I had heard a lot about how great this was, and from his work on American Vampire, and most of his Detective Comics run, I was inclined to believe it. The actual experience was a little disappointing.
The story is at least a little hampered by having to be an introduction to the new Batman status quo, as well as the introduction to a new set of villains. It’s actually kind of slow-moving for a book that can be breezed through in the better part of an hour if you aren’t in a hurry. Snyder introduces an interesting take on Bruce Wayne’s role in improving Gotham, making him as active in improving the city as Batman is in saving it from destruction. The main problem for me is the new group of villains introduced, the Court of Owls. Owls, at least as a totem to base the entire visual design of your ancient conspiracy on, aren’t quite as… intimidating as Snyder wants them to be, which leads to some overcompensation regarding the power of the Owls as a group, leading to the revelation that the Court of Owls has basically controlled Gotham since its formation. There’a also a sharp contrast between the somewhat grounded tone of Snyder’s writing and the men in owl suits who are the evil masterminds behind what is perhaps the DCU’s biggest and most economicially important city, which kind of threw me off. Oh, and there’s a nursery rhyme about them. Not exactly the best way to keep your vast murderous conspiracy under wraps.
This whole business with the Owls really draws comparisons to the more recent parts of Grant Morrison’s run on the Batman titles, as artistically bipolar and scattered as it may be. It’s especially reminiscent of the endgame of the Batman and Robin section of his Bat-epic, where it’s revealed that Dr. Hurt, with the aid of Darkseid, has similarly futzed around with history, and specifically Gotham history. This, combined with the recent Batman Inc’s Leviathan conspiracy, makes it almost impossible to keep from comparing Snyder’s stories to Morrison’s, and Snyder definitely is on the wrong side of that seesaw. Of course, it’s a little cruel to compare a person who’s been a powerhouse since at least the late Eighties, with his groundbreaking Doom Patrol and Animal Man runs, to someone whose first published comics work was just about 3 years ago; but given the similarities in their current Batman stories, it’s pretty much impossible not to. You’d have to be… I’d almost make a “blind as a bat” pun here, but it would most likely offend both the blind and those with a workins sense of humor.
But it’s not all unoriginal and clumsy, as Greg Capullo’s astoundingly expressive art would make him one of the major artistic breakout stars of the DC relaunch… if he hadn’t had a long career working with Todd McFarlane on Spawn, who just happens to be a dark, brooding character dressed all in black with a long, flowing cape and a deliberately frightening appearance. But nevermind that he seems to have taken a crash course in drawing a pitch-perfect Caped Crusader,Capullo’s art is still astounding. It’s really great at creating a creepy, paranoid atmosphere as well as making conversation scenes interesting with his mastery of facial expressions, whether it’s a playful, Groucho-Marxian Commissioner Gordon or a half-crazed Batman. And FCO’s coloring is bleak when it’s necessary, but never muddy or ugly. More comics should have art and coloring like this. The lettering is… not spine-shattering, but still readable and doesn’t interfere too much with the mood, and it really says something about how bad the lettering in mainstream comics can be that that’s what makes for a compliment. This is not the worst Batman comic you could buy. This is not even the worst Batman comic coming out now. In fact, it’s probably the second best, after Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. But for me, second best just isn’t good enough.
Oh, and that part in issue 6 where the comic pretty much turns upside down in the span of a few pages? That’s some amazing stuff. Seriously great.