New To You Comics #116: Gotham’s Secret History Revealed In ‘Batman: Court of Owls’

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals, and things that go bump in the night. Today we’re looking at one of the most popular and influential Batman stories of the last fifteen years.

In 2011, about halfway through the Flashpoint limited series, DC Comics revealed that the event would be used to reboot the company’s long-running continuity. Called the New 52, the publisher would relaunch their full line with fifty-two new #1’s as well as a continuity reboot. The relaunch was confusing and dense. Most of the titles were set five years after the appearance of the universe’s first hero- Superman. But some weren’t. A few weren’t rebooted at all, continuing longtime runs. Even worse, they tried to do both with a few characters and concepts- such as continuing to use all five Robins, which made the 5 year timeline even more confusing.

Naturally fans didn’t like it much. There were a few bright spots though, and far and away the biggest hit among those was Batman by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, FCO, Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt. The series brought Batman back to basics, while also diving deep into the Dark Knight’s history. It was a huge hit, and a massive influence on Batman since its publication.

The Court of Owls is an urban legend. They’re a scary story that the mothers in Gotham use to scare their children. Bruce Wayne is about to discover that the legend is real- both in the cape and cowl and out of it- and Batman will never be the same thanks to it.

Tony: So brief programming note that normally I’d ignore but I’m annoyed. Last week we said we’d be doing Superman: Birthright. Amazon pulled it from Comixology Unlimited immediately after I said we’d do that. So we’re doing this book instead (which was on our list anyways). Thanks to the largest retailer on the planet who has also ruined the largest digital comics platform in the industry just because!

So, I think you’ve said you were familiar with this book, if you haven’t read it already. Though my opinions on it have shifted just a little since the last time I read it, I still really enjoy it. What did you think?

Brendan: I really enjoy Batman stories that lean into the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ aspects of the character. This one fits the bill. There is a lot of action, but it’s very deliberate. The bigger part of the story is the mystery, and how Batman gets there.

I also agree that the new Comixology format sucks. I hate the new view. It annoys the shit out of me that I get several emails a day now that try to sell me books that I either already get in Comixology Unlimited, or that I’ve just looked up to get publisher blurbs or images. The new system is terrible. Zero stars. Do not recommend.

Tony: Yup. I’ve even heard that Amazon employees who used to use Comixology regularly are frustrated.

Overall, I do enjoy this book. The individual issues can be kind of a mixed bag. I actually think the first issue might be the roughest of the volume. The opening in Arkham Asylum, and Batman teaming up with “the Joker” feels editorially mandated to get all the classic Batman stuff in before Snyder does something new with the mythos. The Talons are genuinely scary though, and I really wish the Nightwing/Court link was played with a lot more because it’s a very good retcon.

I don’t think the character of Lincoln March works for me either. There’s interesting potential there but it doesn’t pay off. As a superhero action story though, I don’t think you can find any better in at least the last fifteen years. If the Rucka/Brubaker runs weren’t in the window, I’d even say the last twenty (sorry Scott).

Brendan: The “Joker” bit didn’t play too well for me either, but I do get it. There are characters that people want to see, and if that little stunt got people to invest in the bigger story, it did its job. 

Tony: Yeah, even if later stories contradicted that first scene (I think the Riddler and Two-Face both got much more classic designs in other Bat-books not long after), it was an effective opener to get the hooks into lapsed and new readers.

I’m also so glad the labyrinth issue holds up. It’s a tough read digitally, but overall, a fantastic issue of comics. And I do have to note that issue came out a few months after DC started doing day and date digital comics for the first time, so naturally there were some growing pains. As a single issue story and as part of the overall arc though, it was just fantastic stuff from Snyder and Capullo. I think that’s also the issue where FCO’s colors shined through the best too- all the bright white light washing out a broken and desperate Batman really sold the bleak situation Bruce was in.

Brendan: I’m glad you brought it up. Labyrinths are such a great setting for horror, and this really is a horror scene. The captor has complete control. Even without the drugs, odds are stacked against the prey. This has been used effectively since the Minotaur of ancient Greece, and it’s employed to amazing effect here. 

Tony: Definitely! Snyder and Capullo came to Batman from horror backgrounds- Snyder in his American Vampire series and Severed, Capullo on Spawn. It’s the perfect perspective for a Batman story. Not enough horror superhero stories in our world.

I remember the announcement of Capullo as the artist throwing everyone. He had been primarily known for Spawn at this point (though he did have a well-regarded run on X-Force before he drew Spawn). I definitely remember some people complaining about the Spawn guy drawing Batman. I really am glad he did this book though. His visuals set the visual tone for Batman for a long time.

Brendan: Huh. I did not know that. At the time New 52 was running, I was regularly visiting a local shop here in Bakersfield called Leeters, but not to buy comics. My eldest was really into MTG, and Leeters was running local tours only a couple miles from our house, so I’d take him in twice a week. I knew the reboot was happening, but had no idea what the comics community was buzzing about back then. I just wasn’t plugged in. 

I do know now, having gone back and read a bunch of that stuff, that this Batman series was the best thing to come out of that era of DC Comics. Snyder and Capullo are just about as good as it gets when you talk about iconic creative teams on any franchise.  

Tony: Capullo has a great dynamism to his figures, especially in the way he draws Bruce’s cape. It flows like the exaggerated use by Batman legends like Norm Breyfogle and Kelley Jones, but instead of being impressionistic, I think it feels somewhat realistic. His designs are great beyond that. Look at Professor Pyg in the opening scene (using dirty laundry to make a pig mask), or the Talon’s imposing and dark silhouette.

Brendan: Well, you mentioned Spawn. Spawn’s cape does that, doesn’t it? It’s almost a separate character. Moves, breathes, flows like a living, liquid thing. Makes sense that he’d bring some of that fluidity over to the Batman design. 

Tony: Definitely, and the best Batman artists play with that. Crazy dynamic capes are almost a necessity now, but Capullo is always capable of doing it in a way that doesn’t break the story around him.

Brendan: Agreed. The cape is its own character, but not in a distracting way. The architecture works in the same way for me here. All of the owl nests around town, the buildings, their history carved into the brick and mortar. It’s very Gotham, but there’s also a cool new look to them. Like, they’ve always been there, but in the background, and we never looked too close.

Tony: I don’t think I’ve read a comic that used architecture as a plot point in such an interesting way too. But if there’s another example out there, I guarantee it’s in a Batman comic.

I like this one quite a bit. It does have its flaws, but it’s a great superhero action story with a heavy horror twist. So, final verdict? 

Brendan: I like it a lot. I’m actually going to demand that we do the next volume on a future installment, because there are some plot threads that I really need to see resolved.

Tony: What do we have up next?

Brendan: Snyder and Capullo have a Comixology Original called We Have Demons. I had a lot of fun with this book. Let’s check out their creator owned stuff and see what Scott and Greg do when there are no rules.

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