Detective Comics #871:

Analyzing an Opening Scene, Part One

Several years ago, I received a rejection letter from 2000AD in the mail for a story I had pitched called “The Colorblind Cannibal”. In the letter was a brief note explaining that the story didn’t sound exciting enough for Future Shocks, their series of four-page sci-fi comics. I was thrilled. Of course, I would have much preferred if my story had been accepted, but just that simple communication made me feel connected to the comic book industry in a way I had not felt before. I now had a simple, clear goal before me: become a better comics writer.

Reading helped. A lot. In fact, I find that my life as a writer can be easily divided between before studying for the GRE Subject Test in English and after. Though I’d worked as a freelance journalist since 2008, and had written some academic papers as well, this massive amount of reading taught me a tremendous amount about storytelling. My constant immersion in the words of others forced me to think critically about the craft of writing, leading me to improve my creative writing skills. I thought a lot about how to convey ideas through strong images, and how to connect the various elements of a narrative to a particular theme. I began to write poetry more frequently, primarily because I felt compelled to do so. I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot, but something was missing. I wanted to craft narratives, and while I sometimes did so in poems, I knew that comics would offer me a whole new way of doing so (and, frankly, I love working with other people!). So I studied the classics: Understanding Comics and Comics and Sequential Storytelling. But I needed more.

That’s when the pandemic hit. Now at home, taking care of the newborn my wife and I had welcomed into the world, I decided to get serious. I signed up for classes at Comics Experience, learning from Andy Schmidt, Paul Allor, Ryan Browne, and Fred Van Lente – as well as from my many talented classmates. It was, quite honestly, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. As a comic writer, you need to develop many skills – everything from creating compelling characters to building successful Kickstarters. These classes taught me those skills, along with many more, in an experience I can best describe as invaluable, and I recommend it to anyone seriously interested in writing comics.

It was soon after joining Comics Experience that my first comic was published. In their online workshop, my peers and editor extraordinaire Molly Lazer helped me take that very story rejected by 2000AD and transform it into something better. It’s also where I found illustrator Chris Maiurro and colorist Josh Jensen, two very talented and thoughtful artists, who brought the story to life (Chris lettered it too!). Later that year, “The Colorblind Cannibal” was selected as a finalist by Platform Comics, and published alongside a dozen other stories in their 2020 Short Comic Anthology (read it for free here).

Thrilled, I continued writing scripts – but I knew I wasn’t done learning. Then I heard about Scott Snyder’s class. Scott Snyder, who (with Francesco Francavilla and Jock) unsettled my imagination with James Gordon, Jr., the most disturbing character in DC Comics, and whose Vertigo work took me back to the imprint’s halcyon days. Scott’s writing has long stood out to me as something unique – most especially his use of narrative captions.

Too often narrative captions are used in comics to merely reiterate what we see in the panel, adding little to the reading experience. Indeed, in some cases, they even detract from it, wrestling the reader’s attention away from engaging imagery because we’re not trusted to understand the storytelling. I’ve not found this to be the case with Scott Snyder’s work. Instead, he uses narrative captions as a counterpoint to the visuals, offering us something distinct to ponder while we watch the action unfold. Readers thus engage with the material on two levels, making the reading experience more rewarding.

In addition to his writing, what drew me to enroll in Scott’s course was his reputation as a teacher and his support for new creators. Reading his newsletter, I was struck by his firm belief that anyone can become a professional writer – you just need to learn how to use the tools of the craft. I’ve taken this empowering maxim to heart, and it’s helped me increase my confidence. As an exercise, Scott suggested we think critically about the opening scene of a comic, looking at its tone, characterization, and plot. I chose the opening scene to “The Black Mirror, Part One”,  from Detective Comics #871, the first comic written by Scott Snyder that I ever read. The first three pages, which comprise the opening scene, can be previewed here for free.

This story was illustrated by Jock, colored by David Baron, lettered by Jared K. Fletcher, and edited by Janelle Asselin (credited as Janelle Siegel) and Mike Marts. What began as some notes on the opening scene soon turned into a full close reading. This exercise has affirmed my strong belief that authorship in comics is shared between the entire creative team. Breaking down a comic into discrete parts allows us to scrutinize more carefully the choices creators make on the page, thus revealing their intentions and the meanings they collectively impart. I should note, though, that I will not be discussing the contributions of the editors, which are more difficult to discern. We should recognize, however, that editors are essential to the creative process, and their multifaceted, complex roles have tremendous impact on how comic books are made.

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Looking first at the plot, the opening scene of this issue depicts a seemingly straightforward conflict which resolves in a horrifying and bizarre way. Page 1 begins with a group of boys changing in a locker room. One boy is attacked by a bully. The bully, flanked by his posse, then points at the boy he attacked in a threatening manner, presumably mocking him. When the bully and his friends begin to leave, the boy, though clearly no longer in danger, gets up, assesses his attacker, and (on page 2) tackles him into the pool. The bully gets the upper hand and holds the boy’s head underwater. This threatening situation triggers something within the boy, transforming him into a monstrous, reptilian creature, who bites off the hand of his attacker, causing onlookers to shrink back in fear. We see this creature emerge from the pool in his full, terrible glory on page 3, a splash page. Notably, this creature resembles one of Batman’s well known adversaries, Killer Croc.

The mystery presented here is straightforward – who is this boy, and why did he transform into a monster? This works well as the beginning to a Batman plot on two levels. First, mystery and horror are two genres that Batman does very well in. Second, a boy transforming into something primal after a physical confrontation connects the plot of this opening scene to the origin of the Batman (to both Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson). This invites readers to compare this boy to Batman and think about the similarities and differences we find between them. I’ll return to this comparison later, when giving a close reading of the art.

Significantly, this scene begins in a locker room and ends in a swimming pool. In other words, it begins in a place where people take off and change their clothing (where they reveal themselves), and it ends in a place associated with transformation, purity, and truth: in water. In 1.1 (page 1, panel 1) we see several teenage boys already shirtless or in the process of taking their shirts off, shedding layers to reveal their ‘true selves’ – happy, normal teenagers.

Our protagonist for this opening scene, however, doesn’t appear until 1.2, when he gets his head smashed into a locker. It is important to note that unlike the boys in 1.1, this boy has not yet taken off his shirt – he’s not yet revealed his inner self. It’s only in response to violence, in confrontation, that we are introduced to who this boy really is – a monstrous fighter. Not only does he shed his clothing, he sheds his very human veneer, emerging from the pool’s waters as something more. He becomes a primal figure, larger than the tiny onlookers observing his advent in horror on page 3.

This opening scene offers several clues as to what “The Black Mirror” will be about. On the most basic level, this scene suggests that competition and violence bring out real character. Taking it a step further, it suggests that such ‘character’ is in fact something pure and dangerous and primal: a ‘dark’ truth – a black mirror.

Turning to the art, one of the first things that strikes me on page 1 is the coloring, specifically the lighting of the locker room. The room is lit by a sickly looking yellow glow, which becomes more pronounced in 1.2, when the boy is attacked. To my eye, this ‘sickly’ yellow glow suggests something physically or psychologically wrong. (I imagine this to be the same color as the wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”.) Furthermore, the yellow glow is similar to the kind of lighting we might see in an interrogation scene. This plays well, because the attack on the boy forces him to reveal his character, just as an interrogation ostensibly forces someone to reveal the truth.

In 1.1, before the boy is attacked, we see a level of detail not found on the rest of the page. This is because it eases the reader into a normal setting, using details to draw us into the scene, while the second panel hits the reader with some dramatic intensity. In other words, there’s less detail in panels two through six because the reader’s focus should be on the action. 1.2 also shows a large starburst, where the boy’s head hits the locker. This representational violence pushes 1.2 further away from the ‘realistic’ detail found in 1.1, and into the physicality that will dominate the remainder of the scene. The starburst and the lack of detail together reflect the mental awareness of the boy. The focus on action draws our attention to what the boys attention is focused on – the bullying. In this way, Jock makes us relate to the boy and his experience. Indeed, in 1.4 we see the bullies as the boy sees them: towering, mocking shadows.

Also of special note is the boy’s black and orange/yellow tiger-striped tie. We first see this tie in 1.3, the panel in which the crouching boy observes the bully who attacked him. Though he is momentarily recovering from the attack in this panel, the boy is also sizing up his bully – taking stock of his future prey. The detail of the tie connects the boy to a predatory animal, and his actions in the pages to come will prove him to be exactly that. This brings to mind the phrase “fight like a cornered tiger”. Also of note here is the fact that in 1.3, while the bully’s shadow is cast upon the boy, it does not cover him completely, or even mostly, thus suggesting that the boy will not fall under the bully’s domination.

Taking a look at the page as a whole, we can see how Jock and Jared Fletcher deftly lead the reader’s eye panel to panel. Beginning in the top left of 1.1, we follow the line of sight of a teenage boy taking off his shirt towards caption 1.1.1 to the right. We then follow the oblique row of lockers, which begin in the middle of the panel background, behind that initial caption box, towards the right to the foreground. Here we arrive at another teenager, who stands at the edge of the panel. We then move from that teenager in the foreground to what’s directly below him in the next panel: caption 1.2.1 and the arm of the bully. Our line of sight in 1.2 is thus directed right to left, following the bully’s arm as he pushes the boy’s head into the locker. We then follow the boy’s line of sight down to 1.3. There, we again follow his line of sight, this time up and to the right, to 1.4. This panel is also positioned so that the bully is somewhat parallel to the shadow that he cast in 1.3.

1.4 is interesting, in that it leads us to 1.6 instead of to 1.5. Just as the bully in-story points at the boy, when we look at the visuals on the page, we see the bully’s finger in 1.4 pointing at the figure of the boy’s profile in 1.6. This profile shot is not contained within 1.6, but rather overlaid on top of it, extending past the trim area and into the bleed at the bottom of the page. 1.5, in contrast, has no panel border, making it blend in the background more, and while it technically contains more visual information, showing four characters in a long shot, they’re rendered more indistinctly than the profile shot in 1.6. Taken together, these panels have an almost three-dimensional effect, in which the boy in the foreground appears closer to the reader, while the situation he just experienced – which he is mulling over in his mind, and which is represented by 1.5 – is in the background.

In fact, the figure of the boy’s head from 1.6 is placed directly on top of one of the bully’s cohorts and right next to the figure of the bully in 1.5, with the boy’s eyes looking up and to the left, as if looking at the figure of the bully, who in turn is looking down at the boy’s figure in 1.5. We can read this as if the action of 1.5 is a visual thought balloon, a representation of what the boy is thinking about in 1.6. Furthermore, this reading can be extended to the entire page: the boy is not only thinking about the previous panel, but all the panels that came before; in other words, he’s thinking about the incident in its entirety.

Though his eyes look back towards the bully, the boy leans to the bottom right, encouraging us to turn the page. Directly above the boy in 1.5 is a pool sign, an arrow pointing right with the word “POOL” written on it, placed directly after caption 1.5.1. (Thus our eye goes from this caption, to the pool sign, to the boy.) By directly pointing right, this pool sign also prompts our page turn. The sign also clearly indicates the upcoming change in location.

On page two, not only does the setting alter, but so does the pacing. Page two shifts the story into action. The boy exits the yellow light – the interrogation of his mettle – and races to attack his attacker. His tiger-striped tie now whips up in the air, signaling the primal essence of the boy and his actions. On this page, the more structured paneling of page one begins to disappear. After 2.1, the panels become somewhat irregular in shape, more curved and angular, each panel reflecting the emotionally driven action of the moment. The white gutter/background, which became more pronounced on the bottom third of page one, continues to be prominent on the second page, especially in 2.2 where the boy attacks his bully. This white/blank background serves to keep our focus on the colorful, foregrounded action we see unfold.

Notably, 2.2 and 2.7 have no panel border, thus freeing the reader from the feeling of confinement that a border gives us. The actions in these panels (the tackle and the raising of the handless arm) feel more visceral than they probably would with panel borders, because they don’t feel contained. Though it has a border, 2.1 doesn’t contain the full figure of the boy, his front leg outside the panel limits. In a sense, we can say that the boy runs out of the panel border in 2.1, escaping the feeling of confinement and into the freedom of the tackle in 2.2, taking matters into his own hands. He then becomes confined once more – within the water, within the bully’s hands, and within the panel borders – until it’s clear he has broken free from his bully in 2.7, where we see the result of his breaking free (the bully losing his hand). The panel borders themselves – thick, black, shaky lines – are interestingly rendered, and call attention to themselves. The unsteady nature of these lines reflects the unbalanced nature of the action we witness in this opening scene, and perhaps of the boy himself.

Taking a look again at the shifts in background color, we start in 2.1 with the interrogation lighting, the yellow described above; next, we move to the white in 2.2, which foregrounds the action; then, in 2.3, we enter into an ocean blue panel, offset by black silhouettes in the foreground and the white splash of the two boys fighting within the aqua colored pool below. By coloring the background in 2.3 ocean blue, colorist David Baron heightens the contrast between 2.2 and 2.3, taking us from action to consequence. Furthermore, we’re being taken into a moment of deep, watery transformation, and the background coloring in 2.3 prepares us for that. This ocean blue actually first appears in 2.1, on the top right edge, and we can read the panel as the boy running from the interrogatory yellow and into the transformative blue.

Water is featured prominently throughout the remainder of the scene. Water brings with it symbolic context: we think of purity, transformation, birth, rebirth, mirroring, truth. We can read the boy’s submergence in the water as a catalyst which reveals his true character – his true self. He’s not only a fighter. When push comes to shove – when he’s threatened – he is, in fact, a monster. He literally transforms into a beast, as shown by the inset panel of his eye on page two. The inset itself is used not only to let the reader know the boy has transformed, it’s also there to direct the reader’s eye towards the boy’s prey and show the dire consequence of his transformation.

Looking at Jock’s art direction on this page as a whole, we can see how he quickens the pacing in comparison to page one. In 2.1, the boy runs forward, breaking through the panels. Then in 2.2, the boy tackles the bully, leading the reader’s eye down to 2.3 below, and into the water. 2.3 functions almost like an establishing shot – they’re thrashing in the water, making the reader wonder what’s happening. The desire to have this question answered leads readers from 2.3 to 2.4. In addition, in 2.3, we see two onlookers pointing to the commotion in the water, leading our eyes from the onlookers to that commotion, and also directly to caption 2.3.1.

Because that commotion is positioned at the bottom of 2.3, it leads our eyes directly below it, to the top right of next panel. There we see the bully on the right, who determines the action of that panel, as he holds the boy’s head underwater. This leads our eye from the top right to the bottom left, following the bully’s line of sight and the bully’s arm and hand. Along the way, we hit caption 2.4.1, which is above the bully’s extended arm and the boy’s bent back. The boy’s face is not visible – it’s submerged, and the danger he’s in is emphasized by the panel border cutting off at where the boy’s face is being submerged. Jock’s art direction is reinforced by the irregular shape of panel 2.4, which slants down from the top right to the bottom left. In fact, that top right of panel 2.4 touches the bottom of the previous panel, further directing our eye to begin on the right side of the panel.

Returning to the boy’s face in 2.4, we follow his submerged head directly down into the next panel, where we see his actual face within the water. Here we see the boy beginning his transformation, as indicated by the red of his pupils. Our eyes follow his line of sight to caption 2.5.1 on the left, and then move to the inset panel directly below that caption, where we see his eye now further transformed, red and reptilian in shape. (In addition, his skin’s coloring appears to be slightly taking on a grey-green hue.) The bright, glowing red of the eye contrasts very well with the blue water backgrounds from previous panels, making the eye pop even more and really grabbing the reader.

We then follow that reptilian eye to 2.7, the final panel on page two and also the largest and most important. The eye in the inset panel is looking to the right, to the bully, whose hand has been bitten off. The bully is jerking his arm up from the pool, his blood splashing up from the water, further emphasizing the danger the water now contains. This visceral panel is full bleed, Jock once again heightening the action and movement of the figure in the image by showing how such action and movement is not constrained. The bully jerks back to the right, leading us directly to caption 2.7.1, which then leads us to our page turn.

On pages two and three, David Baron employs several black, blue, white, and red dots in his color art, to represent both the bubbles and the blood in this scene. The use of black bubbles evokes the story’s title “The Black Mirror” (the title itself is first seen on the cover, then again on page three). The pool water acts as a mirror from which the boy emerges in his true, Gotham form. Thus, the presence of the black bubbles suggests that that mirror is figuratively “dark”, exposing a part of him that is frightening. Interestingly, similar black dots also occur within the starburst in 1.2, when the boy gets his head slammed into the locker. Thus the violence inflicted upon the boy is visually linked to the extreme violence he now inflicts upon his bully. Finally, the mingling of the red dots (blood) in the water underscores the deadly nature of this transformation – indeed, on page three, the transformed boy’s chest is covered in these drops of blood.

[As an aside, I should note that the symbolic use of color in Batman narratives is conflicting and complex, and an analysis of such is outside this article. I will state, however, that Batman narratives often – though certainly not always – inverse the racist “white as good” and “black as bad” symbology prevalent in Western cultures. In this story, I don’t think that the Black Mirror – which is Gotham City – should be read as evil.]

Continued in Part Two…

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Nikolai Fomich is a writer and ESL teacher in Philadelphia. He received his M.A. in English from Rutgers University, where he wrote his thesis in linguistics and completed his Comprehensive Examination in Islamic Literature. His interests include linguistics, literature, comics, film, history, art, and politics. Since 2008, he has written for various newspapers, websites, magazines, and nonprofit organizations, as well as for the U.S. Department of Labor. His first comic, "The Colorblind Cannibal," was published by Platform Comics in 2020. You can follow Nikolai on Twitter @Nikolai_Fomich

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