Before Batman’s Court of Owls, DC’s Top Secret Society Was VULTURE
At first glance, the similarities between VULTURE and the Court of Owls are so obvious that the latter could be considered a rip-off of the former.
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Action Comics #1039’s “Martian Manhunter: A Face in the Crowd” Part Three Backup Story, on sale now from DC Comics.
The DC Universe is home to many criminal organizations. Few, however, have had such a devastating impact as the Court of Owls. First introduced in Batman #2 (by Scott Synder, Greg Capullo, Johnathan Glapion, FCO Placencia, Richard Starkings, and Jimmy Betancourt) as a cabal of Gotham City’s oldest families who used their political and financial influence to rule the city from the shadows. Gradually they evolved into an international secret society whose devotion to the dark god Barbatos helped facilitate the series of events that ushered in the era of Infinite border.
However, the Court of Owls isn’t the first secret bird-themed organization to threaten DC heroes. Early in his heroic career, the Martian Manhunter came face to face with VULTURE, a criminal cartel that shares many uncanny similarities with the Court of Owls.
Although Martian Manhunter believed he had completely dismantled the criminal syndicate, VULTURE made a triumphant and terrifying return in Action Comics 1039 “A Face in the Crowd, Part Three” (by Shawn Aldridge, Adriana Melo, H-Fi Design and Dave Sharpe). This updated incarnation highlights the similarities and differences between the two avian-themed organizations.
VULTURE debuted in House of Mystery #160 (by Jack Miller and Joe Cera). He established the group as an international crime syndicate that used mutant agents to commit crimes across the planet. In his attempt to investigate the secret organization, Martian Manhunter used his shapeshifting abilities to impersonate Marco Xavier, a recently deceased playboy with underworld ties, and filtered VULTURE. Determined to bring down the organization from within, Marian Manhunter used his disguise as Xavier to rise through the ranks of VULTURE, publicly portraying himself as a ruthless criminal while secretly sabotaging VULTURE’s operations.
However, “Marco” quickly aroused the suspicions of high-ranking VULTURE agent Faceless, who lured Martian Manhunter into a trap. He revealed that he had been the real Xavier, having faked his death to fully embrace a life of crime. Although Xavier nearly killed Martian Manhunter by exploiting his fire weakness, the heroic shapeshifter was eventually able to defeat him, seemingly defeating VULTURE once and for all.
At first glance, the similarities between VULTURE and Court of Owls seem so obvious that the second looks like a rip-off of the first. Both are vast organizations closely tied to both the underworld and operatives in positions of political power, enabling them to organize and commit large-scale crimes and exert their influence over the unsuspecting populace without draw attention to them. Each is also highly secretive, resorting to extreme and often deadly means to preserve their secrets and forcing those who wish to join their ranks to undergo torturous tests to prove their devotion to the organization. To top it off, VULTURE and the Court of Owls model nearly every aspect of their identity around their respective avian mascot, incorporating raptor-themed etymology into their internal nomenclature and wearing masks that resemble vultures and owls, respectively. owls.
However, while there are many undeniable similarities between VULTURE and the Court of Owls, subtle differences between the organizations set them apart from each other. VULTURE is a relatively realistic criminal syndicate inspired by real-world international cartels. The Court of Owls, on the other hand, is an aristocratic secret society with ties to the occult, with more recent appearances describing them as a sectarian organization with quasi-religious overtones. In turn, VULTURE has shown itself to be more willing to work with their superhero nemesis’ fellow villains than the Court of Owls, collaborating with several of Martian Manhunter’s oldest foes to exact revenge on their common nemesis during their recent reappearance.
Martian Manhunter’s initial conflict with VULTURE is still remembered as one of the defining moments of the Mars Manhunter’s career, and their return re-establishes why they’re perfect villains for the shapeshifting superhero. Unlike the majority of the Martian Manhunter’s Rogues’ Gallery, who face their superpowered enemy directly in the open, VULTURE prefers to attack the Mars Manhunter from the shadows. They hide in plain sight and use their deep understanding of the shapeshifting superhero’s abilities to strike him down in ways few other villains can. As masters of disguise, VULTURE uses one of the Martian Manhunters’ greatest strengths against him, adapting their strategies to reflect the more combative hero he has become in the years since their initial confrontation, ensuring that ‘they’re always one step ahead of him.
While the Court of Owls may be more well known, VULTURE has used many of its tactics with much more success against a much more powerful enemy. While it may have taken them several decades to make a comeback, VULTURE’s success during their brief time in business shows why they’re considered one of the Martian Manhunters’ greatest enemies.
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