COMIC REVIEW: Batman The Court of Owls Issues 1-11

We look back over the Night of the Owls story arc.

All, everyone has been talking about since The New 52 arrived last September has been the rise of Scott Snyder. I was a fan of Snyder’s pre New 52 with his exceptional work on Detective Comics on the story arc, The Black Mirror, as well as his Iron Man Noir. The man had something that few other writers seem to have, and Batman was the character he was born to write. He instinctively had Dick Grayson’s voice as if it was actually him speaking and the few glimpses of him writing The Joker in his final few issues of Detective were a joy to behold. So with the move to Bruce Wayne being the only Batman and Snyder also moving to Batman from Detective it was always going to be interesting to see how he managed with the true franchise player. It is a delight to write that anyone reading this who has never read Snyder should believe the hype. The man has produced two of the best Batman stories ever written and Court of Owls is in my top five if not higher.

Before we discuss the Court I think it is important to look at what came before. DC and Snyder made it clear that the new Batman could be picked up by anyone but it is obvious that Snyder started to architect his run before it started with his brilliant mini series, The Gates of Gotham. This series took place pre New 52 and therefore still had Dick as the Bat. It delved into the history of Gotham like no other writer had before and added depth to the city as a whole. This would become a recurring theme in The Court of Owls: Gotham was a monster as real as The Joker or any other villain. It could corrupt most people no matter what they tried to do. What is more, this continued on the theme that Bruce, in particular, but also the rest of the Bat family are the only people in Gotham that are incorruptible, a theme that is so crucial to the Batman character: he is a legend, a myth that we should look up to.

Before we look at the actual content, the covers by the brilliant Greg Capullo (the artist on the book who does a fantastic job creating Gotham) tell us a lot about every issue of the story. Issue one illustrates Batman being accosted by many Arkham patients. This is a foretelling for what is going to happen in this story arc. Batman will face madness right on the head. He will be sent down the rabbit hole, continually trying to battle for his sanity through the courage of his convictions. Batman will be rocked by what happens to him in this arc. Everything will be thrown at him but he will stand tall? Further the front cover shows Batman outnumbered: another big theme of the story. Through the majority of this series The Dark Knight will be outnumbered with little left but his natural abilities. This theme will be continued in the covers for issues 7 and 8. Issue 7 illustrates Batman fighting his own person demons. They are clearly gathering around the damaged Batman who is trying everything he can to hold onto his sanity. Issue 8 is even more intriguing as the talons are swarming Wayne Manor. We see Bruce stripped down to his core: no suit, he is just a man. The bat is a legend and the suit makes him a nightmare. But the Owls are Batman’s nightmare, showing the world that he is nothing but a man.

Issues 2 and 3 show Batman in battle. At this stage it looks like the odds are pretty even as the battles are one on one. Batman is either shown as an aggressor or at least still standing. The Owls are clearly a threat here but they look like one that Batman can handle.

Issues 4 and 9 work as beautiful symmetry. In issue 4 we see a talon watching Batman with the city dripping in blood, clearly showing that the city belongs to the Owls. Whereas by the time we get to issue 9, the tide has started to turn. We get a close up of Batman staring down the talons. Wayne Manor is dripping in blood inside his mask and therefore it shows that it does not matter how much anyone tries to take Wayne Manor from Bruce it is his fortress. It is his place, the heart and soul of Batman’s operations and he would never let it go down without at least a fight.

Issues 5 and 6 show Batman on the brink of falling. He is surviving the onslaught but only barely. In issue 5 it is the attack of the Talons that are truly shown whereas 6 shows him on the brink of insanity.

Issues 10 and 11 are really the first time we see Batman looking the beacon of strength we are all used to seeing. He is standing upright yet even on the cover of issue 10 the owls are looming behind him. It is as if there is something they still know about Bruce, something that they still have control over Batman, whereas issue 11 illustrates Batman finally rising from the ashes. An image that clearly shows Batman reclaiming his city and his soul:  he is reclaiming that he is the monster that all the criminals fear.

Issues 1 to 3 do a great job of building the story around us, developing certain aspects of the Owls. At first it does feel like a slow burner as Snyder executes his knowledge of Gotham history perfectly, adding intricacies to the city that had never been there before but feel like they should have always been. This is one of Snyder’s many strengths: the ability to make something feel new and innovative whilst at the same time comfortable and instantly recognisable. Further Capullo’s art complements Snyder’s writing very well. The first page of the first issue builds this feeling that Gotham is Batman’s city. At the top of the first panel tattered rags give the look of Batman’s cape. In the second panel the building is shown in pitch black and has the shape of Batman’s cowl. The added darkness to this panel apart from the two windows that gleam out illustrate the eye sockets, showing that we as readers, like Batman, are meant to assume that this is Batman’s city. In the final panel we can see a winged animal that looks like a bat flying around. He throws in enough clues in the first few issues and some intriguing cliff hangers to make you want to desperately come back for more. One of the first cliff hangers is particularly of interest as it would seem that this is all tied up very early on. Yet Snyder cunningly throws us a red herring as the cliff hanger remains in the background until it is finally explained later. One of the best things about this arc is reading back through the story and seeing how everything is interconnected. Snyder has clearly taken his time thinking up the right dialogue for every scene as it feels that every interaction counts, affecting another action later on in the series in some form or another. For example, in issue one, Bruce says in a speech that if you look at the city and the buildings all you will see are your own fears. How prophetic of the character when you are aware of what is coming in the later issues of the arc.

After issue 1 does a lot of developing, issue 2 starts with a bang. The first five pages or so are stunningly crafted with some fantastic plotting. A scene where Batman is grabbing for a crook works so well as it slowly builds up until it finally happens. Snyder and Capullo cleverly never show us Batman smashing the window and instead allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Further the scene where Gordon and Batman are doing the autopsy has a beautiful set of panels where there is symmetry between Gordon and Batman. It is almost as if we are seeing that Batman and Gordon both believe in the same ideals but fight in very different ways: Gordon is legitimate and analyses crimes at the police station whereas Batman is illegitimate and does his work from the Batcave. The colours used to illustrate Lincoln March and Bruce Wayne in this issue tells us even more about the thought that went into this story that the reader will only be able to see once they have read the entire story. From one perspective,  Lincoln wearing white and Bruce wearing black can symbolise the White Knight, Dark Knight analogy used in The Dark Knight to describe Harvey Dent. Lincoln is the legitimate future of Gotham whereas Bruce is its dark present. The panels near the end of the issue are portrayed in a manner that really makes you feel like you are falling also. It is something that this book does so well: it makes you feel what Batman is feeling.

Issue 3 is where I think we really start to see the creative team play with the medium’s conventions and it all works so well. This issue is all about making the reader feel that the Owls are everywhere and the way that certain panels have been presented does this brilliantly. It gives the impression that often someone is listening in on the conversations of Bruce and Alfred for example. Capullo uses the talon’s eyes to show other buildings of interest. Once you have read the entire arc you will also notice that the Owls are watching in more ways than one, constantly keeping an eye on Batman. Further they continue to show the contrast between Bruce and Lincoln. Bruce still wearing dark colours and seems to remain in the shadows or has the light beaming around him to illustrate his own darkness, whereas Lincoln has more lighter colours around him.

By the time we get to issue 4 you will be completely hooked. The groundwork has been done and the end of issue 3 has you ready for more. This issue continues where issue 3 left off, with a bang, throwing you straight into the action. Snyder’s dialogue continues to build on the notion that the owls are everywhere and that the city Batman thought was his is anything but the truth. Maybe my favourite pages of this issue are the flashbacks where old note pages, Gotham maps and the like are used as backdrops to what is happening. The colours used add a mood that feels like we have journeyed back in time. They add a style to them, a certain noir flavour that is perfect for Batman.

Issue 5 is simply phenomenal. It is up there with The Amazing Spider-man issue 33 as one of the best issues I have ever read, if not the best ever issue. The issue completely revolves around Batman losing his mind as the Owls have poisoned him. Snyder and Capullo’s story would have been brilliant on its own but with the techniques they use to show his fall to madness are just exceptional. The pages actually turn so that we as readers have to turn the book in order to read what is happening. This continues every couple of pages as it focuses in on Batman. This really makes the reader fill like they are going quite mad also. The jagged panels help to build this feeling of uneasiness. Further the use of colour really works well here. They have Batman skulking in the shadows as everything on the page is covered in darkness. Then suddenly the next page is glimmeringly bright, with as much white on the page as possible. The issue plays out like a good quality horror film as Batman falls further and further to the Owls. It truly takes the reader on Batman’s journey like no comic has really done before.

Issue 6 continues where issue 5 left off using the shock changes of colour through the book. What is most clever about this issue is that Snyder and Capullo manage to make us feel like Batman is in true jeopardy. We know that this cannot be the end and yet we cannot see a way that he can get it out it. It reminds you of how you felt as a child at the end of a good cliffhanger, desperate to know how the hero will fight back. This is the freshness that this team have brought to this book. There is a beautiful symmetry with Batman’s early years and his escape from The Court. Breaking through into a cave and falling down the hole is just like the initial thought of the character in Batman’s head. Issue 7 continues this theme. We see a flashback of Batman seeing the bat and deciding to become The Dark Knight. This first page has so much relevance as it refers to when you die. We know that Batman is the true man and Bruce Wayne is the mask. Here we see that this was the last time that Bruce Wayne lived before Batman took his place as the dominant characteristic in that man. Like in Issue 3 where we saw the Court watching everything, it is brilliant watching the other talons waking up. Some of the camera angles used really build a sense of dread for what is about to come. Further we actually see Batman afraid in this issue. It is a new sensation for the reader as it is for Batman. We are not used to the character being afraid as we know that he is the one that puts the fear of god into his enemies. We can see that the Owls have broken the Bat but he is not done for yet. There is still a glimmer of that detective which is what Batman is even if you break him down. The revelations in this issue are shocking and if written by someone else it might not have worked. Yet Snyder makes them work so well.

Issues 8 and 9 follow the invasion of Wayne Manor. The first few pages of issue 8 are covered in darkness. What I really like about this is Bruce’s reaction when the light suddenly appears. He is shocked and wants it off straight away showing that he is not just a creature of the night but how much his experiences with the Owls in the last two issues have affected him. Again the creative team use symmetry in a thrilling way. When the Owls first attack Wayne Manor, we see Bruce getting ready to stand and defend his base whereas Alfred goes to the cave to help him. We see the two running to their positions with Alfred on the left hand side and Bruce on the right. It flows nicely. What works so well in this issue is that we see that the Owls may think they know Gotham better but they don’t know Wayne Manor. Some classic Batcave props such as the giant sized penny and the dinosaur are used. Again in issue 9 plays on the history of Batman in particular the history of the Waynes. It adds depth and makes the issue even more exciting as the events unfold. These are the first issue to have a backup story just like Snyder’s earlier work, The Black Mirror had. It plays right into the main story and feels essential reading. Rafael Albuquerque takes over on the art for these and does a fantastic job whereas James Tynion IV helps Snyder out with the writing duties. The first part builds on the Night of the Owls but it is the second slice of this four piece pie that I really feel we start to get moving in an interesting direction. We delve into Alfred’s father’s life: something I don’t think has ever really been done before in Batman. Again like everything else that Snyder does with his history, he adds a freshness and intrigue to the Bat mythology whilst still feeling comfortable.

Issue 10 was said to be a game changer and it is that. It is a fantastically scripted and plotted issue with the pace being perfect. At the start of issue 10 we see that Batman is back to his old ways with his ability to put the fear of god into his enemies. Issue 10 is full of surprises. We think one thing, taken down many different routes until we finally know what is happening. It is a fantastic merry go round. When the big spoiler comes aknocking it might take you a wee bit of time to get adjusted to what had been offered to you. But what works so well is that Snyder has you right in his palm. He wants you to feel that way, he wants you to feel unsure just like he wanted to fear you were going insane in Issue 5. After you have time to let it resonate you realise just how clever it is and how much it connects with everything. It is wonderful watching something that had been built up so well come together in such a satisfying way. Issue 11 is the perfect end to a brilliant saga. Everything is tied up nicely. You feel like you have just read something that might never be repeated. And yet with the knowledge that this creative team is about to get their hands on The Joker I am sure that even better things are just around the corner.

Something that I really like about this run is that Dick Grayson has clearly grown since his time as Batman and Bruce now seems to listen to him more like he would Alfred. DC said that his time as Batman would matter and it clearly does. Often Dick is there to talk to Bruce and even sometimes seems to know Gotham better than his mentor does. In early depictions this would not have really happened.

The Court of Owls is a joy to read: a fantastic story that looks stunning and masterfully plays with the conventions of the medium. Batman has been lucky of late. Grant Morrison’s run that is soon coming to an end has been a complex rollercoaster with some fantastic stories along the way. R.I.P. is up there for me as one of the all time great Batman stories. And now we have the privilege of having Scott Snyder on the book, the book he seems almost born to write. His style is very different to Morrison’s but that is its beauty and why the character is so iconic. Snyder’s run is already up there with the greats. Batman in the eighties was known for being a game changer with The Dark Knight Returns, I honestly believe that The Court of Owls will be remembered in the same way. Personally I think it is far superior to DKR and I hold it up there with comic folklore like many do with Watchmen. Only time will tell but Snyder’s second big Bat story has been a resounding success, critically and commercially.

GS Rating: 5 out of 5

GS Reporter: Luke Halsall

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4 comments

  1. I’ve been loving Capullo’s art since he started to work on Spawn, so I was very happy (both for him and for me) when I found out he was finally having the chance of his career. Better late than never.

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