I have reviewed a lot of books since the battle for who owns Gotham ended. The Court of Owls’ attack on Gotham City that dominated bat-comics for nearly all of 2012 felt like a distant memory when it came time to review Batman, Vol. 2: The City of Owls. So I went back and read the saga from the very beginning before writing this piece and what I found is that I absolutely love everything about the first New 52 Batman epic until we reach issue #6. In my mind, from that point on the story went from being a “masterpiece” to being “a really good Batman story” which is still worth celebrating, but I felt like The City of Owls could have been so much more.
This graphic novel includes Batman #8-12 and Batman Annual #1 featuring Mr. Freeze’s New 52 origin. I won’t be spoiling anything major from Volume 2 in this review, but I will most certainly be dropping spoilers from the previous volume Batman: The Court of Owls so if you haven’t read that before: TURN BACK NOW. And really, if you haven’t read Volume 1, you should. I gave it an 8.5/10 (and still wonder if I should’ve given it a 9/10 instead, but that goes to show you how arbitrary the number ratings are) and think that the first 5 chapters are Batman books at their finest. Absolute must-reading, that.
Court of Owls Revisited
What happened after chapter 5, you ask? Well, the “jump the shark” moment for me is when, after being starved and drugged for 8 days and stabbed in the back so deeply that the knife protruded through his stomach, Batman summoned the strength to beat up the Talon, the members of the court, and escape. It rendered all the earlier violence meaningless. I like to see a Batman who suffers injury, actually stays hurt, and must try to think his way out of a situation now that he’s all banged-up. The way Batman thought to use the components of the camera to create an explosive was an amazing idea by Scott Snyder, but having Batman pulverize the court in such a severely weakened state wasn’t. He simply went too far with the amount of damage Batman had taken for my liking. Batman’s come-back was more akin to a move by Wolverine than a mortal man.
From there the enemy evolved from powerful elites making up a secret organization that ran Gotham from the inside to being a less complex zombie army plot. Then, I was annoyed by the random rescue by Harper Row (it was never explained how she found him either. We know that she could locate Batman by the way he would shut down cameras in Gotham, but he was under a frozen river outside the city when Harper revived him and he was seconds away from drowning under the ice. How did she find him? How did she get there in time? How did she get him out of the ice? How did she get him into the van?). And lastly, there was the moment where Batman backhands Nightwing at the perfect angle to extract the exact Owl-tooth he wanted to show the former Boy Wonder.
It was such a brilliant and compelling mystery for 5 chapters and then, in my opinion, things started to get a bit unstable. I would describe it as the awkward grinding of gears as the narrative shifted genres. We were reading a thriller but the story had to suffer the growing pains of becoming the action adventure that is Batman, Vol. 2: The City of Owls. It’s still quite good, but it felt like Snyder/the editors/DC/Whoever blew up the story as big as possible when something more modest and focused would have been better.
City of Owls
With all that out of that setup out of the way, let’s talk about the actual book at hand. I must say that those who trade-waited this collection really missed out. I feel that the issues included in this book were actually much more fun to read from month to month because we all had time to discuss how Batman would get out of this or that situation and what exactly the Court of Owls wanted with Gotham once they took it over. The journey is everything and I’ll always have a fondness for this arc because of that contagious excitement and anticipation it instilled in all of us. The arc that followed this, Death of the Family, was the exact same way! The problem is that the answers never came (what exactly do they do with a city once they “take it” and how do they hold it when the whole world and the Justice League are watching all of this happen? The attack isn’t exactly subtle. Weren’t they supposed to be controlling everything from behind the scenes anyway?) and the second half of our tale got bloated by a massive crossover event that spread across every bat-title except for Batwoman.
I’m sorry to say that this event did more harm than good for The City of Owls because it definitely feels like we’re missing something in this particular volume. There’s the infiltration of Wayne Manor and then the story sprints to the finish line. Batman Incorporated, for example, had a story running concurrent to this that featured an invasion of Gotham but since that wasn’t relegated to other books, its volume feels far more complete (the villain’s plan/motivation also makes more sense). The attack by the Court of Owls doesn’t appear as big as it really was when you read Batman alone so you might actually want to pick up the extra-large “Night of the Owls” graphic novel that DC released a few months ago in order to get an idea of the scope of this siege. However, even in those crossover books there was still a noticeable lack of police presence in Gotham or any sense of what the Court’s endgame might be. Other noticeable problems caused by the crossover is the mention of an “Owl Signal” (read Batgirl #9) and a very awkward transition in which Batman explicitly states he’s going to Arkham Asylum first (Detective Comics #9) but in the very next panel he’s at the offices of Lincoln March. Had the war for Gotham not been passed off to other books and we actually saw it dealt with in the Batman series alone, I have no doubt that Snyder and Capullo would’ve handled those events far better and it would’ve made for a stronger, more coherent story. You can just look at how well Snyder utilized Nightwing and Alfred
With The City of Owls, the steady pace and intricate conspiracy regarding a vast organization is cast aside and replaced with a quick pace, jaw-dropping action scenes, and a solitary threat whose sole defeat makes wrapping the story up a whole lot easier
The action is likely worth the price of the book alone. Much of this graphic novel is devoted to the attack on Wayne Manor that was alluded to at the end of the previous volume and every bit of that is perfectly executed even if you don’t like the idea of Batman fighting the undead. You have to be able to appreciate the imagery of Batman not holding back! Watching Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth outmaneuver their assassins throughout the mansion and utilize every weapon the Batcave has to offer is very thrilling. Personally, I found the attack on Wayne Manor to be the highlight of the book and something I will revisit again and again. However, with the bulk of the first half of the book devoted to dynamic imagery it left us with a final act that was over-written, especially when it comes to our villain who takes monologuing to an all new extreme and zaps the tale of all its subtext by spelling every theme out in detail. This villain’s reveal also draws a number of parallels with previous events R.I.P. and Hush that made the Owl arc less unique, but I believe I talked about that more in my review of issue #11.
Having read both Volume 1 and 2 back to back, I must say that Capullo is only getting better and better with every issue and the artwork of Volume 2 is indeed superior. The art team shines in The City of Owls. Scott Snyder wrote two edge-of-your-seat action sequences that span several chapters and bring out the very best in Capullo, Glapion, and colorist FCO. Capullo’s attention to detail in every location’s backdrop is something I greatly admire. He also has an uncanny ability to capture movement and not only make faces that are emotionally expressive, but he puts plenty of personality into the posture and hand gestures of characters, too. The rich shadows from Glapion and dingy, dirty colors from FCO enhance Capullo’s pencils even more and give Snyder’s story the moody atmosphere it deserves.
The phenomenal art quality doesn’t stop there, though! The book also comes with the back-up stories illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque of American Vampire fame, the Batman Annual illustrated by current Detective Comics artist Jason Fabok, and the epilogue issue by Becky Cloonan and Andy Clarke! It’s a beautiful book that showcases amazing talent. Becky Cloonan, is actually the first woman to ever draw the main Batman title!
All of the back-up stories which make up “The Fall of the House of Wayne” are collected in the back of the book, but I’m not so sure that was the right way to go. The content of these shorts played a large part in the build-up to our villain’s reveal and putting it in the back strips the material of that extra punch and almost makes it feel unnecessary. However, I stress that you do read this short story. The artwork is gorgeous and Snyder did a fine job of giving Martha Wayne plenty of attention. All too often it is Thomas Wayne who is given the most lines and shown to have the biggest impact on Bruce’s life and it was wonderful to see Martha do more than lose her pearls.
Note: I pointed this out in the monthly reviews, but there is a lettering mistake later in the book in issue #10 in which the word “You” is repeated twice in a row. Hopefully that will be fixed in later editions.
A variant cover gallery showcasing the alternate covers for issues #8-12.
No pages of Snyder’s original script or Capullo’s early sketches are included like they were in Volume 1, but I don’t really think you can grumble when you’re getting so much other content. In fact, I think many will view Batman Annual #1, the backup story with Jarvis Pennyworth, and the issue #12 epilogue as bonus material.
Value: Full Price!
Batman, Vol. 2: The City of Owls gives you a lot of bang for your buck. For instance, the book weighs in at 208 pages worth of material vs. Batman Incorporated, Vol. 1: Demon Star‘s 176 pages and both books are on sale for the same exact price of $24.99. With so many talented artists and so many important events occurring in this volume, I think it has a pretty high re-read value as well. Heck, it’s undoubtedly the first really noteworthy story to come out of the New 52 (not just Batman, but all of the New 52) and even though I was disappointed in its ending there will be plenty of people out there who will disagree and have reasons of their own for how much they love it. It’s a book that inspires strong opinions on both sides. Don’t be surprised if there’s a deluxe edition collecting volumes 1 & 2 or even an Absolute edition released in another year or two.
Besides The Dark Knight Rises, THIS is the Batman story that everyone was talking about in the summer of 2012. I think that the captivating mystery of Volume 1 devolved into a more simplistic action adventure in volume 2, but it’s some of the best action you’ll see in a Batman comic! And even if the story doesn’t thrill you the way it has so many others, it’s hard to deny that the artwork isn’t of the very highest caliber. Few books capture the gritty Gotham atmosphere quite like this. Best (or worst, depending on which side of the debate you’ll be on) of all, the story comes with startling revelations that will give you and your fellow Batman fans plenty to pick-apart and discuss.