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WHttDCnU? – Batman: Court of Owls

WHTTDCU-Titles-020

So here we are, heroes and heroines. Batman. Not Batman and Robin. Not Batman Dark Night. Not any of the other eight titles or teams that Batman features in, but his single title. It’s hard not to have great expectations of this book in the new 52, this is arguably DC’s most iconic character; Bob Kane’s caped crusader from waaaayyy back in 1939, even then appearing as a crime fighting detective in a scary Bat costume, and has had… well, you name it, it’s probably an adventure Batman has been on. Even if you don’t know how the character started out, there are VERY few people exposed to general multimedia whom don’t recognize Batman, in one shape or form; be it the original comics, the classic TV shows, his many many cartoons and of course the collections of movies of varying ridiculousness.

So without further ado, let us join The Plague Doctor and Silence Dais AKA Crimson Hound as they leap into action on:

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE DC NEW UNIVERSE?

-QueenQeeko

WHTTDCNU-synopsis

plague-doc-rIn Gotham, there is a well-known legend about a secret cabal of shadowy figures who have ruled from the shadows since the 18th Century. Calling themselves the Court of Owls, they exercise their wills throughout the city, sending their assassin, the Talon, after anybody who would stand in their way of their vision for the city, or threaten to expose their existence as anything more than a rumour.

And Bruce Wayne has just made himself a target, hosting a large fund-raiser for his plans to rebuild and improve the city’s infrastructure, and befriending mayoral candidate Lincoln March.

After leaving the party, he joins Harvey Bullock at a crime scene, where he discovers a gruesome murder – a man crucified by knives bearing the symbol of an owl. But Bruce doesn’t believe that it has anything to do with the old stories of the Court, because as far as he is concerned, the Court of Owls doesn’t exist. Gotham is his city. He would know.

The fiery message left by the victim, warning of Bruce Wayne’s impending death does not change his mind. Dick Grayson’s testimony that the victim spoke to him about the Court has no more effect. Instead of investigating any further, he meets with Lincoln March atop old Wayne Tower, to discuss his patronage, and their own visions for the city of Gotham. But just as Lincoln lets slip that “something ancient” is returning to Gotham, the owl-like Talon crashes the meeting and tries to assassinate Bruce.

Still thinking that someone is trying to use the old legends as a scare tactic, Batman finally starts looking into the matter in more detail. He discovers that, right before his death, his grandfather had developed a paranoid obsession with owls. By the end, he was convinced that the birds were hiding inside his walls, watching him. And this turns out to be not very far from the truth, because Batman is not the only one to use his enemies’ superstitions against him. Bruce’s grandfather was extremely superstitious, and installed “dummy floors” between floor 12 and 14 of every building he designed. Empty spaces, to contain the “bad luck” associated with Floor 13. Naturally, the Court moved in, taking these spaces for their own. And Batman, having analysed his grandfather’s bones, has a hunch that the Owls’ base of operations is hidden deep beneath the sewers.

That hunch turns out to be completely correct; the Court captures him and places him in an endless labyrinth of their own design. For days, he’s kept awake, with no food and water laced with hallucinogens. Slowly, his mind starts to come apart as the Court taunts him from the shadows. But when the Talon attacks him directly, and presents him to the Court for sentencing, he finds the strength to fight back and kill the Talon, breaking out of the labyrinthine prison and crawling back through the sewer system to the Batcave.

There, he analyses the dead Talon’s body, discovering that the Talons, are in fact, undead, and able to be reanimated by the Court at will, thanks to electrum implants in their teeth which, over time, eventually seep into their cells (just go with it). Dick Grayson himself was apparently supposed to become a Talon, as the Court would choose their Talon recruits from Haly’s Circus, where Grayson used to perform. In the end, the enormity of the Court’s conspiracy almost overwhelms Bruce, but Dick Grayson is there to remind him that in the end, they’re just another bad guy.

Just another bad guy, about to unleash an army of undead Talons, intent on reclaiming Gotham city for themselves.

WHTTDCNU-art

crimson-hound-lThe artwork for the Nu52 Batman book by Greg Capullo is stunningly dark and beautifully gothic. It’s one of the few times where I’m more than happy to see a comic have a darker color palate, but color isn’t the only thing here that’s grim. The architecture of various buildings, the background of the panels, even some of the characters have this gothic, minimalistic feel. Not this “Goth for Goth’s sake” tone, this feels like an actual Noir style of Gothic art. Which is perfect for a Batman book and I enjoyed every moment of it; especially how the art is used in issue Five which should be considered among the classic issues of the Dark Knight, alongside moments like the original cover of his first appearance in Detective Comics and his back being broken by Bane.

Seriously how many books do you know make you actually turn it as you read, feeling the actual scene of Bruce’s sanity slipping further and further away, hell they didn’t even change it for the volume collection of the first seven issues, that’s how good it was. Panels slowly warping to reflect Batman’s mind, even in issue six we see a nice parallel of what is reality and what is still in Batman’s mind, with the court looking like normal men and women in owl masks, while in Batman’s head they look like owl monstrosities. Heck Batman even has a “Hulk Out” moment that is simply glorious to behold, a nice way to symbolize him slowly returning to normal but still seeing himself as more than a man.

 

plague-doc-rEverything about this art style is perfect for the Batman Universe in general, and this storyline in particular. The slightly grainy textures and desaturated palette (except in daylight) make for an extremely grim tone, right from the very first page. Reading over the comic again, I especially enjoyed the focus on architecture, which is not exactly uncommon in a Batman book, but which has special significance in this storyline, in which the Court of Owls hides Talon nests in every building with an “empty” thirteen floor. The art gives the city itself a character of its own, dark and sinister, with secrets that even Batman knows not of.

A storyline like this demands expressiveness, facially and otherwise, and that’s exactly what we get from the human characters. Each personality comes through perfectly, even the side characters which might not normally get this kind of attention to detail. Batman’s face inside the Labyrinth is especially striking. The costume falling to bits, revealing a single bloodshot and sleep-deprived eye, is the single most effective thing in conveying that Bruce has been trapped for days, without food or rest. Combine it with everything else and you can practically smell the stink coming off him.

The one criticism I will make is that, while the characters’ bodies are well-proportioned, there was something really weird going on with Bruce Wayne’s face. He looks fine as Batman. As long as the mask is on, everything is normal. As Bruce Wayne, he looks fine from a distance. But get up close, and suddenly it’s Chin City. The same thing happens with Lincoln. And it would be fine if these giant chins were consistent throughout the entire comic, but they’re not, which only makes the instances where they do appear all the more noticeable.

WHTTDCNU-writing

Scrimson-hound-lcott Snyder has done work on Detective Comics before and it reflects in his writing here. Batman’s inner monologues show a nice blend of how Batman has seamlessly been part of Gotham, every bit of the city is something that Bruce Wayne knows and cares for. The history of Gotham city’s architecture, the feeling of it being alive and none of it feels forced to me. Batman has been part of this city ever since he was a kid, so he’s going to know everything there is to know about the city to be Gotham’s Guardian.

What’s great is that Snyder created an actual threat for Batman that actually feels unique from his usual Rogues Gallery: The Court of Owls. There is actual weight to the Court, they’ve been part of Gotham ever since the founding of the city, the only reason they haven’t messed with Batman is because of their own arrogance and self-confidence that Batman is nothing more than another phase of Gotham’s history. They’re threaten now by Batman/Bruce Wayne and the aspiring mayor, Lincoln March, because they are men who want to change Gotham with a vision that doesn’t match the Court’s. The assassin of the Court, known as the Talon, looks and feels something out of Assassin’s Creed, only without the you know… creed of helping humanity from the shadows and instead being a weapon of a horrible Illuminati type group that would make conspiracy nuts go even nuttier.

Enough is explained writing wise, but there still feels a mystery about who or what is the Court of Owls and why they are just now making their presence known to Batman and the rest of Gotham and the tail end of where they unleash their horde of assassins to prove a point really does make me excited to see what comes next for this over arching storyline. Snyder also adds a nice layer to Batman’s traditional Origin story, but instead of changing the main events or motivations, we’re shown Kid Bruce’s first case as a “detective”. We’re shown Bruce going through depression as a kid, not being able to accept that his parent’s like a normal child and wanting to believe it wasn’t some random string of events that led to their tragic ends. Nicely done in my opinion.

 

plague-doc-rThe detective aspect of this story was really well done, with surprises at nearly every turn, pulling the reader in from the first volume. The idea that a secret cabal could exist which even Batman is unaware of provides an antagonist that’s compelling and threatening in a way that other villains in more typical Batman stories aren’t able to match.

Still, at the moment, they don’t seem to be that much different from the standard Ancient Conspiracy. I can’t exactly call this a fault, since Batman’s not had the opportunity to learn very much about them. But their members don’t seem to have any real lives outside of wearing creepy masks and “controlling the city” towards vague, ill-defined ends.

I would love to read more about them in upcoming issues, simply to see how Batman handles them. But even more so, I would like to see some actual substance to the Court, and its members – a hint that these people actually have lives when the masks come off, if in fact they ever do.

There were also a  couple of moments where the writer either failed in their research or just didn’t care enough to bother with it (Electrum is an alloy of silver with gold, not with copper, and Potassium Chlorate doesn’t explode without appropriate fuel). But in the end, none of this was enough to completely pull me out of the story. The integration of the Court with the rest of the Batman universe, tying separate elements together was done extremely well, in ways I wouldn’t have expected. The theme of “What is Gotham” resonates throughout the entire comic, providing a backdrop for everything: Bruce’s overconfidence, the sinister character of the Court, and the way that both of them have resorted to turning themselves into legends to accomplish their ends.

There isn’t exactly an ending here – only a rather magnificent cliffhanger seguing into the next Owls storyline, but the way it was set up was perfect, and really left me wanting to read more.

WHTTDCNU-characterisation

crimson-hound-lCharacter wise, this interpretation of Batman for this book reminds me of the awesome Animated Series Batman. I could literally hear Kevin Conroy’s voice for the character (well I hear it whenever I read books with Batman in it) and Batman doesn’t feel like a horrible dick that lords over how smart he is compared to everyone else and he isn’t completely shut off from his friends and allies.

Batman actually has a personality this time instead of some of the one note stuff I’ve seen in Nu52. Bruce’s determination to improve Gotham in every way, the fact he has a sense of humor, and even moments where he shows compassion. The moments where Bruce’s mind slips further and further into insanity during issue five is sold even more with the art and you can feel him struggling to keep whatever shreds of sanity are left just to prove he won’t be outdone by the court.

The Court of Owls itself is a character, the society’s history in Gotham, the killer edge they have with the Talon, and the members own twisted machinations as they torture innocent victims they’ve deemed as threats over the ages, the Court of Owls definitely sets itself apart from the staple secret society of the DCU (in my opinion): The League of Shadows. Supporting characters like Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Dick Grayson have their moments with Bruce/Batman but the book is centered around Batman and his fight with the Court of Owls, so it’s understandable that they don’t get much character growth. Actually Dick Grayson does have more moments with Bruce, especially when he learns about his own family secret and how he deals with it makes sense, plus there is also Lincoln March who has some moments as a “kindred spirit” for Bruce with his love of the city but nothing much else is added to the character.

 

plague-doc-rBy this point, I think everyone who’s remotely interested in the DCU has seen a couple of different depictions of Batman. I also think it’s pretty safe to say that the Court of Owls rendition is one of the most overconfident  I’ve seen in a long time.

Yes, Bruce, we get it. You investigated the Court as a child, fell into all the standard conspiracy theorist pitfalls, and found nothing for your trouble. But even if there truly was no Court of Owls, the fact that someone is committing crimes based on this imaginary cabal really should warrant more … immediate investigation. Especially when you’re its next intended victim.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to sympathise with him when he realises the depths of his mistake, and his breaking out of the Court’s labyrinth, despite everything they’ve thrown at him, stands out as one of the best Batman moments I’ve seen in any medium.

I also really enjoyed the way that the side characters were presented; at no point did I feel that any pages or panels were wasted on characters that served no purpose. Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, everyone in these pages had a purpose, whether it was to move the story along, to help the reader empathise with another character, or to flesh out the story in some other way.

Finally, I’m curious to see what the writers are going to do with Lincoln. The usual trope would be to have him die in unfortunate circumstances, but really, I think it would be great if he became a more permanent character. I get that Gotham needs to be perpetually crime-ridden, otherwise there would be no Batman stories set in it, but just for once, it would be great to see Bruce team up with other people of wealth and influence and actually succeed in improving Gotham City in a more conventional way. And if Bruce Wayne is going to have an ally, Lincoln seems like a perfect candidate.

I just really hope he doesn’t get killed off in the next issue.

WHTTDCNU-conclusion

crimson-hound-lI loved Court of Owls as an arc and I can see why it’s being considered for one of the best Batman arcs in a long while. The threat of the Court, the feel of Gotham being alive with character, Batman himself being more than just the usual gritty and serious character he’s usually depicted, and also the art itself complimenting the book.

I can’t recommend this book enough, definitely get the whole arc and the tie-ins to the other Batbooks across the Nu52 as each writer does a decent job working with Scott Snyder in fleshing out the full story line.

Definitely one of my favorites in the Nu52 and Batman books.

 

plague-doc-rOut of the New 52 books that I’ve read so far, this one definitely ranks as my favourite, at least for now. So much so that it’s one of the few books I would save up for and collect.

It works both as a stand-alone story and a part of the greater Batman universe, with a great detective story worthy of Bruce Wayne and an intriguing antagonist that could very well turn out to be Batman’s most challenging, deadly foe of all.

Best of all for the new readers, it doesn’t really requires a great deal of prior knowledge about the Batman mythos (aside from the very basics) to be understood.

I would recommend this story to anybody who’s even the slightest bit interested in Batman, and intend to follow the Owls arc through to its final conclusion.

WHTTDCNU-comic

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  • Andy Frogman

    Out of all the Batman series in the New 52, (and there are a lot) this one, the main Batman book, was by far the best. Not only did it have amazing art by Greg Capullo, but also had one of the best staple events of the New 52. While i really am annoyed that Batman is seemingly in every damn thing in the New Universe, the pay-off for The Court of Owls was really good, and gave Batman a serious threat that exists in the underbelly of Gotham it’s self. A well written plot and great build up to further interactions with these villains down the track!

  • John Haslach

    Seeing Batman go nearly over the edge was really fascinating.