Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.
DC Comics was in an exciting position in 2011. The publisher launched the New 52 initiative, a soft reboot that saw their whole publishing slate revert to issue #1 and selected history remaining. Initially, the move was a huge success, bringing in new and lapsed readers, improving DC Comics’ market share, and lifting the whole industry. However, that success was short-lived, with the New 52 running out of steam a few years later. Most of which resulted from editorial chaos and an overall tone comparable to the 1990s than the 2010s.
That’s not to say that it was all bad. Batman fared quite well out of the New 52 era. Much of this came down to DC Comics pairing up-and-coming writer Scott Snyder with veteran artist Greg Capullo for the flagship title. Snyder was red-hot from the Vertigo series American Vampire and an acclaimed run on Detective Comics. Capullo, on the other hand, had made a name penciling Spawn and X-Force. Together, they’d bring Batman back to the top of the sales chart and have a long creative partnership that continues to this day.
It began with the story I’m here to discuss – The Court of Owls. While it’s a recent story in the grand scheme of Batman, it has become a modern classic by being a bestseller that lives on with healthy sales in the DC backlist. It’s a story that Robert Paterson has shown interest in adapting for a future movie sequel and inspired the upcoming Gotham Knights video game.
Snyder begins his script with an inner monologue. Through this, Batman discusses a long-running newspaper column that asks citizens to define Gotham with a single word. While everyone has a different definition, the Dark Knight believes he has a good grasp of what Gotham is to him. It’s an effective device to show Batman’s confidence and knowledge of the city. However, this will all soon change.
While investigating a series of murders, Batman uncovers a secret society known as the Court of Owls. In theory, they should exist. They’re an urban legend and something that the Dark Knight has looked into many times without results. However, as he will soon learn, the Court of Owls exists and has been secretly influencing Gotham for hundreds of years. They’re made up of members of high society and have a connection to the Wayne family that goes back generations – something that is explored extensively in the back-up strips towards the end.
The Court of Owls makes for an engaging foe because they destabilise Batman in a way others don’t. To begin with, they’re brand new. Batman doesn’t know anything about them, apart from the urban legends. He thought he knew everything about Gotham, as established early on, and their existence rattles him.
The best example is Batman #5, where our hero is trapped in an underground labyrinth. In a drugged state, with no food or water, the Dark Knight is being hunted by the Court of Owls. While we get an inner monologue of Batman’s deteriorating mental state, the most effective device is how the comic itself is orientated. To read the comic, the reader needs to physically revolve the book (or device if reading digitally) to continue reading it. It’s an effective trick few comics have done, so the reader is slightly disorientated in adapting and reflects some of what Batman is feeling.
The Court of Owls’ design is simple but effective. Capullo renders them as you would a member of high society, with expensive suits and evening wear, topped off with a mask. This mask is simple, a white oval with just enough lines to make out a beak and jet-black eyes. It gives each member uniformity that’s needed to show their part of a group and the anonymity that makes you wonder who they could be.
However, what makes the Court of Owls more deadly are the Talons. These are their assassins and the ones who do the dirty work. Highly skilled, they’re a challenging adversary for Batman. Capullo continues the owl motif in their design, such as the rounded yellow goggles reminiscent of owl eyes. Not only do they look cool, but they play into the storytelling, where they appear in the darkness of the background as yellow circles. Only the reader knows that they’re lurking there, with the foreground character back to them unaware.
Synder and Capullo’s interpretation of Batman is very resourceful. Think of it like Adam West’s interpretation but way more high-tech. He has a solution for everything. This could be an item in his utility belt, such as a high-powered magnet, or the advanced forensic lab in the Batcave. Heck, he even has a photogrammetric scanner installed in the city morgue.
This “answer for everything” interpretation of Batman might not appeal to all readers, but it allows for big action. The type of hard-hitting and wild situations make readers wonder how he will escape this jam. While readers know that Batman won’t hit the ground if he falls off a building, you’re invested because of the spectacle. You want to know how he will save his skin this time.
Greg Capullo is an excellent choice of artist for this action-heavy Batman. Years of working on X-Force and Spawn have honed his skills, and he understands how to make the action hit hard. This is done through the composition, where he has chosen framing that straddles the line between straightforward storytelling and looking cool. Big props should go to inker Jonathan Glapion, who inks Capullo’s pencils tightly and knows where it’s okay to incorporate the more sketchy elements.
The Court of Owls is an exciting read. It successfully adds a new villain to the Dark Knight’s deep roster who is engaging, mysterious, and challenge Batman in new ways. Couple this with action-packed scenarios that keep you guessing, and you have a recipe for a modern Bat-Classic.