Detective Comics #871:

Analyzing an Opening Scene, Part Two

The final page of the opening scene, page three, is a splash page. In fact, the boy literally emerges from the depths with a splash. This splash page is effective in part because it follows a that page had seven panels, while the page before that had six. Thus, the startling impact of the splash is greater than it would have been had the previous pages only had three or four panels each.

On page three, the boy emerges from the pool in his “true” inner form – that of a monstrous reptilian creature. He holds his arms up high in victory, and further dominates the page by bending both arms so that they take up further space both to the right and left. His large, powerful arms are contrasted visually to the jagged stump of an arm that the bully cradles in the corner of the page.  It’s interesting that the boy/creature emerges from the water/mirror through the blood of the bully he fought. It suggests that the boy’s transformation into a truer version of himself comes at the bloody expense of his rival.

The sense given by the boy/creature in this splash page is one of terror, triumph, and openness. The openness is conveyed both by the wide spread of the arms and hands and by his fully open maw. The bully’s blood drips from the creature’s mouth, inside which we see his bright red tongue and a black abyss. His mouth looks almost cavern-like, evoking mystery, and what emerges from within it is his bloody tongue – a bloody truth. Surrounding his mouth are large, sharp teeth, irregular in size and similar in shape to the bully’s jagged hanging arm flesh. Perhaps their irregularity suggests the unbalanced nature of the boy and his transformation – that what we are seeing is ‘off’ or wrong, beyond the obvious horror of the situation.

The creature’s eyes are positioned so that they seem to look both at the reader, but also at the victim, the bully who now pitifully holds his mutilated arm. The bully looks down towards the right, where we are meant to turn the page. Also of note is the fact that, as a splash page, page three has no panels. In other words, no longer constrained by the panel borders (which can be read as bars), the boy is free to turn into his true form. In the background are small black silhouettes of onlookers, all recoiling while watching the scene unfold. They appear visually insignificant – tiny, without detail – thus furthering the boy/creature’s sense of power and triumph over his peers.

Finally, note that the background color of the top half of this splash page matches the ocean blue of 2.3. This signals an end to the boy’s moment of transformation – which occurs during his fight with the bully in the pool – and an end to the more neutral aqua/white coloring representing that transition. What we see instead on page three is the result of that transition. The use of ocean blue in the splash page’s background connects this result to the moment this result was inevitable. In other words, Baron connects the boy’s emergence from the pool as this creature to the boy’s tackling of the bully into the pool, thus linking the boy’s fighting spirit to his monstrous form. The bottom half of the page retains the aqua/white coloring, though it is now darker, and being left behind by the ascendent creature.

Let’s now turn to Jared K. Fletcher’s lettering. On the bottom left of page three, across from the bully, are the series title, the story title, and the credits in light red and black. These colors obviously play into the symbology already discussed. The lettering is surrounded by a white border, giving it a more three-dimensional effect, as if it’s popping up from the background behind it. Additionally, perhaps the white is used to invoke the idea of the shine of a mirror.

An interesting aspect of the lettering is the strong, rigid font used for “DETECTIVE COMICS” and “BATMAN” in comparison to the curvature used for “THE BLACK MIRROR”. This contrast suggests the power and incorruptibility of the Batman (who is, in this case, Dick Grayson), while the circular font of “THE BLACK MIRROR” invokes something infinite and whole. This implies an incongruous conflict, the physicality of the Batman and his upright nature facing something immaterial and everlasting: the black mirror. Batman and his challenge of the black mirror are further differentiated in the lettering by color: Batman is in red, invoking blood, and thus physicality and violence; the black mirror is in black, suggesting a different, ‘darker’ kind of truth, as discussed above.

Additionally, the “B” and the three “R”s in “THE BLACK MIRROR” are lettered so that the curved loops on the right side of those letters do not fully join the straight lines on the left side of those letters. Instead, the loops forming the right side portion of the letters “B” and “R” extend past the straight lines, only partially connecting. Not only does this lettering choice create new curves, thus enhancing the overall curvature of the lettering, it also enhances the feeling of incongruity, as the letters don’t quite “fit” together. This suggests that the black mirror and the truth behind it won’t be easily pieced together (which is appropriate, given that the title of this comic book series is “Detective Comics”). It may also suggest that what is pieced together, what is found to be truth when looking into the black mirror, isn’t something quite right – the pieces themselves make an unsettling whole that doesn’t easily connect together.

I should also note at this point the cover, which serves as a contrast to this splash page. On the cover, Batman has emerged from his own mirror/water, standing erect, confident in his true form. Below him, we see ripples in the water, some of which transform into fluttering bats. His otherworldly nature is reinforced by the black wisps that rise above and behind him, perhaps suggesting that he is some sort of spirit. It also functions to foreground the figure of the Batman, solidifying him for the reader/viewer. Finally, at the bottom, we see the story title in large letters: “the black mirror”. Dick Grayson thus emerges from the labeled black mirror, through the mirror/water, and into his true form, that of Batman. This is interesting, because at this time Dick Grayson was adapting to his new identity as the Batman – he was still more commonly thought of as Nightwing. This “junior grade” ranking of Dick as Batman might be reflected in the lettering of the story title, which on the cover is in lowercase.

Unlike Fletcher’s lettering on page three, the lettering of the story title on the cover is in cursive and more purposefully ‘messy’, evoking handwriting. This lettering contrasts with the image we see presented – Batman appears iconic, mysterious, powerful, elemental, an idea; the title lettering appears messy, scribbled, written by human hands. This style of lettering suggests that what the Batman will be facing will be something unsettling and personal, something that challenges him on a human level. Another important aspect of the title lettering is its size. “the black mirror” is written in very large font, showing that it will indeed be a big challenge for the Batman. This also puts the story title on equal footing with the series title (“BATMAN DETECTIVE COMICS”) at the top of the page, inviting a comparison between the two. Whereas “BATMAN” is upright and rigid, “the black mirror” is messy and italicized, and this contrast reinforces the incongruity between them. Unfortunately, I am uncertain as to the identity the letterer and logo designer whose work appears on this cover, and thus am unable to credit them in this paper.

Finally, a more straightforward aspect of the “the black mirror” title on the cover is that it answers the reader’s question: what is this story about? Because this comic book series is titled “Detective Comics”, and is thus ostensibly about mysteries, we can also frame this question as “What is the mystery trying to be solved?” The title gives the answer: the mystery of the black mirror.

Turning to the coloring, we find another point of contrast between the cover and the interior pages. The cover has a bright shine to it, the pool reflecting white light across the outline of Batman’s figure and into the background. Compare this to the sickly yellow lighting of the comic’s first page, as well as to the dark blue background coloring on pages two and three, and we can infer that while Dick’s transformation into Batman is something pure, the boy’s transformation into the monster is anything but.

The black mirror does, however, show an important similarity between Dick Grayson and the boy. The mirror turns each of them into creatures, revealing their truer selves to be animal in nature. Both figures receive a full comic page to illustrate their emergence from the black mirror, but while one evokes awe, the other evokes terror. The black mirror, it would seem, is not inherently evil; rather, it reveals our true primal essence. This being a Batman story, and thus the setting Gotham, we can safely infer that the black mirror is in fact Gotham City. In other words, it is Gotham itself where they undergo the experiences that shape them, which reveals their true character.

Returning to the interior pages, Scott Snyder makes the notable choice to have no dialogue or sound effects throughout this opening scene. Instead, narrative captions are placed throughout the panels, in which Dick Grayson relays a bit of information about his childhood, which ends with a quote from his father. Below, I’ve transcribed Dick’s first-person narration into three sections, one section per each page. I use the symbol “ / ” to indicate where one caption box ends and a new one begins. Over the course of these fourteen captions, Dick states that:

When I was a boy, my parents kept a big map of the country tacked to the wall of our dressing room. / The map had pins stuck in all the places our troupe was going to stop that season. / Different towns and cities were marked with different color pins. / Blue pins meant small towns which meant small shows, less dangerous tricks. / Red pins meant big cities. So, big shows and more dangerous tricks. / All the stops were marked red or blue / except for one–Gotham City, which was marked by a black pin. [page one]

According to my father, the black pin meant no holds barred. Pull out all the stops. Bring down the house. / It meant put on the biggest, riskiest show of the season. No catch wires. No safety nets. Everyone pushing themselves to the limit. / I remember one time I asked my father why. What made Gotham so special? / And my father, he looked down at me, and he said / “…some places just have a hunger about them, son. / And you either feed them what they want…” [page two]

“…or you stay far, far away. [page three]

This reminiscence transforms into reflection on page four, where Dick’s train of thought continues in the first two panels of that page:

Ive felt it many times myself, that hunger / the way Gotham will start pulling at you when it wants something, when it wants more / its been feeling like that a lot lately. Wild and strange, and most of all–hungry.

[Page four is not part of the preview I linked to at the beginning of this article. Here are page four’s first two panels.]

Captions have several uses in comics. Typically, they either provide the reader with factual information (like telling them a scene’s location), or they’re used to narrate a character’s thoughts. Unlike speech or thought balloons, narrative captions don’t have to exist within the temporal locus of a comic book panel – words in captions don’t have to be thought or spoken within the time frame captured by any particular panel. Instead, narrative captions tend create another layer to the reading experience, an overlay on top of the visual narrative. Thus, while a reader primarily experiences the comic within ‘real time’ (following events as they happen through the visuals), they are also simultaneously engaged in a subtextual experience (reading narrative captions).

As Mark Waid once stated, in comics, “the art is the text and the words are the subtext”. We ‘read’ the images created by the art team, while the words on the page complement or complicate our reading of those images. Because their temporal locus is not restricted to the time captured by the visual narrative, narrative captions are usually far more pronounced on the comic book page than dialogue. Such narration can begin at a later point in time than the action we see on the page, or at an earlier time. It can also be used to communicate the thoughts of a character not present in the art, as is the case in the opening scene of “The Black Mirror”. Dick’s absence in this opening scene prompts us to infer connections between what we see and what we read in his narration. While I personally find the use of narrative captions in many comics overdone or done poorly, what Snyder does here is effective, because it creates a new dimension of meaning that we would not have been able to discern through the art alone.

Looking first at the design of the caption boxes, notice that at the beginning of each page, the initial caption has a bat symbol on the left behind the lettering, letting readers know that Batman is narrating. As for the coloring, the large bat symbols within these initial captions are teal blue, while the background of every caption box is lilac-blue. These colors are important, because they connect the captions to Dick Grayson, evoking the blue tones of the various Nightwing costumes that he’s worn throughout the years. They tell us that we’ll be reading about a different kind of Batman than the one we’re used to: this isn’t Bruce Wayne, this is his protégé. Indeed, these captions are in fact visually different from those typically used to depict Bruce Wayne’s narration, which often have dark grey backgrounds and black bat symbols. (See, for example, the captions in Batman #1, 2011.)

The fact that this is a Dick Grayson story and not a Bruce Wayne story is significant. First introduced in 1940 as “Robin – the Boy Wonder”, Dick Grayson was created by Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane, who hoped to give young readers a young character to identify with, as opposed to the older Bruce Wayne. Though the character has grown out of his childhood and into adulthood throughout the course of DC’s complex publication history, Dick remains someone with whom readers empathize with, being closer to an ‘everyman’ type character than his mentor Bruce. That relatability allows Snyder to create a bigger, scarier contrast between the comparatively ordinary Dick Grayson and the gothic, imposing City of Gotham. Dick does not carry the ‘mythic’ weight Bruce brings to a story, and this allows Snyder to craft a narrative that plays to that fact. Furthermore, while Bruce Wayne is an integral part of the icon that is Batman, Dick Grayson has assumed several identities throughout his publication history, including that of Robin, Nightwing, and Batman. This fluidity allows him to anchor a narrative about understanding one’s true self in a way decidedly different than if this story had starred Bruce Wayne.

Returning to the captions, Snyder begins his narration in panel one with the sentence, “When I was a boy, my parents kept a big map of the country tacked to the wall of our dressing room.” The narration here is clearly connected to the panel one illustration, as both involve boys, thus inviting readers to compare Dick’s boyhood anecdote to what we see play out among the teenagers on the page.

Snyder further connects this initial caption to the visual narrative by locating the scene Dick narrates in a “dressing room”, a location similar to the locker room in which the visual narrative begins. This eases the reader into having their attention split between two temporally distinct narratives, since the reader is not forced to imagine one physically distinct setting when beginning the narration while looking at another. Whereas the visual narrative leaves the locker room and continues on to the swimming pool, the event described in the narrative captions either remains within the dressing room or ceases to exist in any particular location. Again, this allows Snyder to engage the reader with his narration without forcing them to contend with two physically distinct narrative spaces.

Just as the locker room is suggestive of personal revelation, as discussed earlier in this essay, so too is the dressing room. The reader can therefore infer that this story will reveal something about Dick Grayson’s character, while also connecting to his childhood. Interestingly, while the boy in the visual narrative leaves the locker room and transforms into a creature in the swimming pool, Dick remains in the locker room within the narration. This suggests that Dick has not yet accepted whatever the Black Mirror would reveal about him – remaining in the dressing room, he has yet to change.

In this initial narrative caption, readers are introduced to the image of a “big map” that Dick Grayson’s parents kept in their dressing room. Because 1.1 is an establishing shot of the dressing room – thus directing our attention to a particular setting rather than a particular action – Snyder is able to describe a strong visual in Dick’s narration in 1.1.1 without it detracting from what we see in the art. The importance of this “big map” is emphasized in the caption through its bolding (in fact, it is one of only ten words/phrases bolded in the narrative captions which extend from 1.1 to 4.2). This importance extends beyond its literal meaning. A map, after all, is a visual representation of a place, which shows the relative distance between locations within that place. Like an establishing shot, a map provides us with visual context, demystifying a location by giving its viewer/reader information about how that location is structured. As this story is about Gotham City and its effects upon its inhabitants, I think emphasizing the words “big map” in the first caption subtly signals that this story will explore the relation of pieces within a whole, be it people within a city or character traits within a person.

1.2.1 reveals that “The map had pins stuck in all the places our troupe was going to stop that season.” Unlike in the previous panel, however, our attention in this panel is on the visual action (the boy getting his head slammed into the locker) rather than on the words. The attack on the boy commands our attention, while the narration arguably reinforces that visual, albeit very subtly. In both the art and the words, we see/read about something pushed into a surface – the boy’s head into the locker door, in the case of the art; the pins into the map, in the case of the narration. But though similar, the visual is clearly far more dramatic, and thus the narrative caption works to emphasize that visual drama.

The narration in the next panel (1.3) is unique, in that it is the only panel in this opening scene with more than one caption box. Here, we’re introduced to the idea of differentiation: “Different towns and cities were marked with different color pins.” As we shall see, these pins draw a neat parallel to the characters we see in the visuals on this page. The narration continues in the next caption box: “Blue pins meant small towns which meant small shows, less dangerous tricks.” Below the captions, we see the boy who was attacked crouching on the floor, in the shadow of his bully. I would argue that the three pieces of information we’re given in this panel (the two captions and the visual image) are close to carrying equal weight. The stillness of the visual commands less of our attention, which thus allows our focus to dwell more on the captions present. The second caption in turn reinforces the visual: like the blue pin, the crouching boy appears “small” and “less dangerous” than his attacker.

The next caption in the following panel (1.4) introduces us to another type of pin: “Red pins meant big cities. So, big shows and more dangerous tricks.” Here again the caption reinforces the visual: the silhouetted bully dominates the panel, aggressively pointing at the boy (and the reader), and is seen from a slightly lower angle. He is clearly “big” and appears to be “more dangerous” than the boy he just attacked. Unlike the boy in the previous panel, the bully absolutely commands our attention in panel 1.4. The boy, in contrast, does not command our attention the prior panel. In fact, he is so “small” that panel 1.3 can include two narrative captions within it, thus reinforcing the idea of his insignificance.

Up to this point, the comic has shown us nothing overtly unusual. Snyder appears to employ a kind of Darwinian binary, perceiving social interaction in a very fixed way: there are the pushovers and the bullies: the blue pins and the red pins. At least, that’s how things seem to be until we reach the page turn. Panel 1.5 pulls back, giving us a visual of the boy, the bully, and the bully’s two cohorts. Here, the narrative caption states: “All the stops were marked red or blue” We can understand “All the stops” as all the boys we see in the panel, who are either red (bullies) or blue (bullied).

But there is a third pin. In the final panel on page one, the narrative caption states: “except for one–Gotham City, which was marked by a black pin.” This panel is entirely blank, except for this caption and the figure of the boy’s profile on the right, which breaks past the panel borders. Taking the panel as a whole, we find three elements that are being emphasized. Two are in the caption, the bolded phrases “Gotham City” and “black pin”. The third, and most important, is the boy. Typically, a panel works best when only one idea is emphasized, and that is indeed the case here. These three elements reinforce each other, together emphasizing the idea of something unique existing. Gotham, like the black pin and the boy in the panel, is singular and unusual. Gotham is different from other cities, just as the black pin is different from other pins, and the boy different from other boys. Unable to be contained within any simplistic blue/red, bullied/bully binary, each of these elements are also unsettling.

Concluded in Part Three…

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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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