Every so often, in the comics world, there is that question of where to start reading. It’s usually an unfortunate misunderstanding of the medium — for example, no one asks “How do I get into watching TV?” — as if there’s some slim master-list somewhere of titles to read. Most comic readers will vaguely offer a number of suggestions, leaving the enquiring party to choose for themselves what suits them best. But here and now, there is one series right at the top of my “must reads”: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.
Snyder had already shown his expert understanding of the Bat mythos in Detective Comics but when he and Capullo got on Batman proper, things really took off. They introduced us to the genuinely creepy Court of Owls; a secret society pulling Gotham’s strings from the shadows for hundreds of years. They were unlike anything Batman has encountered before, and I don’t mean that as just a catchy tagline. They showed us that superhero comics are not out of creativity yet.
Having barely survived his first encounter with the Court in the first volume of this series, Batman must now deal with the “Night of the Owls” stretching over all the Bat-related titles, as the Court sends its Talon assassins after several prominent Gotham City citizens, including Bruce Wayne!
The mind-games and horror tone are jettisoned in this collection for all-out assault: Owls vs. The Bat, and while the outcome may seem obvious, the tension and fast pace of the story keeps the readers on the edge of their seats throughout. Snyder really captures you, but Capullo is the heavy-hitter in those action scenes, as well as eerily enhancing what little feeling of terror there is here. Snyder’s American Vampire collaborator Rafael Albuquerque also contributes artwork (along with a few others) and helps to amp up the atmosphere.
While it is more action-packed, City is far from brainless. Snyder is very much a writer of the Wikipedia era; using trivia and fact-checking to make his stories not only smarter but more interesting too. He also, as I said earlier, knows his Batman mythology. There are many who, I’m sure, will blanch at what they percieve as changes Snyder makes here to said mythos. I believe that, not only are these changes necessary in an otherwise set-in-stone genre, but that the central core of what makes Batman Batman remains steady, like the great central pillar of the story about which everything else is its shadow.
One such change is to Mr. Freeze’s backstory. Freeze was always one of my favourite Bat-villains, and anyone else who grew up with the 90s animated series probably feels the same way, and keeps that origin story close to their hearts. That was always a tragic love story, and I think Snyder’s (and co-writer James Tynion IV’s) changes only enhance the tragedy of the character. Eerily quiet art by Jason Fabok greatly helps to create this feeling (see below, for example).
Finally, this collection also sees Harper Row, introduced briefly in The Court of Owls, fleshed out. Given the spoileriffic details of Batman Inc. being everywhere now, smart readers may think they have deduced her future in this series, but I for one was just entertained by her tale. There is weighty drama at work there, and artists Becky Cloonan and Andy Clarke add more dimension to Harper’s character, leaving us wanting more.
City of Owls is a blockbuster finale to Snyder’s first proper Batman storyline, albeit slightly less clever, but I will continue to recommend this series to everyone who will listen.