Review–New novel revisits the Batman story The Court of Owls

Review by C.J. Bunce

The third book in the new series of hardcover novels based on Batman stories from DC Comics, following The Killing Joke (reviewed earlier here at borg) and the Harley Quinn story Mad Love (reviewed here) is on its way to your comic book shop and other bookstores.  The Court of Owls is relatively new to Batman and DC Comics.  It’s a storyline that emerged from the New 52, the big DC reboot from seven years ago, created in the pages of Batman comics from writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo.  Just as DC was re-creating origin stories and restarting some story lines for various characters, The Court of Owls became the latest subversive crime unit, a mix of a secret society like Skull & Bones and the mid-century Mob, infiltrating every part of Gotham City, controlling everything from the police to the banks, business, and the government.  It was an entirely new creation, so Snyder was challenged with establishing a foundation of events no reader had encountered in Batman’s then 72 years, but thenceforth became a part of established Gotham City history and lore.  This is the focus of a new novel edition of the storyline, Batman: The Court of Owls, written by tie-in author Greg Cox.

People are catching fire, human spontaneous combustion style, across Gotham.  As Bruce Wayne aka Batman investigates with Commissioner Gordon, it becomes clear crime scene information is similar to crimes of record from Batman’s past sleuthing.  An element is common among the remains, tying these deaths to a secret society that Batman previously encountered and confronted in the underground Labyrinth lair–The Court of Owls.  The Court of Owls consists of a small but far-reaching group of the wealthy and powerful who meet in secret and wear a sort of Eyes Wide Shut face mask system, and their henchmen, called Talons, also wear masks, and possess unnatural regenerative qualities.  They are fierce and possibly unbeatable.  Enter the missing Joanna Lee, rescued in a shoot-out in Gotham years ago by Batman, she was an art history student studying a historic Gotham sculptor when she vanished.  As Bruce, butler Alfred, and ally Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon piece together the history of the city and this sculptor’s strangely pervasive art, they learn the impossible has happened: This 19th century artist created works depicting future events decades before they happened.  What they have in common opens up a past that was in front of Bruce Wayne all his life.

As a standalone novel, Batman: The Court of Owls is a solid, worthy Batman story, a complete adventure that doesn’t require much prior knowledge from the reader.  It’s not an adaptation of the New 52 story, but incorporates various elements from the original, comic book version of The Court of Owls story, plus elements from related stories, Night of the Owls, City of the Owls, Fall of the Owls, and Scourge of the Owls

As a retelling of Batman from a new perspective, the novel also works well.  It’s going to be long-time readers that need to be able to skip the question: Where was this fully entrenched Gotham nemesis prior to 2011 or the time of this novel?

The best feature is the tie-in of the past to the present via flashbacks.  Some writers’ use of flashbacks can be clunky, but the background story here was as engaging, if not more so, than the present mystery story.  Even the imagery of The Court of Owls itself, which in the comic books bombarded the reader with images of owls on every other panel (again, prompting the query where were all these owls in past Batman stories?), works far better here, perhaps because the owl imagery is used at a minimum.

Although the story isn’t entirely new, the incorporation of Snyder’s tale, poems and dialogue, and Capullo’s environments, is presented anew.  The ending may not answer all of readers’ questions, but the idea of the commonality of the statuary throughout Gotham provides a great new hook for the Batman stories, like the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who fame.  I was hoping to learn who each Talon was, expecting the unmasking to happen at any time now, but the story skipped over that aspect.  The climax also introduces a fantasy element a bit out of left field.  But overall the story has the right beats.

Look for an appearance by secondary superhero character Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, who joins up with Batman and Batgirl on this journey.

A finely constructed mystery for Batman comics readers up for a new twist on Batman, for fans of NBC’s Gotham series, and fans of the New 52 in particular, Batman: The Court of Owls is arriving in stores February 19, 2019.  It is available for pre-order now here at Amazon.  Check out our reviews of the comic book versions of The Court of the Owls story arcs here and here at borg.

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