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Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – The Court of Owls, Night of the Owls & The City of Owls (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

The “new 52” was a rather polarising experiment.

Claiming to restart their entire universe from scratch after the events of Flashpoint, DC comics claimed the initiative would make comic books more accessible to the masses. Without decades of continuity to block access, new readers would be more likely to try to get into these sorts of comics. The decision to effectively start from scratch has been controversial – arguably compounded by the fact that writers like Geoff Johns or Grant Morrison were allowed to carry their work across the continuity reboot.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

The team of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are among the longest serving of the “new 52” creators. The pair have remained on the flagship Batman book for three years, longer than the vast majority of creators recruited to help relaunch the DC universe back in September 2011. There’s a wonderful consistency and enthusiasm to their work, and it seems like the two have a very clear vision of where they want to take Batman, one of the characters with the most complex relationship to the re-launch.

In many ways, The Court of Owls can be read as a meta-commentary on Batman’s position in the wake of Flashpoint, reflecting on the awkward relationship between the potential for novelty and the demand for familiarity.

Everything burns...

Everything burns…

In most cases, the “new 52” represented a relatively clean break from existing continuity. The idea was that readers could pick up a book like Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League without having too worry too much about the decades of stories that had already been told about the characters. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics launched with an arc detailing the new origin of Superman. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang re-wrote the history of Wonder Woman.

Characters like Grifter and Stormwatch were ported into regular DC continuity. As a rule of thumb, it was initially suggested the superheroes had been active for around five years. However, this inevitably caused problems. These problems were most pronounced in the comics that had been successful before the “new 52” relaunch and so had carried over continuity to allow popular creators to continue stories that had been selling well.

A stabbing pain...

A stabbing pain…

This affected Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern run, which had been a break-out success story for DC. So Johns was allowed to carry his continuity over into the “new 52.” This obviously created all sorts of logistical problems as comic book fans began to work backwards. If Blackest Night happened, that meant that Sinestro Corps War happened, that meant that Rebirth happened, that meant The Death of Superman and Crisis on Infinite Earths happened.

However, while the continuity of Green Lantern caused no shortage of headaches, Batman was a nightmare. The best-selling and most popular character at DC, the powers-that-be were never going to completely reboot Batman and his supporting cast of popular characters. Grant Morrison continued his epic Batman Incorporated run. Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne had all been sidekicks at one point.

Na na na na na na... Owlman!

Na na na na na na… Owlman!

Unable to gloss over the mechanics of a fictional universe in order to accept the best possible outcome, comic book fans immediately began to nitpick and over-analyse. How could Batman have so many sidekicks in so short a time? If Batman “died”, does that mean that Final Crisis still happened? DC didn’t help matters by playing into this fandom’s obsessive fascination with the minutiae of this new continuity.

Rather than wiping The Killing Joke from continuity, it turned out Barbara Gordon had been Batgirl, had been crippled, and was now Batgirl again. Rather than shrugging their shoulders and pointing out that Batman is a billionaire who fights crime dressed as a bat and therefore it’s possible to excuse the occasional logical hole in background logic to tell a good story, DC compromised by suggesting that Batman had actually been active for ten years – rather than five as originally suggested.

A smashing entrance!

A smashing entrance!

In many respects, the “new 52” continuity became a nightmare for Batman. Rather than a new world to be explored, it often felt like the fans and the publishers were working far too hard to piece together where popular stories from the past fit in this brave new world. It felt more than a little bit absurd – making it seem like DC had wiped out decades of continuity so the company and its fans could then bicker about how best to fit most of it back in again.

All of which is context for The Court of Owls, the epic eleven-part opening salvo of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman. It’s certainly audacious. Rebooting continuity to lure in new readers, it would seem logical to tell smaller stories that established and defined the world, rather than just launching into an ambitious almost-year-long story that throws Batman’s whole world into doubt. However, The Court of Owls works surprisingly well.

March towards death...

March towards death…

In many respects, The Court of Owls feels like Snyder is offering his own commentary on the “new 52.” His opening issue is structured as the perfect introduction to the world of Batman. As with the opening arcs of The Dark Knight and Detective Comics, Snyder sends Bruce into Arkham in order to showcase the characters’ most iconic adversaries. He then brings us back to Wayne Manor to introduce us to the extended Bat-family. It’s no wonder that the actually story itself doesn’t start until the final pages of the issue.

The Court of Owls is focused on the awkward relationship between the future and the past, perhaps reflecting the crossroads at which the Batman comic stands. In that first issue, Bruce announces his plan to renovate and reform Gotham, complaining that the city is too focused on the past. “But if we stop looking to the present and the past, and instead we look to the future… if we ask ourselves what can be — what will be — tomorrow… then we’re asking the right question.”

Bird of Prey...

Bird of Prey…

Bruce finds himself thrown into conflict with the Court of Owls, a sinister body that has a vested interest in preserving the past, which very clearly resists any attempt at modernisation and innovation. Mayoral candidate Lincoln March suggests that Bruce’s desire to build a new Gotham has made him a perfect target. “Maybe this new Gotham initiative of yours, reshaping the city, maybe they’re just now paying attention to you, too.”

The seem like the perfect villains for a semi-rebooted Batman comic that has to navigate that awkward space between the past and the future. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as it may seem. While Bruce claims to want to modernise Gotham, he proudly boasts of his own knowledge of its history and secrets. “He tried to use Gotham’s legends against me,” he remarks of one assassin. “But I’m the only legend this city needs. In many ways, it’s my oldest and truest friend.” He claims that both its past and its future belong to him.

He's not there...

He’s not there…

At the same time, while the Court of Owls claim to represent Gotham’s rich history, they are not part of that history. The Court of Owls seems to imply that the Court of Owls may not have existed before Flashpoint. They weren’t a part of the history of Gotham until it was recently re-written. They are able to so effectively and brutally infiltrate the city and its structures because they have always been there, but they are only attacking now because only recently have they always been there.

Batman itself is an interesting example of the conflicting impulses of the “new 52” relaunch. In order to streamline continuity and maximise marketability, DC made a conscious decision to return Bruce Wayne to Gotham and take Dick Grayson out of the cowl as part of the “new 52.” However, they didn’t want to lose all those powerful recent stories, and so made it clear that all of the stories with Dick Grayson as Batman had still happened.

The siege of Wayne Manor...

The siege of Wayne Manor…

As such, opening with Bruce Wayne as the one true Batman, Batman feels like s step backwards while also being a step forwards. Snyder very subtly acknowledges that continuity hasn’t been completely re-written, even if there’s a sense that this is a regression. Harvey Bullock acknowledges that Bruce Wayne is a different sort of Batman than Dick Grayson ever was. “Back to stealth mode, I see,” he quips.

The Court of Owls is built around the idea that Batman cannot trust the world that he inhabits. Batman cannot takes what he thinks that he knows for granted. Much of the story finds the comic book medium being used against him. During the wonderful fifth issue of the story, the page distorts to reflect Batman’s loosening grip on reality. The Court of Owls itself is a gigantic retcon made possible by the events of Flashpoint.

Kickin' it old school...

Kickin’ it old school…

One of Snyder’s recurring motifs, The Court of Owls puts much emphasis on stories. The Court of Owls are a sinister nursery rhyme that have manifested themselves on the comic book page.  They seek to supplant Batman within his own narrative. At one point, Bruce suggests the Court of Owls is “legend” competing against Batman – a bunch of vindictive and abusive rich people leveraging their power to exploit Gotham, rather than to help it.

“It’s your story,” Bruce tells himself at a moment of crisis. “Not theirs.” At another point, he reflects that the Court is “trying to steal [his] story.” Not his life. Not his city. His story. This theme of stories plays out even at the fringes. In the annual co-written by James Tynion IV, Mister Freeze helps Oswald Cobblepot construct a plausible story of how Freeze stole his weapons from Cobblepot, rather than simply claiming them. “The public enjoys its little narratives, Mr. Cobblepot,” Victor Fries observes.

Freeze, right there!

Shocking behaviour

In one of the more controversial elements of Snyder’s Batman run, the writer undermines the back story of Victor Fries that was established back in Heart of Ice. The annual reveals that Victor is not a heartbroken man trying desperately to save his life. He is a lunatic who has constructed his own story to help him live with himself. “You never knew her,” Batman remarks as they fight over Nora, “and yet you come back time and time again. Mr. Freeze out to save his dying wife from the cruel business man who took her away.” It’s a good story, just not one that is true.

Similarly, Bruce is able to deduce that Lincoln March is not who he claims to be based not on empirical evidence, but on the stories that he tells. These stories guide Bruce’s inquiries, leading him towards that final confrontation with the man who would have been Mayor of Gotham. However, the stories continue to build up. Even after March’s stories lead Bruce to the mastermind, March has a few more interesting stories to tell.

'Owling for blood...

‘Owling for blood…

The Court of Owls builds rather dramatically towards a potentially earth-shattering revelation. However, March claims to be Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s long-lost baby brother. It’s an absolutely insane twist, which perhaps draws a little too heavily on the Doctor-Hurt-is-Thomas-Wayne twist from Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. It’s a delightfully absurd twist, and something that nobody really could have called ahead of time.

“I don’t have a brother!” Bruce protests, and any comic book fan would likely agree. However, while Bruce’s position makes perfect sense to somebody inside the story, Snyder is rather shrewdly drawing on a rake of Batman-related continuity. Most notably, a character named Thomas Wayne Jr. was introduced in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Earth-2 graphic novel as an evil twin to Batman who fought justice in the form of Owlman.

Who says Batman doesn't dance anymore?

Who says Batman doesn’t dance anymore?

As such, Thomas Wayne Jr. leading the Court of Owls represents a delightful twist on comic book continuity. More than that, though, it seems like Snyder is aggressively teasing the audience with the potential of the “new 52.” Of course Bruce didn’t have a brother before, but the re-writing of continuity means that Bruce could easily have one now. Thomas Wayne Jr. could have been relocated from one of those alternate Earths and placed on this one – the story of the Waynes changing to accommodate him.

The Court of Owls ends without Bruce knowing for sure whether Lincoln March is actually his brother. There is evidence that could point either way, and both Bruce and Lincoln construct their narratives from that evidence to suit their own perspectives. Bruce prefers to believe that his parents would not keep a secret like this from him. “If Thomas Jr. had lived past that one night, they’d have told me. They would have. I know it.” Lincoln is drawn to the romance of a fraternal feed. “It’s a story as old as man, Bruce. Two brothers. Sons of a fabled line. Like Romulus and Remus! Eteocles and Polynices! Bruce and Thomas, sons of Gotham.”

"Some fight in you? I like that."

“Some fight in you? I like that.”

Snyder plays with the freedom offered by the reboot, suggesting that perhaps the events of Flashpoint inject some more mystery and ambiguity into the world of Batman. The first issue gives us the memorable image of Batman and the Joker teaming up to fight crime, only to reveal that Dick Grayson is disguised as the Joker. Dick Grayson is identified as a murder suspect on the closing pages of the first issue. The Court of Owls is retroactively inserted into his back story.

In many respects, Snyder’s run on Batman can be seen as something of a counterpart to Grant Morrison’s extended run on the character. Snyder’s style is a bit more literal than that of Morrison, and Morrison is more likely to swing for the fences, but both writers hit on similar themes and ideas – even if they develop them in different ways. Snyder’s Court of Owls upper class secret society evokes Morrison’s Black Glove. Snyder’s Lincoln overlaps with Grant Morrison’s Doctor Hurt.

This is what happens when Alfred lets Bruce marathon the three Iron Man movies...

This is what happens when Alfred lets Bruce marathon the three Iron Man movies…

This makes sense. These are logical themes for a twenty-first century Batman story. Both Snyder and Morrison seem to reflect on the necessity of Bruce’s relationships with other people – even if Bruce himself has difficulty maintaining it. In some respects – as with the majority of Batman writers over the past three decades – both Morrison and Snyder seem to be responding to The Dark Knight Returns. However, how Snyder and Morrison respond to The Dark Knight Returns is informative.

Morrison seems to treat the bleak future of The Dark Knight Returns as one that must be avoided at all costs. Several times during his work on Batman, our hero is seen to preemptively round up the mutants that have begun to manifest in Gotham. The whole point of Batman Incorporated is to help Bruce build a network of friends that can support him and enable his quest to make the world a better place. Morrison’s run was very much about trying to help Bruce Wayne break out of that tragic cycle, even if the outcome wasn’t necessarily ideal.

Hoo's there?

Hoo’s there?

In contrast, Snyder seems to treat the bleak future of The Dark Knight Returns as a tragedy rendered all the more potent for its inevitability. In his Black Mirror, Dick Grayson suggests that the mutants are all but unavoidable. In The Court of Owls, Batman fights the Court inside a giant mecha-Batman suit that seems to owe a debt to Miller’s work. In Death of the Family, the Joker lays on the Miller-esque homoerotic tension and helps to drive all of Bruce’s allies away from him.

The Court of Owls suggests that Bruce Wayne is not socially functional – that he’s slipping back into an anti-social downward spiral. (More cynical observers might simply read it as a reflection of the fixation that the “new 52” has on the nineties.) At the start of The Court of Owls, Bruce allows Dick to take a day to rest, while posing as the Joker in Arkham Asylum. “A day off,” Dick replies. “In Arkham. Only you, Bruce…. only you.”

This is the picture of a mentally healthy individual...

This is the picture of a mentally healthy individual…

When Bruce reveals that they found Dick’s DNA on a murder victim, Dick tries to offer an alibi. “There’s no need for that,” Bruce insists. It would be easy to write off Bruce’s statement as an example of his paternal affection for Dick, but Dick knows better. “You already checked the surveillance footage from the groundbreaking, didn’t you?” Dick responds. “That’s why you don’t care about checking  my alibi.” Bruce replies, “Dick, you know me better than anyone, except perhaps for Alfred… of course I checked the surveillance footage.”

Later on, rather than trying to explain to Dick that he has a Court of Owls transponder hidden in a tooth, Bruce simply punches the tooth right out of Dick’s mouth. In a way, it seems like a nice reference to classic “super-dickery” plotting. However, it also underscores just how terrible Bruce is at dealing with people. At the end of the story, Dick reflects, “It’s nice to how that the Owls didn’t scare Bruce Wayne back into his cave.” However, Snyder’s run repeatedly stresses that this is a definite possibility.

"Get stuffed..."

“Get stuffed…”

Snyder’s work on Batman is very literate. It’s occasionally a little heavy on the purples prose – characters tend to monologue at one another, and Snyder’s narration can feel a little heavy handed. At the same time, however, there’s something quite charming about his style. Snyder seems to be writing a very classical Batman story, an epic and archetypal exploration of the mythos. There’s even a few nods to classic literature thrown in. Bruce’s romantic fixation on “that city across the bay” seems like a shout out to The Great Gatsby, another quintessentially American story, with Gatsby staring out across the water at the green light.

In fact, the biggest problem with Snyder’s Batman run is the gigantic crossovers that seem to happen once every year. These crossovers inevitably stray into the other books, and disrupt the work done by other creative teams. Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason do a fantastic job balancing these intrusions on Batman & Robin, but John Layman’s run on Detective Comics seemed to have trouble finding its feet as a result of these constant events.

Behind the mask...

Behind the mask…

This isn’t a problem down to Snyder himself. Indeed, he seems quite happy to give other books room to play if they want, but is more a problem with the editorial management of the Batman line. After all, the death of Robin (or “Requiem”) represented just as much of an intrusion on the other writers. Snyder and Capullo do have the benefit of being the flagship book, and thus mostly get to drive the “event” rather than winding up derailed by it.

As with any other crossover, the Night of the Owls tie-ins are of variable quality, and feel a little disjointed. There is only so much flexibility in the “fight a Talon” format, after all. However, these crossovers they do invite the reader to get a taste of what the rest of the Batman line must look like – allowing readers to gauge the respective merits of the other books in the line. There’s also a sense that Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are having a bit of fun with the concept in their All-Star Western crossover, set in Gotham’s distant past and thus incredibly distant from anything actually occurring on the night in question.

A chill is coming...

A chill is coming…

Snyder has a fantastic partnership with artist Greg Capullo. Capullo is one of the stronger artists of the “new 52” line-up, and his commitment to the book’s monthly schedule is commendable. There have been a few fill-ins here and there, but Capullo has done (and continues to do) the vast majority of the work on the title. His Batman work is beautiful and iconic, with his characters expressive and his action clear and dynamic.

Snyder and Capullo’s Batman run is a joy, and it welcomes a new era for the Caped Crusader.

7 Responses

  1. Nice write up. Highlights many of the problems with the new 52, and why I’ve not really bought into it. I’m still not sold, especially with the whole confusion in regards to the Morrison/Synder cross over.

    • Thanks.

      I think that the new 52 isn’t as bad as people make it seem. I like that DC did try different books like Dial H or Aemythst. (Even if the company wasn’t as tolerant of lower sales as it needed to be with those sorts of books – they aren’t monthly hits, they are future back catalogue material.) But yep, we are reaching Batman saturation, I fear. And the general nineties influence (Liefeld writing! Lobdell running Superman!) is troubling.

      • I know it’s a naive wish, but I just want to read Batman, but a Batman that isn’t diluted by the plot of other super heroes or the overall DC universe. I could live with a reboot, however stuff like Bruce having a brother, and the Jason Todd return prior to 52, it seems they’re just using any new technique to make things dramatic (and ultimately sell).

        There’s just nothing sacred anymore 😦

  2. It’s absolutely absurd that the new 52 has no less than 8 Batman titles. (52 is a massive number already). Me personally, I’d say avoid everything and go straight for Scott Snyder and crag Cepullos batman. It’s amazing.

    • I’m also a big fan of Peter Tomasi’s Batman & Robin and Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc. But Snyder and Capullo’s run is beautifully accessible “start here” Batman work. Which would have seemed to have been the big appeal of the”new 52.” But yep, there is a lot of crap in that line. Tony Daniel Detective, David Finch’s The Dark Knight. Judd Winnick Catwoman.

      • I actually think this run is the first defining run on Batman, a character usually defined by individual stories.

      • Interesting. I think Morrison’s epic edges it out, but there really aren’t too many runs that function as runs rather than individual stories. Even, as you pointed out elsewhere, O’Neil and Adams were scattershot rather than a single run. Engelhart is really the closest I can point to, although I have a fondness for Alan Grant.

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