Batman: The City of Owls
Collecting the second half of the Court of the Owls epic, this book features Bruce battling the owls in his own home, a dramatic showdown with the villain behind the entire plot, and a handful of additional stories that flesh out the new origins of Mr. Freeze, introduce us to a new character, and provide background context for the Court of the Owls story. There's a lot to digest here, but are the myriad of stories contained in this book simply trying to mask a lack of quality?
The book starts off on the right foot, as Alfred and Bruce must desperately fight off the Owls attacking his home. We get to see the various defense mechanisms that the team has installed, Alfred gets some very cool moments, and it's nice to see Bruce's combat prowess at work outside of the confines of his Batman costume. It's an explosive way to start the book, beautifully illustrated by Greg Capullo.
From there Batman tries to track down the arch-villain behind the entire scheme. We get to see him do some light detective work and put the pieces together in his mind, which is always enjoyable, and there's a great build up to the reveal of the villain. Unfortunately, this reveal is where the book starts to fall apart.
Just like with Hush, this is a villain you won't be able to avoid guessing before he's finally shown. It's telegraphed quite heavily throughout the entire saga, if for no other reason than because he's the only original character introduced on a meaningful level. As such, there isn't really anything surprising or even interesting about the fact that alleged philanthropist Lincoln March is the big bad guy.
Unfortunately, March proves to be a tremendous negative aspect of the final two issues of our main story. He's simply a terrible villain, through his obnoxious, worn-out monologue and stupid plan for defeating Batman, he's a let-down from the Talons that Bruce does battle with early in the book, and even the more reserved Court Members that we saw in the first volume. The otherwise engrossing final battle is greatly tarnished by his endless words, covering up the excellent artwork and repeating Snyder's themes with no great subtlety.
A revelation that March may have a secret history with the Wayne family only makes things worse. It's a cheap twist that, while never conclusively shown to be true or false, comes across as being desperate and an attention grabber, more so than solid storytelling. We will probably find out whether or not it's true when March makes his inevitable return, but either way it's not an original twist or a particularly interesting one.
There aren't enough good things that can be said about the art for this main tale. Greg Capullo does just about everything right, fitting the tone of the story perfectly, capturing the emotional status of the characters, (the opening pages show an extremely depressed Bruce Wayne, and this is sadly one of the few instances where Scott Snyder gets out of the way and lets the art team handle storytelling,)and giving us great action scenes against the Court. The main villain's outfit is a little on the ridiculous side and Batman's resolution to the climactic fight desperately needed to be foreshadowed via the art, but it's otherwise as good of an effort as you will find.
The City of Owls is an interesting work because on one level, it wants to be extremely ambitious by giving us this new supreme organization waiting in the wings of Gotham, and re-defining Bruce's childhood with a twist. On the other hand, that twist is a laughably rote one that is the fodder of soap operas, and the fact that we've seen a very similar outcome to this scenario in the past decade (in Hush and in Morrison's Batman epic) makes this a book that is at once breaking new ground while simultaneously feeling somewhat stale.
The back-up stories, illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque and written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV, add quite a bit to the main story and are certainly worthy of inclusion in this book. The first one, "The Call" is a pretty simple continuation of the main story that shows us the Talons in action, assassinating key figures in Gotham while Batman continues to stave off the attacks of the villains in his home. It ends on a bit of a cheesy note that feels too much like an advertisement for the various Bat-books that tied into the Night of the Owls event, but it's otherwise a great bonus story.
The other back-up, "The Fall of the House of Wayne," is even better and gives us a look into a key period in the past that contains direct insights regarding the main story. Told through the eyes of Jarvis Pennyworth, Alfred's father, we get a good look at his character while also learning more about the influence of the Court of Owl's on Gotham's past.
Since both stories are illustrated by the same artist, there's no worries where continuity is concerned, and given Albuquerque and Capullo's past as horror-themed artists, there's even a good amount of cohesion between the main tale and the back-up. That isn't to say their works are too similar though. Albuquerque tends to favor less-detailed images that nonetheless tell a vivid story, and is a bit more stylized than Capullo. With the exception of a handful of weird looking faces and an Alfred that looks a bit too young relative to his figure in the main tale, the artwork here is fantastic.
Rounding out the collection are two standalone stories, the first of which features newcomer Harper Row, a teenage girl with blue hair and nose piercings that is obsessed with Batman. We get to see a bit of what her life is like, and learn about her loving relationship with her brother, Cullen, while also sowing the seeds for an interesting future for the character through her interaction with the Dark Knight. Artist Becky Cloonan turns in a solid performance here, with a cartoon style that fits with the much different ideas featured in this story, though bizarrely enough there is a fill-in artist that covers the last seven or so pages. The fill-in artist, Andy Clarke, would have some pretty solid artwork under normal circumstances, but following up Cloonan's makes for a very jarring read. They look nothing alike and don't complement one another at all. Also, the last page of the book features an absolutely hideous Harper drawing.
The second story is the Batman Annual, centered around the Night of the Owls and Mr Freeze's involvement in helping the Court. More importantly, it serves as a new twist on Freeze's classic origin story and re-designs the character for the New 52. This new origin re-imagines Freeze as a deluded mad scientist who is trying to save a woman he has never met, and not a tragic figure willing to do anything to save his beloved wife. It's not the best alteration of Freeze's tale, because it just further homogenizes Gotham's rogues gallery, but it's a well-paced story that is certainly entertaining enough. It shouldn't really be in the middle of the book though, because the tie-in to the Night of the Owls material is tenuous at best and the resolution has no real impact on the main story. The art by Jason Fabok, more recently the headlining artist on Detective Comics, is fantastic, but that's the only overwhelmingly positive aspect of the book. He does a great job conveying the sterile confines of the labs where Freeze performs his experiments, and captures the man's unique powers in a very compelling way. His skills have noticeably improved since this effort, especially when it comes to drawing Batman, but it's a great showing regardless.
Despite a weak reveal to the main story that hardly seems fitting for the grandiosity that came before, and a Mr. Freeze story that doesn't do a whole lot to help the character's image, City of Owls is about as close to a must read as you will find in the New 52. The artwork is fantastic throughout, and the main story is so action packed and entertaining that you'll be willing to overlook a lack of originality behind the identity of the main villain and a twist that potentially redefines the characters of Thomas and Martha Wayne. There's a lot of content here and almost all of it is worth reading, therefore City of Owls is well worth your time.