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Batman vol. 2: The City of Owls

March 30, 2013

The first volume of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Batman” was easily one of the highlights of DC’s “New 52.”  Sharply written and tightly plotted by Snyder with some very stylish and detailed art from Capullo, the story of Batman finding a new threat in a city he thought he knew from top to bottom and being humbled by it managed to feel fresh in their hands.  It also set up the company’s first crossover since the relaunch in “Night of the Owls,” which I’ve skipped since it wasn’t telling an ongoing story.  From what I heard, all of the issues involved a Talon showing up to fight the protagonists of whatever title he was appearing in.  That sounded deeply skippable, so I’m sticking with the meat of the story in “Batman” proper.  Though the conflict between the Court of Owls wraps up in a suitably dynamic fashion the arrangement of the stories here gives the narrative a jarring start-stop feel and one of them even manages to ruin one of the title character’s most interesting villains.

After having his ass effectively handed to him by the Court, Batman fights back as their Talons make the mistake of attacking him in Wayne Manor.  Yes, it may be hard to suspend disbelief after he was nearly taken down by just one Talon in the previous volume, but he didn’t have access to all of the cool toys that he does here.  His new suit, “Fido,” the cave’s other inhabitants, his car and even the giant penny all come together to make for an exciting sequence that gives Capullo plenty of chances to show off.  The rest of the story is a bit more introspective as Batman digs deeper into the Court’s history and holdings in Gotham and finds something that is likely more of a shock to the reader than himself.

I won’t give away who is behind the Court’s attack on him and Gotham, but I will say that I am glad that I had it spoiled for me beforehand.  Going into this cold, my reaction would likely have been something like, “REALLY?  Where the hell has this guy been all these years and why haven’t I heard of him before?”  This is because Snyder is digging into a VERY obscure bit of Bat-continuity here that most people would’ve thought was better off forgotten.  Having his existence spoiled for me did rob me of the shock value (and allowed for me to understand where this person came from), but it does set up an interesting new/old villain for the character and another good fight scene.  Snyder wisely keeps things ambiguous as to the character’s true origins and after the way he’s used here I wouldn’t mind seeing him come back on a recurring basis.

The work here in creating a new villain also manages to offset the mess that Snyder and co-writer James Tynion IV make of the “New 52” introduction of Mr. Freeze.  I realize that technically he’s a blank slate for them to do what they want in the wake of the reboot, but robbing him of sympathy and turning him into a generic cold-based madman does not strike me as the best use of such an opportunity.  Freeze’s introduction is tied to the “Owls” storyline in this his special formula allowed for the revivification of the Talons and he uses the chaos manufactured by their attack to escape and try to be with his wife Nora again.  Naturally, Batman, Nightwing and Robin have to round him up and bring him back to Arkham.

Sounds simple, right?  Well the problem lies in the “new” revelation about Freeze’s relationship with Nora.  The reason the character stands out amongst Batman’s rogues’ gallery is that he commits all of these villainous acts in the hope that he’ll eventually be able to bring his wife out of stasis one day.  You can sympathize with the man for his desires, but detest him for his actions.  It’s a fine balancing act that the crew of “Batman:  The Animated Series” nailed in the character’s first appearance on the show which led to his re-emergence in the DCU as a major villain.  With this new twist that Snyder and Tynion have implemented, that balance and any sympathy the reader might have for the character is gone and all that’s left is his gimmick.  Jason Fabok provides art for this story and it gets the job done in a workmanlike “house style” manner.

The other thing about that story is how it’s placed right in between the four issues from Snyder and Capullo that form the main story in this volume and the narrative loses some momentum for that.  However, the “Owls” story isn’t done yet even after those issues as the single-issue back-up stories from Snyder and his “American Vampire” collaborator Rafael Albuquerque give us the tale of Alfred’s father Jarvis Pennyworth and his last days with the Wayne family.  Even though it’s mainly there to set up the backstory for the main storyline (and makes use of more than a few familiar horror movie tropes), it manages to be a suitably tense story of a decent man caught up in circumstances beyond his control.  However, coming after the climax for the storyline it was meant to illuminate, it can’t quite escape the feeling of, “Wait, I thought we were done with this?” that its position in the collection engenders.  If anything, this should’ve been placed first in the collection or each segment should’ve maintained its place after the issue it was serialized in.

Fortunately, “The City of Owls” ends on a high note with “Ghost in the Machine” and the proper introduction of Harper Row.  First seen when she gave Batman’s heart an impromptu defibrillation in the last volume, we get to learn what her story is here.  An engineer who lives in a particularly bad part of the Narrows, we’re given a formal introduction to her as her brother Cullen cleans her up so that she can attend the Wayne gala announcing his plans to refurbish her neighborhood.  Years of harassment and attacks in that part of the city, most of it directed at her gay brother, have left the young woman cynical but that changes in the one night Batman comes to their rescue.

Harper is fascinated by her encounter with the man and sets about to learn everything she can about how he operates.  It eventually leads her to another close encounter with him that doesn’t go entirely as she planned, but leaves the door open for future adventures.  This is a good thing because she’s an immensely likeable character due to her ingenuity at tackling problems both physical (Batman’s power grid setup) and social (the harassment dealt to her brother) as well as the energy she exudes in going about these things.  The fact that most of the issue’s art is provided by Becky Cloonan also helps a great deal as her manga-influenced style is at odds with what you’d normally see in a DC title and fits well with Harper’s own outsider status.  Unfortunately Cloonan didn’t do the entire issue and the last third is handled by the capable Andy Clarke who employs a very different and less-appealing-in-this-context style.

It’s disappointing that this volume is more of a mixed bag than the first, but the good outweighs the bad here.  Snyder shows that he has a great handle on the character and knows how to make his familiar tropes feel fresh again.  Capullo, Albuquerque, and Cloonan also do stellar work, worthy of the title’s flagship status.  Fortunately the next volume, the Joker-centric crossover “Death of the Family” doesn’t look like it has any of the distractions that bogged this one down so I’m expecting nothing but the best from it right now.

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