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Comics: The Court of Owls

Batman: The Court of Owls, vol 1

Scott Snyder (script)

Greg Capullo (art)

DC Comics, 2012

The “New 52″ company-wide relaunch by DC Comics in 2011 was a dumb, daring move in which some of the greatest icons in superhero comic books – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Justice League – were summarily scrapped and re-invented by some of the industry’s top talents. The re-invention was skewed to snag younger audiences (with almost no exceptions, all of the superheroes now look much younger) who might not be carrying the last twenty years of complicated title-backstory around in their heads. Simplifying character narratives was a good idea, probably long overdue – wholesale re-envisioning characters who’ve long been a part of American (and in some cases world) culture went far beyond that good idea.

Results were very uneven, creatively (financially, the move was an enormous success). Writers on most of the “New 52″ series-revamps seemed to get so caught up in twisting and folding old continuities that they forgot to make their new titles actually interesting. It’s early days still, and almost all these new launches may grow into comics titles worth reading. But one of the only books that’s been worthwhile from its first issue has been the “New 52″ version of the venerable DC character Batman. The first seven individual issues of this new “Batman” comic have now been collected by DC Comics into a hardcover volume that’s actually worth its $25 price tag.

The story, by writer Scott Snyder, is called “The Court of Owls” and features a “New 52″ Batman who’s virtually identical to the old-continuity character: millionaire Gotham City philanthropist Bruce Wayne underwrites ambitious urban renewal plans by day and dons the familiar cape and cowl of Batman to fight criminals and super-villains by night. The familiar Bat-suit has some subtle, movie-friendly redesigns, but the character himself remains completely the same – a brilliant, demon-driven vigilante who (with the aid of his sidekicks, Robins past and present) guards the dark, run-down city of Gotham from a bizarre array of villains like the Joker, Two-Face, the Penguin, and the Riddler. Snyder immediately and skilfully sets the tone of this atmosphere in a series of narrative bits delivered by Batman himself:

Every Saturday the Gotham Gazette includes a small lifestyles piece called “Gotham Is.” In the column, random Gothamites are asked to complete the sentence “Gotham is …” using three words or less. The Gazette has been running the “Gotham Is” column for years, ever since I was a boy. Here are some of the words used to describe Gotham in the past few weeks: “Damned.” “Cursed.” “Bedlam.” “Murderous …”

Gotham is “villainous.” Gotham is “a losing game.” Gotham is “hopeless.”

Once in a while, someone names one of the city’s villains as the answer to the “Gotham is” question. Usually it’s some kid, a teenager going for shock value. But now and then someone actually tries to make the argument that the city is best reflected in its villains.

The focus of this inaugural run is a new group of villains: the Court of Owls, an ominous conclave who’ve featured in Gotham’s urban legend landscape for generations (since the time of Bruce Wayne’s great, great grandfather Alan Wayne, for example). Batman has searched the records and the haunts of Gotham inside out and found no evidence that the Court of Owls really exists – until one day when the Court’s fierce emissary, Talon, appears at a fundraiser and tells Bruce Wayne that the Court of Owls has sentenced him to death. The adventure that results rocks some of Batman’s deepest beliefs – about himself and his city – in fundamental ways, something Snyder also sets up early:

Of course, one of the most common answers to the “Gotham is” question is “Batman.” Gotham is “Batman.” Gotham is “Batman’s city.” Gotham is “the Bat.” All answers I’m partial to, myself.

When this Batman at one point declares, “I’m the only legend this city needs,” readers know a clash of iconographies is in the offing, and Snyder doesn’t disappoint: this is an intelligent, respectful, and hugely entertaining arc – DC Comics has chosen to launch its “New 52″ Batman with one of the best-done stories the character has ever had.

That launch is given beautiful visual expression by artist Greg Capullo, here doing the finest work of his career. His rendition of Gotham itself is layered with details that repay close study, and although he performs the required homage to Batman ur-presence Frank Miller (and a couple of other image name-checks), his style here is very much his own, with a sharp sense of energy and a brawny straightforwardness that somehow manages to be both believable and larger than life. This is super-hero artwork done exquisitely well.

The combination of first-rate writing and superb artwork gives Batman the strongest opening of any “New 52″ relaunch – indeed, a much stronger opening than the character first got, way back in 1939. Title-reinventions don’t come any better than this.