Batman has become an archetype, and because of this making additions or alterations to his character or universe is not only a daunting task, it’s damn near impossible. I remember a few months back the Graphic Novel Book Club that I’m a part of finally decided to read Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. I’d been lobbying for the book because, apart from Fun Home, I had never read a graphic novel that was so dense with symbolism and meaning. I’d actually written an essay that a friend of mine published, presented a paper on it at a small academic conference, and even written two papers for school on it. As such, when the meeting came, I gave my rating (10 means you have a shrine for it, 1 is you burned it and cursed the ashes) and then shortened my multivolume lecture on the book to a 10 minute ass-kissing monologue explaining why I thought the graphic novel was brilliant.
The remainder of the group didn’t share my views and proceeded to thrash the book apart.
Contrary to some though I actually enjoy it when I receive criticism because it forces me to consider new angles and either drop my old perceptions or reconsider my position to strengthen it. After the meeting one of my friends approached me and apologized, “It’s just that Batman is an archetype you know? He has to fit a structure or he isn’t Batman.”
This idea intrigued me, but it also made me wary about writing about Batman books or movies lest I suffer the eternal and unforgiving wrath of the internet. Whoever has suggested that nerds are meek clearly had never met one for the last decade has demonstrated that nerds can be vicious and cruel when so inspired, and speaking as one I can attest to this fact. Still though it’s getting to a point when scholars are able to sneak in copies of The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One to conferences and classrooms and the eyebrows of the academy are not so ruffled. Batman always was art, and now that people have the venue and gumption to argue it as such I want to contribute in any way I can.
One of my favorite Batman stories is The Court of Owls. Around five years ago I went through a Comics explosion after one of my colleagues in the SI Office dropped ten comic books on a table and went to work. The first book I picked up was Detective Comics #1 of something called The New 52. DC comics had just rereleased their entire publishing line starting over from number 1 and so comic fans everywhere were both ecstatic and cautiously optimistic, or, as so often happens, waiting for somebody to mess up. I read the books on the table and immediately acquired directions to Ground Zero Comics, and from there my life was changed. I didn’t just read comic books, I inhaled them. It was about eight months later when I picked up Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing run (impressive in itself for being the first good thing to happen to that franchise since Alan Moore), and from there I went to Batman which had been following the Court of Owls storyline.
What’s impressive about the series is not just how beautiful the actual books are, it’s the level of detail packed into every frame, every dialogue, every character. The resulting strength of the two volume story line made it quickly surpass every book in terms of sales of The New 52, and it has effectively established Snyder as one of comics’ greatest contemporary writers of the medium.
What makes Court of Owls unique is not just reinventing Batman’s badass badassery, it’s something far more ambitious. The first page of the book creates it:
In this one page Snyder has introduced a newspaper and a civilian populace alongside the architectural structures that make up Gotham and in this effort there is an attempt to create a real landscape of Gotham city. My reader may immediately protest, Gotham always had a landscape. I would argue however that Gotham was more of an abstract plain. Reading books like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Hush, and even Batman Arkham Asylum there was a pronounced lack of physical space concerning Gotham and this first page is only one example of it. Snyder regularly begins each chapter at a landmark, a social group, a historical scene, etc. and each of these opening passages brings out Gotham city not only as an urban hub, but a city with a rich history and culture that often gets ignored because Green Lantern’s in Gotham and needs Batman’s help.
It’s fair to say the history of Gotham city has largely been ignored because of such distractions, and while they were fun and interesting, the effect was to turn Gotham into an arena in which the gods were often fighting and dueling. Snyder himself isn’t immune to this, for in the Endgame saga when Joker returns he plays on this very idea pitting Batman against Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Superman employing references to opera in order to solidify the presentation. Before the reader gets the idea that I feel this is a cop-out it’s important to note that I actually don’t mind this. Superhero’s by nature have always been melodramatic and archetypal, and while realism is slowly infecting the genre (sometimes to its benefit but often to its misfortune), the figure of superheroes in the collective imagination remains god-like.
Still, The Court of Owls succeeds as a story because of it’s grounding of Batman as a man with faults, particularly as it presents him as a man who felt himself master of history. In the graphic novel’s second opening Bruce Wayne narrates the history behind Wayne Tower, one of the city’s cultural landmarks:
The original Wayne Tower.
If you came to Gotham city today, right now, and took a tour of the building, here are some things your guide would tell you:
The tower was constructed in 1888, under the watch of my great, great grandfather Alan Wayne. He built the tower to serve as a symbol of welcome to people coming to Gotham. And, as your tour guide will point out, from the ground up it’s designed to give visitors like you the feeling that they’re cared for and protected. For example, your guide will say, the building has twelve gargoyles or “guardians” as Alan insisted they be called—one to watch over each passageway into the city. The five guardians at the first tier were placed there to watch over the five original gateways to the city—the three bridges and two tunnels. Higher up the tower is a ring of seven guardians, one to protect each of the seven train lines that converge at union station, below Wayne Tower’s base. And at the top of the tower, is the observation deck in which Alan insisted remain free and open to the public every weekend, all year round.
This is a long passage, and remember that this is only one page with several shots of a tower silhouetted against a sunrise. The Court of Owls is rife with presentations of the urban landscape, and while part of that is to hint at the idea that someone is watching from afar, another rhetorical effect is to place the figures in question against the size of the city and legacy of Gotham. Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he is just a man, and as the end of this chapter demonstrates he’s plagued by hubris:
Whoever it was that just tried to kill me, he was good. But he made a mistake. He tried to use Gotham’s legends against me. But I’m the only legend this city needs. In many ways, it’s my oldest and truest friend. And it knows me better than anyone, just as I know it. Which is why I can say that there is no Court of Owls. Not in Gotham. Not in my city.
The words “my city” betray the man, not the god that’s often presented.
While I was originally going to simply review Court of Owls, as I wrote and researched images for this essay I began to observe more and more how much Snyder presents Bruce Wayne as a man who believes himself totally in control of his city and its history, and as this pride becomes more and more apparent there is constant references and attention paid to eyes. Because I’m that kind of writer, connections between works are always being made apparent. The combination of eyes, hubris, city, and owls all lead eventually to Oedipus the King, sometimes if inaccurately referred to as Oedipus Rex.
Oedipus the King is a play I had to read originally in High School, and I don’t mean the summarized portion of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Freshman year of high school was when we had to read the classics such as Medea, Oedipus the King, Antigone, Julius Caesar, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and watch the film O, Brother Where Are Thou? We also got to read Great Expectations and Faulkner’s short story A Rose For Emily, which in hindsight still doesn’t make much sense but at least both of those of those texts got me permanently hooked to Dickens and Faulkner. Oedipus the King was the first on the list, and It was all very Greek to me.
That’s a joke, and a reference to Shakespeare you see. See? I should never try to be funny.
Oedipus the King, just in case the reader was sleeping during class when they should have been paying attention, is a play written by Sophocles and the inspiration Freud’s famous Oedipus complex. He’s also the figure of a brief mention in Disney’s Hercules movie. Oedipus is considered a hero of Greek tragedy because the man’s downfall essentially defined tragedy in drama. King of the city of Thebes during a time of great plague, Oedipus calls out to the citizens of the city-state that he will discover the cause of the disease and punish those responsible. Consulting with the city’s oracle Tiresias he discovers that someone has violated the royalty of the city. It becomes clear to Oedipus, and his wife Jocasta the wife of the former ruler, that he has performed the atrocity. Clues and prophecies eventually lead the viewer, as well as Oedipus himself to recognize that he is the culprit of the offense until at last he recognizes that the plague has been caused because Oedipus has killed the former King of Thebes and taken his wife, who is also Oedipus’s mother, into his bed and sired two children from her. Jocasta hangs herself at the revealing of this fact, and Oedipus upon finding her puts out his eyes with the pins that holds up her garment. The play ends with Oedipus being sent out into exile from the city state with Creon assuming control of the city.
At this point the reader may wonder what significance or relevance Oedipus has to the Batman graphic novel currently under discussion. If my reader will be patient, I will demonstrate how the stories mirror one another.
Throughout the play Oedipus the King there are brief allusions to eyes, often used in both the figurative and symbolic sense. In one scene the blind oracle Tiresias is summoned to the palace and gives the following prophecy:
In name he is a stranger among citizens but soon he will be shown to be homegrown true native Theban, and he’ll have no joy of the discovery: blindness for sight and beggary for riches his exchange, […]. (93).
Oedipus himself makes numerous allusions to sight during his investigation, but the most damning is near the end when he describes the death of the man who would become his father:
O no, no, no—O holy majesty of god on high, may I not see that day! May I be gone out of men’s sight before I see the deadly taint of this disaster come upon me. (110).
Oedipus eventually makes his wretched discovery and a second messenger relays what occurs after he discovers his mother/wife has hung herself:
Second Messenger: He tore the brooches—the gold chased brooches fastening her robe—away from her and lifting them up high dashed them on his own eyeballs, […] he struck his eyes again and yet again with the brooches. And the bleeding eyeballs gushed and stained his cheeks—no sluggish oozing drops but a black rain and bloody hail poured down. (132).
Before I suffered my first dream about my teeth falling out, there was nothing that bothered me so much as damage, specifically damage by needles, to the eyes. Oedipus’s tragedy was ultimately his hubris because it “blinded” him to the reality of the fact that he believed himself a kind of god or blessing to the city of Thebes, and that blindness was due in part to the fact he was blind to the history of his lineage and city. Looking back to Court of Owls there’s a similar predicament as Batman discovers that not only does the Court of Owls, a secret society responsible for the covert assassination of respectable citizens over the entire history of Gotham, exist but that it has existed seemingly hidden from him despite multiple efforts during his life to find it. He’s also blind to the fact that a man by the name of Lincoln March is growing ever closer to him eventually appearing to say that he is Bruce’s brother.
Eyes hold a special significance to the human species and Ralph Waldo Emerson explored it in his essay Circles:
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose center was everywhere, and its circumference nowhere. (403).
Snyder uses technology to show Batman’s blindness, for at the start Bruce demonstrates a contact lens that acts as a kind of supercomputer. This is the stuff of Batman technology that, while a first outlandish, is actually based in real or upcoming technology not that far away. But more than the “super-computer contacts” is the constant closeness of Bruce’s enemy that, like the truth of Oedipus’s past, ultimately attempts to destroy him by revealing that he has been blind to the true nature of the city.
Gotham and Thebes are the plains from which these two characters emerge because in the classical drama the city, the polis, is everything. Human beings are social creatures by nature, and reading many ancient and pre-modern texts one often sees that the punishment of criminals is often not death, but banishment. Human beings establish their identity and comfort in relation to one another, therefore when the hero suffers exile he experiences the ultimate punishment because he is denied the chance to find comfort and happiness by interacting with his friends and fellow citizens.
A conflict emerges however. Oedipus is ultimately destroyed by his blindness by actually blinding himself and becoming exiled. Batman, being Batman, cannot be exiled from Gotham (unless they’re doing some kind of “event” storyline, but even that doesn’t really mean anything when there are around six to seven Batman books on the market), but by the end of the Court of Owls Bruce’s ego has been broken and then eventually restored. And it’s rather telling that the final panel in the graphic novel is Bruce’s eye containing Gotham.
By now it should hopefully be clear what my actual thesis is. Batman: The Court of Owls follows in the tradition that my friend Anthony spoke of earlier. Batman is an archetype in the vein of a classical hero, however rather than Oedipus who is destroyed by his tragedy, Batman satisfies the new paradigms concerning the hero. Batman is a superhero, a figure who overcomes his mistakes and survives through it and so what is happening here is a kind of alteration on the traditional narrative. The reader of Batman is different than the citizen of Greece who would have watched Oedipus and felt a kind of catharsis from the tragedy. Hero-worship and hero-fantasy have become the norms of contemporary narratives; people like to watch the hero win and overcome. Rather than mourn a man’s tragedy, the contemporary reader wants to see Batman overcome and conquer the enemy that seeks to destroy him.
What unites these two works however is the idea of the city as a place of power where men find their destiny and greatness. Snyder’s gift to the Batman universe is not just a great new villain for fans to enjoy, his gift is giving the city of Gotham new details and features from which new writers and story tellers will be able to draw inspiration from. While the character of Batman will remain the superhuman tactician with enough gadgets to give James Bond penis envy, The Court of Owls has brought new life, energy, and most importantly a new Gotham City for Batman to discover.
The hero’s ego has been damaged, but bats always return with a vengeance.
If the reader is interested in seeing Oedipus the King performed much the way it would during ancient times there’s a brilliant version from 1957 which involves elaborate costumes and masks. You can see it by following the link below:
All passages from Oedipus the King were taken from the David Grene translation published in the University of Chicago Press book Sophocles 1 edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore. The passages from Circles was published in Emerson: Essays and Lecture The Library of America Edition.
I didn’t mention it in the essay, but in case anyone was interested the riddle of the sphinx is as follows:
“What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?”
“Man.” When he’s born he crawls on four legs, when he grows up he walks on two, and in the evening of his life he walks with a cane making three legs.