To say the new volume of Batman is engaging is at best an understatement. The title in this New 52 period has been at times thrilling, at times thought-provoking and at times scary. But after three issues, the pacing must slow to allow readers to catch their breaths and also allow for the plot to set it hooks in the depths of the reader’s imagination. With issue four, Batman stops only briefly to let everyone in on what has become obvious – this “new” Batman is excellent.
In many ways the foundation for Batman has been to mix action, adventure, crime, horror and superheroes. The resulting framework has allowed for an aesthetic and tone that feels dangerous and spine-tingling at every page turn. There’s freshness to this 70-plus-year-old character that hasn’t been felt in a long time.
Much of that is due to a strong sense of character development in these early issues. This latest chapter expands on that, offering insight into just how this plot interacts with the character of Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman. Writer Scott Snyder has stated that his intent is not to do a paint-by-numbers story. Rather this “Court of Owls” arc is something that cuts to the very core of Wayne. Here we have Snyder expanding on the existing Batman universe, reassessing and examining the legend for a new generation of readers.
Batman survives the trip wire explosion that was the cliffhanger to the last installment, but he’s wounded, both physically and metaphysically. While bones heal, his ego is the true wound that has the potential to be fatal. He doesn’t believe in the Court of Owls. This piece of information is at the heart of the flaw Snyder is exposing over the course of this story. The idea that something could exist in Gotham City without Batman knowing is preposterous, and it leaves a blind spot that Bruce must overcome if he is to defeat or neutralize this new enemy.
This is where Snyder excels; using the story beats and pauses to explore character traits and personalities without completely abandoning his plot. In issue four, this technique takes the form of a conversation between Dick and Bruce while Bruce is analyzing his latest lead. These 11 pages that comprise this talk represent the heart of the story, and plays to the pathology that has created The Batman in the first place.
As Bruce recalls the time shortly after his parents’ murder and how it relates to his disbelief that the Court of Owls exists, we see a certain amount of vulnerability that many writers would be afraid to expose. It takes a robust understanding of how readers emotionally invest in characters for a writer to take this path, and while it’s way too early to see if Snyder will go the distance, the ground work has been laid with this interlude.
The structure and tone of issue four certainly stretches the skills of penciler Greg Capullo. His normal grandiloquent style is limited to the first few and last few pages. The middle requires a more refined touch. While Capullo does his best, it is not his strong suit, however the visual tone he sets for the flashback scenes are somewhat inspiring. They represent a departure and growth that is a welcome shift from the overwrought explosiveness of previous efforts.
Snyder and Capullo as collaborators are an interesting pairing. From the pages published thus far, there is a strong sense of collaboration as the finished product is well done. As a storyteller, Snyder is not verbose, while Capullo’s artwork could be metaphorically described that way. The difference between the two has plenty of potential and the overall production has been good, but it remains to be seen if any sort of consistency will develop. This is not to dismiss these issues of Batman, or indeed issue four. With the exception of the debut, they have been excellent.
But really, what’s truly on display is Snyder’s work. The layers built into this plot are immense, but not overpowering. The plot is strong, but so too is the character development. This is what hooks readers. While a rip roaring and thrilling premise has its appeal, the examination of character traits and how they affect the narrative progression is what really separates a good comic from an excellent one. Batman #4 is neatly the latter, and that, in and of itself, tells readers what to expect going forward.