Batman, v. 1: The Court of Owls
Collects: Batman #1-7 (2011-2)
Released: May 2012 (DC)
Format: 176 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401235413
What is this?: Batman discovers and battles a secret cabal that has been ruling Gotham for centuries.
The culprits: Writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo
I’ve mostly stayed away from DC’s New 52 because reboots have nothing to offer me without revamping the underlying concepts into something different as well. Oh, I dabbled in the lineup’s new racial and genre diversity — Blue Beetle, Mr. Terrific, All-Star Western, Demon Knights — but mostly the idea of erasing all the old stories for a clean slate bores me. You want a clean slate? Come up with a new idea. Build it from the ground up.
That being said, there are some ways in which a clean slate is better. When I read the pre-reboot Batman: The Black Mirror, I spent an inordinate amount of time deciding whether James Gordon Jr. was a pre-existing character. If the commissioner of Gotham City Police Department had a psychopath for a son, that should be a big deal, one that should be frequently referenced, and it wasn’t. (Answer: Jimmy Junior existed, but not as an adult, and definitely not as a psychopath.) But with the mysterious Court of Owls in the New 52’s Batman, v. 1: The Court of Owls, I don’t have to worry about whether inserting a large-scale, Illuminati-like organization that has been controlling Gotham City for hundreds of years into the story makes any sense. I already know there’s nothing to contradict it in the New 52 continuity.
Writer Scott Snyder spends a great deal of time building the mythology of the Court into the fabric of his new Gotham. It’s the kind of thing that can be done effectively only with a new continuity; dropping yet another secret, powerful organization into the background of the Marvel Universe has been producing yawns since Stan Lee was still a writer, not an actor. And without some knowledge of the universe, the revelation of secrets and hidden powers can fall a little flat. So if you’re going to tell a story like this, the launch of the New 52 was the time to tell it.
Snyder is pitting legends against each other in Court. On one hand, you have Batman, who effectively rules Gotham’s night at the beginning of the story, with his enemies all in Arkham. Bruce Wayne is about to revitalize and rebuild Gotham. He’s pushing the envelope with his electronic toys, which lets him get even farther ahead of crime. He’s secure in who he is both as a leading citizen of Gotham and as a crimefighter. But he’s not exactly a secret or reclusive in either role, although there are allusions to Batman being regarded as a myth in the past. On the other side, Snyder presents the Court of Owls: reclusive, secret, hijacking Bruce’s great great grandfather’s building projects and making over Gotham for their own purposes. All the public knows about the Court is an old nursery rhyme (that doesn’t quite scan). They’re an urban legend, a nice inversion of the Batman legend.
That said, it’s unknown why the Court makes its move at the beginning of Court of Owls; this is a problem with making the Court of Owls the first storyline in Batman’s New 52 run. There’s no buildup or suspense; it has all the emotional setup of a fighting video game: Batman vs. Court of Owls — fight! Is it Bruce Wayne’s revitalization project that causes the Court to send their killer, the Talon, after Bruce? Or is it Batman’s success? Or both? The Court seems to have worked out who Batman and his associates really are, but it’s not spelled out. Snyder also tries to tie the Court into Nightwing’s backstory, which has the emotional impact of a feather duster over the head. Even Nightwing himself points out that he just doesn’t care about how the Court might have intersected his or his family’s long-ago, nebulous past. It doesn’t affect his present or future. If Dick doesn’t care, I don’t either, which makes this detail more annoying than intriguing (especially given how often this sort of thing is done in comics).
I do appreciate Snyder using Nightwing as someone who can talk to Batman, even if Batman doesn’t want to talk. Writers have that option with Alfred as well, but Alfred relates to Bruce, rather than Batman, and often as a father figure; Nightwing can relate to Bruce as a human being or Batman as a fellow crimefighter. I’m not sure what Snyder is saying by having Nightwing being on the correct side whenever the two argue — whether Batman is short sighted or a very flawed detective — or by having Batman backhand Nightwing during an argument (is he being a poor father? Are we supposed to see him as hopelessly violent? Or are we supposed to see Batman pushed to a breaking point?). It’s an unexpected, troubling dynamic between the men, and while some flaws might be good to humanize Batman, striking Nightwing goes a little far.
Snyder introduces a couple of new characters in Court. One is mayoral candidate Lincoln March, who is obviously supposed to be a mirror of Bruce Wayne; the two even look almost identical, although surprisingly March is taller. Like Bruce, March was orphaned at a young age and even has a memory of his mother’s jewelry at the site of her death. Unlike Bruce, though, March is self made. It’s easy to foresee a Two-Face or Black Mask turn for him, or maybe he’s in with the Court. I have no idea what to make of Harper, a bepierced character who aids Batman at a critical moment for a couple of pages. She has wiring and perhaps welding equipment in the back of her Tardis van, and she and Batman know each other. Other than that, she’s not mentioned, and I have no idea what her significance is.
Artist Greg Capullo does an excellent job designing the Court of Owls and its Talons. The Court’s featureless oval masks have just enough detail to suggest “owl” without sacrificing the creepy blankness. The Talons have an overwhelming similarity in color and shape to Batman’s costume, sans cape; they are instantly recognizeable, though, no matter how much they look like an Elsewords (or Earth-3) Batman. I also enjoyed the sequence in issue #5 that follows a disoriented Batman through the Court’s labyrinth; the layout switches to sideways before turning upside-down as things get worse and more confusing for Batman. On the other hand, I’m not sure of Capullo’s sense of scale; judging from the art, March must be twice as tall as Damian Wayne (possible, but barely) and 1.5 times as tall as Time Drake (implausible). And March looks too much like Bruce, no matter how similar they are supposed to be. That aside, I like Capullo’s work — simple without skimping on details and remaining expressive.
Still, I don’t know that I’m much interested in how the story plays out. Visuals aside, the Court of Owls doesn’t have the heft to interest me, and the Talon has — intentionally — little personality. I appreciate Snyder’s ambition in trying to build an organization that can rival the Bat Family. But one Talon — or even a flock of Talons — and their anonymous overlords don’t have that impact.
Rating: (2.5 of 5)