If the time is right, art transcends. Art imprints on the psyche, and no matter the objective quality, becomes ours, forever shaping our opinions. Our lives.
On this hallowed ground Snyder and Capullo’s run on Batman lands. Swiftly, deftly, with mean and exacting purpose. Much like the Dark Knight himself.
A “run” on a comic is when a writer or writer/artist takes the reigns on an ongoing comic series. Batman, the comic, started publication in the 1940’s, with numerous writers and artists putting their own spin on the character in both the main “Batman” comic and various side-comics, offshoots, annuals, and limited special series over the decades.
Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (artist) started on Batman in 2011 under the New 52 DC comics publishing initiative, which acted as a soft reboot of the entire DC comics universe. In other words, DC (and Marvel, for that matter) will often rewrite or reconfigure continuity every several years to update, modernize, and explain how their characters exist “today” when they have been “living” for decades and remain relatively the same age.
Prior to the New 52, the mainline Batman comic ended at issue 713. The most exciting part of the New 52 for me was jumping on board with Batman issue #1 and following Batman stories without continuity baggage. This allowed me an open window to start seriously collecting single issue comics and reading these epic stories in real-time.
As a kid, comics were something of an enigma to me. None of my friends really collected them. Most of my Batman comic purchases were old issues off a spinning rack at a campground general store. I’d find maybe issues 2 and 3 of a three-part story, missing the beginning. Or I’d get issues 2, 4, and 5 of a six-parter, missing not only the beginning and middle chapters but the end as well.
Right? It was fucking torture. My imagination filled in the gaps, and ultimately this lack of cohesion fueled the mystery surrounding these dark tales. Really collecting comics, like for reals, must’ve been something only cool big kids new how to do. Not chumps like me buying beat up old books to sort through at the campfire.
In 2011, as a not so responsible adult, I thought, “hey, I can be a big boy and collect comics if I want, the right way.” I found a shop and was off to the races, purchasing everything Batman that the New 52 had to offer.
Snyder and Capullo blew my mind. These guys knew Batman, and of all the New 52 Batman comics I started (Detective, Dark Knight, Batman and Robin) the mainline Batman quickly became my favorite. Snyder has a background in horror (he worked with none other than Stephen Fucking King himself in the graphic novel series American Vampire) and brought this aesthetic to Batman. Boy, does it take. Batman is almost made for horror. Capullo captures all of it—the darkness, the dread, the beauty. Between the two of them, the run is heavily influenced by Batman the Animated Series (1992-95), which for a lot of fans is definitive Batman—complex villains, a vulnerable hero with flaws (that stays true to character) and a celebration of what it means to be Batman. The hope a hero of that ilk inspires.
Here’s how to read the run in collected volumes:
Essential read: Batman Vol. 1: Court of the Owls. Of all that defines Batman, he is master of his city. He knows Gotham, and often uses this knowledge to overcome his rogues. The Court of Owls challenges this idea—defies it. What if a secret society had infiltrated every corner of the city, every organization? What if this society knows Gotham better than Batman, and uses this power to manipulate him—to make him question his own definition? The creeping tension builds in Capullo’s darkened alleys, his menacing shadows. The art is both introspective and dynamic when action calls. This mystery sets the precedent for everything that comes.
*Optional read: Batman: Night of the Owls. This is a crossover book that’s not done by Snyder/Capullo, but it fills in some story beats that resolve a confrontation set up at the end of the previous volume between Batman’s allies and the court of owls. Entertaining, but by no means essential.
Essential read: Batman Vol. 2 City of Owls. The conclusion to Court of Owls veers a bit into territory tread before in Batman and superhero comics in general, without undercutting the story itself. This isn’t to say the ending is unsatisfying or inappropriate—quite the contrary. It’s just a touch more predictable than the innovative first volume.
Essential read: Batman Vol. 3 Death of the Family. Here’s where the run becomes something else entirely. Joker is a problematic villain in that he’s often utilized too frequently because of his popularity. His relationship with Batman is the most complex of all the rogues, and it takes a special interpretation to capture that in a new light. Snyder/Capullo pull all that off and more. Here, Joker has cut off his face and stitched it back on… as a joke. He wants to show Batman he’s upped his ante, that he’s done with masks, that he’s nearing some sort of endgame. At this point in time, Joker’s been gone for a while, laying low. His return is treated like an omen, like the coming of an otherworldly demon rather than an insane criminal. When the master plan (or what seems to be the master plan) is finally revealed, the relationship between hero and villain warps into something very strange indeed. Batman earns a hollow victory, a fracturing of his allies, and is left with more questions than answers. Truly macabre, and breathtakingly haunting.
*Optional read: Joker: Death of the Family. Another crossover. If you haven’t guessed, most of the optional reads are crossovers. Crossovers are common in comics, designed to enhance the idea that many characters are existing in the world at the same time, while also pulling readers into following other titles. Joker: Death of the Family follows in similar footsteps to Night of the Owls in that the volume collects the stories dealing with Batman’s allies’ confrontations with Joker, which do tie into Snyder’s run. Some of these stories are actually very good—Batman and Robin and Batgirl especially. The former is drawn by Patrick Gleason, who’s distorted figures and chaotic images paint Joker as something near a cannibal-vampire. The Batgirl segment is poignantly terrifying on a character level. Written by veteran and master Gail Simone, Batgirl offers perhaps the most compelling Joker confrontation, dealing with trauma and reconciliation of sorts as Batgirl confronts the villain that paralyzed her for years. Picking up the pieces of Alan Moore’s influential yet controversial Killing Joke, Simone breathes horrible life into Batgirl’s trauma, depicting a battle with extremely personal stakes.
Essential read: Batman Vol 4. Zero Year—Secret City and Batman Vol 5. Zero Year—Dark City. I’m closing out the first part of Snyder and Capullo’s take on Batman with their version of his genesis. I wasn’t intending this to be a multiple part post, but here we are, about a third or so into Snyder and Capullo’s story, and I don’t want this to go on forever. Batman’s early years are softly rebooted every time there’s a continuity change in DC comics. Of course the classic element remains the same—parents murdered in an alley, training, and war on crime. But the first rogues, the actual transformation of Bruce to Bat, tone and mood—these things change or shift depending on creative team. Frank Miller’s Year One is the “definitive” Batman origin story (you’ve seen many elements of this in films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins), but this changes with the onset of New 52. I wouldn’t say Snyder/Capullo’s Zero Year is definitive, but it is fucking excellent. Vol 4. (Secret City) deals with Batman’s first foray into fighting crime in Gotham as he goes up against the red hood gang. This conflict marks the exhilaration of Batman’s first real triumph, as well as the mysterious emergence of a villain that shapes his trajectory for the rest of time. Vol 5. (Dark City) pits Batman against his first real challenge, and it’s unexpected—none other than the Riddler. While this might seem campy, Snyder/Capullo’s Riddler is a real threat. He’s a mastermind that manipulates the systems of Gotham, effectively shutting the city down and challenging Batman’s ability to outwit him as society crumbles. Batman’s backpedaling here, and it forces him to rely on an aspect of his character sometimes overlooked, which in turn enhances the role of many supporting players, fleshing out characters in a way infrequently done in Batman books but always used to great effect.
End of Part I. Up next, some odds and ends as well as a grand return of the Joker. Until then, be good.
Beware The Court of Owls,
that watches all the time,
ruling Gotham from a shadowed perch,
behind granite and lime.
They watch you at your hearth,
they watch you in your bed
speak not a whispered word of them
or they’ll send the Talon for your head.Scott Snyder