The cover of Batman #9 says a lot. It’s a reverse of the cover for Batman #4, where the Talon’s head loomed menacingly over the Gotham City skyline, Batman reflected in his goggles. That image aptly reflected the power dynamic within the issue, with Batman vulnerable, the object of a predator’s gaze. Here, that dynamic is reversed, both on the cover and in the issue. We see Batman’s armour now hovering over Wayne Manor, with the cluster of Talons reflected in its visor. Now, Batman is the predator, and the Court of Owls is his prey.
Snyder delivers a fun, action-packed issue, but as we approach the climax of this storyline, I can’t help but feel that it’s not quite so gripping as the buildup, and that this shifting dynamic could be the reason. This is soething of a recurring problem in the comics world, and Batman in particular it would seem, given the high volume of quality work surrounding the character. In the early stages of the story, we are introduced to a seemingly unbeatable threat, and there’s a real air of menace, a sense of legitimate threat to Batman, that this is an enemy he cannot defeat. We’re drawn in, and think we’re in a bleak noir/crime epic, or even a horror story. And we almost forget that it’s a superhero story. But of course, at the end of the day Batman still is a superhero, and that’s a big part of why we love him. So of course, once we get to the end, that unstoppable, chilling foe ends up as just another villain to be battled and defeated, as the superhero mechanics start to kick in on the narrative. This largely unavoidable plot beat has proved troublesome for other Batman stories in the past: the mostly excellent City of Crime springs to mind. Grant Morrison escaped the pitfall by emphasizing it at the climax of Batman RIP and giving us a comeback/”I was just letting you think you’d beat me” switcheroo of epic proportions, and celebrating just how badass and unstoppable Batman is. And perhaps that was a problem built into the very concept of the Court of Owls: that they followed the Black Glove, and ultimately Batman saw those guys off with little bother.
As I’ve said before, though, something that gave the Court of Owls that added layer of dread beyond the Black Glove was that they weren’t dastardly outsiders come to attack Gotham, they are Gotham. But though they still make for compelling villains, Snyder does not seem to have been able to subvert that recurring dynamic, not yet at least. The Talon was creepy when he was a silent mystery figure, stalking from the shadows and bafflingly unkillable. And the Court of Owls thesmelves were even more unsettling, in that they were intangible, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. So, when the Talon gives way to an army of Talons, fought and dispatched with relative ease, their nature scientifically explained and exploited as a weakness? Or when the Court of Owls is reduced to a piece of paper with a list of names, presumably of corrupt officials at a secret lair waiting to be uncovered by Batman? It makes them knowable, and therefore less frightening. It’s a problem that often crops up in horror sequels. Now they’re just villains to be fought and defeated.
However, having said all that, do we really want it any other way? The appeal of “Batman in grave danger with no hope of escape” followed by “Batman finds a way to overcome adversity and beat the bad guys” has been built into the character as far back as the old Adam West TV series and its “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel” cliffhangers. Batman’s been put through the wringer in this arc, and now that he gets to turn the tables on the Court of Owls, that’s quite cathartic. And seeing how even the most seemingly formidable foes are no match for Batman in the end, well, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? After all, as Bruce Wayne said long ago, and has been proven right time and time again, “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.”
I’ve done my critique of genre narrative conventions largely outwith Snyder’s control, but in the actual execution of the issue itself, Snyder’s storytelling was as pristine as ever. I loved the thematically appropriate narration about the incredible durability of bats when their habitat is invaded by owls, and there are a couple of nice beats, including the shock twist that Lincoln March is actually the nice guy he appears to be rather than a shock twist baddie. But ultimately, this issue is a showcase for the artists.
Greg Capullo has garnered a lot of praise for his dark, atmospheric, character-driven work on Batman thus far, but here he gets to cut loose with some of the most high-octane action I’ve seen portrayed in a comic in a good while. From the epic splash of the Batcave’s dinosaur finally revealing its purpose, to smaller moments like the Talon’s blade piercing the visor of Batman’s armour and almost poking out his eye, this is an issue crammed with incident, and Capullo frames everything in a way that it feels frantic and intense, but at the same time every little moment is clearly portrayed, nothing is muddy or inprecise. And mention should also be made of the inker/colorist pairing of Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia, who do an impressive job of having night gradually give way to morning over the course of the issue’s latter half. Though we never see the actual sunrise itself, the light it casts on Batman – normally shrouded in shadow and night – makes for quite the potent closing image.
But perhaps what excited me the most this issue was that Rafael Albuquerque – Snyder’s artistic collaborator on American Vampire – was coming onboard to work on the backup feature, “The Fall of the House of Wayne.” I don’t know what to make of the story itself – co-written by James Tynion IV – as while it was well-scripted, it raised a couple of ropey continuity questions that the geek in me has to ponder further. The art, however, is stunning, as we have come to expect from Albuquerque, who in my mind is reaching that “comic art rock star” status. Even American Vampire colorist Dave McCaig is along for the ride, and together they give us some moody, atmospheric work recalling the visual splendour that first made me fall in love with American Vampire.
Any complaints I have about Batman #9 are slight, and probably stm more from me reading too many comics than any substantial forthcomings of the actual creative talent involved. But still, I didn’t enjoy this quite so much as the best issues of this run thus far. But I’m still hoping that Snyder, Capullo and co blow us away with the finale.