Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls, DC Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
Back in the fall, when DC Comics rebooted its entire line of superhero comics, I picked up the first few issues of all of its “New 52” relaunched series with the intention of writing about them. As fate would have it, I only got around to reviewing a few of the first issues—Action Comics, Justice League, Batgirl and the four Batman series: Batman, Detective Comics, Batman: The Dark Knight and Batman and Robin.
As for the others, they were a mix of the actually pretty good (All Star Western, Batman, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Resurrection Man, Demon Knights and I, Vampire); the intriguing (Action Comics, Aquaman, Batwing, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, DC Universe Presents, Justice League Dark, Suicide Squad, Stormwatch, Green Lantern, O.M.A.C. and Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.), the mediocre (Justice League, Detective Comics, Catwoman, Mister Terrific, The Fury of Firestorm, Nightwing, Green Arrow, Red Lanterns, Green Lantern: New Guardians, The Flash, Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, Static Shock, Teen Titans, Voodoo, Legion of Super-Heroes, Legion Lost) and the godawful (Justice League International, Batman The Dark Knight, Batman & Robin, Hawk and Dove, Red Hood and the Outlaws, The Savage Hawkman, Grifter, Deathstroke, Blackhawks, Men of War).
About ten of those have now been cancelled and replaced with other series, and still more have had a change of creative team. But with all of these, what I discovered was that even the series that I enjoyed weren’t really jazzing me enough to keep buying them issue by issue. I might buy the trade collections, or I might just check them out from the library, but certainly none of them had me hooked.
Batman was one of the better titles, and certainly the best of the Batman books, so I snapped up the first hardcover collection when it hit my local library (unlike Bruce Wayne, I’m not made of money). The Court of Owls collects issues 1 through 7 of the relaunched series, and it’s well worth checking out, even if it’s only telling the very first part of an ongoing story that has yet to reach a conclusion in the monthly comics, and in fact has spun out into a major crossover that touches all the Bat-books, including such far-flung titles as Batgirl, Batwing, Catwoman, Nightwing, Birds of Prey, Red Hood and the Outlaws and All-Star Western. As such, it unfurls mighty slowly, and this first volume whets the appetite more than it satisfies.
Writer Scott Snyder has already shown a yen for revealing ancient conspiracies of Gotham City history that return to haunt the present day; that’s what last year’s storyline, Gates of Gotham, was about. The Court of Owls feels very much a sequel to that story, which took place before the relaunch but doesn’t appear to have been affected by the abrupt changing of history and reimagining of many characters that went on elsewhere in the DC line. We still don’t know if a lot of things happened from recent years in the Bat-books themselves—most notably Batman seemingly dying and becoming lost in time, while Nightwing took over as Batman in his absence—but they’re discreetly not mentioned one way or another, probably because the writers and editors themselves haven’t figured all those details out yet.
The Court of Owls centers around a centuries-old Gotham secret society of the same name that’s never been mentioned before because Snyder just made it up, but apparently it’s a legend that all the city’s children grow up hearing about, especially in a nursery rhyme. Batman is strangely insistent that the Court of Owls doesn’t exist despite all evidence to the contrary when they’re clearly trying to kill him, but a lot of that is ego. Gotham is his city, and it was his family’s city for decades before that, and if some secret society were running it since long before he was born he’d surely know about it.
In fact, we find out later, he knows the Owls don’t exist because back when he was a kid he went hunting for them. After his parents were gunned down by a mugget, he was convinced that it couldn’t be that simple, that it had to be part of a massive conspiracy, so he went into boy detective mode to uncover the Court of Owls and found nothing. And if a little boy who would later study crimefighting couldn’t find them, surely no one can.
As a side note, that little anecdote serves as a subtle way of saying that Joe Chill, which has always been the name of the mugger who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne, wasn’t actually his name at all. “I couldn’t accept that it was random,” Bruce says, “that some plain old Joe Chill, some no-name, had killed my parents over nothing but pocket change and pearls.” It’s an interesting touch, even if trying to make Joe Chill into Gotham slang for Joe Blow sounds a little bit forced, and unfortunately reminiscent of Snoopy’s alter ego, Joe Cool: “Here’s Joe Chill hanging out in Crime Alley, waiting for the Zorro movie to let out.”
These massive conspiracies are a dime a dozen, and Gotham’s seen more than its share lately, such as the Crime Bible that Batwoman, the Question and even Old West bounty hunter Jonah Hex have run afoul of and the Black Glove in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin. That said, the Court of Owls is a cool idea, and Snyder ties them in inextricably and mysteriously with the history of the Wayne family. Just as he did in Gates of Gotham, Snyder explores the idea that the massively wealthy Waynes largely built Gotham City.
One especially clever idea is that the owls nest in the homes of prominent citizens, building their secret lairs into the closed-off 13th floors of buildings erected by superstitious architects who never intended those floors to be accessible to anyone.
Penciller Greg Capullo’s owl-mask designs are nicely creepy, and Snyder effectively builds the Court up so that, yeah, it really could be a formidable enough threat to get all the Gotham area heroes involved. And of course, owls prey on bats and are nocturnal like them.
All this stuff about owls brings to mind the evil mirror-universe version of Batman called Owlman that existed before the reboot as part of the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3, or of the antimatter universe, depending on which reboot was in vogue at the time.
It remains to be seen if Owlman even exists in the new continuity, or what he’s like. Parallel universes still exist, but it’s already been established that the World War II-era heroes of Earth-2 are young guys now who probably weren’t even born until the 1980s or ’90s, so all bets are off as far as the evil universe goes. In any case, everyone who’s good on “our” earth is evil on that world, so the association of owls as the sinister counterpart to bats has been well-established in DC Comics for a long time. (Owlman was created way back in 1964.) The Court of Owls’ enforcer/assassin, the Talon, has a costume that’s vaguely reminiscent of Owlman without looking like an overt homage, so the resonance is probably intentional. (For that matter, some versions of Owlman had a sidekick called Talon who served as an evil Robin to his evil Batman.)
I’ve already written at length about the first issue, but I continue to really enjoy Greg Capullo’s art, and I’m happy to report that the problem of too many characters looking alike becomes much less of an issue in subsequent chapters. Capullo has a marvelous moody style that strongly accentuates the psychological trauma that the Owls put Batman through, and his pencils are marvelously suited to the story Snyder’s telling. As for the guy who looks almost exactly the way Bruce Wayne used to look before he was de-aged for the reboot, financier and mayoral candidate Lincoln March is way too much of a true-blue straight arrow and kindred spirit to Bruce for him not to turn out to be a bad guy in the end, but events progress so slowly that there’s nary a hint of that in this first collection. I’m just speculating here, but that’s certainly the pattern in Batman comics.
There are some aspects of the Court of Owls that seem a little silly, most notably some resurrection and longevity technology that doesn’t seem out of place when you consider all the wacky science and sorcery going on elsewhere in the DC universe, but seems slightly gratuitous in a story about a centuries-old secret society—its members needn’t be literally centuries old to be a force to be reckoned with. But the story’s still young (unlike them), so maybe that aspect will justify itself later.
I have some other small quibbles about the story. A young woman called Harper Row shows up in issue 7 trying to help Batman out, and he’s clearly met her before and told her to get lost, which may get you shuffling back through the pages to see how could have possibly missed that—but no, you’re not going nuts, she’s never been seen before. It’s a strange and borderline frustrating way to introduce a character, but I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her. All in all, though, it’s a good read, and I look forward to whenever the second collection makes its way to my local library next year.