Written by Scott Snyder
Pencils by Greg Capullo
Inks by Jonathan Glapion
Color by FCD
Letters by Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
32 pages / Color / $2.99
If Batman wields any power, it’s in the weakness of his enemies. It’s in his awareness of their fears and his own capacity to assume the role of their walking nightmares. Just as Jesse Quick taps into the Speed Force by visualizing that specific algebraic formula–3×2(9YZ)4A–Bruce Wayne becomes a larger-than life presence through conviction to his defining mantra: “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.” He’s a world-class detective and martial artist, true. But it’s his confidence in the insecurity of his enemies–of the frailty of the human psyche–that allows him his perch. That criminals aren’t the sole segment of the population clinging to superstition means that the Batman is also demonized by those he works to protect. It’s part and parcel with his M.O. But in Batman #3, Scott Snyder takes the ramifications of Batman’s near-symbiotic relationship with superstition to the next level.
What if the same irrational fears Batman relies upon to eke out justice in Gotham also serve to betray him? What if steps taken long before his birth–all inspired by superstition–offer advantages to his adversaries? Such is the situation in this Court of the Owls story line, wherein the secret pseudo-Masonic society of children’s nursery rhymes and urban legends turns out to be a very real force in Gotham’s clockwork. It’s practically the nightmare Bruce Wayne never knew he had, or never acknowledged as a motivator, that even the highest offices in his troubled city were influenced not just by the depths of the underworld, but by an unseen and untouchable presence beyond his own far-reaching comprehension. I won’t reveal exactly how intimate a betrayal the Court and Bruce’s own ancestor’s have wrought because that’s part of the sinister joy of the issue. It’s not even a case of corruption in the Wayne family. Just simple frailty. But the proximity and extent of this dark secret is truly chilling when you pause and consider the ironies. It borders on oldschool Shyamalan, it’s likely become readily apparent that the concept has given me the kind of writing boner that may well necessitate an awkward visit to the ER in a trench coat.
Let’s talk about Capullo for a bit. While this issue doesn’t offer the artist the same bombast as the debut, not every installment can or should deliver us unto Arkham Asylum and its colorful horde of rogues. Capullo really shines when given the opportunity to draw a Killer Croc or a hyperbolically rotund fat guy, and while that kind of expression is absent from this issue, the artist shows he’s perfectly capable of something more nuanced. There’s action here, but it’s more a story of detection and investigation. The level of creepiness in his portraits of the Court are closer to gothic horror, bringing him closer to what Jock and Francavilla were doing earlier this year with James Jr. and those sinister glasses. The story also necessitates a lot of visual interest in terms of transitions and how we see things. More on that in a moment.
The reveals here are also impressive because Snyder’s again done his homework, employing an entire Snapple vending machine’s worth of trivia on bats, owls, and architecture. I certainly understand the criticism that these factoids have become a prevalent hallmark in his scripts, sometimes jarring readers out of the narrative. But as is often the case, the applied research pays off tremendously here. Batman operates like a detective, and his understanding of an owl’s behavior and the way a tall building is built leads to some compelling deduction and synergy between theme and plotting. That’s the real eureka moment of this issue and maybe of the series so far. Your mileage may vary, but for this reader/writer, it’s the kind of poetry that only comes about by the glow of a very blue moon.
Let’s break for a cold shower.
And we’re back. Let’s talk about motifs. Each issue in this serial has its own individual narrative device or frame. In the first issue it was that monologue concerning “Gotham is…” The second was bookended with Bruce Wayne’s fall from the tower in the wake of the Talon’s assassination attempt. Here, there’s a visual motif bridging the past and present and serving as transition between points of view.
A police officer framed by the circular portal of an open manhole becomes the ominous lights of an oncoming train or perhaps the glowing eyes of a distant owl (animal or mask). That image transitions to an extreme closeup on a human eye, which could be Alan Wayne’s in 1922 or Luka Volk’s in modern day. The figurative camera pulls out and it’s now certainly Volk’s. He’s observing the swift approach of an incoming train. Head on. Fear brought bout Alan Wayne and Luka Volk to this place. The eye motif returns near the end of the issue, this time as a circular panel shape in the layout, unmistakably framed as the watchful eye of Talon, the enforcer of the Owl Court. This sequence is all about voyeurism and violation. Those eyes contribute an additional layer of complexity, hinting at the idea that Batman is being surveilled while in the act of invasion. It’s akin to seeing your own reflection in another’s eye. In fact, when Bruce examines a trinket emblazoned with the Court’s owl symbol, we see it reflected in our hero’s eye. This eye-as-portal motif is made scarier because the Talon and Court remain silent. Enigmas. Those blank, wide eyes personify an omnipresent observer.
Okay, I’m apparently writing a theme on T.J. Eckleburg and the eyes of judgment now. Let’s move on.
It’s all to easy to become jaded or desensitized when reading comics on a weekly basis. Maybe especially superhero comics. Twists don’t always register because we’re trained to expect them. Deception and conspiracy are actual tropes. Think about that. It’s disheartening that some of the most surprising twists or reveals are such not because of their narrative impact but because the publisher has seemingly taken a big strategic gambit. a business decision that could anger shareholders or individual creators. So it’s absolutely refreshing and worthy of celebration when a regular issue of a comic, not even a debut or milestone installment, offers a new layer of complexity to the mythos. Snyder did it before in his Detective Comics run when he pulled James Jr. from deep in the Jenga tower and placed that brick up top. Here, he’s doing something of the reverse, adding a new brick to an opportune space toward the foundation. The sudden existence of the Court of the Owls nursery rhyme and the assertion that it’s so ubiquitous to the schoolyards of Gotham may challenge the suspension of disbelief, but in this issue they’ve become a formidable force because of Batman’s ignorance. Of course Bruce hasn’t paid the rhyme any heed in the past. He’s too busy posing as a superstition himself.
Superman was born out of Krypton and it’s Kryptonite that now serves as his weakness. Batman was born out of superstition. And it’s the superstition harbored by his fathers and those he protects that could ultimately undo him now.
Batman has been patrolling the night for decades, so long that you’d think the entire concept had been mined to exhaustion long ago. Snyder more than manages to find unexplored avenues in darkest Gotham and contribute new levels of complexity to one of the greatest urban legends to slink out of its shadows.
Story: 5 / Art: 4.5 / Overall: 5
(Out of 5 Stars)