A lot of you probably have Batman on the brain right now, what with The Dark Knight Rises opening last week and a crazy person noticing it would draw enough people to shoot at. Anyone who knows Batman, of course, knows the Aurora shooter wasn’t inspired by Batman. The Caped Crusader would have beat the shit out of that guy in time to get home for a delicious Alfred-cooked meal. This post isn’t about Dark Knight, though – I’ve seen it, but I usually like a little time to digest stuff. But Snyder’s first full storyline’s finished in Batman (the comic), so on to the Court of Owls!
The basic plot of the Court of Owls storyline has been that Bruce Wayne’s come back to Gotham from gallivanting all over the world (in Batman Inc., more on that in a future post), and wants to pump money into Gotham with a series of projects. The first is an immense skyscraper. But it’s not good enough to build projects, he needs the city behind him. So he’s fundraising, and meets a guy named March who’s running for mayor in the next election. He’s behind Bruce’s plans and talks to him a lot, being another orphan.
Meanwhile, the Court of Owls is actually a thing. They were just a children’s rhyme, supposedly. Bruce believed, when he was a little boy, that they were behind the death of his parents. He became a detective then, sifted through all the clues about the court, and found their “hideout.” It was an abandoned loft. He nearly starved to death because the trapdoor shut behind him.
The court has Talons, amazing assassins pumped full of goo that makes them practically immortal. But they’re weak to cold, so that’ll be important later. They sucker Batman into entering a labyrinth and he spends a long time trapped there, drinking water laced with drugs so he doesn’t die of dehydration. He finally escapes and the owls make their play soon after: sending Talons after Bruce and other bigwigs in the city who aren’t Owls.
OK, conclusion, quickly: the Talons find out Bruce is Batman, he turns the AC in the cave way down and puts them in storage, gets all available Bat-people to protect the bigwigs, and fights the golden boy of the Court of Owls who’s meant to take Bruce Wayne’s place as the leader and figurehead of the city:
Thomas Wayne Jr.
In a B-Side story in the back of every issue they’ve been revealing that Martha Wayne had been pregnant with a younger brother for Bruce, but lost the child in a car accident the Owls engineered. It’s possible the child survived, and it’s March, the guy from earlier. Bruce is convinced, at story’s end, that they misled March, that Bruce himself had long ago looked into whether Thomas could be alive. Nice retcon there, but ok. March is just crazy and tricked by the owls, probably. Things go back to normal, but with Bruce and Dick aware that the Owls are probably still out there, most but not all having killed themselves to escape capture.
That’s a lot of summary. But throughout the comic there are touches of the city, as though Gotham is a ghost haunting these events. Really it’s the reverse: Batman and the Owls are the ghosts, fighting to be the spirit of Gotham. There are a few conversations with Dick that ladle it on, so there’s no chance you’ll miss it (I like Snyder’s writing, but subtle he isn’t, except panel-by-panel).
Here’s what’s so interesting about the Court of Owls: they work exactly the way Batman works. They’re rich, they have advanced technology and training, they engineer things in the city to better suit their nocturnal activities (many buildings in Gotham were built with secret rooms in so they could have hideaways, storerooms, and meeting places. In fact, the room Bruce tracked down when he was a kid was, in fact, an Owls storeroom. He finds the suicide party, all lined around a banquet table, there (which raises the interesting question of whether Bruce forgot to secure the door or if someone closed it on him, hoping to kill out the Waynes entirely, the family always having tried to stand against their pressures).
Of course, an owl is another nighttime predator, the perfect rival for Batman. They want to do the same things, but for different reasons. The Owls want power, Batman wants dignity for people, a kind of justice. And here’s the interesting part of the interesting part: owls are more socially acceptable than bats. Bats are still considered grotesque, a mixture of mammal and bird (and possibly reptile, depending on how one views the wings). Bats don’t actually love long hair, but people still believe that, because they’re convinced bats want to come to humans, attack humans, specifically. Owls don’t have any legends like that. A lot of people love owls. They’re wise, they’re a good way to cut down on bugs, so on, blah blah. But so are bats, right?
So Batman is threatened by a corrupt but more socially in-line version of himself in the owls. March has to think he’s Bruce’s brother, because they’re the same, with differing motivations. The owls don’t want to destroy Gotham, they want to run it. And isn’t Batman trying to run Gotham? In his darker hours, he could plausibly fear that he’s trying to take control of the city.
The Court of Owls poses an important question: who runs the city if it’s not the corrupt government officials (not in power right at this moment), the criminals (mostly put away right now), or the people (almost nonexistent in this piece – probably its biggest weakness overall)? Is it Batman? Can a vigilante run a city? Should he be allowed to? What it Batman does but doesn’t realize it? What would that mean, for the spiritual figure of the city to feel as though he’s an outcast?