Batman becomes prey in ‘City of Owls’

Creating a new Batman villain is no easy task. It’s hard to craft a baddie that won’t look tame next to iconic rogues like The Joker, Catwoman and Two Face. With “Batman Vol. 2: City of Owls” Scott Snyder concludes the tale that introduced a mysterious and deadly new threat into the Batman mythos and proves that even the Dark Knight can be taken by surprise once in a while.

Owl-based villains make sense in the Batman world, since owls tend to be one of the greatest natural predators of bats (a fact of which the book is keen to remind the reader). After a slow and mysterious introduction to the secretive Court of Owls in Batman Vol.1, “City of Owls” moves from a detective story with superhero elements to an all-out war for the future of Gotham. After discovering that the city has been controlled by the Owls since before he was born, Batman is attacked on his home turf by the secret society’s assassins. Fans often joke about how Batman’s only superpower is being prepared for any situation, but it sure is fun to see him caught off guard for a change.

“City of Owls” plays out like the second half of a summer blockbuster, jumping from one action scene to the next. Whether he’s stabbing a guy with a Wayne Manor weathervane or fighting off a dozen owl-themed henchmen at once while wearing a heavily armed battle suit, Batman shows that even when on the defensive he can get the job done. “City of Owls” also features a slightly more quip-prone Batman, which sometimes works and sometimes tips the action into cheesy territory, but it’s not a deal killer.

The final confrontation between Batman and the mastermind behind the Owls’ plot is definitely overwritten, filling page after page with bad guy monologues that feel decidedly retro. Still, “City of Owls” presents Batman with an interesting new nemesis and challenges his self-perception as a man who knows Gotham City inside and out.

Many comic book artists dream of the day they might get to draw a Batman comic, and “The City of Owls” shows that Greg Capullo is working hard to show the world that he deserves this honor. Capullo never aims for realism, instead opting to depict Batman and his world with graphic sensibilities that recall the animated series from the ’90s without directly referencing it. He doesn’t try to put Batman in our world. Instead, he pulls us into Batman’s world, and it serves the story well.

Halfway through the book, readers are treated with a similarly well-illustrated side story starring Mr. Freeze. The cold-hearted villain’s origins are updated in ways that will please some fans and anger others, but all in all it makes for an exciting story, and it doesn’t hurt that the artwork is stone-cold gorgeous.

The book ends with another side story, this time featuring a spunky young Gotham electrical engineer named Harper Row. Harper and her younger brother are repeatedly attacked by neighbors who do not approve of their sexual orientation, and when Batman intervenes one night, Harper begins looking for a way to return the favor. To a cynical reader it looks like DC’s attempt at an “It Gets Better” ad, but Harper Row not only reintroduces LGBT themes into a mythos that staunchly avoided them in the past but also provides a civilian perspective on the Dark Knight. It’s a nice break from the supervillain-centric stories that make up the rest of the book and tackles some sensitive issues to boot.

“City of Owls” introduces a solid new villain, updates a classic one and creates a cool new sidekick that ties real-world problems into the Batman mythos. It’s a great collection and is sure to please Batman fans that like a little bit of everything.