Francesco Francavilla makes a return as the artist for yet another Gordon father-and-son issue and this time it reveals significant pieces of the enigma that is James Jr. This review WON'T BE SPOILER-FREE because it deserves some lengthy discussion and reflection from me. So don't read on unless you don't feel like reading The Black Mirror anyway and are just interested in reading about someone's thoughts about its content. On that note, I'll try not to disappoint. Before we get to that, I first want to quote Snyder from one of his scripts (which was reproduced in the trade paperback GN). It was a correspondent shared between him and the said artist.
"This [James Jr.] is the star of your story. We're going to make him one of the scariest mothers in DCU. The idea is that he is a true psychopath--devoid of empathy. He's been away for a long time, wandering, staying away. No one knows where he has been, but his last encounter with Jim was bad--years ago. Jim has always known something was "wrong" with him, but how wrong is a mystery to him. That's the idea: James Jr. is the worst thing Jim could have for a son--an unsolvable mystery. Jim cannot figure out what Babs (one of the very smartest in the Bat-family) knows instinctually--that James isn't just someone with an anti-social personality disorder. He's a killer. A true psychopath. For Jim, the evidence is never there, and even the reason for James' nature is a mystery to him. Was it the fall from the bridge that damaged him? Was it the fact that Jim worked long hours, wasn't around? Was he just born that way? Or was it...Gotham? James is the twisted, mirror reflection of Dick and Jim, in that Dick is all about empathy and compassion; James has neither. Jim is all about solving things, James is unsolvable...Let's have some fun."
Upon reading this, I just can't help but feel more extremely drawn to James Jr. than I already was after reading Lost Boys (which is now my most favorite issue...but I'll hold up until the finale). Snyder knows what he wants to showcase in his characterization of James Jr., notably on how he will contrast him with Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon themselves. So in that symbolic essence, he could be considered the titular black mirror of the story in general and I would accept that eagerly. Before I get to the meat and bones of this issue, let me start first by saying Francavilla's limited color palette is a genius choice of art style. As I've mentioned previously, he works with hues of orange, purple, dark blue and black, giving his illustrations a haunted and shadowy look every panel which only serves to emphasize just what a dark story Snyder is writing.
The Joker also makes an appearance in this issue (or should we say, finally?) He was mumbling about a story between a boy and a girl; and that it's a story about love. His story about it serves as a narrative background for the rest of the issue with Jim, and I don't think the Joker was supposed to be relevant to the scope of this issue because Snyder himself was straightforward about who is supposed to be the star for The Black Mirror series. But I did like that he serves as a sidenote to add a more chilling perspective to an already despairing atmosphere. We can't have too much of that, oh no.
Now, Skeleton Key is a horror story where we explore the horrors of men; the very incarnate of such a force himself (James Jr.) who is also the one that keeps Jim Gordon awake some nights, unsafe with the knowledge that his one and only son is a monster. Gordon needs to confirm his suspicions at this point, distrusting even Dick's judgment about James Jr. when they met in issue #878 because even Dick himself was fooled by the mild-mannered appearance and demeanor of said young man. So Gordon goes to the only person who understood James Jr.'s nature from the very beginning, and who is no other than Barbara. Before that, he visited James in his place of work in a hospital administration. Leslie Thompkins, his boss, had stated how impressive and diligent he was, but Gordon was not at all convinced and actually just went there to get a sample of the pills James Jr. was taking, which were supposed to help regulate his amygdala so he will develop empathy. He takes the pill back to Barbara and she examines its contents.
The one thing that jumped at me during their earnest conversation was that Jim asked Barbara to keep it in the family which meant he also doesn't want to get Dick/Batman involved. I think he is taking partial responsibility of how James Jr. turned out and Barbara agrees that they both should. The thing is, I know Jim still loves his son very, very much, but he can't turn the other cheek anymore--and rightfully so. After examining the pill, Barbara arrives to a startling discovery: James Jr. altered the substance in the pill which meant that the medicine is doing the exact opposite of what it should be doing (the medicine is now actually blocking his amygdala's responses). James Jr. is cutting off any traces of his humanity, psychologically speaking. AND THAT IS NOT EVEN THE WORST PART.
After discussing it some more, Jim realized that James Jr. has a more heinous plan than that. He altered the medicine so he could have other people ingest it. When Barbara assured him that it won't have much effect on adults anymore because their brains have matured already, Jim put another piece together and rushed out of the room, claiming that he knew whom James Jr. plans to use that medicine on. He recalled that his son volunteers to pick up baby formula from the market which would give him a chance to tamper with that--and that means he plans on turning Gotham's infants into psychopaths like him. It's...sickening. I was at the edge of my seat then while I'm about to reach the last three pages of the issues.
Jim went in his son's apartment, gun already in hand. This was shortly after we get a panel where it is revealed that the Joker once again escaped Arkham Asylum but right after he released some deadly toxin, rendering the staff incapable of rational thought which made them murderous. So now Jim creeps inside the apartment and his attention was caught by the closet that was ajar. A red metal box was inside it. He approaches the closet, kneels down and opens the box. Harvey Bullock appears in the doorway, presumably to tell him about the Joker. He asked if everything is okay and to which Jim dishearteningly replies that nothing is okay. We get a full-paged panel of the box where a multitude of keys are inside (keepsake from people James Jr. have killed, maybe?) and the one that stood out from the bunch is the bat key-chain, one that belonged to Barbara's friend Besse, the girl who disappeared. By then, Jim has confirmed that it wasn't the Peter Pan killer who killed Besse.
It was James Jr. It had always been his own son all along...