To defeat Batman you have to overwhelm him. That lesson came courtesy of the campy TV show of the ‘60s, a program whose popularity, warranted though it may be, saddled anything comic book related with BIF! POW! hyperbole and Holy Fill-in-the-Blank for decades. The Adam West Batman show was wonderful, and a fine introduction to the character for many fans, but to others it was all there was. The mid-‘60s bout of Batmania overwhelmed the mythos, already approaching 30 years old at that point, and remained the main lens through which the character was viewed for years. Never mind that Batman in the ‘70s was moody and weird, luxuriating in his pulp origins. Never mind Batman in the ‘80s, when he was a vehicle for superhero deconstruction.
Comics never learned this lesson. The adventures of Batman and his sidekicks, allies, and even villains spread out over a constantly expanding and contracting universe of titles, giving readers an entire Bat-family to choose from. That meant crossovers, giving rise to stories like 1993’s “Knightfall”, in which Bane defeats Batman by, you guessed it, overwhelming him, this time by freeing all the inmates of Arkham Asylum.
The “Night of the Owls” crossover takes a cue from “Knightfall” by dispatching villains all over Gotham City and forcing Batman to recruit his many allies—all with their own titles—to stop them. The Court of the Owls, a secret society in control of Gotham since the city’s founding, decide to take the city back from those in power, sending undead assassins called Talons out to murder Gotham’s power elite. After that, readers are treated to what amounts to little more than one long fist fight.
It’s hard not to compare the story to “Knightfall” given its sprawling nature, but that was a story in which Batman’s back was broken and he was forced to give up his cape and cowl to another man. There was something at stake, at least as much as there can be when everyone knows things would eventually go back to normal. Also, there was the benefit of having a variety of villains, the entire Rogue’s Gallery, and not just assassins in owl suits. There’s an attempt to flesh out the various Talons by revealing their back stories, all of which take place in different eras of Gotham’s past, but rather this serves to flatten the characters rather than flesh them out.
In Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, the Talon the Dark Knight faces is silent, unyielding, and almost unstoppable. This isn’t the sort of character one would want to spend much time with, but it worked, at least for a while, because they were formidable and mysterious. Here, that sense that the Talons are threats to anyone, let alone Batman and his allies, evaporates when the men behind the mask are revealed to be little more than stock characters and, even worse, easily defeated.
Batman is a non-actor throughout the story. The action comes to him, and he’s forced to fight on his own turf, something which at one time might have been unthinkable but these days seems to be a go-to plot point for maximum dramatic impact. To fight the assembled Talons, Batman dons an armored suit which makes him look like Robocop and recalls the suit he wore to fight Superman in The Dark Knight Returns. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Exposing the Talons to extreme cold will incapacitate them. This paves the way for dialogue (“Dude, you need to chill!”) in Birds of Prey which would be more at home in 1997’s horrid Batman and Robin, as well as a chance to revisit the origin of Mr. Freeze. The story featuring the coldest of characters features the only hint of human warmth or emotion, but it’s just rehashed and replayed and, like the rest of the book, nothing we haven’t seen before.
“Night of the Owls” is bad in almost every conceivable way. It’s derivative, thoughtless, and boring, a by-the-numbers crossover in which the same story is told over and over again until the last page. These stories are all tangents, variations on a theme, not a serialized story. There’s no beginning, middle, or end, just a lump of fists and knives in cool action poses.
The shared universe concept employed by both Marvel and DC is wonderful at its core, a useful tool both in terms of marketing and storytelling. The business people get to exploit as many revenue streams as possible while the creative people get to collaborate to tell big stories, with each writer and artist contributing his or her unique piece of the puzzle. The explosion of collected editions shows the weaknesses in this approach. The pieces don’t always fit together, and readers are left with an incomplete picture no one would want to look at.
In “Night of the Owls”, the folks at DC have found a new way to defeat Batman: undermine him. Reading stories like this in pieces over a couple of months might be rewarding to some, but reading them as a collection exposes the story as little more than an attempt to lure readers into buying all the issues of what’s perceived a “complete” story when, in truth, reading just one will do.