Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls review

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that I’ve started doing a lot more reviews of graphic novels. That’s because there’s 3 kinds of comic book buyers (not counting the digital folk, you guys are a brand new breed): the ones who buy the monthly issues and savor the anticipation that comes in those 30 days between chapters, the ones who wait it out until everything is collected in a trade so they can enjoy the full story in one sitting, and the super-fans who bag and board their monthlies and then buy trades to display on their shelves and keep on stand-by for future re-reads. I had been neglecting these last 2 groups by only focusing on monthlies but not anymore. You shouldn’t have to wade through several reviews of individual issues to know if a graphic novel collecting them all is worth your hard-earned cash.

“Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls” is definitely worth buying

Content

Ignore what the solicits say, this book doesn’t collect the first 6 issues of “Batman”, it collects the first SEVEN. And each one of these issues scored over an 8/10 from me, hell only one of them scored an 8 and everything else was 9 or above! It’s a phenomenal run of what is widely agreed to be the best bat-title currently being published and arguable the best book in the whole New 52. It’s a book that gets you excited about Batman, a book that you can pass on to a friend who doesn’t read comics and get them hooked. Snyder, Capullo, Glapion, and FCO have delivered a book with a unique look and tone that separates “Batman” from all other bat titles. Here’s a brief rundown of the seven issues contained in this hardback edition.

Knife Trick

Not many other #1 issues from the New 52 launch were as celebrated as this and in my opinion it was the very best with “Animal Man” a close 2nd. It really is a chapter of Batman that has everything you could want from the classic rogues gallery to imaginative gadgetry, exciting hand-to-hand combat, and intriguing detective work. I gave it a 10/10.

Trust Fall

The first issue laid everything out on the table and proved that this creative team knows how Gotham and its characters look, how they behave, and what makes a great Batman story but this is the chapter in which the story really begins. Issue one was just the prologue that pulled me in. “Trust Fall” dives deep into the history of Gotham, the Court of Owls, and focuses more on Bruce rather than the Bat. I gave it a 9/10 back in October, but lucky for you it is a comic that functions far better as a chapter of a graphic novel than a monthly installment. In fact, most of these issues are more enjoyable in this format–it’s just that kind of story.

The Talons Strike

If you loved the historical aspects of Snyder and Higgins’ “Gates of Gotham” then you’ll get a real kick out of this issue as it opens in the 1920s and explores Gotham’s history much like the chapter that came before it. However, unlike “Trust Fall”–which gradually built toward an action-packed finale—this chapter begins with a high level of intensity that slowly dials down until the final pages are practically wordless and the story’s delivery is reliant on the eerie visuals by Capullo, Glapion, and FCO. When it came out as a monthly issue, I gave it a 9/10.

Face the Court, Part I

For colors done right, look to this chapter. Up until this point FCO used a lot of cold, dirty, and dingy coloring effects. The look he created was perfect—so much so that it was easy not to notice and give him the credit that was due. With “Face the Court” it’s clear that he’s wielding a very diverse palette and he knows when and how to use it. The vibrance of these opening pages are all the more shocking in the graphic novel format. Without 30 days to rest after “The Talons Strike” I was immediately awestruck by the brightness of this issue’s intro and the very surprising choice of pink hues for a moody flashback scene at the heart of this chapter. When I first read it I gave it a 9/10 (notice a trend here?) and it holds up wonderfully for repeat readings.

Face the Court, Part II

This isn’t only the highlight of the whole graphic novel, it may very well be my favorite single issue of a comic from this whole year—and I’m not just talking bat-titles. It’s the perfect example of what comics can do that no other medium can. However, its impact is slightly lessened in the graphic novel format. See, I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a rather interactive story and the tightly bound pages of the hardback graphic novel make it a bit difficult and sometimes frustrating to read the text that’s closer to the spine. It’s not as fun as it is in the easier to hold and turn floppy edition, but I think first time readers will still be amazed. I read it and re-read it when it came out as a monthly issue and I’ll read it and re-read it now in the hardback. The narrative is a real trip and Capullo’s drawings range from jaw droppingly beautiful to absolutely terrifying. It’s a real 10/10.

Beneath the Glass

The previous chapter may have been my favorite comic of the year, but “Beneath the Glass” has possibly my favorite cover. After the slower, more atmospheric and psychological “Face the Court” two-parter this chapter hits hard with brutal, bloody action that’s a real page turner. In both visuals as well as storytelling, I think that the creative team delivered their best work of the whole Owls saga during issues 4-6. Check out the full 9/10 review.

The Talons Strike

I’m just going to come right out and say it: you’re not going to get a satisfying conclusion with Vol. 1 of the “Batman” series. The book wraps up right when it feels like you’re reaching the true climax—which you are. That climax is called “The Night of the Owls”. It stretches 4 issues long and it’s not collected in this graphic novel. “The Talons Strike” was also the first “Batman” issue that I gave anything under a 9/10 to—I gave it an 8/10 and even seeing it now together as a whole with the rest of the “The Court of Owls” chapters it reads as the weakest of the lot and I wonder if perhaps I graded it too highly. It simply tried too hard to shake things up with an unnecessary and convoluted rewrite of a character’s widely accepted and loved origin. It also adds a bizarre new plot that involves the reanimation of corpses and it’s where The Court of Owls’ evil plot faltered under closer scrutiny in my eyes as well. And lastly, there’s a moment involving a punch to the jaw that’s flat-out ridiculous.

Supplemental Material

The original covers and their un-colored variations (which you could’ve bought as 1:200 variants for upwards of $100 bucks a piece) are used as chapter breaks and the back of the book features all of the colored variants that were also available each month. Beyond that is Scott Snyder’s script for “Knife Trick” pages 21-24 as well as Greg Capullo’s rough layouts for those pages. Seeing the two early works side by side is fascinating and they’re followed by two pages of early character sketches by Capullo. You’ll see designs for Joker, Penguin, Killer Croc, Clayface, Two-Face, Professor Pyg, Scarecrow, and the Riddler (whose redesign is easily the most unattractive thing in an otherwise gorgeous book). I love bonus material. Not seeing any of it in a graphic novel makes me furious and getting only a little of it makes me hungry for more. It doesn’t offer any more or less than the other New 52 graphic novels, but for such an acclaimed run I had hoped for a bit more goodies. Still, something is better than nothing.

Value

$24.99 (not counting tax) for seven comics and a couple pages of script and doodles. That may not sound like much at first, but the story is off-the-chain and the artwork is so good that you’ll swear it made you taller, smarter, and more attractive. Plus, you can find the book for $15.98 at Amazon (You’re welcome!). Seven $2.99 books is $20.93 before taxes and you can probably get a free trial of Amazon Prime with free 2-day shipping (just get Prime, it’s not a bad deal and you can go halfsies on it with a friend. Graphic novels and trade paperbacks are always cheaper on Amazon, but a week late. It’s worth it to save the $10 bucks.) so yes there’s quite a bit of value here for your money.

Overall

I think it’s the best run of bat-comics in the New 52, but those who ignore the monthly floppy comics might be frustrated by the hardback’s cliffhanger ending. What’s here is absolutely terrific stuff—as I said, it’s the best—but it’s 4 issues shy of the complete story and that’s not quite as a satisfying. These are comics that are must-reading and the bonus material is quite cool as well, but I docked an extra point from the overall score for it not giving readers the whole experience. If you can’t wait for a hardback copy collecting all the issues 1-11 then by all means buy this. You won’t regret it, but you might find yourself so excited to know what comes next that you’ll rush out and grab #8-11 from the back-issue box of your local comic shop just so you don’t get the shakes. If you’re patient and at least wait for Vol. 2 then I wager you’ll be rewarded with a far more satisfying read.

SCORE: 8.5

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