Wednesday, March 7, 2012

52 Catch-Up: Batman #1-6

It is not at all surprising to me that Scott Snyder's The Court of Owls storyline will be taking over several of the other Bat-Family books this May. Snyder reportedly offered up the concept to any other writers willing to play with his toys and, knowing a good thing when they saw it, most of them agreed without any editorial arm-twisting. Why? Because Scott Snyder's scripts are some of the best material The Dark Knight has gotten in years and his Batman title was easily the best of the Batman-focused books to come out of The New 52.

As I noted in my review of the first issue, Snyder did a masterful job of establishing the new status quo and the major characters - a necessary step given how much could have potentially changed in this new universe. Surprisingly, very little seems to be different - Bruce still has three sons (two adopted, one by birth) who have all served as Robin at one point and still work with him. Jim Gordon is a far younger, back to being a redhead as he was when he first came to Gotham before the stress of the job drove him gray before his time. And per the Batman Inc. storyline, Bruce is openly using his fortune to sponsor various initiatives to clean-up & improve Gotham despite the objections of some groups of very rich, very bad people.

One of these groups is The Court of Owls - a secret society that local legend claims has ruled Gotham City from behind the scenes for generations. Much of the evidence points to such a group existing, with items relating to owls being found at the scene of a murder that also delivers a grim message that Bruce Wayne shall be the next victim. There's also the extra added wrinkle that the victim has samples of Dick Grayson's DNA under his fingernails and an old Wayne family legend that Bruce's great-great-grandfather may have had some kind of connection to The Court and that he became obsessed with owls in the years before his death.

Long-time readers may scoff at the very idea that such a group could exist and function under Batman's nose. And to be fair, so does Batman when the suggestion is made that The Court could be responsible for the strange murder. But Snyder eveals more and more details as the mystery unfolds, including a minor retcon that explains away just why Bruce was so quick to dismiss the idea of The Court of Owls being involved and the idea of the group existing in the first place - because he already went looking for the group as a boy, having become convinced they had a hand in his parent's death and he found no evidence that they were still active.

One thing I would like to note that marks Scott Snyder as a master writer apart from this gripping mystery and his smooth explanations of how everything fits together - every issue thus far has satisfied the Stan Lee dictum that every comic should be written as if it was going to be someone's first comic. Snyder crafts the perfect expository internal monologues to fill in potential new readers. This is a small thing but well worth noting in these days of writing for the trade.

Issue #5 is perhaps the best comic I've read all year and it will be a travesty of justice if it does not win at least one major award for comics writing. Without giving too much away, I will say that the issue depicts Batman's slow mental breakdown after eight days trapped in a maze within the Court of Owls' underground hideout. This is depicted not only through the increasingly disturbing artwork of Greg Capullo - who slowly changes all the figures to appear less than human - but through a change in the layout that requires the reader to turn the comic sideways, read right to left and even turn the book upside down!

Greg Capullo, best known before this for his work on Spawn, also deserves as many accolades as can be awarded for his contributions to this opening arc. He has perfectly grasped just when he should be precise in his pencils and when he can allow himself to depict the characters in a more abstract fashion. This book also has some of the best use of black-space and shadow I've seen in any Batman work since the Batman Animated Series.

Again, I will say it - this is the best Batman book I've read in years and you're a fool if you aren't reading it.

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