Recently I’ve been neglectful about picking up the comics on my pull list, but over the past couple days I’ve done a big catch-up, and holy crap guys, this Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo run on Batman is pretty damn great, isn’t it? I mean I read all of Snyder’s Detective Comics stuff, and the first two issues of Batman, and it was all very good, but now that I’m caught up to issue #7 on Batman I feel confident in saying this is the first truly great Batman story to come along in years. It may just be the best story since Frank Miller’s 80s heyday.
Like any comics reader with any sense, I’m a big fan of Batman as a character, but unfortunately most Batman stories really aren’t very good. He’s just a hard character to do right — even some of my favorite writers like Grant Morrison and Bill Willingham have had very mixed success with the character. The last time I consistently enjoyed Batman comics was when Greg Rucka was doing Detective Comics — a run that is, unbelievably, over a decade old now.
So, what’s this Snyder/Capullo run doing so right? Why’s it so much better than almost all other Bat-comics? Well…
Spoilers Note – I tried not to reveal specific plot points, but this article does talk about what’s happened in the first seven issues of Batman in general terms. Beware those who want to stay completely spoiler-free.
Gotham Feels Like a Real City
Batman comics really love to go on about Gotham — every bad Bat-story starts with a pile of narration boxes in which Batman expounds on how Gotham is a dark dangerous lady, but dammit she’s his and blah blah blah.
Despite this fixation on Gotham, we’ve never really been given many specifics about the place. Gotham, for all intents and purposes, has basically just been an extra shadowy version Springfield from the Simpsons. Where does it exist? Who knows. What’s its geography? It changes depending on the demands of the story. What’s its history? Who’s to say — as far as we know the city sprung to life fully formed when Bruce Wayne was born.
Hell, even Springfield has a few recognizable landmarks like Moe’s and the Kwik-E-Mart — Gotham in most stories is just a collection of generic dingy alleys for Batman to punch bad guys in.
Snyder has changed all that — he’s given the city history, landmarks and a specific geography and skyline. More important, he’s given the city a personality — Gotham is an old city built around even older families and money that’s gone rotten at the core and now spreads that rot to anyone who dares enter it. We’ve been hearing forever about how dark and dangerous Gotham is, but we now know why, specifically, it’s so dark and dangerous and that’s a huge step forward.
Badass Batman Comes to Gotham
For a long time there’s basically been two Batmans — the super-competent JLA Batman who finds ways to punch out Superman on the regular, and the Batman of actual Batman comics who finds himself challenged by guys like the Mad Hatter and the Ventriloquist.
It’s obvious why this happens — Batman’s abilities need to be pumped up when he’s hanging out with Superman and Wonder Woman, otherwise the fact that they keep him around would make no sense. Still, it’s always frustrating to read some five-part story in which Batman struggles to defeat lame villains like Grotesk or Orca the whale woman while he’s off fighting Darkseid and Prometheus in greater DC Universe stuff.
Snyder, thankfully, has done away with this divide, and lets super-competent Batman have his way with Gotham. The first scene of Batman #1 involves Batman shutting down an Arkham breakout and beating all his most infamous villains in one fell swoop — and why not? A guy with a winning record against Superman shouldn’t have any trouble putting down the Riddler for the 100th time. This is a Batman on top of his game, who’s not taking any crap from the regular circus troupe of villains.
Batman can be Beaten
Yeah, I know, I just got done complaining about how Batman usually doesn’t kick enough ass in his own books, but he’s almost never actually beaten either. Most bad/bland Bat-stories have a familiar flow — villain shows up, outsmarts/escapes Batman a couple times, then is brought down before they can carry out their ultimate plan. The villain is a thorn in Batman’s side, but you never get the sense Batman’s in danger or about to suffer any sort of major defeat. Even when Batman “died” recently, he was still depicted as being more or less on top of things — dying was just an extra big setback. Bruce Wayne didn’t return from the dead diminished in any way or having lost anything.
In issues #5 and #6 of Batman, Scott Snyder beats Batman. Beats him good. Batman is physically destroyed, his mind warped and his vision of Gotham and where he fits into the scheme of things is mocked and desecrated. The last time Batman was truly beaten was at the end of Knightfall at the hands of Bane, but at least that was a case of Batman nobly falling in battle. His defeat at the hands of the Court of Owls is on a completely different level — it was humiliating. Personal. The fact that it was super competent badass Batman that got beat makes the Court of Owls all the more frightening. Speaking of which…
The Court of Owls are Great Villains
The best villains play off Batman on some sort of personal level. The Joker works because he’s a twisted mirror image of Batman (the Joker dresses up as a clown and hurts people, Batman dresses as a monster and helps people). Two-Face was Bruce Wayne’s friend and a constant reminder that he can’t save everyone. Catwoman and Poison Ivy prey on Batman’s repressed sexuality. Stinging Batman in some sort of personal way is what divides the Jokers and Two-Faces from the guys nobody really gives a s–t about like the Penguin and Killer Croc.
The Court of Owls hits on the two things Bruce Wayne cares most about — Gotham and his family. Bruce Wayne cares about Gotham more than anything or anyone, and the Owls make him question how well he really knows the city and his place in it. Furthermore, they’ve apparently been preying on his family for years, and may have even had a hand in his parents’ death. These guys strike right to Batman’s core.
It also helps that the Court’s assassin, the Talon, has a great look and is capable of completely ripping Batman apart. Oh, and their underground labyrinth is maybe the best deathtrap Batman’s ever been faced with. These guys are everything Morrison’s goofy Black Glove should have been.
Batman Isn’t Always Two Steps Ahead
It seems like a lot of writers, Morrison especially, seem to interpret Batman being “The World’s Greatest Detective” as meaning he knows everything all the time without exception. That’s boring. Nobody would give a damn about Sherlock Holmes if he solved every crime on the first page.
Snyder’s Batman is smart — in fact this story has shown him doing some real detective work, which is something we don’t see often enough — but he isn’t an all-knowing God. The Court of Owls genuinely catches him off guard. As I read through issues #5 and #6 I kept waiting for the Morrison-esque moment where Batman reveals he knew about the Court all along and was just pretending to be beaten to lure them in — but no, he actually got outsmarted for once. Good I say. People who are right all the time aren’t that fun to be around (or read about).
Batman’s Kind of a Jerk
Over the past decade or two the trend’s been to make Batman so competent, wise and morally upright that he’s more or less reduced to a blank slate. Giving Robin or somebody a mild scolding is as close to an emotional outburst as he gets.
Not everyone will agree with me on this one, but I prefer a Batman who’s a bit of a dick. During the early issues of Snyder’s Batman run, Bruce is still kind of in “blank slate” mode, albeit a somewhat friendlier blank slate than usual. After the Court puts him through hell though, we see an entirely different Batman break through. This is an arrogant, angry, vengeful Batman. As he screams about tracking down and destroying the Owls, Batman is, for the first time in a long time, legitimately scary. Later when Nightwing pesters Batman with questions and concerns, Bruce passive-aggressively ignores him, and then punches him in the face when he touches a nerve.
There’s a place for noble, self-reserved Batman — it’s probably best that he’s usually like that, but sometimes we need a little violent, unhinged asshole Batman too.
The Action Scenes Are Worth Paying Attention To
Most Bat-writers seem to tune out when it comes time to write the punchy/kicky stuff. Most Batman fight scenes go something like this — Batman shows up, karate kicks and punches a few guys and then the bad guys either get one-up on him and escape, or Batman gets an extra dramatic punch in on the big bad guy and wins. Batman punching guys should be the greatest thing in the world, but more often than not it just feels like filler.
Not in Snyder and Capullo’s Batman — so far every action scene in New 52 era Batman has felt purposeful and important. These are creative, well-staged action scenes not just mindless kicking and punching to move the plot along. Batman’s fight with the Talon in issue #6 is among my favorite one-on-one fights Batman’s ever been involved in. Just more evidence of the level of thought and care that’s gone into this story.
Greg Capullo is Kicking Ass
Like a lot of people I wasn’t so sure when I heard Greg Capullo was going to be taking over art duties on Batman. “You mean the guy who drew Spawn? Hmmm, well…I guess he has some experience drawing capes.”
At first I was even a little put off by his somewhat cartoony-style, but issue-by-issue I’ve grown to love his art more and more. As of issue #7, I can confidently say Capullo is doing my favorite Bat-art in ages, which is saying something, because while I haven’t loved the writing on the Bat books for a while, there has been lots of great art by the likes of J.H. Williams, Chris Burnham, Andy Kubert, Francesco Francavilla and many more.
Personally, I think Batman actually benefits from a stylized, slightly cartoony approach. The more realistically he’s rendered, the more he just looks like a guy in a suit as opposed to the terror-striking living shadow he’s supposed to be in the comics. Capullo’s art over the past few issues brings to mind Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns work, which is about as high a compliment as you can pay a Bat-artist. It’s so good it retroactively makes me want to track down Capullo’s old issues of Spawn. Think about that.
What the Hell — I Actually Want to Buy a Crossover?
Finally, the ultimate proof that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman is awesome — I don’t resent that they’re doing a crossover. In fact I’m actually excited for the upcoming “Night of Owls”. I mean, not excited enough to buy Catwoman or Red Hood and the Outlaws or anything crazy, but still more stoked than I’ve been for any Batman crossover since, I dunno, Knightfall? No Man’s Land? It’s been so long.
So yeah, to sum up what I’ve been subtly hinting at for the last 2000-words — Batman is very, very good right now. You should probably be buying it. For those that already are, let me know what you think of the Snyder/Capullo run so far in the comments.
images courtesy DC Comics