Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shepherd492 reviews: Batman: The Court of the Owls

Batman: The Court of the Owls  

Court of the Owls collects issues 1-7 of Batman (Volume 2) published between September 2011 and March 2012.

                In the Court of Owls, Batman and friends learn about and go toe to toe with an ancient secret order that has been watching from the sidelines of Gotham for over a hundred years. Introducing this powerful new threat and re-launching the Batman monthly series, this collection is a perfect jumping on point with precious little in the way of continuity references and plenty of what makes the Caped Crusader so special. Artwork that delivers on just about every level sweetens the deal, and not even a relatively tiresome premise embodied by villains who don't seem to have much depth can keep this book from being a highly entertaining spectacle.

                This book has a great mix of just about everything you could want from a Batman book: an Arkham Asylum breakout to kick things off where our hero must do battle with most of the iconic rogues from the past, detective work that utilizes Bruce's high tech arsenal to its fullest capacity, a memorable and important appearance by Dick Grayson, and more than a few fantastic fight scenes and tense cliffhangers. Sure, the mystery of the Court of Owls really isn't much to marvel at, and there is way too much recap going on, particularly in the latter half of the book, but this is still a very strong read for fans new and old. The sheer amount of variety in set pieces and action makes it worth the trip: if nothing else, one can safely say that this book doesn't repeat itself, even when it is using such a common premise as its driving force.

                Like in Wayne of Gotham (which I actually read concurrently with this book...I've been on a major Bat-kick lately,) the Court of the Owls hinges on a major conspiracy against the Wayne family and the people of Gotham, a new threat that has been lurking around the edges of Batman's entire career and which has now come out of the woodworks. Reading the two books at the same time may have unrealistically colored my perception of exactly how common these kinds of things are, but besides seeming entirely too unlikely, the Court of Owls just isn't that interesting. Expanding the history and mythology of Gotham to include yet another secret event coming from the long ago past to wreak havoc on Gotham's present is already a somewhat boring premise, but tack on villains with dubious tastes in apparel, and a questionable influence on Gotham's past, and this conspiracy seems to be a bit toothless, even though there is a great effort made to show Batman at his lowest point emotionally and physically.

                There are two main problems with the Court of the Owls that would really strengthen the arc if they were addressed in the second half of this arc. First up, and most important, are their motivations. Apparently they have been behind the scenes of Gotham for at least one hundred and twenty years, yet they have never made themselves known to Batman before and seem to exist in only a mythic state in the minds of most. What has inspired them to come into the mainstream after all this time? How are Bruce's plans to renovate and empower Gotham endangering them in such a way that they must act now? What are their plans beyond simply killing Bruce Wayne? The Court is still shrouded in mystery even after they were heavily featured in the back half of this book- and that's ok- but they need some sort of mission and motivation to be seen as worthy villains. Secondly, we need to know why Batman never sought out the Owls in his adult life. It is rather hard to believe that he would know of the legend of the Owls but never go searching. He does tell us of an abortive attempt that he made to track them down shortly after his parents died, but unfortunately this leads to a rather surprising characterization: after failing to find evidence and nearly losing his life in the initial search, Bruce just gives up. It seems like if he truly believed that they had a hand in his parent's deaths, he would have investigated as an adult with all of the technology and combat savvy of Batman. Of course, the fact that he was nearly able to find them even as a ten or eleven year old using just library books and old schematics doesn't say much for the Owls either, does it? 
An early Arkham Asylum breakout gives Capullo the chance to draw many of Gotham's famous rogues. His portrayal of Two-Face is a good example of just how gory and unpleasant (and awesome) the art in this comic can be.

                The artwork in this book is nothing short of phenomenal, on pretty much every level. Greg Capullo does a great job of bringing all the elements of Batman's world to life, whether it is the relatively bright (we get quite a few scenes in Gotham during the daytime in this book, far more than average) and hopeful Gotham, or the more relaxed interiors of the Batcave, there are enough alterations to classic formulas to keep things fresh without it feeling like a totally different setting altogether. Action scenes are fantastic, including a creative sequence where Batman uses a train as a magnet, to the chagrin of a group of iron masked bad guys. We even see a few different styles at work here, as we are treated to a very shadow heavy look into Bruce's past, and a more straightforward journey into the misty past of Gotham City that does a great job of imagining the city as it would have been some 90 years ago. Even minor things like all the gore in this book (one scene features a point of view from inside someone's exposed chest cavity, which is actually pretty awesome) and the one scene with tons of explosions are rendered skillfully, and this unique style manages to propel the book even when the script gets bogged down in tiresome recap.
Like Knightfall, this is a perfect book for people who like to see Batman pushed to his most extreme limits.

Besides Capullo's majestic illustrations, this book thrives on very visceral coloring and imagery that brings the script to life. The standout here comes during Bruce's time in the hands of the Court. Whether it is the increasingly punishing toll his isolation, dehydration, and injuries have wreaked on his mind (manifesting in rather gruesome hallucinations) and body (bloodshot eyes, stab wounds) or the glaring lights that give Batman nowhere to hide, his time in the Court's domain is an unforgettable one. As a bonus, we are treated to an abrupt series of rotating pages that really bring home the disorientation and confusion that Batman must be feeling. Of course, when it comes time to lay down the hurt on the Owls, Batman suddenly transforms into a figure that is truly on the edge between man and beast. The fearsome fangs and hulking presence of this new Batman could have come across as completely ridiculous in the hands of a less skilled art team, but here we get a great sense of the pent up desperation and primal fury that Batman must be feeling as he takes his final stand. 
If it wasn't for the handy narrative bubbles to tell us who is who, there is no way we could be sure of which character was which. New character Lincoln March only makes things more confusing.
                Only one complaint somewhat tarnishes an otherwise perfect record, and that is the unusually similar faces for three of the main cast. Dick Grayson, making a few appearances here as Nightwing, looks like a dead ringer for a young adult version of Bruce Wayne, while newcomer Lincoln March would be nearly impossible to tell apart from Bruce if not for the dialogue. The dark, parted hair and rigid jawline of these characters makes for a tough task in making them feel visually distinct and, although you probably won't actually mistake one for the other, it certainly doesn't add to their characters to have all three presented in such similar manners. Along the same line, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of expression coming from the faces of most characters. Outside of the horrified and desolate expression on Batman's face inside the Court, there seems to be a rather standard and unexciting method of delivering most character's body language.

                Court of the Owls is a fantastic start to the New 52 and a perfect way to get new readers hooked on the comics. Sure, there are quite a few flaws with the writing, and many things that will need to be spelled out in the second act, but there are plenty of things to enjoy about this book on its own merits. The artwork could hardly have been any better, and there is a little something for fans of every element of Batman's persona, whether it is the brawling action hero, sleuthing detective using gadgets to advance his case, patriarch of a large family of Bat-related vigilantes, or the lost and heartbroken man who can't seem to ever escape the specter of his parent's murder. Even though practically nothing is resolved at the conclusion of this book, with many important questions still on the table to determine whether or not the Court has any real staying power, this is certainly worthy of a try regardless of whatever happens in the second half.

Final Score


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