Debriefing #21: ‘The Court of Owls’

courtofowls-cover

Batman: The Court of Owls (2012)
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Greg Capullo

After Bruce Wayne announces a new plan to revitalize Gotham City, a mysterious assassin attempts to take his life. When Batman begins investigating this assassin, he’s forced to face one of Gotham’s deepest legends: The Court of Owls. Legend has this secret organization has worked throughout Gotham’s history but Batman remains skeptical that anything that big could remain hidden in his city.

James: This is the first seven issues of Batman. Or rather, Batman from 2011, a soft reboot of sorts that DC did back in 2011 as part of their New 52 initiative. The idea was to give people interested in comic books a new entry point into long-standing series that have hundreds of issues. Instead of going back and retelling familiar stories, these books tried instead to take previous knowledge and build new stories. However, I’d argue that this Batman story is a reboot. Not in that it reboots Batman, but in that it reboots Gotham. So my question to start us out is that what do you make of Scott Snyder’s new mythology and folklore of Gotham?

Edgar: Ooh, good question. Well, I have to admit that I like these first few issues very, very much. I really didn’t have a good grasp on what the concept of the New 52 was since, as you stated, these aren’t actual reboots. I mean, we see an older Dick Grayson as well as Tim Drake and Bruce’s son, so clearly we aren’t starting from square one here. That said, I love how this story does ‘feel’ as if it begins anew, what with a completely new threat, one we have never heard of before which does makes it feel like a fresh start. I think the existence of the Owls and what they mean for Gotham and Batman is really interesting. I think we can argue about certain specificities, like how is it that Batman, the world’s greatest detective, never found out about them until now but, keeping in mind that there is another volume still to read, I think it’s a really strong start. What are your initial impressions?

J: First off, I’m relieved we aren’t retelling the Batman origin. I’m so weary of origin stories in comic book stories, especially with characters as popular as Batman. I do have that bit of apprehension about how deep this conspiracy with the Court of Owls goes. It does seem like that at least he would have got hints. My apprehension might be because Batman insists the Court of Owls can’t exist even when it’s clear he’s ignoring some damning evidence. On the other hand, I do think that gets into what I thought was an interesting tension building in this first volume: who owns the city? Clearly, Batman says it’s his city, but the uncovering of the mystery seems to shatter that illusion when he realizes this deep secret he never detected. In some ways, I like that as a way to develop the character, to show that even Batman with all his knowledge and power can’t control Gotham. I like that sense of helplessness this volume builds as he slowly becomes less and less in control. Contrast that with the opening of issue 1 where he’s taking down all sorts of famous baddies without batting an eye. I’d like to dig a bit deeper into the Owls themselves. What did you think of the idea of this elite court that sentenced people to die? What about the idea of the Tallon and the nursery rhyme?

courtofowls-owls

E: I think the Owls are bloody brilliant. First and foremost, their entire look is terrifically creepy. It takes a while for us to get a good look at their secret domain but once we do I was pretty amazed. For however incredulous their underground lair may be, I think it’s a visual feast. More importantly as an organization I think they represent a worthy adversary for Batman. I like how you brought up earlier his consternation with this mystery. All of a sudden what he took for granted (that the city belongs to Batman) ends up being false. This builds a lot of tension which for once I thought was very fresh. It wasn’t just Batman overworking but Batman overworking because the entire game has changed. As for the Tallon, I guess it was alright. I suppose every organization like this requires a heavy to handle their dirty business. I liked the costume a lot but I had a hard time believing this guy was actually going to outdo Batman. In fact, he doesn’t even last that long. He’s dispatched pretty ruthlessly before this volume concludes. Lastly, I like the nursery rhyme, it adds a level of creepiness. It’s been around for so long it’s made the court of owls sound more like a myth, a legend, than reality. It’s a scary myth so when it becomes real the impact is heightened. I liked that alot. Do you have any particular thoughts on the rhyme and that dastardly Tallon?

J: That rhyme does bring up something I loved about the idea of The Court of Owls. You talk that it makes it feel more like a myth and legend and I think the rhyme represents a counter-mythology to Batman. The book talks about how Batman thinks he’s the only legend Gotham needs but the Court of Owls is older than him and runs even deeper than him. I love that idea. It’s not a physical threat, but a threat to the identity of Batman. What happens when you have this other system of justice that you have represented by this court suddenly decide they’re actually in control of the city? We haven’t seen the full impact of that, but the volume gives us a small taste as well as that great tease at the end of last issue. I also loved that it’s an Owl. The owl is a natural predator to the bat, so it makes sense on that level, but what I love about Scott Snyder’s writing is his use of scientific fact to build on story. In here you see it when he talks about how owls don’t make their own nests, they steal them, so Batman discovers that all the nests for Tallon are sprinkled through towers of Gotham made by his grandfather. Little things like that make The Court of Owls such a rich idea and I’m eager to see when Snyder takes it in the next volume because I feel like this volume is just the unveil and we’ve got a lot more ahead of us.

E: Yeah, I was doing a bit of *cough* research *cough* and found out that there is even a book series called ‘Talon’ which apparently shares the story of how one such Talon was trained by the Court. I wonder what that’s like. To your point about the scientific facts, I couldn’t agree more. When that bit of text explained that owls don’t construct their own nests but invade those made by other animals I nearly lost my sh*t. That’s really clever writing and, as you argued, makes the Owls all the more dangerous as physical threats but thematically as well. I wasn’t too familiar with Snyder (unless I’ve read some of his stuff without knowing it) but based on this story he’s a smart storyteller. One section that struck me as quite pertinent was when Bruce reveals to Dick that as a child he investigated the existence of the court after his parent’s murder, potentially putting an entirely new spin on that bit of the Batman mythology. I’d like to know what you thought of that portion of the story.

courtofowls-dick

J: I’ll be honest, I’m apprehensive about that change. For now, he leaves it as a suggestion that the death of Bruce’s parents might have been ordered by the Court of Owls. I like the idea of it being an act of random crime. It makes it part of this larger, undefinable system that Batman has to fight as a whole instead of a personal vendetta. For now, Snyder leaves it ambiguous, which I think is the smart move. Playing with the idea of the Wayne lineage further back I think is safe territory and I like how he suggests that his great grandfather and grandfather might have some relation to the Court of Owls. Bruce also reveals that Dick was a candidate for the court, which I didn’t like, mostly because Dick is such a minor part of this book it felt throwaway. Maybe in the Nightwing series this detail gets fleshed out more, but here it feels flippant. Speaking of Bruce, so far this has been a Batman heavy story. We do get some Bruce, but my question to you is do you get enough of it or did you want more Wayne?

E: I think we get more than enough Bruce Wayne in the this first volume. Because of the nature of the threat, this ominous and unseen court, I understand it as Bruce having to don the cape and cowl as much as possible to get to the bottom of things. There is a little bit of Bruce Wayne at the beginning as he presents a new project to the City, as well as some interaction with a mayoral candidate, the latter which I was not expecting. Sadly, that character to left to the wayside rather quickly. I wonder if we’ll see him again… Interestingly enough that character, just before getting injured, seems to hint at the fact that he might know about the Owls which I thought was interesting. Unless you’d like to add on to the discussion of Wayne, I’d love to dig into Batman’s perilous adventure in the Owls’ maze. Any first impressions?

J: We talked about Arkham Asylum being straight-up horror in a lot of places and I thought the maze issue in this series, while not nearly as unnerving as that book, was another example of using a Batman story as a descent into horror and madness. In an issue, Snyder absolutely grinds Batman down and there’s some surreal, powerful imagery. We’ve seen Batman in some tight spots, but this issue does a great job of giving us a physical and mental breakdown. What did you make of it?

courtofowls-art

E: This is really where I started falling in love with the book. From an artwork standpoint, I think it’s terrifically creative, what with the portraits of all the victims hanging on the walls, that humungous fountain with the drugged water, that strange little cardboard miniature representation of Gotham City; it all looks stupendous. Strictly as a visual flourish, it sold me on the sophistication of the Court of Owls. The weird thing is, and I hate to admit this, the more I think about the logistics the more I start to convince myself that the whole thing is stupid. It’s a silly thing to do with a Batman book, but there is a small part of me that wonders if all this was set-up just for Batman or for all of their victims. The place also looks huge, at least that’s the vibe the artists seems to want to give off, so how come nobody ever stumbled on this place, especially with 21st century technology. I have to repress those vile thoughts however because I still love the sequence. Of course, we can’t leave this section of the conversation without talking about the upside down pages. Yay or nay?

J: Yay for sure. I’m all for comic book artists playing with how they present things on the pages. I loved the two paged vertical spreads that lead into this upside down page. It disorients the reader as Batman goes through his disorientation and I thought that was a beautiful way to do it. I agree that this is the issue where things clicked for me. You talk about how it’s easy to pick at the logic of it, but this is the issue where I realized I had to start reading the book as more mythological than anything else. It’s the minotaur’s labyrinth Batman is going through here and as Snyder plays up those elements, I find the book works more and more for me. In the next issue when you get that page where Batman suddenly becomes this almost vampiric hulk, I loved it. It’s got that dark, modern Batman edge, but it’s also so fantastical, like a mythology. Did that work for you or did you find it took the book to far into the realm of fantasy?

E: I thought it worked tremendously well. I feel we should not just credit Snyder (although his writing is excellent) but also Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion. Their work here gives the book that sort of edge that works so well for this type of a story. I can definitely see your point about the story being told in such a way as to make it like a fantasy rather than something more reality based. To go back to my point about the infrastructure of the Owl’s lair, it might not be that big as I initially thought it was. Perhaps that’s the storytelling making it seem that large, much like how Batman is slowly losing his senses the more time he spends down there and after drinking from the fountain. Are there any other specific talking points you’d like to address? How about that art in general?

J: The art is the one element of this book I have conflicting feelings about. Greg Capullo’s style feels grounded, but there’s also that fantastical sense to it like in that labyrinth scene that I wish we saw more of. I guess the best way to put it is that when he’s drawing the Owls and Batman and going for some of those more fantastic elements, it works for me. But when it’s people having a conversation, I thought it was just okay. There’s still some clever stuff, like the conversation where we’re glimpsing bits of it through the cowl on Batman’s desk, but I found myself slowing down a lot more on the labyrinth issue because of the visuals after blowing through the previous two issues which I thought were middling artistically. What do you think? Did it click for you?

E: Oh, it definitely clicked and I’ll tell you why. This might sound a little weird but the more pages I turned the more I was reminded of the 1990s Batman Animated Series. I think it’s the blocky heads of the human characters and the way the Batman costume is drawn. Granted, this is a very modern book and therefore, like with so many comic books released over the past few years, there is going to be an incredible amount of detail in each panel but I feel as though the overall shapes and colours employed harken back to that classic cartoon series, especially the scenes that happen at night. I may need glasses, but I like what I was seeing. Anything else you’d like to touch on?

J: I hit all my talking points. I think this is a superbly written Batman story, the conceit feels exciting and fresh, introducing a whole new world for Batman to take on and I’m quite eager to see where it goes from here. Like, I said, the art doesn’t always work for me, but when it does work, it’s fantastic. Any more thoughts?

E: Nothing too earth shattering but I’d like to ask just one more question in honor of how the story begins with the newspaper asking Gotham citizens what they think their city is. James, Gotham City is…

J: A place I’d never visit at night!

E: Smart answer.

 

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