Ruling Gotham from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime.
They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed,
Speak not a whispered word of them or they’ll send the talon for your head.”
When I initially wrote my first impressions of DC’s New 52 for this column, there was only one issue per series out. Now we’re up to issue 11, just about all the books have finished at least one arc, I’ve dropped some from my reading list, and added others. After issue 1, I had Scott Snyder’s Batman series as my fourth favorite out of what I’d read. With more issues and time, it’s become pretty clear that the Court of Owls/Night of the Owls Batman arc is easily my favorite thing in the entire New 52. Re-reading the whole thing yesterday in preparation for this post only confirmed that. It’s really well-structured, with strong continuity and works incredibly well both in individual issues and the arc as a whole.
The New 52 relaunch included four Batman-centric books, plus a myriad of other Bat-family books. At first, you wonder why there’s a need for Batman AND Detective Comics AND Batman: The Dark Knight, not to mention Batman & Robin. Checking them all out, though, they each have a slightly different approach to the Batman mythos. Batman is dark and fairly realistic in tone, the clear parallel to Nolan’s Batman movies. Detective Comics takes a much more old-school comic approach, with colorful and larger-than-life villains, more along the lines of the video games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. I’m not quite as familiar with Batman: The Dark Knight, but it seems to hit somewhere in between, with its first arc concerned with a Bane-derived fear toxin. Meanwhile, Batman & Robin is almost a family drama, focusing on the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his son Damian, the current Robin. I’ve enjoyed all these books to varying degrees, but Snyder’s flagship Batman is head and shoulders above the others.
Many of the New 52 books have a plethora of voiceover revealing the inner thoughts of our protagonists, a technique which some writers are far better at than others. Snyder is one of the best, giving Batman’s thoughts a poetic, epic feel, and often tying in some abstract observations about Gotham City or his own history into the situation at hand. It’s something Snyder excels at in everything he writes (including Swamp Thing, American Vampire, and the Severed miniseries), and it’s on full display here. He starts off defining Gotham as its citizens perceive it and as he understands it, but that understanding is soon to be questioned, as he investigates a gruesome stabbing murder; the throwing knives left behind have an owl insignia, which brings to mind an old nursery rhyme about the Court of Owls, who send assassins called Talons to eliminate their enemies. But no one believes in the Court of Owls, especially not Batman, who thinks he knows his city down to its depths.
Yet as he continues to investigate, the Court of Owls proves to be real, and to be on the verge of taking back Gotham for their own, sending dozens of Talons out to assassinate the city’s main movers and shakers. But first, they want to take out Batman, and lure him into a maddening labyrinth that comes dangerously close to breaking him both physically and mentally. This issue (#5) is pretty brilliant, in everything from the writing, to the art on individual panels, to the layout itself, which forces you to turn the book sideways and upside down to continue reading, much like the maze Batman himself is lost in. The visuals of madness taking hold are devastating, as Batman’s hands seem to turn into talons like the owls who goad him, and that visual blurring continues into issue #6, when Batman faces the Talon before the Court, who shift between appearing human and appearing avian from panel to panel. It’s reminiscent of Snyder’s more full-on horror writing (Severed), but a lot of kudos also go to artists Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion for bringing this maniacal vision viscerally to life.
When Batman returns to the Batcave, he’s visibly broken for several issues, but still working to put together all the things he’s experienced and learned in order to bring down the Court before they bring down Gotham. There’s a lot of detective work in this arc, which I really enjoyed – Batman is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, after all, and that side of him is often lost in popular conceptions of the character. Here he’s jacked into the morgue so he and Gordon can collaborate on checking out autopsies, he’s got an ocular implant that hooks up to the computer in the Batcave for quick, in the field analysis, and most of the conclusions he comes to aren’t leaps of logic, but thought-out analysis of clues he’s found.
In issue #9, the whole thing comes to a head, in the first big crossover event of the New 52 – a few two-book crossovers had already happened, and there have been a lot of cameos/cross-bleeding, but in terms of involving a large number of books all at once, the Night of the Owls was really the first major event since the relaunch. Involving essentially all of the Bat-family books (except Batwoman for some reason), the crossover had Alfred sounding the call for all friends of the Bat to track down the loose Talons and stop them before they could reach their assassination targets. Though I have nothing but praise for the Batman issues all the way through the entire Owl arc (#1-12), the Night of the Owls crossovers into the other books is a lot more of a crapshoot. Some of them work quite well (generally the ones where the Owl story plays into the existing arc of the book), some of them are pretty weak.
Of them all, I think Nightwing and Catwoman work the best in terms of fitting in with existing arcs. The Night of the Owls actually takes up two issues of Nightwing, because Dick Grayson’s story is very closely tied with the Court of Owls, though he didn’t know it at the time. And it works well in Catwoman because it plays into Catwoman’s ongoing plan to steal a collection of knives (which turn out to be Talon knives) from the Penguin. Those both feel organic with the existing arcs. Others, such as Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Batwing, and Red Hood and the Outlaws are just one-offs as the characters take time off from their arcs to do this as a one-off fight and then go back to whatever they were doing before. All-Star Western was a particularly disappointing entry, as it had already established the existence of the Court of Owls in 1880s Gotham in previous issues, but for the crossover issue, it basically just has like two panels of an unexplained Talon attack that fizzles and goes nowhere. It seems like the Court will play a role in the next All-Star Western arc, but they really could’ve done something cool for the crossover and didn’t.
Meanwhile, the inclusion of other Batman-centric books is kind of fascinating. You’d think it’d be very difficult to integrate a crossover between otherwise independent Batman books that have Batman doing totally different things. And indeed, it is awkward when you look at the Night of the Owls story as integrated with the rest of the Detective Comics, Batman: The Dark Knight, and Batman & Robin arcs. In Batman & Robin, for instance, the duo has just finished a long, hard battle to defeat an enemy called Nobody, which has taken a great physical and emotional toll on both Bruce and Damian. Then, out of the blue, Damian hears the call from Alfred and goes off on his own to fight one of the Talons. But…just prior to this in Batman & Robin, Batman has been fighting Nobody. Just prior to this in Batman, he’s been fighting Talons. It makes absolutely no sense; there’s not enough time in the timeline for him to have been doing both. But taken just within the Night of the Owls storyline, separate from the other arcs, all three of these other books actually fit in quite nicely. Batman #9 actually has a spot in the middle where Batman says “I’m going to go after Jeremiah Arkham” and the footnote reads “see Detective Comics #9“, and sure enough, that’s what Detective Comics covers. Come back to Batman, and he goes to save another character, mayoral candidate Lincoln March. Meanwhile, Batman: The Dark Knight follows the Talon sent after March, and meets up storywise with Batman just as Batman reaches March’s office. It flows together extremely well if you just ignore the rest of the issues of the other books altogether.
One thing I did really like about the crossover books, even the less impressive ones, is that almost all of them included some amount of story from the Talon’s point of view. A backstory about how they became a Talon, or how they were “retired” when they got too old for service. Some of these stories, especially the ones in Nightwing, Catwoman and Batman: The Dark Knight are very solid and moving on their own, and I liked the filling out of the history of the Court of Owls and the Talons who served them. Apparently I’m not the only one who enjoyed the Talon stories, because DC is planning a Talon spin-off series starting in October.
As for the Court of Owls / Night of the Owls stories, the first part of the Batman arc (issues #1-6) is already available in collected form, as Batman: Court of Owls. That covers Batman’s discovery of the Court of Owls and trials in their labyrinth. A volume collecting the Night of the Owls issues from across the different comics is planned for February 2013 (though weirdly, Nightwing seems to be missing, and it’s one of the better tie-ins), and the rest of the arc through Batman #12 will be collected and released in March 2013 (source). I can’t recommend this story arc enough, particularly the Batman portions of it.