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.
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!