Detective Comics #871:

Analyzing an Opening Scene, Part Three

Though all this information can be inferred, what the black pin signifies is not explicitly stated on page one, and so readers are encouraged to turn the page to learn more. Page two is an action scene, and sees a decrease in both the number of words and the number of captions. Whereas page one has a total of 94 words in seven captions, page two has 85 words in six captions. Significantly, just over half of the words on page two occur within the first two panels. The 43 words in 2.1-2.2 explain the black pin:

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.

The black pin means leaving behind the normal rules of behavior, and engaging in extreme action. Any move (“holds”, “stops”) is acceptable, even if it means tremendous risk. Taking it a step further, it can be inferred that the black pin reveals people’s true character (and true mettle), by showing how they react under extraordinary pressure – when they’re pushed “to the limit”.

Panel 2.1 shows the boy racing out of the locker room, and the narrative caption in 2.1 complements that visual of the boy in several ways. The narration, though literally about the black pin, also reveals a lot about the boy (who we identify with the black pin, since the pin’s meaning is revealed in a panel where the boy is the only visual). Snyder begins with a wrestling term in bold (“no holds barred”), which forecasts the physical confrontation we’ll be seeing in the next panel. The caption ends with the phrase “bringing down the house”. The “house” here arguably signifies the bully, who is larger than the boy, and who the boy aims to bring down.

The next panel pulls back and shows the boy tackling the bully. What the narration in 2.2 does is underscore just how dangerous this action is: it’s ‘big’ and ‘risky’, and there are “no catch wires” or “safety nets” to ensure the boy’s tackle will end well. In fact, there is not even a panel border in 2.2, the art further emphasizing the boy’s risk by implying an empty expanse below him. Simply put, there’s no guarantee of safety. But, pushed to his “limit”, the boy must attack his bully, because he is being true to his nature, a nature revealed by the intensity of the situation. It is not until we reach the next panel that we see that there is indeed something to break his fall: not a safety net, but rather the pool in which he will transform.

In addition to explaining the nature of the black pin, and thus of the boy and his action, these 43 words in 2.1 and 2.2 also serve to control the pacing of the scene. The boy’s running in 2.1 and his tackle in 2.2 are very quick visual beats, especially compared to the actions in 2.3-2.6. By forcing readers to slow their reading of these panels, Snyder evens out the pacing of the entire page. More importantly, as I’ve just discussed, he forces readers to spend more time thinking about how the visuals they see in 2.1 and 2.2 interrelate to what they read in those panels.

2.3 functions as an establishing shot, showing the pool which the boy and bully fall into, along with two onlookers. The caption reads: “I remember one time I asked my father why. What made Gotham so special?” This question will be answered on the following page, when the boy transforms into the creature – in other words, it’s Gotham’s proclivity to reveal a person’s primal nature which makes it special. This question will also be explored, and answered, more profoundly over the course of the multi-issue “Black Mirror” arc. In a sense, this question arguably parallels the visual in 2.3, because both give us a broader understanding of the narrative. The visual gives us literal perspective of the action on page two, pulling back to show us what is going on. The narrative caption tells us what this story will be about (namely, answering the question of what makes Gotham “special”), and thus gives us a framework with which to interpret the larger story.

The next three panels are connected, 2.4 and 2.5 through the use of ellipses in the narrative captions, while 2.6 is overlaid on top of 2.5, directly below narrative caption 2.5.1. The two captions in these panels read: “And my father, he looked down at me, and he said / “…some places just have a hunger about them, son.” Just as Dick’s father “looked down at [Dick]” in narrative caption 2.4.1, the bully looks down at the boy in 2.4, holding the boy’s head below the surface of the pool water. While I don’t think this in any way implies Dick’s father bullied or behaved cruelly towards his son, this does connect Dick’s dad and the bully in two ways. One, by associating the bully with a father figure, the creative team suggests that the bully has authority over the boy. Two, just as Dick’s father explains the meaning of the black pin to his son, this bully inadvertently reveals the black mirror to the boy he torments, as the boy reacts against that bullying and becomes something more.

The caption in 2.5, right above inset panel 2.6, underscores the transformation of the boy into the creature. Like Gotham, the boy “has a hunger about [him]” – a hunger that we see awaken in the inset of the boy’s transformed eye, now red and reptilian. The last two captions of the opening scene conclude Dick’s father’s quoted response in the narration: “And you either feed them what they want…” / “…or you stay far, far away.” In panel 2.7, we see the bully jerk his bloody arm back from the water, his hand now missing. Caption 2.7.1 clearly reinforces this visual with the phrase “feed them what they want”. It underscores the implication that the boy has somehow bitten off the bully’s hand, an action which we don’t see explicitly in the visual. It also clearly suggests that the bully’s flesh is in fact what the boy now ‘wants’ to be ‘fed’ – only the blood of his bully will satisfy him.

All this raises an obvious question in the reader: what has the boy transformed into, that he can do such a thing? That question leads us to our page turn. This page turn is also encouraged by the narration: what happens when Gotham is not ‘fed what it wants’? The narration on page two ends with an ellipsis, and thus we’re tacitly promised that we’ll learn the answer on the following page.

The opening scene ends with the emergence of the transformed boy from the pool on page three. Along with this splash page is a single, short caption, on the top left, which concludes Dick’s quotation of his father: ““…or you stay far, far away.”” The spareness of the narration here encourages readers to focus more on the image of the emerging creature. It also accounts for the fact that the story’s credits are on this page as well, another aspect of the page readers have to process. If we take the boy to be representative of Gotham, a connection I touched on earlier, this page answers the question of what happens when Gotham is not fed. It becomes monstrous, and if you’re not capable of feeding it what it wants, it’s best you “stay far, far away”. The caption’s sparseness and lack of bolded words gives it the feeling of relative insignificance next to the powerful image of the ravenous creature we see before us. Thus, the caption follows its own advice: it makes itself barely noticed on the page, in the face of this monster.

Page three concludes a series of connected panels (2.5-3.1), which together comprise Dick’s father’s response to his son’s question. This response is 23 words, and could easily have fit into a single narrative caption (caption 2.2.1 alone is also exactly 23 words). But by extending this response over the course of several panels (and two pages), Snyder highlights the importance of Dick’s dad’s words, and it forces us to consider them more carefully than we might have had they been contained within a single caption.

These words (and the unsettling outcome of the opening scene) disrupt the blue/red, bullied/bully binary. The boy is not to be understood as a blue pin, but a black pin – as Gotham. These pins also form an interesting correlation to Dick Grayson’s three superhero identities. As Robin, his costume was red; as Nightwing, it was blue; and now, as Batman, it is black. Dick, then, does not fit exclusively into any one of these categories – he fits into all of them. Significantly, Dick did not grow up exclusively in Gotham – he instead moved from place to place with his family, as part of a traveling circus, until being adopted by Bruce Wayne. His boyhood, then, was shaped outside of the Gotham area, unlike Bruce Wayne’s, and that may mean he is less beholden to understanding things in Gotham terms. Admittedly, this reading may be a bit of a stretch – and furthermore, Dick Grayson is a fictional character, who has been made to think in numerous ways by numerous writers, depending on the needs of the story. Nevertheless, I think the color parallels between the three pins and Dick’s various costumes are at least worth noting.

Unlike the boys we see in the opening scene, boys presumably raised in Gotham, Dick must have Gotham’s black mirror explained to him by his father. The boys need no such explanation – they understand Gotham intuitively, because it’s their environment, what they live and breathe. This contrast is underscored by the fact that while we see the boys’ visceral understanding of Gotham play out, we read Dick’s explanation on how he came to understand what Gotham is, an understanding revealed to him by his father. This contrast further supports the idea that Dick is more of an outsider than the other characters we see in the story. As such, he is simultaneously both intellectually aware of Gotham’s peculiarities, as he is forced to compare them to his childhood norms, and more apt to be puzzled by Gotham ways, since he is, at least partially, more of an outsider. This outsider status allows readers to discover Gotham along with Dick, and thus causes us to identify with him.

In the context of this scene, the issue of reader identification is an interesting one. Visually speaking, the boy seems to be our protagonist. The visuals cause us to empathize with his emotional state in the majority of the panels on the first two pages. When the boy sees the bully in silhouette in 1.4, we’re seeing the bully as he does. When the boy races to avenge himself on his attacker in 2.1, the panel shows him in a dramatic, almost heroic light. As a medium full shot, 2.1 positions the boy close enough to us so we identify with him, whereas a full shot would have put more distance between us and the boy, perhaps creating a more heroic image, but at the expense of our identification with the character.

Yet the lack of dialogue and sound effects, and the fact that the narrative captions do not come from the boy but rather from a character not even present, creates a definite distance between us and the boy. It encourages us to observe him and to think about the events that unfold from afar, thus mitigating our identification with him. Instead of identifying primarily with the boy, we identify with the narrator – with Dick – whose words exercise more formal control over our thinking than the visuals. We experience Dick’s thought, so to a large extent, we think what Dick is thinking. Whereas the writing is more controlling of our thoughts, the visuals allow us more freedom – the freedom to move our eyes in different directions. Though Jock certainly guides our eyes across the page, this guidance is more loose when compared to the necessity of reading one word after another, as is required to make sense of any kind of writing.

Page four visually confirms that Dick Grayson is in fact the narrator, synching the visuals to the narration. This page begins the second scene of the comic, though the narrative captions from the previous scene are continued here, elegantly connecting the two scenes. As I argued above, narrative captions are not constrained by the temporal locus of the panels in which they appear – nor do they have to occur within the spatial locus of any particular panel. As pages six and seven reveal, the narration overlaid on top of the opening scene occurs the day after the visual action. The visual in 4.1 jumps forward in time, bringing us to the physical origin of that narration – to Dick’s bedroom, where he is reflecting.

I will not analyze page four in full, but, as the narration continues on to this page, I think it’s important to at least consider panels 4.1 and 4.2, in order to see how the opening of the comic concludes while transitioning readers into the next scene. In 4.1, we see Dick for the first time in his boxer shorts, starring through closed, full-length windows. The creative team makes several choices that clearly parallel this panel to the opening. One is Dick’s lack of clothing – like the teenagers on page one, he is revealing himself physically, just as his narration reveals his thoughts. Also important to note is the coloring – the same yellows used in 4.1-4.3 to represent the sunlight and it’s reflection are present on page one. This is what I described above as a “sickly looking yellow glow, suggesting something physically or psychologically wrong”, and “similar to the kind of lighting we might see in an interrogation scene”.

Significantly, however, whereas the Gothamite boys are enveloped within the yellow glow of the locker room, Dick is looking into it through his large, closed balcony windows. In other words, Dick has a barrier between him and Gotham’s glow, albeit a transparent one. The teenagers in pages one through three exist within that glow, and only when one of those boys follows his instincts to become something more – only when Gotham’s spotlight has found its chosen – do we transition out of that light. Notice here Dick’s intent expression in 4.2. Unlike these boys, Dick observes into this light, as if he is trying to make sense of something in it, just as he tries to make sense of Gotham. He is, in fact, looking at three vultures, which have landed on the railing outside his balcony window. Further analysis of these vultures (and of the panels beyond 4.2) would take us beyond the scope of this essay. For our purposes, what’s key is how Dick sees things in this scene, rather than what he sees.

Because he is removed (perhaps shielded) from having to exist directly within Gotham’s glow, Dick is afforded the capacity to consider what that light represents from afar, as well as what is contained within that light. It’s important to note that this is the privilege Wayne Manor affords him. Wayne Manor exists just outside of Gotham City limits, placing Dick (and Bruce) at a slight distance from the disturbances of Gotham. The city, then, is far enough removed for them to observe and consider its happenings, without the complication of constantly living within the very thing they’re observing. This accentuates their status as detectives (as observers of Gotham), while also denoting the class subtext that underlies the Batman mythos. Interestingly, as a child Dick Grayson did not have such class privilege, instead working alongside his parents as a circus performer. As such, he too existed under a spotlight – the spotlight of the circus. But that light, which travelled with him throughout his childhood, was different from the Gotham light he now works to see things through.

Turning to the captions, 4.1.1 and 4.1.2 read: “Ive felt it many times myself, that hunger / The way Gotham will start pulling at you when it wants something, when it wants more” These two captions frame the visual of Dick staring outside his window, 4.1.1 on the top left and 4.1.2 on the bottom right. Dick is, visually speaking, surrounded by these thoughts, his figure within the panel in between two captions. We can understand, then, that he is unable to escape the feeling that Gotham is ‘hungry’ and ‘pulling at him’, because “it wants something…wants more”. These words evoke the visual of the splash page on three. Gotham seems to be, in Dick’s thinking, a kind of animal – something motivated by “hunger” that will “start pulling at you”. This leads us to a question: what is the “something” Gotham wants “more” of? Perhaps it is a piece of those who dare to spend time within its confines, a tribute of the soul in exchange for being transformed by Gotham – the price paid for looking through the black mirror.

Dick continues on in the next caption in 4.2: “its been feeling like that a lot lately. Wild and strange, and most of all–hungry.” This caption intensifies what was said about Gotham in the previous two captions, Gotham’s animalistic nature underscored by the word “wild”, as well as by the repetition of the word “hungry”, now bolded for emphasis. That Gotham is “most of all–hungry” is important – it suggests that just as Dick tries to understand Gotham, Gotham is seeking something from him. Gotham is also “strange”, an eerie and unsettling place, no doubt psychologically taxing for the characters which inhabit it. Furthermore, we can infer that the visual narrative in the prior three pages will play some crucial role in how Dick comes to understand Gotham’s hunger.

Finally, notice the use of the double dash (–) in 4.2.3. The only other use of this punctuation is in 1.6.1 (“except for one–Gotham City, which was marked by a black pin.”). The double dashes each indicate a dramatic pause in the reading, and in both cases are used before revealing dramatic information. This dramatic information effectively summarizes the gist of the narrative captions. 1.6.1 reveals that Gotham does not exist in the blue/red binary – it is instead unique; 4.2.1 reveals that, more than any other characteristic, strange Gotham is defined by its hunger. The city requires a preternatural amount of energy from its citizens – everyone “pushing themselves to the limit” (2.2.1), well beyond what is required from other places.

In both 4.1 and 4.2, Dick looks towards the left of the page, an interesting creative choice, since characters often look towards the right in comic books, to lead the reader to the next panel. This suggests that Dick is stuck – he is not moving (looking) forward, because he is preoccupied and troubled by Gotham. Instead, the diagonal positioning of Dick’s figure and shadow, the placement of caption box 4.1.2, and the use of ellipses within that caption, move our eye from 4.1 to 4.2.

In 4.2, Dick’s thinking is interrupted by Alfred, who asks off-panel, “TROUBLE SLEEPING AGAIN, MASTER RICHARD?”, ending the series of narrative captions. Alfred’s speech balloon is positioned at the bottom of the panel, its tail leading right (thus leading our eye to the next panel). His dialogue underscores the unease Dick has expressed in the captions – Dick has been losing sleep, presumably over Gotham. Notice too that the font used for Alfred’s speech is capitalized, while Dick’s narrative captions remain in sentence case. This has the effect of suggesting the audible nature of Alfred’s speech on the one hand (the letters are capitalized, ‘bigger’, ‘louder’), versus the inaudible nature of Dick’s thinking on the other (the majority of the letters are lowercase, ‘smaller’, ‘soundless’).

Alfred’s inquiry offers Dick the opportunity to express his concerns. I won’t analyze their ensuing conversation, but I think it’s important to note that Alfred’s presence shifts the narrative decisively. From 4.3 on, we are no longer anchored to the opening visual sequence by Dick’s brooding captions, as we were in 4.1 and 4.2. Instead, Alfred’s presence reminds us that though Dick must contend with “wild and strange” Gotham, he has family that cares about his wellbeing. He is not alone.

* * *

Soon after I began writing this, I realized how difficult it can be to pinpoint the origin of a particular creative decision on a comic book page. To give one example from this opening scene, did the symbolic yellow lighting on page one originate from a note in the script, or was it David Baron’s idea? Perhaps Jock suggested it, or perhaps one of the editors. Or did it result from some combination of these? I don’t know – all are reasonable possibilities. Even creators themselves are sometimes unsure of where certain elements of their collective work originated from. For the critic, the dynamism inherent to any creative undertaking will always make understanding its development difficult, thereby limiting the scope of any analysis. And furthermore, while such examinations certainly stimulate deeper understandings of art, it is primarily the experience of reading a comic or a novel, or watching a film or a play, that connects us to creative work.

As for aspiring creators, I hope they will find this essay to be of value, and encourage further close readings from anyone seriously interested in making comics.

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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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