Scott Snyder’s Batman: City of Owls (the collected name for the Batman issues of the “Night of the Owls” event) strongly evokes Grant Morrison’s Batman RIP. This is meant positively for City — Snyder’s book is a rousing tale with great action and a compelling mystery. But while the shocks and surprises in City will still bring a smile to fans' faces, it’ll only take a moment to realize how familiar all of this feels. Maybe the best Batman stories are worth re-telling, but this is one that’s been told now too many times.
[Review contains spoilers]
The good news is that Batman: City of Owls is a fine story that reads well from start to finish, with all the main parts drawn by Greg Capullo. Despite the “Night of the Owls” crossover that may have received the larger fanfare (collected itself in the Night of the Owls book, City is mostly self-contained; there a quick mention of events that take place in Detective Comics that might confuse some, but everything story-wise that the reader needs is right here. In fact, the “Night of the Owls” crossover may have worked against City, leading the reader to expect some epic, full-blown Bat-family story when really City is just a Batman story, epic in its own right but probably not having needed ten other titles carrying its banner.
The importance of reading Snyder’s first New 52 Batman volume, Court of Owls, before reading City of Owls can’t be overstated. Snyder rather expertly lays down many of the clues to the unraveling of the Owls mystery in Court, and indeed another difficulty with the “Night of the Owls” hoopla is that it might lead readers to think they can read the Night collection and City and be up to date on the story, but really the linchpin books here are Snyder’s Court and City, and Night itself you can read or not.
Contrary to Grant Morrison’s “always two steps ahead” characterization of Batman that ruled most of the final pre-Flashpoint DC years, Snyder’s Batman — or Bruce Wayne, even — is more emotionally raw. We saw in the last volume how the Court of Owls nearly drove Batman mad, up to the point of Batman ceasing to fight for his life. At the start of City, Bruce broods over how the Court has operated for so long without his knowledge, and in the second chapter he’s nearly equally overwhelmed by the Owls' Talon assassins, imagining the owls that long ago eradicated the bats from under Wayne manor.
Fortunately, Batman’s outlook is on the upswing from there, as he takes the fight to the Owls and the mastermind behind them. My “ideal Batman” is perhaps somewhere between Morrison’s and Snyder’s — I don’t necessarily like how easily defeated Snyder’s Batman seems to be, but I also tired of how Morrison’s Batman was never in danger, even if he seemed to be, because he always knew more than his enemies. What I enjoyed most about Snyder’s City of Owls is that Batman solves the mystery in real-time; Batman is stymied by the Owls leadership’s apparent suicide, and he realizes the final clue in the moment right alongside the reader.
Snyder’s main “Owls” story ends with Bruce’s realization that he’s been callous toward the city of Gotham, having used his new rebuilding efforts in Gotham more to further Batman’s mission than to help the city itself. This is an interesting repudiation for what’s been a long-time Batman trope — Batman always uses Bruce Wayne’s activities as a cover for Batman stuff — lately probably most prominently in the Christopher Nolan movies. I’ll be curious to see if this is just a nice turn of phrase at the end of Snyder’s story or if he actually plans to enact it in some way, i.e. we’ll see Bruce actually making some non-Batman overtures toward Gotham in the next storyline.
If there’s a difficulty with City of Owls, it’s in the story’s villain — and this is tough because to an extent the villain is also the story’s best part. The evil Owl (dare we say Owlman?) is a visually-engaging villain as depicted by Capullo, and Snyder really distinguishes the Owl from other similar evil Batman dopplegangers with the Owl’s well-conceived “dark side of the mirror” rhetoric — how the Owl grew up only seeing the Gotham skyline in reflection, how the Owl could only see planes landing in Gotham, never leaving, and so on.
Unfortunately, in all of this we come to find that Snyder is riffing on an old Batman story (I’m tiring of every story riffing on some other old story, but that’s for a different column), and one that Grant Morrison just riffed on himself in Batman RIP (arguably, the Owl’s backstory isn’t terribly far away from Jeph Loeb’s Hush, either). Snyder’s Batman: Black Mirror took on Batman: Year One and added to it in new and different ways, but once the secret of City is revealed, the whole thing becomes an exercise in telling an old story in a new way — not differently, necessarily, just with new trappings — and that lessens City to an extent. If City of Owls has a legacy, hopefully it’s that this is the last time this particular story is told for a while, perhaps to give it some room to breathe.
City of Owls also includes the Batman Annual #1, and Batman #12, a non-“Night of the Owls” story. The annual is a satisfactory origin of Mr. Freeze with art by Jason Fabok that makes a good update to Freeze’s story (regarding the long-suffering Nora), but it’s not impressive enough to be annual-worthy, and it falls like a brick in the center of City, breaking up the story flow. The annual is better off in the Night of the Owls collection, though it doesn’t fit perfectly there, either.
Batman #12 again shows the scope of the story Snyder is telling, reaching all the way back to Snyder’s first Batman issue. Unfortunately, Harper Row’s story likely only goes a couple of ways, one of which is that she becomes Batman’s new “tech person” like Harold and Oracle, which sometimes means “story widget to make X or Y magically happen because the story needs it,” something that caused both Harold and Oracle to grate at times. The other direction for Harper seems equally obvious and again, perhaps too familiar. Becky Cloonan’s rounded art is perfect for the story, and while I get that the shift to Andy Clarke is supposed to underline the fight scene, it might’ve worked better for me if Cloonan took over again after the fight was over; I did adore that Snyder brings back his Black Mirror villain Tiger Shark, however.
If we do grant that DC Comics’s New 52 is supposed to be “starting over” for the DC Universe, and perhaps a fair portion of readers are picking up Batman for the first time, then Batman: City of Owls is likely a satisfying story — and it is. But there are aspects of City, when it all ties together, that are too cute, too self-referential by far. I’m eager to read a real Scott Snyder Batman story, one where Snyder takes the character and goes his own way; City didn’t feel like that to me, not entirely, and I think “Death of the Family, the Joker story that follows, might not be "it” either (Joker stories inevitably carry loads of baggage from Joker stories past). There’s no question Snyder and Capullo have the chops for it, and I’m eager to see them stay on Batman long enough for us to really get there.