The story of Gotham Central the comic book is one of the unfortunate misfires in recent industry history. Started in 2003 as a collaborative effort between two of the medium’s best writers, Greg Rucka (52, Whiteout) and Ed Brubaker (The Death of Captain America, Criminal), and artist Michael Lark (Batman: Nine Lives), the series focuses on the men and women who protect and serve Gotham on a day-to-day basis. Sadly, despite a solid, intelligent and well-written 40 issue run of arcs and storylines, including the Harvey and Eisner Award winning ‘Half a Life’, the book struggled to find a consistent following in terms of monthly sales. It sold better in trade-paperback format, but still remains quite an under-represented corner of the Batman comic universe. And now, DC have re-packaged the first 10 issues in a deluxe (expensive) hardback edition.
In shaping their series around the GCPD MCU, the major crimes unit set up by Commissioner Gordon, Rucka and Brubaker organised their long list of characters into ‘shifts’; Rucka would handle the day, Brubaker the night. This distinct structure not only helps the writers to collaborate without stepping on each others toes, but provides coherence for the readers, who are faced by a primary cast of almost twenty characters right off the bat. In terms of continuity, Gotham Central strictly complies with 2003-era Batman narrative: James Gordon has retired as Commissioner, and has been succeeded (for a short while) by Michael Akins. Thankfully, prior knowledge of this is not necessary to enjoy the series in its own right.
Even though it is a police procedural at heart, Gotham Central’s primary thematic aspect regards the relationship between the police force and their love-hate relationship with the city’s own beneficent vigilante, who never plays more than a cameo role. The opening two issue story, In the Line of Duty, introduces the strange predicament of working with the MCU. They handle the major cases, often involving some of Gotham’s more special criminals. However, due to the over-powered nature of these members of the Rogues Gallery, the police often find themselves having to defer to Batman to solve their cases for them.
Issue one sees two detectives stumble across the path of Mr Freeze when following up a tip for a kidnapping. Freeze, a cartoonish, absurd villain in anyone’s book (thanks in part to Schumacher/Schwarzenegger, I’m sure), is given a horrific twist in this realistic setting, as he solidifies and shatters one cop, leaving the other frozen to the spot (literally!) as a witness. The surviving detective, Marcus Driver, becomes personally involved in the ensuing case, quickly becomes resentful of Batman’s above-the-law status. The Dark Knight’s shadow over Gotham is portrayed here as multi-faceted and complicated. He is an inspiration, a safety net, a necessary evil, a deus ex machina, an ideal. He is also a symbol of the city’s special circumstances; both a crime-fighter and a magnet for all of the freakish super-criminals. In that sense, he is a constant glass-ceiling for the law enforcement, a constant reminder of their impotence.
It is dizzying, thought-provoking stuff, and Rucka and Brubaker manage to mine this central concept with great skill and eloquence. However, for the most part, Gotham Central is character driven and very grounded. The second story arc, written just by Brubaker and called ‘Motive’, pushes the superheroic elements of the story (the pursuit of a small-time villain called Firebug) right to the periphery of the narrative. Instead, the focus is on Driver and his softening relationship with new partner Detective MacDonald as they work on a kidnapping-turned-murder case. The mystery unravels along with the cops’ line of enquiry, and there is a Blue Velvet-like undermining of the comfortable suburban upper middle class life. Equally, the aforementioned Rucka-written ‘Half a Life’ is notable for being one of the only ‘coming out’ stories in mainstream comics. Detective Renee Montoya, who currently fills the role of The Question in the DC Universe, is forcibly outed by a blackmailer, and has to run the gauntlet of family, friends and co-workers as they come to terms with the revelation. It stumbles a little once the villain enters, but its treatment of the personal elements of the story is touchingly dramatic.
Integral to this ‘realistic’ vibe is Michael Lark’s artwork. His down to earth, pulpish look is reminiscent of his work on the brilliant Elseworlds graphic novel Nine Lives, as well as David Mazzucchelli’s influential illustrations for Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. It is not knock-out, immediately impressive stuff, but it is tightly structured and communicates the tone and story perfectly. There are barely any splash pages, or traditional ‘stand-out’ moments, suggesting that Gotham Central depicts a world without big pay-offs and spectacle. Instead, Lark uses sharp, small frames, focusing on expression, gesture and interaction.
In the grand scheme of the Batman Universe, Gotham Central is quite unique. It is also powerfully written and sensitively drawn. However, probably due to its spin-off vibe, it will never sell like storylines culled from the Detective Comics or Batman series. It also does not approach the ‘graphic novel’ crossover status of The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns, even if it does come close to both of them in realisation and execution. It is a shame, as this run is deep, witty and thought-provoking on many levels. Nevertheless – buy it or borrow it; please read this book.
8 January 2009