Sunday, June 2, 2013

Style ("Batman Volume 2: The City of Owls" by Scott Snyder, et al.)

When I was younger--seven, maybe eight years old--my parents bought me a box of Marvel comic books for my birthday. It was a random assortment of heroes--Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man--the kind that comes when the person choosing is doing so indiscriminately from a bulk-bin of cast-offs. But I was young and infatuated with heroes and reading, so it must've seemed to my parents like a perfect match. Unfortunately, after reading the first issue I pulled out of the box--Captain America #325--I realized that I really didn't like comic books. And just as quickly as it began, my flirtations with comic books came to an abrupt, bittersweet end.*

Jumping forward almost two decades, I find myself in the same position as before--still a voracious reader, still interested in superheroes, still uninterested in comic books. Even though I'd evolved to appreciate graphic novels to the point of including some in my classroom curricula, I couldn't bring myself to pick up a comic book, just for the sake of seeing if my attitude had changed, until I read about Scott Snyder. The specific article eludes me--most likely it was a "Best Of 2012" list I stumbled across somewhere--but the way in which Snyder was depicted as not just a gifted writer but damn near the only person who grasped the possibilities of the Batman franchise and could rescue it from a tiring slump peeked my interest. I found a copy of Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls, read it in one sitting, and was hooked by what Snyder and illustrator Greg Capullo had pulled off. Not only was the storyline interesting--a secret society of villains lurking not just in Gotham City but in the 13th floors of buildings built by Wayne Family money--but the way in which Capullo had used the comic-book format to his advantage, inverting the pages in one scene to mirror Batman's disorientation and gradual loss of sanity as he pursues the titular court in their own labyrinthine lair--made me realize why I had so often dismissed comic books as uninteresting: very few of the men and women who created comic books used its format--constricting cells and blocks--to the story's advantage in the same way novelists use sentence structure, paragraph breaks, and extraneous print.**

A year later, Batman Volume 2: The City of Owls marks the continuation of the series, and on the surface it promises to be even more thrilling than the first volume:  the mysterious Owls are growing in strength and power, to the point where they begin eliminating the city's most important people and even make their way into the Batcave. (As we soon discover, this is not the first time the Owls have set foot inside Wayne Manor, not to mention the lives of the Wayne family and their butler, Aflred Pennyworth.) As the book progresses, Batman becomes increasingly outnumbered and out-gunned, his own strength and ingenuity sapped to the point of utter failure; even when he is backed up by a half-dozen other superheroes, the danger grows and grows. We've seen this before--a hero backed up to the edge of a cliff, to the point of no return, and pushed over the side--and we know in the end the hero will find a way out. At the end of Volume 2, however, the cliff lies at the heart of Bruce Wayne's own family:  a secret that will reveal all and, possibly, mark his end.

Unfortunately, all of this comes at a cost to not only Bruce Wayne but the storyline, as well. Where the first volume was focused almost exclusively on Batman's fight with the Council of Owls, Volume 2 takes great pains to confuse that simple conflict by introducing a whole new slew of villains--Victor Fries, The Penguin ("Mr. Cobblepot"), Mrs. Powers, a gang of homophobic hoodlums--as well as backstories and flashbacks for at least a half-dozen of the characters, not to mention action sequences involving Gotham's other heroes, a tableau of Wayne Family-owned buildings worthy of Architectural Digest, a subplot involving an electrician and her bullied brother--both still in high school--and plot devices that are meant to clear knots in the action but only succeed in making it all the more infuriating and overblown. (One specific scene I'm thinking of involves a dinosaur.) By the close of the second volume, the entire volume feels like a wasted 200+ pages...not because the artwork is bad or the writing is lacking--neither is true--but because every cell seems as though it was sacrificed in the name of setting up the issues that will comprise Volume 3. There were no moments like the page inversion in Volume 1, in which the creators used the format to add dimension to their story, and to be honest, there were very few memorable moments at all. The creators spent 200 pages piling heroes, villains, weapons, and backstories onto a storyline that didn't need it. Batman was facing down the Council of Owls, and the Owls were winning because they were stronger, smarter, and more resourceful...and they were using Wayne's assets and lineage against him. It was simple but complex--a storyline that could offer its readers much more than what is found here.

But like I said before, I'm someone who knows very little about comic books.

*Only recently have I learned that this one issue (#325) contained what is one of, if not the, most ridiculous villains in all of comic-bookdom: The Slug, a morbidly obese crimelord who has zero powers and spends much of the issue on his personalized hovercraft. So, of the millions of different comic books I could have read as my first, I apparently chose one of the absolute worst.

**I'm thinking specifically of Robert Grudin's Book, in which a group of footnotes becomes annoyed by some of the novel's characters and take over an entire chapter, and of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, which begins before the copyright page.