime lord whose personality is based on a flightless bird - Hell, Bruce’s most iconic enemy is a literal clown! The villains themselves have some admittedly ridiculous and hilarious outfits and personalities. Their plans were also often over the top or had an unnecessary amount of showmanship. Things change a lot with Dick Grayson as the iconic vigilante. Throughout this story, he is dealing with people. A man who holds black market auctions to sell old supervillain weapons and memorabilia, a pirate trying to intimidate a Gotham bank into doing dirty business…and of course James Gordon Jr. A natural psychopath who turns on his own family and looks to get the young children of Gotham to turn into just like him. While several of these antagonists have a touch of what made Bruce’s supervillains unique, these ones are noticeably more vicious and cutthroat. In this sense, this is Dick’s own version of “The Long Halloween”. While none of the events of the story are occurring around holidays, it does happen over an extended period of time where Dick deals with a new breed of criminals. The landscape of Gotham and the criminal underworld is a dark reflection of the past. Bruce’s era of colorful and entertaining supervillains with a serious Batman and Dick’s era of more grim and angry psychopaths with a brighter Batman.
And I think that’s the true reverse reflection at the core of all of these interpretations. Bruce has a mission of helping others that is executed with a very serious personality. But Dick in this tale - despite having his own struggles and depressing thoughts - is approaching things from a more positive mindset with more pep and optimism. This entire arc shows that no matter how much things change around him and try to influence him, Dick Grayson will march on as he looks towards a bright future, thereby imbuing the Batman mantle with a stronger sense of purpose. Bruce’s Batman was fueled by the desire to avenge his parents and make sure a child never has to go through what he did, releasing anger on the enemies he faced. Dick’s Batman is one who will pull out everything he has to make sure that he helps everyone, extending a hand out to everyone.
Consider this my long argument to get you to check out an overlooked and underappreciated story. And if you have read it - do you agree or disagree with what I have said?