[THE NEW 52] Batman: The Court of Owls

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. THERE WILL BE SQUEEING. THERE MAY BE A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL.

My regular correspondents know that when it comes to Scott Snyder I may well be a little biased in my opinion of his writing. His glorious arc on Detective Comics for The Black Mirror was something original and deeply psychological, even for a Batman story, and since then I’ve been waiting with baited breath for the next chapter in his Batman writing foray. You can imagine my glee at discovering the first installment of his new arc would be out during the second week of the New 52’s release schedule while die-hard Superman fans have to wait until August and November to get their fixes.

Suck it.

The Court of Owls starts with a rip-roaring battle in Arkham Asylum with several slight reinterpretations of classic Batman villains (including a serial rapist-esque Riddler with the most badass haircut I’ve seen in a comic since Ramona Flowers). While it’s clear that bit’s mostly for fanservice, it doesn’t feel overwrought or unnecessary, especially with the “Gotham is” soliloquy going on in Bruce’s mind over the top of it. The explosive start also did a great showcase of Greg Capullo’s artwork, and while I’ve not seen his stuff before I’m in awe in what he can do now. But we’ll get to that later.

In a slightly-reset Gotham City, following the events of Flashpoint, Bruce Wayne is putting copious funds into designing a city safe for modern-day residents while fielding slightly unwelcome business advances from Lincoln March, a current Gotham mayoral candidate who may as well wear a sign on his head saying “I will turn out to be a bad guy”. Into the situation comes multiple references to an urban legend known as the Court of Owls, supposedly a group of Gotham inhabitants lying in wait for the day they can claim the city from all its cohorts – including the Batman.

In a surprisingly out-of-character moment Batman derides the myth of the Court as nothing but an old wives tale, and only really starts to believe when he’s kidnapped, nearly loses an eye and is shoved into a surreal and very, very creepy labyrinth for the rollicking amusement of the Court’s beneficiaries. From the looks of things they’ve taken some pointers from Marble Hornets and the Black Glove for the labyrinth and created a mashup of psychological horror and dark isolationism to move towards a cold, gritty terror that is similar to and unlike any other deathtrap Batman has experienced before.

Snyder’s writing sets up not only some great quips here and there but also builds up towards a deep, expansive, involving arc. By the end of the story I had a sense of awe at how kickass the story was that combined with a sense of annoyance at how long I’d have to wait for the next installment. It touches on previous aspects of the Bat mythos and is still accessible to newcomers without being overwhelming, and there is a definite undertone of true psychological exploration – how much does Gotham City really belong to Batman? Is he really the only method of control in a lawless environment like it?

The narrative doesn’t dive into this psychological aspect as much as Hush or Batman RIP, but it gives hints towards a greater exploration of it in later installments. I feel like Snyder is taking a few good tips from Grant Morrison’s run in regards to setting up without telling too much or too little; part of the appeal of this arc is going to be that deep psychological study, combined with ass-kicking combat and an enemy that, for the first time in a long time, genuinely scared me in the comic’s pages. Not since Morrison’s twisted incarnation of the Joker have I been so disconcerted by a Batman villain. Seriously, those owl masks are really fucking creepy.

Speaking of masks; the artwork is exceptional. Greg Capullo’s stylings add grit in the fight scenes and illumination in the character-building moments, and there is some very well-done use of perspective levels and shading done in the latter half of the book where, within the labyrinth, Batman gets a visitor behind him. I won’t say who or why, but the pages leading up to and after this encounter had me gripping the book hard and gritting my teeth in anxiety even harder. It’s rare to find an artist who uses levels so effectively like that, utilising blurring and distance the way one would in a horror film without being over the top. Top marks, Mr Capullo.

While the book as a whole is exceptional, I feel the dialogue is probably the most lacking element. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t have the verve Dick Grayson’s Batman had in The Black Mirror and there wasn’t nearly enough Commissioner Gordon around for some good old man wisdom. There were several good one-liners and a truly excellent heated exchange between Bruce and Dick that ended in the mother of all backhands, but it didn’t stand out to me as much as the story or art did. Plus some of the shouty-bits in the latter part of the labyrinth came a little out of nowhere – except for that bit near the underwater cave. Brrr.

I would highly recommend that neophyte and veteran fans of the Bat check this out. It’s a brilliant orientation point to both the Bat story and the New 52 as a whole, and it definitely sets up what will hopefully be a marvelous crossover in Night of the Owls. Is it better than The Black Mirror? Apples and oranges; The Black Mirror was a self-contained series of short stories that felt very complete, and The Court of Owls is the start of a big overarching story that touches on many more elements. I would recommend both to readers, but for different reasons.

Plus, reading either one means you’re not reading Superman instead.

STORY: 4/5
ARTWORK: 4.5/5
DIALOGUE: 3/5

OVERALL: 11.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “You’re a pawn. You’re not special! No matter what they’ve told you! No matter what you tell yourself! And now, what you really are is finished.” – Batman

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