Just when you think there isn’t an original concept left in comic book storytelling, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka come up this ingenious concept: what is it like to police a comic book city – and the one populated with the same sorts of loons which give Batman a headache? Brubaker and Rucka construct a truly surprisingly awesome noir police procedure that takes a gutter’s-eye view of one of the darkest cities ever to appear in comic books. It manages to combine the two aspects brilliantly, simultaneously bringing a fresh perspective to both the Batman mythos and the police procedural.
Here we have collected roughly half of the forty-issue run on the title, the first two years. It’s an absolutely stunning basic premise. Being a cop anywhere is tough, but in a city where knocking on the wrong door could see you staring down the wrong end of a freeze ray or any random shooting could herald a new crimewave by the Joker, it’s next to impossible. Brubaker and Rucka acknowledge that the core concept of noir is that decent people never really have a chance – they caught up in events that are of a much larger scale than themselves, and they are trapped by it.
Gotham City as imagined here harks back to Frank Miller’s Year One – it is even illustrated the same way, with muted colours and a New York sensibility. There are corrupt cops and bureaucracy which stand in the way of anybody attempting to make any sort of a difference to the way things work. This is a story that wouldn’t really work in any other superhero city, but benefits from Batman’s cemented place as a pulp crime hero. I’ve read that Gotham Central inspired the Gotham we saw in The Dark Knightand I believe it (there are obvious echoes of one particular story in this collection, but the theme of the comic resonates throughout the film).
Batman here is a figure very much in the shadows. He appears in maybe a handful of panels in the entire collection and has a few sentences. He’s a ghost. And yet he shapes the city. He divides the detectives. Some (like Marcus Driver) see him as the craziness which draws the freaks to the city, while others (like Crispus Allen) see him as the glue which holds the city together. His presence soaks through the comic, even though he doesn’t appear too often – this isn’t a story fo Batman, this is the story of the city he has created.
And yet, despite the fantastic elements (In the Line of Duty, the first story in the collection, features Mister Freeze, for example), it still feels like a real true and gritty noir story. Red tape ties the use of the Bat signal, for example (they have to keep a civilian in the office to operate it), and overtime is the topic of the day. Rucka and Brubaker craft a complex array of characters, an ensemble of near twenty people, in a relatively short number of issues, but make each feel like a real character rather than a stock figure – each has their own unique identity (for example, I love seeing Crowe and Davies argue about random facts or debate random issues). There is a faint whisp of soap opera in that we see the lives and loves of these characters, but that only makes them all the more human, even though they may find themselves caught in conflicts between demi-gods.
These are cops, honest and hard-working, and the series follows them through all the events you would expect a police story to, but Brubaker and Rucka manage to make it intersect with the comic book world in fascinating ways. Motive (the second story) arguably offers the best example of this intersection, which I won’t spoil, as the men and women of the GCPD find themselves chasing a new fire-themed villain and investigating the death of a young girl at the same time. There are several such wonderful intersections between fantasy and harsh reality throughout the collection, but that stands out as a high point.
The story arcs contained in the collection are mostly hits. Each storyline typically follows a case investigated by either shift at the M.C.U., which is the unit that gets charged with investigating all the freaky stuff which goes on in Gotham. The only real standalone issue, Daydreams and Believers, is an odd-ball story which focuses on the civillian employed to turn on the Bat signal while serving as a catch-up storyline on the first year of the series. Beyond that the collection features the fantastic arc Soft Targets, in which a sniper terrorises Gotham, and the equally compelling Unresolved, which focuses on the disgraced Harvey Bullock and the high school bombing that still haunts him.
The collection also features the Eisner-award-winning arc Half a Life, in which Rene Montoya is outed as a lesbian by mysterious figure. I appreciate what the arc does – too many female comic book characters are white, middle-class and heterosexual – but it didn’t really seem too amazing to me. It’s a well-told story which features Montaya’s sexuality as more than simply a plot point (it does explore why she has to live in the closet), but it isn’t breathtakingly amazing. I can’t really spoil the story by discussing who the villain of the piece is (as, befitting the theme of police procedurals, most stories are structured as mysteries), but they are well chosen to fit the themes that Rucka works into the arc. It’s a solid, entertaining read, but not the best of this collection. That’s Soft Targets.
The series seems at time to be held captive to Batman continuity – set at that awkward stage of Batman lore when Commissioner Gordon is nor longer commissioner of the G.C.P.D., replaced by Commissioner Akins, and perennial officer Harvey Bullock is off the force. At the start it seems like a bit of a curse, as Montaya is really the only ‘familiar character’ who serves to welcome us to the world, but as the stories progress, it seems like more of a blessing. The stories are as much a victim as bigger storytelling changes in the Batman universe as its central characters are, and it creates a larger sense of a city that is spiralling out of control. Having a vague idea what is coming, I can only imagine that the feeling will increase as the series heads towards its conclusion.
There’s really nothing more to discuss without potentially spoiling this wonderful collection. It is one of the most interesting takes on Gotham that I’ve read, and it’s thought-provoking and, above all, highly entertaining. I can’t recommend this one enough.