The Selected Batman Re-Read, Part Eight — The End, or What’s Old is New (52)
And here we are again, at the end, but also a new beginning.
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman did what DC’s New 52 initiative set out to do—it reshaped and reworked the character to make him new reader-friendly. The real beauty of this run, however, is just how much they also seamlessly added to Batman’s mythos.
Before we jump into the pair’s time together though, let’s take a step back to just before the New 52 with The Black Mirror, Snyder’s first big splash on Batman, together with Jock and Francesco Francavilla.
I was planning to cover this in the last post, but while it fits the timeline of Grant Morrison’s run better, thematically and tonally, it’s more suited as a precursor to Snyder’s work with Capullo.
You can see the seeds here of what will, to me, define Snyder’s approach to Batman—that mix of horror and superheroics, interweaving between Dick Grayson’s adventures as Batman and the psychological games James Gordon Jr. plays with his father, Commissioner Gordon, but also that approach to Gotham as a living entity, something that’s more than just a supporting character in the Batman mythos as any of his allies or villains.
Jock and Francavilla are so incredible here. On a purely aesthetic levels, these guys are astoundingly unique, but on a storytelling level, they’re also such perfect matches for each of their stories.
What elevates things even more though is how well paced this collection is, with alternating three-parters between the Jock and Francavilla building up to the two of them alternating for single chapters each instead, and then finally culminating in them working together on the same chapter. I’m not sure who deserves the credit here—Snyder or his editor, Mike Marts—but it’s such an inspired move that ups the suspense and sense of foreboding, and just adds so much more to an already perfect volume.
But this is the real meat of this post.
The Court of Owls really sets the stage for that exploration of Gotham, while also expanding on what Snyder had done with The Black Mirror: shedding light on hidden parts of a character’s past to shake their foundation in the present. In The Black Mirror, it was Gordon’s relationship with his son. In The Court of Owls, naturally, Snyder goes bigger with Bruce’s—and the Wayne family’s—interconnectedness with the city.
As an opening salvo in Snyder and Capullo’s run, it’s utterly brilliant, not just in its execution, but as part of the New 52. It’s such a testament to Snyder and Capullo that they achieved the initiative’s goals—all without it feeling like a “reboot”, easing in long-time readers, while welcoming newer ones.
It’s now almost famous how much the pair didn’t get along initially, but it says so much that you honestly cannot see that behind-the-scenes drama reflected here. The Court of Owls doesn’t just read like it was made by two fantastic storytellers, but by a well-oiled creative team.
Unfortunately, this story does peter out once we hit its conclusion in City of Owls. I think there was a great idea with the whole Lincoln March/Thomas Wayne Jr. question, but it felt rushed, especially after how well everything else was paced. (That said, there’s some great art here, not just from Capullo, but from Rafael Albuquerque and Jason Fabok too. That Harper Row-centric issue, illustrated by Becky Cloonan and Andy Clarke though? That was definitely the best part of this volume.)
City of Owls might’ve been a slight misstep, but Snyder and Capullo—together with Jock on back-up stories—more than jump back with Death of the Family.
This volume explores that other strong relationship in Batman’s life, the twisted funhouse mirror to his relationship with Gotham. What Snyder does here isn’t so much reinvent the wheel, but adds depth to the Joker and Batman’s dynamic—looking at that decades-old idea that they complete each other and really explore just what that means to each of them.
There’s less a focus on Batman’s relationship with Gotham, but that aforementioned dynamic with his nemesis thematically informs and strengthens later arcs like Endgame and Bloom, where his connection to the city is more central to the plot. It’s something easily missed on the first read, but going back to these stories really heightens my appreciation for what this creative team set out to do.
Also, it cannot be stated enough how important Capullo’s design of the Joker is here. In a story that really gets under the skin of these characters, his incredibly unsettling (and iconic) look for the Joker is an emphatic full-stop to Snyder’s script.
Pairing Jock with Snyder again for back-ups that delve a bit deeper into the Joker’s mad methods is another stroke of genius. Jock’s style fits the tone of those stories perfectly, but it’s definitely worth highlighting his wonderful use of darker colours, which only serve to elevate the desired tone of this arc.
Snyder and Capullo return Gotham back into focus with the two-volume Zero Year arc, which along with Court of Owls, really exemplifies what I feel was their goal with this run. Just that small little twist on the familiar—the “I will become a bat” scene from Year One—intertwines Batman’s literal blood with that of the city that shaped him, both good and bad, as a child. Snyder and Capullo literally build on the shoulders of the giants that came before them, strengthening the greater goal of their run, as well as their aim for this new origin for Batman—adding a colourful, sci-fi element to the noir-esque grit commonly associated with that scene, and with Batman on a whole.
That first volume’s use of the Red Hood Gang also takes the best plot elements of The Killing Joke and seamlessly weaves it into Batman’s new origin, pulling tighter on the ties that bind Batman and the Joker. Not just that, but the—pardon the pun—colourful Red Hood Gang is yet another element that sets Zero Year apart from Year One, focusing less on the crime families of old, and marrying the noir and the superheroics of Batman’s world even earlier.
In the second volume, Snyder and Capullo up the epicness of this new origin story, while still retaining the heart that keeps it grounded: Bruce’s own journey from an agent of vengeance to a beacon of justice. Despite being bigger and more bombastic in scale though, this half of Zero Year has fewer stand-out moments. That’s more an observation than a criticism though. After all, it’s hard to level any complaints at this second volume, since, unlike City of Owls, its escalation felt more earned, resulting in a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the overall story—especially with that final, heartbreaking scene.
Graveyard Shift is another slight dip for this era. Not a massive one and not even because of the quality of the stories per se, but because most of these one-off stories either directly or tangentially deal with Damian Wayne’s death over in Batman Incorporated. While a bit of a breather between Zero Year and Endgame definitely makes sense, focusing on Damian’s death here felt like it broke the momentum that Snyder and Capullo had going.
(It certainly doesn’t help that I enjoyed Harper Row’s earlier story during City of Owls, as well as her stories here, but because I’ve not been as big a fan of these two volumes, it feels like she’s getting unfairly sidelined. No fault of anyone’s, of course. Just an unfortunate coincidence.)
Still, the pace picks right back up again with Endgame. It’s a much bigger story than Death of the Family, but in a way, it doesn’t feel as impactful as its predecessor. While Death of the Family was personal and visceral, this story was more action-packed, a bit like how the second part of Zero Year felt bigger than the first.
While I still enjoyed it, I have to say, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first time I read it. The idea of Joker being an immortal figure called The Pale Man that has haunted Gotham from its beginnings was definitely intriguing and certainly would’ve fit into Snyder and Capullo’s greater goal of exploring Gotham’s mythology. At the end of the day, however, the pair wisely made it just another one of Joker’s mind games, since it probably would’ve been a bit too much of a leap as part of the ongoing mythos.
Oddly enough though, as much as I like it as an idea in and of itself, The Pale Man is actually one of the two things that drags this story down a bit. While all of Joker’s machinations in Death of the Family serviced his larger plan of, in his own twisted way, making Batman stronger, his only goal here seems to be chaos. That makes The Pale Man bait-and-switch feel somewhat pointless, which, in turn, hurts the pacing of the story a little.
And, yes, chaos is Joker’s usual modus operandi, but that leads me to my second issue with this story: after Death of the Family, where their relationship had evolved, it feels like too quick a return to the status quo.
Overall, it was still a great arc—just not as strong as the Joker story that came before it.
Superheavy, however, takes a sharp left turn. Gordon dons the cowl in a story of a city moving on, or trying to move on, after the trauma of Endgame. It’s a good continuation of Snyder and Capullo’s thematic exploration of how much the city’s connected to Batman — but only if you follow it up immediately with Bloom. Superheavy on its own is entertaining for what it is—big superhero action—but nowhere near as memorable as some of the pair’s earlier stories. In fact, it’s the quieter stories and subplots, about Peter Duggio’s death and Bruce’s recovery, that are the real gems of this volume.
The second half of this story in Bloom, however, returns Bruce’s story back to the forefront, sharing the spotlight with Gordon’s own superheroics. Bruce’s talk on the bench with an amnesiac Joker really brings things full circle (and retroactively lessened the severity of my Endgame criticism), while also drawing parallels between Bruce’s own choice about his future with what’s best for Gotham. The earlier scene on the train tracks with Duke Thomas was also a great moment, really showing how much Bruce meant to the people of the city.
However, those moments—almost like the proverbial devil and angel Bruce’s shoulder—were only the perfect precursors to Batman’s inevitable and triumphant return. It’s a powerful scene, especially with Alfred pleading with Bruce not to kill the boy he was and the man that boy had become, but ultimately, it feels like a wonderful culmination of everything Snyder and Capullo have been doing. (It’s a shame though that, as gorgeous as Yanick Paquette’s art was in this chapter, it wasn’t Capullo who got to visually tell this story).
In Zero Year, Batman established himself as the city’s protector. In Court of Owls, he truly understood it. In Endgame, he died for it. And here, he’s reborn, not out of tragedy, but because of it.
I don’t know how close my own understanding is to Snyder and Capullo’s intent, but it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that, taken as a whole, it’s a fantastic feat of storytelling. I still wouldn’t rank Bloom and Superheavy (and, to a certain extent, even Endgame) up with my earlier favourites from their run, but I guess it’s almost unfair to try. Those stories worked on their own. These stories are more like a closing statement and a heartfelt farewell.
The one-off stories in the Epilogue volume were generally enjoyable enough (my favourite was “The List”, my least favourite was the Rebirth preview), but I think the only one that really mattered within the context of this run was, of course, the one by Snyder and Capullo, a callback to their first issue together—an ending tied into its beginning.
And that’s it for my selected Batman re-read! As with my Spider-Man re-read, I accomplished what I set out to do—to streamline my bookshelf a bit, but also really reinforce just how much I loved, and continue to love, some of these stories. Heck, I’ve even grown fonder of a few of them as I dug back into them over these last two years or so.
I’ve got re-read series planned for another character (one that’s probably going to start with a Frank Miller post too nudge nudge hint hint okay fine it’s Daredevil), but instead of doing that next, I’m going to follow up this visit to Gotham City with something a little different: two single posts — one focusing on a selection of Superman stories and the other on a couple of classic X-Men comics, mostly by Chris Claremont.
Before we bring this current re-read series to a close though, I feel like I need to say something personal about the character himself, the same way I did with Spider-Man.
Batman, however, isn’t even remotely like Spider-Man. I’ve mentioned before in these posts that Batman is a malleable character. It’s what allows for Elseworlds stories and reboots and wildly different takes on him even within the same continuity. At the end of the day, that malleability is precisely why I can’t really say anything as personal about Batman—but it’s also why I’ve always enjoyed the character’s stories and why he was the only choice for my second re-read series.
Not as heartfelt a sign-off, I know. But still, probably the one that works best.