COURT OF FOULS
Review of Batman: The Court of Owls
by Mike MacDee
The covers for both volumes of Batman: The Court of Owls are slathered with review blurbs. Complex Magazine calls Snyder “the defining Batman writer of our generation.” Craveonline says, “Snyder and Capello prove that they not only understand Batman, but also storytelling, sequential art, and comic books as a whole.”
These critics need to raise their standards. And frankly, so do comic readers. Batman: The Court of Owls certainly isn’t the worst comic I’ve ever read; likewise Snyder and Capello aren’t the worst comic authors I’ve ever encountered. But Batman fans deserve far better efforts for their loyalty. They deserve stories that keep thrilling them and keep them guessing. They deserve stories that don’t insult their intelligence and use flashy set-pieces in place of substance.
Greg Capullo drew some pretty amazing interpretations of classic Batman villains, especially Clayface, Scarecrow, Two-Face, and Joker. He’s especially good at drawing people kicking the shit out of each other. The owl imagery is extremely striking and well-utilized (except for Lincoln’s suit at the end, which owl-wise was pretty lackluster). Unfortunately, he fails at two rather important aspects of comics:
1) He frequently fails at sequential art during action sequences: many times I had trouble reading the action in a single panel — Batman(?) pulls a weapon(?) out of his boot(?) — or a sequence of panels trying to convey a fight sequence, or a gang of thugs being magnetized to a train, or someone getting flattened under a giant coin. I could generally tell what had happened by the last panel of these sequences, but I could never figure out how we got there from the first panel.
2) He cannot draw normal human beings. When people are out of costume and socializing, they look like deadpan mannequins most of the time. This is probably because the few times he draws them with expressive gestures or faces, they look like rubbery Jim Carey demons, skirting the border between scary and hilarious.
In spite of these issues, the Labyrinth sequence — and Batman’s progressive sanity loss therein — is memorable, terrifying, and exceedingly well done. I would’ve been satisfied with the story concluding here, and the whole affair being limited to a single volume. And frankly, it probably should have been.
Batman showcases new technology that connects him to his batcomputer at all times, and also allows him to collaborate with the police remotely via Skype-like setup: as an example, he can partake in a homicide autopsy without having to be at the morgue, which is pretty efficient. But this is the only new tech he gets that I can’t chock up entirely to Lazy Writing 101 — a level of laziness that frankly leaves me dumbfounded. Most of this hi-tech crap could be replaced with more effective, more believable, and very simple fixes by any competent writer who bothers to pen a second draft. For example, contact lenses with facial recognition allow the author to explain who the people in Bruce’s life are with a simple computer blurb, instead of using meaningful dialogue or other, better methods of introducing characters new and old. Bruce Wayne does not have alzheimer’s, and does not need a machine to identify his loved ones and close friends for him. It’s just a lazy way to tell the audience who all these useless characters are, who we will likely never see again (his son has no bearing on the plot whatsoever, but still makes an obligatory appearance and gets a nametag as if he’s going to be important later).
The bat-tech that isn’t simply lazy, is bullshit and lazy. Batman uses his remote computer linkup to interrogate suspects with a polygraph: after a single question he knows immediately if the suspect is lying. Even if I suspend my disbelief that Batman’s gizmos are that insanely advanced, polygraphs still require a lengthy series of questions in order to distinguish when the subject lies and when he/she tells the truth; and even then, they’re completely unreliable, especially when the subject is already under duress for whatever reason (like, I dunno, being menaced by the Batman). Bruce has been at the detective gig long enough to figure out on his own when he’s being bullshitted. Any writer who “understands Batman” (as the ass-kissing Craveonline proclaims on the cover) would already know that Batman is a legend among super heroes, and therefore his judgment wouldn’t be questioned by any reader: if the world’s greatest detective “feels” that someone is telling the truth, we’ll believe it’s the truth.
This is where The Court of Owls really shits the bed: no level of artistic talent can save a poor script. Volume 1 is mostly mystery with action scattered throughout, as Batman tries to uncover who or what the Court of Owls is: it kept me hooked because I genuinely wanted to know if the secret society was real, or if some new villain (or an old one) had fabricated it to yank Batman’s chain for whatever reason. I’ve always said that a good Batman story is a good detective story, and a good detective story relies on puzzling mysteries, unexpected twists, and moody atmosphere. In stark contrast, Volume 2 is almost entirely mindless action of “Batman fanfic” caliber, proving this story went on for much longer than it needed to. This can partly be blamed on the decision to make the Talons unstoppable superkillers instead of, y’know, ninjas, drugged-up hitmen, or anything based in reality.
On the plus side, new details of Bruce’s background are revealed! Too bad they’re completely asinine. This isn’t the only trope in Owls that Hush did far better (Bruce gets a new friend who fakes his death and turns out to be the bad guy), but it’s certainly the most glaringly unbelievable. I can believe that Bruce would forget to mention an old friend he hasn’t seen since he was a kid. I cannot believe that he would never mention an exhaustive hunt for the Court of Owls as a child, whom he originally blamed for his parents’ deaths, even if it turned out they (supposedly) didn’t exist after all. I especially cannot believe it if he ended up locked in an attic for over a week and nearly died as a result of his search. That’s hardly an anecdote one forgets to mention to one’s partner after decades of fighting crime alongside them.
Fortunately, the new bad guys are a force to be reckoned with. The far-reaching Court of Owls is often frightening on a number of levels, and they reek of depravity and decadence as a result of their immense wealth and unchallenged power….but just as often, they’re also preposterous and boneheaded.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to tell a story about a secret society as old as Gotham itself, which has until now remained completely hidden: the premise is fascinating, chilling, and oozes amazing potential for an unforgettable mystery. All I’m saying is that this one could have been handled much better, much more convincingly, and with minimal bastardization of the Batman mythos. The story’s major shortcomings can be boiled down to four distinct points.
First, the secret society’s idiotic impulses. Batman uncovers a secret society that has been successfully hidden for generations: they’ve been around for so long, and their talons are so far-reaching, that there’s no reason why they can’t cleverly undermine Batman’s every attempt to expose them, or simply vanish again without a trace, or (maybe best of all) make Batman appear completely insane, forcing Gordon and the others to question their faith in the Dark Knight. Yet at the first sign of trouble, what do the Owls do? They leap out from behind the curtain going “Boogah boogah!” and attempt the blatant mass-murder of Gotham’s city officials in order to “take back their city.” If they’re going to make such a bloody, ham-fisted power grab, what’s the point of being so secretive for four hundred years? These people would silently integrate themselves into Gotham’s elite like the Freemasons, not blow their cover to make a ham-fisted assault on the city. Hell, why aren’t they already running the city after all this time?
Second, the Talons, which serve as the Court’s assassins. The Talons are the undead ancestors of the big names in Gotham, and essentially un-killable. Clearly pitting Batman against an untraceable and unbeatable Illuminati wasn’t interesting enough for writer Scott Snyder — he have to give them an unbeatable Jason Voorhees army, too, as an excuse to make Volume 2 one big action sequence. He probably hoped this would make up for his failure to resolve the issues of Point 1 — not talented enough to make his secret society clever, he decided to make them brutish.
Third, Bruce’s backstory isn’t the only one that gets a glaring retcon. It is revealed that Dick Grayson was apparently being groomed as a new Talon until his parents died unexpectedly. Batman proves this by pulling Dick’s “owl tooth” — a false molar with Owl goodies inside of it, which all Talons have. So Dick’s own dedication, intelligence and ingenuity are no longer responsible for making him the badass Boy Wonder we all know and love — no, his success is all because he’s the spoiled larva of what would have been an immortal super-assassin. There’s an advantage Jason Todd probably wishes he’d had. But even if we overlook Dick’s apparent genetic advantages during his time at Batman’s Junior Crimefighter Academy, I’m damn sure somebody — like maybe a dentist — would have found Dick’s secret “owl tooth” years before this storyline took place.
And finally, a minor point regarding Lincoln, Bruce’s new pal, who turns out to be the villain, and also (though it’s deliberately “ambiguous”) Bruce’s long-lost brother. This seems to come mostly out of nowhere: Lincoln mentions being an orphan, and there are vague suggestions here and there that the Court of Owls has some longstanding affiliation with the Wayne family. Neither of these by themselves mean anything regarding Lincoln’s status as Bruce’s long-lost brother, and I doubt anyone would have come to this conclusion if Lincoln hadn’t said it himself.
That’s The Court of Owls, and my beef with it: a brilliant premise and promising villain faction, butchered by bad writing and almost-as-bad artwork, and placed on a pedestal by critics who wouldn’t know good Batman if it bopped ’em with a batarang. If this is the best the industry has to offer us nowadays, I fear for the future of comics, and of Batman, and of comic reader standards in general.
Read Volume 1 for the awesome and horrific Labyrinth sequence, then drop it like a bad habit. Then go read Hush or The Long Halloween instead. Or ignore my thoughts entirely and tell me what a fag I am for dissin’ the Bat, Greg Capullo, owls, and what have you.