Home for the Holidays, or, The Court of Owls

courtofowls

BAM! BIFF! POW! OWL!

The recent Batman: Noir release (a format presenting seminal Batman stories in black and white inks without any color) of writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion’s The Court of  Owls has proven an excellent opportunity to revisit a story that has cemented its place as a Batman classic despite being less than a decade old.

The new Noir formatting of the story is not exactly the second format I’ve encountered this story in. I read it first as individual comic books, then as a nicer pair of hardcover trades. There’s an excellent version that is just Capullo’s original pencils and, of course, the academic, oversized Absolute Edition. Anytime the opportunity arises I find myself eager to reencounter Snyder and Capullo’s first Batman collaboration in a different light, as I consistently find myself drifting back to the tale once or twice a year. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, which I saw a dozen times in the theater because I was a high schooler on summer vacation and the world was my oyster and time had no meaning, Court of Owls is the Batman story I interact with the most.

But why?

There are plenty of Batman stories I love, but none that I inevitably meander back to with such frequency.

DC Comics already regularly markets The Court of Owls as a Batman essential alongside the likes of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but more than perhaps any other Batman story, Court of Owls has the mythological backbone of a near-universal rite of passage.

For those unfamiliar with The Court of Owls, the story concerns a Batman at the height of his prowess discovering an illuminati-like organization that has haunted Gotham’s past and is pulling the strings to manipulate the city’s future. Readers are introduced to a Bruce Wayne who can and does readily wax philosophic about Gotham. It is his city. He knows it to the marrow. He informs the reader of Gotham’s history, of Gotham’s architecture, of its heights and depths, and he does it with the sort of offhanded virtuosity one would provide an oral history of their closest friends and family.

And then he discovers that that knowledge is at best incomplete, and at worst an elaborate façade.

In The Court of Owls, Batman undergoes a rite of passage most, if not all, of us will confront at some point in our lives: the subversion of his perception of home.

Court of Owls challenge Batman by calling into question the structural integrity of what he believe Gotham to be. The worst part? Nothing about Gotham City has actually changed. The threat Bruce Wayne stumbles upon is one that dates back centuries. The adversary he faces is ingrained in Gotham and has been for longer than he ever can be. In grand, mythological fashion, Batman’s undertaking in Court of Owls mirrors the sort of realization that comes with hearing the unabridged, adult version of the history of the town you grew up in, or with returning home after that first semester away from college to find everything so different and so eerily similar. It’s a story about our relationships with home, about how home can define us, betray us and strengthen us, about how even when everything  we think we know about our home suddenly feels false the inherent truths we hold about our home can still ring true.

In Court of Owls, Batman, like each of us, has to contend with those aspects of his relationship with Gotham that are concrete and those that are fluid and the fact that what makes those aspects concrete or fluid may be entirely out of his control. It’s a struggle that is gorgeously rendered by Capullo in the story’s unforgettable middle chapters (originally published as Batman #5 and #6) in which Batman is stalked through his new nemesis’ stalking grounds.

I find myself returning to the Court of Owls time and time again because it so beautifully articulates and examines our relationships with home. It is Batman punching and kicking his way through the internal monologues we have when we return home for the holidays and wander through neighborhoods that suddenly seem so much smaller. It’s a batarang to that weird sensation of finding out some grown-up you knew as a kid is actually an utter jackass, or some mean old lady you rolled your eyes at was a saint. More than an excellent Batman story, the Court of Owls is an excellent human story, one that deals with the horrifying sensation of tectonic plates beneath our parents’ house shifting that we all find ourselves experiencing at one point or another.

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The Late Scapegoat, or, The New 52: An Obit

DC Rebirth

I don’t know, some kind of sports joke or something?

The New 52 is dead. And it seems like some folks are celebrating.

The 2011 DC Comics publishing initiative more or less rebooted the entire line of comics back to issue #1. It was a pretty ballsy move, not because it reset the numbering of comic books that were on their nine hundredth plus issue, or because it retooled seventy plus years of continuity, but because with the New 52 DC Comics made an executive decision to make an appeal to prospective new readers rather than continuing to placate existing ones.

It’s a debatable decision. It’s easy to spin it as corporate interests turning their backs on longtime, loyal fans in favor of younger blood. Maybe that’s exactly what happened. But as the younger blood in question I can’t help but mourn the euthanizing of the New 52.

I read my first graphic novel well into my teens and dabbled in further readings once a summer or so until The Dark Knight trilogy concluded and I wanted more Batman. I read the pillars of Batman mythology before moving on to Superman books and then I found my way to Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, which got me hook, line and sinker, so much so that when I caught up on the trade paperbacks I couldn’t wait for the next one and decided to brave a real live comic book store and pick up actual floppy comic books.

I had no intention of reading any other book, but when I looked down the rack at the Batman comics and the Aquaman comics and the Justice League comics they weren’t at issue #999 or even issue #99. They were on issue #12. That didn’t seem so daunting. I could catch up with that. And I did. And now I read comics.

Sure, now I understand that the number on a comic doesn’t really mean as much as the creative team does and that Detective Comics #69 isn’t required reading for Detective Comics #666 (I’m assuming) but back then if I’d looked down the rack and seen Batman #1,000,000 my curiosity would’ve been far outnumbered.

But the reset numbering wasn’t fandom’s biggest point of contention with the New 52. The New 52 didn’t do a hard reset on continuity. Green Lantern, for instance, pretty much picked up where it had left off. Batman had an eerily similar status quo that alluded to events in old continuity without ever firming establishing a timeline. The biggest overhaul, however, was the idea that in New 52 continuity superheroes had only been a whole “thing” in the DC universe for five years. So books like the Teen Titans, featuring a lineup of teenaged former sidekicks, got pretty confusing, as did the fact that Batman had four Robins after being active for only five years.

Condensing the timeline squashed and confused a lot of character histories and dynamics that had been established over the course of decades. Popular properties like the Teen Titans never really got to shine and for many the convoluted, sloppy continuity of the New 52 was to blame.

Enter last week’s DC Rebirth, the 80-page one-shot by Geoff Johns and a stable of top-shelf artists (Phil Jiminez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Gary Frank) that ended the New 52 in style. The book is built on the sentiment that in the New 52 DC Universe “something is missing.” It calls the New 52 to task for being dark and brooding and hopeless and apparently pissing on the lineage of DC’s greatest heroes.

It’s a great book, but it can be a bit much when it comes to flogging the New 52. For fans who were brought into the fold with the New 52 it kind of feels like being invited to a party by an acquaintance and then watching them extensively apologize to the assembled for inviting you.

The New 52 is not to blame for DC’s lineup of gritty books any more than it is to blame for fans of the Teen Titans not getting an iteration of the team they like for the last five years.

That all comes down to what’s on the page.

I’ve got no problem with the New 52 coming to an end, but people have gone far beyond letting the door hit it on the way out. Changing continuity doesn’t just magically make a publishing line more optimistic and fun. Declaring the New 52 over doesn’t just magically make the Teen Titans great again. It comes down to the individual comic books themselves.

When I’m reading an awesome issue of Batman I don’t give a shit what the status of the Multiverse is, or whether Superboy Prime is canon or who was responsible for Flashpoint. The only thing that matters is what’s on the page.

The New 52’s condensed continuity might have been contradictory and convoluted but it didn’t terminated the potential for a cool Teen Titans story any more than it guaranteed the certainty of an excellent Batman book. Whatever “something” was missing from the New 52 had nothing to do with the state of the DC Universe or its continuity.

All the New 52 did was turn the gaze of the DCU toward the uninitiated because comic book fans get old and die and have to be replaced with new comic book fans.

I loved the New 52, but I’m excited for DC Rebirth because of the wealth of new talent and creative teams it’s bringing to its characters. For better or worse when the spiffy, post-New 52 Teen Titans book shows up on stands it’ll be that talent that will be on display on the page creating the story, not a publishing initiative and not continuity.

 

“Gotham Is,” or, Batman: The Series Finale

batman51

After wrapping up Superheavy, their final story arc on Batman, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo (with inker Danny Miki and colorist FCO Plascencia) put a period at the end of their sprawling, five-year bat-sentence with one of the single greatest individual issues of their entire run.

Batman #51, entitled “Gotham Is,” is at once a poignant, standalone Batman chapter and a deeply impactful series finale. If you just picked up Batman #51 on a whim because that psycho in Dawn of Justice seemed neat you’re in for a satisfying read. It’s an excellent standalone Batman story that provides equally tragic and uplifting insight into the character. But it’s as the finale to a five-year saga that Batman #51 really soars.

“Gotham Is” calls back to 2011’s Batman #1, using a Gotham newspaper column featured in the first issue as a framing device. I’ve read that first issue and the subsequent Court of Owls story arc so many times in so many formats that by the end of the first page the last issue felt like a sort of homecoming. From there, a story about a mysterious power outage in Gotham weaves throughout the city touching on not only the characters and locations from throughout Snyder and Capullo’s run on the series, but also the various feats of literary and artistic strength that have elevated the run since 2011. Snyder uses character narration to directly, affectingly address the reader and Capullo’s detailed, architectural prowess is on full display in his depictions of everything from Gotham’s skyscrapers to its street lights.

Throughout Snyder and Capullo’s time on Batman the book has always felt like something more than any other comic that ends up in a neat, alphabetized stack on my coffee table every Wednesday. Month after month each issue felt like an event. For me, there are movies and then there are Christopher Nolan movies. There’s television and then there’s Hannibal (or at least there was). There are comics and then there is Snyder and Capullo’s Batman.

Batman #51 reaffirmed those feelings. Circling back through the characters, locales and events of the previous 50 issues it’s a finale that makes the entire saga Snyder and Capullo have told on Batman feel like a narrative free of the storied history of the character. From Court of Owls to Superheavy they’ve told a tale that, beyond being great Batman, is just great storytelling. Without ever having previously heard of Batman you could go from #1 to number #51 and you’d be taken on a complete, self-contained journey with compelling characters, engaging twists and turns, and a truly satisfying conclusion.

The greatest strength of Batman #51, and Snyder and Capullo’s entire tenure on the book, is that it stands alone on its own merits as a story that greatly contributes to the 75 year old Batman canon but in no way depends upon it. It’s the kind of issue and the kind of run that make me wish I’d never heard of Batman so I could see him for the first time through this specific, glorious prism.

 

Since I started this blog in February 2012 Snyder & Capullo’s Batman has consistently my favorite thing to write about. Check out some of my previous posts on their legendary time with the Dark Knight:

Superheavy

Endgame

Zero Year Concludes

Zero Year Begins

Death of the Family

 

 

 

 

 

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Superheavy, or, Batman ’16

superheavy batman

Gundam Batman

Probably the highest praise I can think of to give Superheavy, the recent Batman story arc that concluded with last week’s Batman #50, is that it is a piece that could only have been made here and now by the current stewards of the Dark Knight.

In the wake of a major assault on Gotham by the Joker, Jim Gordon, of “stop pointing that gun at my family” fame, is left to take to the mantle of the Bat. The ten issues that follow showcase a team (writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo, inker Danny Miki and colorist FCO Plascencia with guest artists Jock and Yanick Paquette) not just at the height of their technical abilities, but at the height of their creativity as well. Superheavy is full of vibrant monsters, lavish prose, precise architecture and seamless dialogue.

But it’s not just the specific, well-oiled creative team that make Superheavy a Batman story that could never have been told before, it’s the story itself, a reaction to the lapsed relationship between low-income, minority communities and the powers put in place to protect them. Not a new problem, to be sure, but one that in the last few years has found its way to the forefront of the American dialogue.
In reacting to the specific societal concerns of the day Superheavy puts forth a thesis on Batman that we wouldn’t have seen even five years ago when Snyder and Capullo first started their run on Batman.

Superheavy dives head first into the idea that Batman is “more than just a man,” by stripping the Bat of the man and leaving Gotham City to decide what the symbol left behind means for themselves. Ultimately, even in a climate where law enforcement disproportionately fails specific communities time and time again, the symbol Gotham arrives at isn’t frightening, confrontational or vengeful. The Batman born here and now is an avatar of hope, aspiration and community. In 2016 The Bat isn’t a soldier in a one-man war on crime, it’s a beacon for others to follow. A validation of the hope that the world around us is not only worthy of improvement, but that it individually we have the power to be agents of that improvement.

It’s not a Bat we could’ve gotten in 1966 or 1989 or 2008. It’s not a Bat we could have gotten in 2011. Snyder, Capullo and company have not only told another in a string of excellent Batman stories, they’ve told one that could only have been told by them and couldn’t have been told until now.

DC’s Convergence Concludes, or, I Think Something Happened Maybe

There’s no greater treasure trove than a kid’s toy box. Mine was full of Star Wars action figures, Jurassic Park dinosaurs and just about any shark I could get my hands on. And you can bet that Han Solo went up against some velociraptors on more than one occasion. Why not? I had access to raptors, I had access to Han Solo, and I was going to utilize them both to the fullest extent of my imagination.

With DC Comics’ latest big event, the recently concluded Convergence, the publisher presented a toy box of literally the entire pantheon of characters throughout all of the DC Multiverse but somehow managed to tell a story less compelling than the time I had Boba Fett ambush a stegosaurus with a lightsaber from inside a dead shark. Due in large part to the confusing decision to leave most of the toys in the box.

Convergence's villain, Telos, shows you all the cool characters you won't get to see in Convergence. Classic Telos!

Convergence’s villain, Telos, shows you all the cool characters you won’t get to spend any time with in Convergence. Classic Telos!

It’s no secret that Marvel is winning the comic book movie arms race, but recently they’ve been a leap ahead of DC on the page as well. DC doesn’t have books that can compete with Marvel’s more unique titles like Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel or Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck and it seems that after some introspection DC has concluded the reason for this disparity is that their characters are bogged down by continuity, disabling their writers from telling fresh, new stories. Convergence was designed to within an inch of its life to fix this problem, and while it technically does, I guess, it never quite manages to justify its existence.

Comic book newcomer Jeff King might take some heat for writing Convergence, but there isn’t a writer alive who could have saved this corporate initiative from itself.

Convergence sees a multiversal Braniac collect cities from throughout all of DC’s history and bring them all on to one planet to battle for supremacy. It brings the likes of Red Son Superman and Knightfall Batman and Flashpoint Wonder Woman together with Parallax Hal Jordan, hook-hand Aquaman and Ted Kord Blue Beetle. Like I said, it’s a hell of a toy box.

Problem is, Convergence sees fit to leave a vast majority of those toys alone and play with the cast of DC’s recently concluded Earth 2 book. Sure Red Son Superman is around, but his story is relegated to appearances across forty shockingly formulaic two-issue spin off series churned out to cash in on fans’ nostalgia for old costumes. Convergence itself remains squarely focused on about six characters from the same book. A focal point in a story as massive as Convergence is important, but the camera never zooms out to show us the imaginative potential of the situation these characters find themselves in.

Woah, that guy looks neat, huh? Don't get used to him doing anything at all!

Woah, that guy looks neat, huh? Don’t get used to him doing anything at all!

Buried somewhere within its nine issues Convergence hides a compelling story arc for the heroes of Earth 2. In fact, aside from perhaps the final two issues Convergence could have just been called Earth 2, which isn’t inherently bad if you’re an Earth 2 reader, but the corporate mandated status quo shifts the book has to present keep the Earth 2 narrative from achieving any sort of poignancy and the tight focus on Earth 2’s cast stifle the potential of a multiverse-wide event.

And what of DC’s grand plan to free itself of the shackles of continuity? Much like the emotional payoff of the stories focal point, Earth 2’s Dick Grayson, the battle that apparently redefines the entire DC Multiverse literally takes place off the page. It’s decisions like this that make Convergence feel less like a story unaware of its own potential and more like a corporate initiative actively avoiding it.

DC set out to revolutionize its continuity with Convergence, and it certainly did something to it, but I’d be hard pressed to believe that it’ll have any effect whatsoever on DC’s regularly scheduled titles.

If DC wanted to play it more fast and loose with their own continuity in order to tell more interesting, off the beaten path stories, they should have just done it.

Convergence left me wishing they’d explained their new status quo in a press release.

 

One Comic Book I Loved in 2014, or, Batman and Two-Face #28

At the end of 2013 I put together a list of six comic books I thought were not only fantastic, but also, for one reason or another, deprived of their just desserts. In the process of creating a similar list of great books that seemed to fly under the radar in 2014 several books came to mind. One, however, continually loomed above the rest in terms of top notch storytelling that seemed to garner little reaction from the comic book world at large.

With that in mind this is much less a list than it is an unsolicited advertisement for writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason’s Batman and Two-Face #28.

GANG ATTACK!

GANG ATTACK!

Batman and Two-Face #28 is the conclusion to The Big Burn, a story arc that retold the origins of Two-Face in DC Comic’s New 52 continuity. Perhaps The Big Burn was overlooked because it effectively undoes a seminal piece of pre-New 52 Batman mythology, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but continuity be damned, The Big Burn is a great Batman story with a stellar finale.

I’m about sick of the Joker. I absolutely adore the stories that current Batman scribe Scott Snyder has told and is telling with the character, but at the end of the day Joker winds up feeling like the same relentless force of sociopathic nature he always has and always will be. The Joker is only as compelling as how shockingly awful the next inevitably shockingly awful thing he does is.

On the other hand Two-Face, particularly under Tomasi’s pen, proves far more compelling as a character in his own right because somewhere beneath that scarred visage is a man whose redemption seems at times so close that it’s unbearable. Batman and Two-Face #28 hones in on that struggle with a poignant precision that brings about an exchange between the issue’s eponymous characters that, for me, proved to be the most resonant moment in comics in 2014.

Couple the excellent character beats in the issue with an ending that has fairly massive implications for the Batman mythology and you’ve got a book people should still be talking about.

2014 was an awesome year for comics: Saga is still going strong, Zero Year concluded spectacularly and Marvel is slaying with books like Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel.

But everybody already knows that.

What everybody doesn’t seem to be as readily aware of is how great Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman and Two-Face #28 is.

So, anyway. Now you know.

Pony Tricks Comic Cast Episode 33, or, Disgruntled

For your listening pleasure: the original rerecording of the classic, and mysteriously instantaneously deleted, original recording of the 33rd episode of the Pony Tricks Comic Cast, recorded mere moments after said deletion. Not that I’m bitter. Also, another, unrelated, weekly whoops.

This week: Amazing Spider-Man, American Vampire, Daredevil, Detective Comics, Justice League United, Superman/Wonder Woman and The Walking Dead.