Stan Lee was fond of saying that every comic is someone’s first and thus it should read like that. It should introduce characters and establish main ideas and themes that will quickly familiarize readers on issue two or 200. Grant Morrison doesn’t agree. To him, not knowing what was going on made him all the more likely to come back to a book. Scott Snyder manages to mix in a little bit of both of these in Batman #5 to dazzling effect.
We aren’t used to seeing Batman fail. Spider-Man can fail. The X-Men can fail. But generally, Batman doesn’t. He’s resilient and resourceful, calculating and cunning. In this issue, Snyder takes it all away. Trapped in the labyrinth of the Court of Owls, Bruce becomes disoriented, desperate and human, almost destructively so. He’s on the brink of defeat and he’s in denial. It really forces the reader to reevaluate their relationship with Batman. If Batman fails then what hope is there for us?
What I’ve loved about this arc is that Snyder has taken the time to really build up the threat. In other fairly recent comics, all-new villains are thrown in the mix and in order to establish a sense of power, writers lazily write a sequence where this new villain just randomly beats up the hero. Rather than take that route, Snyder has drawn out the reveals with regards to the Court of Owls and by this point, we feel that Talon and the court are a legitimately formidable bunch with the resources and know-how to stand up to Batman.
So with Bruce descending slowly into complete madness, the Batman team throws us a curveball. Suddenly, the pages are landscape oriented. Then they are upside down. Then we are turning the ages backwards. The change in orientation is a clever way to fully communicate the degradation of Bruce’s senses throughout the course of the labyrinth. Bravo, team, for trying something different.
To a new reader, this issue provides just enough backstory while still dangling the carrot of “what happens next.” Snyder writes the Commissioner Gordon scenes with an appropriately ominous air about them . Through this he’s able to introduce other in the Batman family and catch anyone up on the general goings-on.
Greg Capullo’s art remains a huge draw for this book. The Image veteran has a strong sense for what exactly madness entails. The subtle change in the eye openings of Batman’s mask make for some of the most hauntingly beautiful panels in the book. Bruce is exposed. He is vulnerable. The steely gaze of the Batman has been broken and we are on the ensuing downward spiral with him. Capullo communicates all of this with one expressive eyeball. It’s truly awe-inspiring. He handles the landscape pages well also by using the change of pacing to show more detail and slow down the action when necessary. Capullo’s is most consistently the best art to come out of the New 52.
Comic books are weird because we tend to always have so much spoiled for us. (No big marketing push? Guess this hero won’t die. etc.) We know there is more Batman to come but we have no way of effectively knowing how Bruce will get out of this one. I’m sure Snyder has left us clues that we’re not savvy enough to pick up on but crafting a truly compelling mystery in this age of information leaks and the Internet is a hard task. Snyder is up to it. The rest of the team is too. Good storytelling strikes a kind of precise yet fluid balance between giving information and withholding it from a reader. We are privileged to live in an age where we can pick up a book every month that not on strikes that balance perfectly but also manages to reinvent it.