Review: Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Scott Snyder's Batman: The Court of Owls is a different kind of book than his Batman: The Black Mirror, but that's not a bad thing.

Black Mirror was a wonderful horror story, with gore lurking for the reader just beyond the next page. Court of Owls, the first DC New 52 collection of the relaunched Batman title, has a more superheroic aesthetic, built in large part from Batman fighting a new foe over the rooftops of Gotham. This is abetted by Greg Capullo's art, evoking Rick Burchett penciling Greg Rucka's stories during the Batman: Murderer/Fugitive era; it all serves to make Court of Owls feel more naturally in line with the Batman stories that came before.

Court of Owls is no less psychologically complex than Black Mirror, however. Snyder's first crack at Batman Bruce Wayne explores layers of the hero that remarkably may never have been explored before. Snyder proves he's unafraid to show both Bruce's good and bad qualities, something that serves the story well but may be troubling to some fans.

[Contains spoilers]

An evil cabal is killing Gothan's citizens, an immortal assassin roams the streets, but what seems to bother Batman the most is that they're stealing his shtick. At first Bruce refuses to believe the Court of Owls exists; then, trapped in their labyrinth, he reminds himself that Gotham is "your city, your story" and affirms "I invented all the tricks." Not only do the owls seems to have a greater history with Gotham and know the city better than he does, but they have lairs all over the city like Bruce's satellite Bat-caves; they even usurp, to an extent, Bruce's own sidekick, Nightwing Dick Grayson.

All of this appears to make Batman, put quite simply, jealous, and furious to boot. As a child, the reader learns, Bruce sought the Court of Owls and couldn't find them; he's searched for them over time and always concluded they were a myth. It's only when the Owls choose to reveal themselves that Batman learns the truth; this is a massive blow to the ego of the "World's Greatest Detective," a truth Batman says in the conclusion that he wishes he hadn't learned. Nightwing tries to convince Batman that the Owls are "just another bad guy," but at the end of the book Batman remains inconsolable.

This depiction of Batman who falls victim to the Owls largely due to his own hubris may not be to every reader's liking. Batman is largely in the wrong in handling this case, and Snyder portrays him as willing to just give up and let the Owls kill him after a few days in their labyrinth. Nightwing chides Batman for being unemotional, something that had largely long-since been handled in the aforementioned Murderer/Fugitive days. It makes for a good shock when Batman hits Nightwing to knock out his tooth where an owl symbol had been hidden, but the reader might quickly wonder why Batman doesn't just say, "Hey Nightwing, let's check out your tooth" instead.

None of this detracts from what's otherwise an engaging story, but Snyder ought take care not to make Batman too unlikable or alienate him too far from his allies, something that's caused a reader backlash in times past.

Snyder has the unenviable task in this book of writing what is meant to be the new "first" Batman story. This is neither Batman's origin nor could one could one come in blindly and intuit the roles and history of Robins Tim Drake and Damian Wayne, for instance; however, Snyder does well hitting all the high spots: the inclusion of said Robins, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock, and a dramatic reveal of the Bat-cave with help from Capullo. Snyder even smartly teases a grand New 52 change with the Joker as Batman's ally, though indeed this turns out to be just a tease.

The biggest difference between Batman's old and new adventures, and one that Snyder portrays well, is the technology. Court of Owls feels definitively like a twenty-first century Batman story, from Bat-computers in Batman's contact lenses to digital lip reading, to Batman infiltrating the Gotham morgue via hologram rather than sneaking through the ductwork. In the New 52 Justice League: Origin, mentions of the characters watching Conan O'Brien seemed like anachronisms; Snyder's Batman, on the other hand, is up to date, in line with what modern audiences -- especially television and moviegoers -- would expect.

The end of Court of Owls leads right into the "Night of the Owls" crossover that will probably occupy the second Batman collection, but Court is a decent advertisement for Gates of Gotham co-writer Kyle Higgins's Nightwing series as well. First, there's continuity between the books -- Nightwing specifically departs from this book for his own adventure and addresses that adventure when he returns. Second, Court has significant implications for Nightwing even more so than Batman, which is bound to be addressed in the first or second collection of the Nightwing title. Finally, Snyder just writes an appealing Nightwing -- younger and jauntier than his Black Mirror appearance, plus Capullo makes the new uniform look good. If the wait for "Night of the Owls" is too long, Nightwing: Traps and Trapezes might help ease the wait.

Justice League: Origin may not have relaunched the DC Universe as wholly as the New 52 needed, but Jeff Lemire's Animal Man: The Hunt -- the other DC New 52 collection released so far -- was near perfection, and Scott Snyder's Batman: The Court of Owls acquits itself well, too. That's a majority success rate for the DC New 52 collections so far; if Snyder keeps up this level of storytelling as attention on the Batman titles grows in the advent of the Dark Knight Rises, that should mean good things on all sides.

[Includes full covers, scripts and pages/art by Capullo.]

We'll close out the week with one more DC New 52 review -- come back for the Collected Editions review of Green Lantern: Sinestro, next!
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12 comments:

  1. The one thing that tarnished this arc a little to me was that nonsensical tooth-knocking scene, but that spectacular labyrinth issue bought Snyder and Capullo a lot of good will.

    But to be honest, I'm a bit wary of this Batman/Nightwing rift Snyder and Higgins seem to be building towards. I hope it doesn't become a full-blown "bat-war".

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  2. A commenter elsewhere described the labyrinth issue as "Eisner-worthy." I liked it, sure, but Snyder basically just turned the pages sideways and upside-down; I guess I don't feel it was as innovative as everyone else. Not to knock it -- some of the fanfare just surprised me, is all.

    First I've heard of the Batman/Nightwing rift, but I'm wary of that, too. Our heroes can fight sometimes -- I loved the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman rift for Infinite Crisis, for instance -- but Batman and Nightwing not getting along seems long since done to me. I'd rather see these two characters get along than Batman treating Nightwing poorly and Nightwing's inevitable angst.

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  3. I actually like the direction in which the Batman/Nightwing dynamic seems to be going. I recall Snyder saying in an interview that the whole arc, including Dick Grayson's involvement and the tooth-knocking scene in particular, had been planned since before the reboot. It seems to me that it's an indirect way of addressing the time Dick spent as Batman in Gotham while Bruce was away.

    (And as far as it feels like a trick to get us reading more bat titles, I don't think it's too bad an idea, but then I usually like big Batman crossover events...)

    I thought Greg Capullo's art in this was pretty great. It's a good contrast to the cluttered look of a lot of books in the New 52. I bought it digitally though, and I always wondered how well the labyrinth trick worked in print.

    Wonder how much the series is going to rely on the Night of Owls crossover issues? And how that's going to be collected.

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  4. Seems like a nice enough pick from the pre-New 52 Bat-books. If anything, keeping a similar writer will help out the transition.

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  5. Anon, how did the labyrinth issue work digitally? Did you have to turn around your device like readers have to turn around the book?

    I saw one suggestion that the Batman issues of Night of the Owls be collected, and then all the separate tie-in issues also be collected together, outside of their individual books. On one hand a Birds of Prey reader then wouldn't have to wonder, "Who are these Owls?"; on the other hand, I wouldn't want to feel like I have to get the Night of the Owls collection just to have all the Birds of Prey issues, for instance.

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  6. For the labyrinth issue you do have to flip your device around, so you have to lock the orientation if you're carrying an iPad. I've heard it might be more interesting in printed form because print comics don't usually have the zoom-in/zoom-out/rotate-for-two-page-spread tricks digital comics sometimes do already. Also, it's totally unreadable on a desktop computer as far as I know! So physical copy might be more convenient, too.

    Wouldn't say it was "Eisner-worthy", but it was pretty fun.

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  7. Gotta admit, I didn't like the labyrinth issue. It was the only downside to the collection. Snyder writes as good a Dick Grayson as I can remember.

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  8. I was confused when I first got to the labyrinth on my iPad; fortunately locking the orientation solved the problem. I just checked on the Comixology website and "Anonymous" is right: totally unreadable! Even if you go panel-by-panel, the panels are sideways!

    Personally, I thought that having to turn the page around didn't make sense, digitally. An upside-down iPad looks and functions identically to a rightside-up one, and I already have to turn it sideways for two-page spreads. Turning a comic book sideways would have more of an impact, I think.

    Regarding the tooth-knocking incident, did anyone consider that Bruce had escaped after a week of psychological (and, at the end, physical) torture, and looked to have not rested up yet when the confrontation with Nightwing happened? He was still unshaven, after all. Maybe he would have handled it differently after a good night's sleep! :-)

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  9. Not to mention, in re-reading the tooth-knocking scene from Nightwing's perspective in Nightwing: Traps and Trapezes, Nightwing is really raving like a crazy person there. It doesn't come out as well in the Batman volume, but I actually felt the punch was much more justified reading it in the Nightwing book.

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  10. So, essentially the Nightwing trade ties in heavily with this book? What about the Batgirl trade?

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  11. I've read Batgirl up through issue #9 (the Owls crossover), and I'm pretty sure that's the only issue that ties in with Batman. I think if you get the Night of the Owls TPB (with all those tie-in issues), you should be good.

    From what I can tell, Nightwing tied in with a bit of #7, and then all of #8 and #9. I only bought #8 and #9, which were labelled with the Night of the Owls banner, so I was kind of surprised when CE mentioned that tooth-knocking scene being in Nightwing. But I'm pretty sure everything you need to know about Nightwing's involvement with the Owls (outside of the official tie-ins) is laid out in the Batman issues. I certainly didn't feel like I was missing anything, having not read the first Nightwing volume before reading Night of the Owls.

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  12. I wouldn't say the Nightwing book ties in "heavily," but the last issue of the first Nightwing trade and this book share the same scene, so there's notable overlap. And Nightwing refers to events in his own series here, so you might just find yourself curious. This trade and the Batgirl trade do not tie in to one another -- but the Batgirl trade takes place specifically before Batgirl's appearance in the Nightwing trade. So, for a suggested reading order, Batman: Court of the Owls, then Batgirl: Darkest Reflection, then Nightwing: Traps and Trapezes.

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