What on Infinite Earths is: The Court of Owls
The Court of Owls is one of DC’s New 52 comics, one of the first major arcs that they have given their “new and improved” reboot of Batman. I like to roll my eye’s at the constant reboots and redefinitions that DC hope will revitalise their flagging sales but in this case, I am actually quite impressed. Rather than rebooting, restarting and relaunching with a new origin story, they are instead trying to distil all the elements that comprised Batman over the years into a single cohesive story, which is of course no mean feat. When you add in the expansive cast of supporting characters that Batman has acquired over the decades the potential for complexity expands ever outwards. The way that they have chosen to handle the weight of history dragging the story down all over again is to simply ignore it until it becomes relevant. Any part of Batman’s long and storied history may be true or may be false in the New 52, it is a Schrödinger’s cat of a setting, and I thoroughly approve.
The story of Court of Owls revolves around an ancient conspiracy that has ruled Batman’s Gotham City since its founding, a conspiracy told of in folk songs and other city based superstitions. All elements that are woven very cleverly with Batman’s status as something of an urban legend himself. The earlier sequences of the mini-series are everything that the New 52 promised, a distillation of the characters going through the usual motions of investigating a mystery with some well-placed moments where they get to show their personality.
The best Batman stories are always rooted in psychology, whether they are an examination of the fractured psyches’ of the protagonists and antagonists or more in depth works on symbolism like the classic Arkham Asylum comic. In studying both mythology and conspiracy theories as the modern equivalent, The Court of Owls grants us a glimpse of the ways in which belief and emotion can shape the narratives of everyone, even the world’s greatest detective.
Taking its cue from the aforementioned classic Arkham Asylum, The Court of Owls has an excellent sequence drawn straight from classical mythology but pushed through the lens of the mental breakdown of the character experiencing it, screwing around with the medium as you read it to replicate the experience of disconnecting from reality. This, along with the way that the character’s perceptions deform everything that you are experiencing as a reader, are the strongest moments in the Court of Owls.
While some of the plot elements that are introduced in the Court of Owls are handled with finesse, introducing a young Batman’s experiences investigating the myth in flashback being the prime example, some of the other reveals are ham-handed. A symptom of the relatively limited space that the comic has to dole out its plot points. Limited space is a blessing for some stories, forcing them to be tighter and more focussed but this one would have played out better as a subplot over a long run of unrelated stories, finally coming to small climaxes as each of the twists are revealed. A better adaptation of this very same story actually appears in Bruno Heller’s television show Gotham, where the mass of ongoing storylines have forced subtlety upon the arc.
Having said that, there is a lot of good writing, pacing and plot in the book and for someone who is familiar with Batman in other media but who has never had experience with the ongoing series, this is a very strong starting point to launch into the ongoing series.