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Courting New Readers
on August 8, 2014
I am not the most tried and true Batman follower, but since my childhood I have checked in from time to time to get a feel for what the comic was doing. Knightfall and No Man's Land were the two major crossovers that caught my attention as I was growing up, since these were major at the time, but I've also gone back to read the classics, those being Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and (according to some) the Long Halloween.
With the start of the Snyder/Capullo era and a relaunched universe, I was hearing more good things, so I made it a point to at least check back again and read this first trade paperback when it became available. I know nothing of Snyder, but I remember Capullo fondly as being the only interesting aspect of the Spawn series over at Image Comics. Here, on Batman, his work is surprisingly cleaner and less complicated, which runs counter to what I would have expected when sicced upon a character as gritty as Batman. Capullo is a competent storyteller, though, and he's easy to follow here. He hits his stride in issue #5, during a hallucinogenic episode that Batman experiences; that's when the artist's creativity really shines through and he takes some chances. Watching Batman's cowl assume wildly elongated and impractical lengths and dimensions truly does evoke Capullo's old Spawn days.
As for Snyder's story, it gets off to a slow and boring start. The first issue in this collection tries to grab the reader with a large fight scene pitting Batman against all of his rogues gallery at Arkham Asylum. The fight is so generic and impersonal, though, that it fails to thrill. Snyder tosses in a twist with the Joker, Batman's greatest enemy, but it has no real bearing on the plot and doesn't resonate.
The plot in the first issue tries to accomplish two things: first, it introduces all the characters in the Batman mythos. Again. As though I haven't read a Batman comic in the last 25 years. I understand that the first issue of a new volume (in a new fictional universe) needs to set the ground rules and appeal to first time readers, but these are extremely familiar characters that Snyder feels the need to trot out in succession, one after the next, and there isn't anything particularly new or enthralling added to any of them that we haven't seen before. There is the conundrum of the three Robin characters who, as part of Snyder's remit for this series, have to coexist within the new continuity simultaneously. In effect, this means that they're tripping on top of one another. This is the fault of the editors and not Snyder, but it still comes off as a bizarre image to see three dark haired boys, all wards of Bruce Wayne, in issue #1. (Within the later parts of the story, Snyder is wise to focus on just one of the Robins-Nightwing-for the purposes of the plot.) Apart from the Robins, stylistically many of the character designs do borrow something from the recently concluded Batman movie trilogy. Otherwise, the cast is standard fare. On the bright side, some of Batman's tech gets a facelift!
The other objective of issue one is to get the ball rolling for the grand mystery surrounding a new group of villains, the Court of Owls. Again, with Snyder going for the slow boil, there isn't much to see in issue #1 except a stale crime scene; no villain from this group ever shows up until the second issue. Snyder begins to flesh out a new theme, namely, that Gotham City will personify or belong to either the Batman or to the Court of Owls. This is promising, and he builds upon it, but in the first issue the setup takes the shape of Bruce Wayne simply giving a long and cliched speech about Gotham to a large group of Gotham aristocrats. These scenes are not the stuff of suspense.
Snyder adopts a first person narrative throughout the book, which I like. It gives insight into Batman's analytical mind, and it provides a way to give the reader background information about the fictional landscape, as experienced by Batman, and about the Wayne family, which figures prominently here.
Snyder, like Capullo, hits his stride in issue #5, when the slow build up bears dividends, and when the action and sense of danger catches up to the mystery being built. From that point on, the book maintains its edginess. While the main storyline does not conclude in this volume, it reaches sufficient momentum to propel it, and the reader, into volume two. After an underwhelming start, I am surprised by how well Snyder was able to recover in the second half of this collection.