What is the essence of noir? Is it shadow? Is it fear? Is it the sense of disgust and weariness as layers of selfishness and violence fall away to reveal a world of lies and cruelty? Probably it is all of these things, together with a crucial ingredient that causes the noir effect to take hold in the mind of a reader. That ingredient is distance, the alienation of the audience from the story, an alienation that allows a reader to survey the narrative with cool detachment, the attitude of an unsympathetic celestial calmly watching mortal folly unfold.
The alienation in Batman #44, a story set in the aftermath of Zero Year and chronicling the first appearance of Mr. Bloom, the villain of the current Batman arc, arises first from the art of Jock and Lee Loughridge. Jock, onetime collaborator with author Scott Snyder on Detective Comics and Wytches, is a master of the “old” style, the techniques of creating comics panels that bring to mind faded, curled photographs and obsolete video stills. His simple, sometimes indistinct lines and blocky shapes seem to be static and fading, a world drained of energy and movement, a world of emotion crushed by sorrow and weariness into an undifferentiated sadness. Lee Loughridge’s subtle, soft colors reinforce the sense of an exhausted past slipping inexorably into some combination of forgetfulness and false memory.
Snyder heightens the distance by using the simple technique of third-person narration. The flat, slightly sour voice that guides us through this early case of Bruce Wayne encourages us to hold the story at arm’s length, a protective maneuver that allows us to see without being seen, to stare into the story while making sure it cannot stare back into us. The plot is a simple one, well-suited to such flat narration. Batman investigates the death of a young man from the Gotham Narrows, a desperate and stubborn young man trying to save his family store from the depredations of the local gang and the newly emergent Penguin. In his need, he turns to Mr. Bloom, who provides him with a version of the Langstrom Man-Bat formula that, unfortunately, has tragic results. The victim stands in a whirlpool of tragedy, the victim not just of the gangs and the Penguin, not just of Mr. Bloom, not just of corrupt policemen and uncaring politicians, but of Bruce Wayne. Wayne’s philanthropy, his support for improving the narrows, has driven up the value of the property the store occupies, and thus attracts the attention of the Narrows’ gangsters. It is one more flavor if bitterness to make sure we do not imbibe this story wholeheartedly.
Where the story falters is, unfortunately, at its core. For a story about the early days of Mr. Bloom, we learn very little about Mr. Bloom. He is only question a mysterious and powerful fixer dispensing questionable technology in the midst of an overgrown urban garden. But perhaps this very mystery is the point. Bloom is not really a character but a growth, a thing the thrives in poisoned soil, a deadly plant feeding on despair and decay. Like so many of the people we meet in Snyder's writing, Bloom is a child of Gotham. Perhaps, in some sense, he IS Gotham. And so the tale of the malevolent city, a story begun by Snyder and Jock in THE BLACK MIRROR nearly half-a-decade ago, continues to unfold.