Story Arc Review: Batman #1-11 "The Court of Owls"/"Night of the Owls"

A comic review article by: Chris Kiser, David Fairbanks, Jamil Scalese

Chris Kiser:

David Fairbanks: 

Jamil Scalese:  

 


 

Chris: Take a trip with me, if you will, back in time to September of 2011. Maroon 5 ruled the iTunes charts, Rick Perry was poised to become the next president of the United States, and moviegoers were eagerly awaiting the feature-length version of those scenes where Samuel L. Jackson breaks into superheroes' homes so he can invite them to hang out in his clubhouse. Oh, and DC Comics was cooking up something called "The New 52," which, if you're too young to remember, was sort of like the Marvel NOW! of its day, only with the publisher's claims that it wasn't a reboot being complete and utter lies. Well, except for books like Green Lantern, where it wasn't actually a reboot, and Batman, which was something more like a half-boot. Make sense?

Believe it or not, we're only just now coming to the conclusion of the mega-story that started back in the first issue of that renumbered Batman series, a sprawling saga which sees the Dark Knight uncover a vast conspiracy of aristocrats who have ruled Gotham City from beneath his notice since at least the 1800s. When it began, the tale seemed to be the ideal embodiment of everything the New 52 hoped to accomplish, a superbly crafted comic that mined the essence of the character's 70-year history while remaining penetrable to the casual fan off the street. Eleven issues later, I'd say that Batman is still one of DC's finest books, though it hasn't quite lived up to those initial expectations in every regard. But maybe that's just me. What say you, fellas? Did Snyder and Capullo's Batman burst out of the gates as strongly as I remember?

David: Batman was easily one of the best books of the relaunch; those early issues, to me, were on par with Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, and Action Comics, paling only to Animal Man. Snyder seemed like he knew full well that he'd have a different Batman in the spandex this time and was writing accordingly. I don't know anyone who expected him to top the stories he wrote for "The Black Mirror," but I'll be damned if he wasn't going to try. 

Jamil: This might be the thing we all agree on: the first portion of this mega-arc is pretty great. I was blown away by Batman #1 and dubbed it the strongest horse in the "New 52" stampede. Snyder and Capullo stuffed so much Caped Crusader into that first issue, from his entire rogues gallery to all the Robins, a sexy Batcave double-splash (and the Batcomputer on a contact!), the GCPD, Bruce Wayne and, of course, maybe the most important character inside Batman aside from the title character -- Gotham. 

So, yeah, I agree this started out as hot, hot fire, and it waned somewhere there in the middle.

Chris: So much of that classic feel was owed, I'd say, to the wonderful visuals Capullo consistently brought to the table -- not just in issue #1 but for 11 straight without a break! His style has been like a cross between John Romita, Jr. and Bruce Timm, creating some beautiful pop art the likes of which have rarely been seen elsewhere in the New 52. Keep in mind, he's doing all this while under a mandate to conform to that awful Jim Lee "update" to the Bat-suit -- living proof that not only can you polish a turd, but you can make it sparkle enough to propose to a woman with.

Jamil: Up and down, Greg Capullo poured his soul into this and made for the best looking first 11 issues of the "New 52". The pages are gritty, powerful and a bit animated, combining some the best elements of Batman books. Let's not forgot about the absolutely fucking fantastic layout work, which could be attributed to the script but was nonetheless expertly executed by Capullo. He says he's sticking around as long as Snyder does, which is exciting. 

David: I wasn't the biggest fan of Capullo's art in the beginning; his style is such that all of his characters look great unless they're supposed to be normal human beings. His Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock look more like cartoony versions of Sam and Twitch than they should, for instance, but around a few issues in, it stopped feeling like a Spawn artist doing Batman and more like if Chris Bachalo or Humberto Ramos were doing Batman, so either he fell into a more realistic groove or I just got used to it. 

Despite that the Court of Owls seemed to be a bit too familiar to Snyder's secret society of aristocrats who bid on Batman artifacts during his Detective run as well as Morrison's Black Glove, it felt like they were at least going to go in a bit of a different direction. While the Court was certainly composed of some of the wealthiest of Gotham's elite, they also seemed to at least be vaguely interested in the future of Gotham. I'd have not said they were benevolent, but they did not seem overly destructive, merely controlling. 

That a society would create an enforcer every generation seemed pretty sensible, and setting up a Talon as an anti-Batman seemed like a pretty interesting idea.

And while the drugged and dying Bruce Wayne felt similar to the events of Batman: RIP, it was just different enough and just good enough that I gave Snyder a pass. These weren't the best Batman stories, but at the time, they were certainly the best that DC was producing. They entertained me and kept my curiosity piqued just enough to keep me coming back each month.

Of course, then we learned that there are more Talons and that they're basically super-zombie Batmen.

Jamil: Batman versus secret society is typically a fun time, and with this being the first story post-kinda-reboot in, arguably, DC's flagship title, it feels a bit more potent than others like the Black Glove. Dark Knight versus individual is overdone, so this switch-up feels nice, 'cause even Leviathan ended up being about one person. That's why I want to highlight Batman #5, which is as much about Batman in a giant maze as it is a Batman-versus-himself story. In my eyes, it's a classic. 

It took me up until issue five to accept the Court of Owls as the legitimate threat they're implied to be. I had a really hard time accepting a giant clandestine organization running Gotham for centuries without Batman ever knowing about it. Even if Bruce had researched them as a child, the fact that the adult version never found one of their multiple secret bases or ran across some avian paraphernalia among the social elite kind of bugged me. But I guess that was kind of the intended point, though, right?

Batman is comfortable, almost bored, when we open this series. Gotham is his city, and he knows it like no one else. Our hero is growing from confident to cocky. That is, until the Owls appear from nowhere and show him that he is just a small speck in the history of Gotham. It's an interesting concept, one that is fairly novel for a character that has seen just about every possible spin on his popular mythology.  Snyder did a lot of work to justify the existence of the Court of Owls and even inspired other Bat-books (and All-Star Western, which might have done the best job of showing the chronological reach of the Court) to throw in on a "Night of the Owls" crossover, and after these dozen issues (including the annual, which we aren't reviewing) I feel like I can finally believe that the Court is a major player in Batman's unrivaled Rouges' Gallery. I mean, shit, DC is telling us they are by essentially giving the Court its own book in a forthcoming series, Talon.

Chris: Unlike the two of you, Snyder had me completely sold on the Court of Owls from day one. Yeah, issue #5 was pretty great (I'll never forget the way Capullo drew Bruce's giant, panicked eye peering out from the otherwise familiar cowl silhouette!), but the earlier issues tracing Batman's discovery of the Court's existence after years of refuting it were the real highlights for me. In particular, I loved seeing the "nests" scattered throughout the city with all those medieval weapons and portraits of people in spooky white owl masks. "They're in our homes." Whew, chills!

Like you said, Jamil, the concept of the Court is about as original as one could hope to get in a mainstream Bat-book published 73 years after Detective Comics #27. More so any other villain in the mythos I can call to mind, the Court of Owls manages to turn Gotham itself into a weapon -- not just a prize to be won -- the mastery of which will determine who ultimately wins out between themselves and Batman. Each side is continually one-upping the other in its intimate knowledge of the city, from Bruce's awareness of Wayne Tower's thirteenth gargoyle to the Owls dropping our hero into the middle of a secret underground labyrinth.

Unfortunately, Snyder doesn't keep the ingenuity going for the entire arc, and the Court of Owls eventually devolves into a disappointingly conventional threat. The decline starts in issue #6, when a beaten-to-a-pulp Batman defeats the Talon by simply willing himself to get back up and keep fighting -- a stock scene employed by many other Bat-writers a time or 200 before. (I tell ya, Snyder characters take a bigger licking and keep on ticking than Sin City's Marv!) Matters only get worse once the Court suddenly forgets that it's supposed to be a clandestine organization and dispatches a few dozen additional Talons into the city to assassinate a bunch of prominent Gothamites. There was a lot of talk from Snyder and company about "Night of the Owls" being an organic crossover, but even within the pages of Batman itself, its genesis felt artificial.

David: Wait, we're not talking about the annual? Because my hopes for a solid ending to this first year of Batman started to melt away with Mr. Freeze's history; that I could see absolutely no motive behind removing the humanity from Freeze did not give me confidence that this mess with the Owls would end well. It certainly didn't help that this was during "Night of the Owls," where everything should've been ramping up and instead I found myself reading just another average cape and tights book to the point that I had to reread the issues to even remember what happened, aside from Batman wearing his power armor.

I think it was really Snyder's Swamp Thing issues that were giving me hope that Batman would pick up; well, that and that I was getting pretty happy with Capullo's art, far more than I was at the beginning. 

I don't think it's a coincidence that my appreciation of his style came with more and more masks, from the Talons to the Court themselves, though. Of course, at the end of the Night we got the big reveal! A reveal very similar to the one Morrison gave us a few years ago in his stellar conclusion to Batman and Robin

But, you know, execution is what matters, right? Snyder can still pull us out of this, can't he?

Jamil: There is an undeniable dip in quality right around "Night of the Owls" as the story transitioned from detective mystery to superhero comic within the same arc. The undead-soldier plot device, one that is essential to making this storyline work, from why Batman struggles with the first Talon, to why there is all of a sudden a hundred of these things, to the last big plot-twisty showdown in #10-11, is pretty unbelievable and kind of ridiculous. Snyder does some good work justifying these new villains, but I found their invulnerability and explanation of their abilities to be annoying. 

The crossover allowed Batman to get all punchy and kicky after the semi-trippy first portion of this arc. I think the idea of "Night of the Owls" started out organically enough -- if the Court is truly as ingrained in Gotham's foundation as they imply, then the other half dozen heroes who operate there would probably have to deal with them too -- but it failed to execute. Most of the tie-ins read like repetitive filler (which is why I don't count the annual as part of this, it felt totally supplemental to me... and poor Victor!). As you pointed out, Chris, the Owls have gone to lengths to keep themselves hidden from the city, and then they just decide to go apeshit and attack all of the important people they can. For a group that is trying to show Bruce the weight of history and how no one man or moment is more important than the next, they sure as hell pulled a stupid move when they revealed themselves to Gotham after a couple of centuries of masterfully operating behind the curtain. 

The coolest part of the "Night" crossover in Batman is both the giant penny and the T-Rex being used as weapons against the Talons. That's a sexy little touch the creative team added that made me smile a bit, although I have no clue how or why Bruce Wayne would rig a dinosaur statue to stomp like that. I guess that's why he's Batman and I'm not. 

Still, all this chatter and we have been dancing around what will probably be the most remembered plot point of this opening salvo by Snyder and Capullo on the Bat-mythos -- Batman has a brother?!

Chris: While David likens that particular surprise ending to what Grant Morrison did in his Batman stories, a much more damning similarity came to my mind. By introducing a brand new character, Lincoln March, at the beginning of the arc then proceeding to kill him off and resurrect him as the secret mastermind behind the whole shebang, Snyder ends up aping the lazy plotting of Jeph Loeb's "Hush." Of course, the rest of this story is considerably meatier and more developed than Loeb's was, but it still wasn't quite enough to suppress my inner groan once I realized what was going on.

Those quibbles aside, however, I very much like what the notion of an abandoned Wayne brother brings to the table. In the midst of a challenge to his understanding of all things Gotham, Bruce must lean upon the only foundational truth he has left -- the goodness and honesty of his parents. For this reason, I choose to believe that the Owls simply concocted a lie about March's true lineage, but the possibility that they didn't is a tension that strikes at the very heart of the Batman myth. In fact, I wish it had been something Snyder drew out a little more intentionally in the text of the comic itself as opposed to dedicating his finale to yet another Batman vs. Talon slugfest. I suppose the Jarvis Pennyworth backups were supposed to nudge things in that direction, but they never really built up to anything that legitimately enhanced what the "A" story was already saying.

David: As I read through issues 10 and 11, I realized that no, Snyder could not pull us out of the nosedive he put us in and it was time to strap in and pray that something could be salvaged from the wreckage.

The problem I find myself having is really mostly due to Snyder's poor luck. I don't think he really intended to have a plot line that feels like a fusion of Batman: The Black Glove and R.I.P., but that's all I could think of as I read it, with my subconscious nagging at me that this had been done better before, just a few years ago.

He then decided to bring a part of Quitely and Morrison's spectacular JLA: Earth 2 into continuity by revealing Owlman to have been Bruce's mentally ill brother, Thomas Wayne Jr., fusing Owlman with an old Silver Age story from World's Finest Comics #223 about Bruce's secret brother. If it were handled well, this could've been a fun, interesting story and a decent way to provide an anti-Batman foil.

Of course, Morrison did this too, divulging in Batman and Robin #15 that the Waynes took Doctor Hurt in and tried to care for him and revealing in Batman #702 that he ended up at Willowwood, committed for everyone's safety by the Waynes as their son, Thomas Jr. 

It's pretty easy to miss this or lose it in Hurt's declarations of being Bruce's father and the Devil and the reality that Hurt was the original Thomas Wayne from "Dark Knight, Dark City" possessed by the hyper-adapter, but it fell right in line with Morrison's desire to put all of Batman's history into some kind of continuity with itself.

I did notice the similarities between Lincoln March and Tommy Elliot, Chris, but I just felt that the comparison to Morrison's reveal was apt considering that both Dr. Hurt and Owlman were revealed to be Thomas Wayne Jr., both referencing that World's Finest Comics story.

Though I'm not a big fan of it, I'm really not bitter enough about Batman to compare Snyder's work, which has largely been at least entertaining if bordering on mediocre, to Loeb's, which I don't think I've enjoyed much since Spider-Man: Blue

I also have to give props to anyone who utilizes that T-rex. I feel like it's going to border on cliché soon, but damned if I don't love to see that guy in action!

Jamil: Second Truth of Batman: Grant Morrison.

I did sense the similarities to "Hush" in the last two issues, but I excused it because the entire Court concept is original enough to barter some leeway. However, I feel it's not fair to even imply Snyder is even in the same ballpark as Jeph Loeb, as Snyder actually spent time establishing the themes and setting up the plot for the Owlman reveal to work on any level. Loeb used every villain he possibly could, and Snyder created his own, working with the idea of Gotham becoming an enemy, another member of the rogues. Thomas Jr., even if borrowed from already trodden continuity, is the frontman of a group that represents this nebulous evil and also his own character that I look forward to seeing return.

David: Anyway, back on track, as that was a bit more of a derail than I think we'd intended. We've got the reveal, and now we get the inevitable fight between the Wayne brothers. Will Gotham follow Bruce's dream of progress or turn into the twisted mirror image that Thomas Jr. grew up watching from Willowwood? It's an interesting fight, especially considering that I still get the feeling that we're supposed to sympathize more with Owlman than we do with most of Batman's villains.

Or rather, it's an interesting idea for a fight. One of the greatest strengths of comics is that the medium is words and pictures telling a story, but part of that strength comes from knowing when to let something breathe and Snyder just doesn't. By the time the Wayne brothers get to it, the fighting is riddled with dialog, or more closely, exposition disguised as dialogue.

Two people at their physical peak might be able to banter a bit, I'm sure, but to have a full on conversation, especially after the beating they give each other? I don't buy it.

Did I mention that at least part of this dialogue takes place while Batman is attempting to avoid being sucked into a jet engine? Maybe he's just really good at reading lips...

Okay, okay, so Owlman is more of a Republic serial villain than a practical villain. I'll give Snyder artistic license and suspend a bit of my disbelief to allow the traditional grandstanding and monologue delivery, and maybe Bruce is just so used to this he has a MadLib in his head where he fills in the villain's name and what they're threatening to do every time one of them starts monologuing.

I can forgive a lot if I'm still entertained, but that entertainment's been waning for some time and by the end of Batman #11, a multi-page epilogue full of painfully expository dialogue, I'm not giving Snyder another chance with this character.

I can't even really call it a conclusion, because the only thing that can really be concluded by the end is that Bruce is pretty sure he never had a brother and that Owlman's still out there. I'm down to one Snyder book a month now (Swamp Thing) and one Bat-book a month (Batman Incorporated), so I guess I should thank him for saving me some cash?

Jamil: Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold the bat-horses, Dave. I can't really see this entire thing as a failure, or even mediocre. As I mentioned before, I believe Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo really managed to tie the whole thing together, bringing together elements of Gotham, the Bat-family, the Wayne family and an underappreciated bad guy.

I guess it's time to come clean: I really love Owlman. Maybe not so much the one in #11 (not yet), but as a concept and D-list Batman villain. Blame it on James Woods. When this book was announced way back in 2011, I had a tinge of disappointment, and curiosity, about the direction. Owls? I thought it would set up Owlman and the prospect of a Earth 3 comic (2.5?  Who knows? Just drop already, Multiversity!). I was right about one of those. 

The clever introduction of Owlman, with a pretty slick suit of armor, excited, but also worried me in #10. My first reaction to #11 was similar to yours, David, I saw a bunch of text and trembled at Snyder talking the moment away, and I agree, mostly, with your critique of both final scenes. I really thought Scott Snyder nailed Owlman's monologue. It sold me completely on the character's purpose and personal vendetta against Batman. While the "Court" plot stripped one villain (Mr. Freeze) of this humanity, it created one a new one with a haunting and tragic story. From the emotional energy of the speech, I felt that "Lincoln March" was telling the truth. 

Then Snyder absolutely talked the goddamn moment away and reversed everything. The final pages really dampened my second and third read of the entire arc. Essentially, it's revealed that there are way more Owls, and Batman doesn't believe Thomas Jr.'s story and can't prove it either way. There is an attempt to bring it full circle, tying the motif of "Gotham is..." into the final core ideas, but it's just too many bubbles after a very talky boss fight. How many times did Dick come in for a chat over the course of the whole story? We didn't need all that.

David, you mention Swamp Thing, a character I had no affinity for before last summer. The first arc of that book blew my mind. Snyder is not without talent, for sure, and I agree his approach to Bruce isn't perfect, but it's still damn good Batman comics. The art plays a huge hand in my affection for what's going in the best-selling title on DC's roster, but I also think the writer knows what he's doing. Here's how strong my commitment is: I'm not even into the premise of "Death of the Family." A Joker/Bat-family crossover? Why so soon?

Chris: Ultimately, I think "The Court of Owls" was a well-told story with plenty of high points and clever additions to the Batman mythology that are destined to last beyond Snyder's tenure on the book. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see some version of the Owls make its way into the movies a reboot or two from now. Still, this 11-part run flirts too much at times with by-the-numbers conventionality to make it a masterpiece.

With all he has accomplished in his career so far, it can be difficult to remember that Scott Snyder is relatively new to the comics game, and I believe we're still witnessing his maturation process as a writer. There's no question that he knows how to hook you into a story and build some incredible tension as he's laying the groundwork, but his finales tend to devolve into simple beat-em-ups between the hero and a stereotypically talky villain. Even the conclusion of "The Black Mirror" in Detective Comics #881, named Comics Bulletin's best single issue of 2011, suffered from those elements.

Jamil: You put it perfectly, Chris, this story had some brilliant, unforgettable moments and also some monstrous shortcomings. Those peaks and valleys feel more severe because of the fluctuation, and it messes with the overall quality. You make an excellent point -- despite his success, Snyder still has work to do as an artist, and while he struck gold with Detective Comics, Swamp Thing and American Vampire, his work here needs fine-tuning. I think Batman is a pretty simple character to write about, but extremely difficult to write for. Capturing the voice of a fatherly, brooding ninja/cop/inventor is something only a few writers have achieved. The narration captions filled the pages in some of these issues and demystified Batman a bit. We were too inside his head, if that doesn't sound too crazy for a character who has been dissected by writers a bajillion times over a thousand years.

I take two things away from this, the villains, one a moderately original secret society, the other a "new" addition to a long line of Batman doppelgänger bad guys (Bane, Killer Moth, Prometheus, The Wrath, Man-Bat...). They're both pretty cool. Batman's personal narrative does not advance much though, even if Bruce claims he learned something from the Owls (dial back your swag, I guess). Despite that, I'm still on board. Send us home, Fairbanks. 

David: I actually really love the idea of Owlman; you can tell some pretty moving stories between a character and their opposite (the first that come to mind are the many from All-Star Superman, but there are plenty more). James Woods' presentation of him was brilliant and Earth 2 is one of my favorite JLA stories. I'm really glad that the character is established in this continuity, and I genuinely hope we get a good story with him later on. 

It's just that the execution past issue #5 or so just kept falling flat for me. You're probably right that I'm being a bit too hard on Snyder. He is a newer writer, and he's never really written this character before (he was one of the few who wrote Dick as a very distinct Batman). It's just disappointing to have had such expectations and then be delivered something that feels like it's struggling for adequacy. 

I'll be happy to come back if I hear that we get the Snyder of Detective Comics back, rather than the one who gave us the last few issues of Batman, and if we don't, at least a lot of people seem to be enjoying themselves.

 


 

Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found at @Chris_Kiser!

 


 

David Fairbanks doesn't get many things right the first time. He studied physics in college, loves science, music, comics, poetry, movies, books and education pertaining to all of the above. He will talk your ear off about Grant Morrison and Ben Folds, has an indie bookshelf larger than his Marvel, DC and Vertigo ones combined and if he ever actually grows up, more than anything else, he wants to still be happy as an “adult,” whatever that is.

Mostly self-indulgent ramblings can be found at @bairfanx and untilsomethingbreaks.blogspot.com.

 


 

Jamil Scalese is just like you -- an avid comics reader and lover of sequential art. Residing in Pittsburgh, PA, he is an unapologetic Deadpool fan, devotee of the Food Network and proud member of Steelers Nation. Check out his original, ongoing webcomic And Then There Were Zombies and follow his subpar tweeting at @jamilscalese.

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