Review by C.J. Bunce
In the climax of Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls, a battered Batman looks up and utters “…I am sick… to death… of owls!” Me, too, I thought, after seven chapters of the first released hardcover of the New 52, written by Scott Snyder with pencils by Greg Capullo. Hardly a page of the first seven issues of the rebooted Batman series does not include an owl, worked into the background or architecture or elsewhere. There’s not a lot of subtlety to be found here.
Although I’d put David Peterson’s owl renderings in Mouse Guard up against Capullo’s any day, Capullo does a nice job of working owls into the story. In fact his art and the overall look of this hardcover puts it in the camp of prior trade compilations like Batman: The Cult. It certainly surpasses Grant Morrison and David McKean’s equally dark Arkham Asylum in both story and art. That said, it fails to achieve the excitement, fun, and energy of Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush or Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke, or the mythology of Batman found in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. If you like your Batman not only dark but flawed, making as many bad decisions as good, and you’re tired of the recycled pantheon of Bat-villains, this book may be for you. Unfortunately, the twists and excellent execution of story found in Issue #1 of this Batman series didn’t hold out, the owl-villainy doesn’t match the classic bat-villains, and so the series became monotonous and tired by Issue #7 for this reader.
I haven’t seen a lot of continuity of story presentation across the New 52 titles. But of all the titles I’d hoped for more origin of Batman than is peppered in flashback through the first seven chapters of this compilation. Had The Court of Owls been a story arc in a normal year of Batman stories, I may have actually appreciated it more. But as part of a launch that was to allow new readers to enter and understand the series, I think this series doesn’t make any headway. That said, what’s there really to understand? It’s just Batman, right? As the leading title of DC Comics, I think despite its great sales, the story doesn’t have broad appeal. Why is everyone reading it then? With all the Bat-titles in the reboot, this series started out as the best and is probably considered the best, but we’re all not just waiting for another good Batman story, we want another great Batman story and we’re willing to keep coming back until we get it.
The hook of the owl as a creature of night who eats bats as a visual or storytelling concept would have worked for me for an issue or two. Today DC Comics have The Court of Owls – Night of the Owls story permeating throughout the DC New 52 titles as a crossover event. What is the Court of Owls? It’s a bit like an evil version of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, mixed with the Masons as revealed in the National Treasure series, and a chemical reaction that allows humans to be immortal. Despite all the years of Bruce Wayne exploring and building out a batcave, and his long understanding of Gotham City as his city, suddenly we readers are introduced to a concept never before even hinted at, and a mention that… oh, yeah, Bruce Wayne tried to hunt down the Court of Owls as a kid and ultimately came to the realization they did not exist. The problem is, unlike the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword’s noble cause, we are given no motivation for the Court’s evil doings. They’re just bad guys. If you had this much power, would you live like these masked ghouls under Gotham or would you live the high life?
That said, there is a lot to like in this series. Snyder’s use of modern technology to assist Batman is well placed. Dick Grayson’s Nightwing has hardly been better as Batman’s sidekick, including a brilliant turn as Joker to fool the inmates of Arkham Asylum. The entire supporting cast, although hardly used, have nice moments, including Tim Drake, Commissioner Gordon and even Alfred. Capullo’s art is as good as any of Jim Lee’s best Batman work. Capullo and Snyder both are obviously passionate about creating a complex Bat-tale, and for that, the book is worth a second read. With that second read, more plotted foreshadowing can be found. The Court of Owls was clearly not an easy tale to construct, both from a story concept or visually. And as a starting point, Issue #1 is one of the best issues of Batman you’ll ever read. If you like Batman in a chamber of horrors, Snyder and Capullo’s vision has the feel of the crazy masked club of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Unfortunately I just didn’t find the arc compelling enough to keep me hooked for all seven issues.
Batman: The Court of Owlsseems to borrow a bit from Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson’s Batman: The Cult in story and look. Capullo’s depictions of a tortured Batman are equal to the horror and drama depicted in Bernie Wrightson’s panels in The Cult. That’s high praise for Capullo as Wrightson’s work on The Cult was nicely done. But I was never fond of Batman being duped and sucked into the villain’s world, or portrayed as less than genius, and even allowed to be beaten to a pulp. All that happened in both Batman: The Cult and Batman: The Court of Owls. This is why I found myself on the side of Nightwing in the sparring between the two–and I am not typically a fan of Nightwing. I prefer my Bat-story to show Batman in the shadows more, as the detective who doesn’t become emotional or fall for the villains’ traps like the Batman of the camp 1960s TV series. Finally, I was distracted by how much the Court’s henchman Talon looked like Watchmen’s cool hero Nite Owl.
A big plus of this hardcover edition can be found at the back of the book. Snyder’s script for issues #1 and Capullo’s pencil roughs that accompany that story reveal some of their creative process, which I always love to see. And along with Greg Capullo’s superb cover art (it’s great when a publisher allows the interior penciller to also create the cover art!), the appendix also includes full page color images of the alternate, incentive covers.
If you want to give Batman: The Court of Owls a try, it is now available at local comic book stores and online. Editors Note: Check out my review of the hardcover of Night of the Owls–all the crossover issues compiled–at this link.