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Gotham Central – On the Freak Beat & Corrigan (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

If you ask me, Gotham Central is the highest quality Batman title that has been published in quite some time – if not the most consistent Batman comic book ever published. These final two volumes contain the second half of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s celebrated forty-issue exploration of life within the Gotham City Police Department, providing one of the freshest and most compelling comic book stories ever told in either of the two major comic book publishers. Essentially the story of the ordinary men and women stuck in the superhero world of Batman, it’s a genuine comic book classic.

Taking a shot at the Batman…

It’s hard to imagine a series like Gotham Central working with any other comic book superhero. Superman lives in a world that’s too bright for the noir stylings of the title, and Green Lantern and Wonder Woman don’t have the same sort of relationship with a particularly city. Indeed, the only major DC character who could handle a series like this is arguably (and very arguably) the Flash, something that Rucka seems to acknowledge in his crossover arc, Keystone Kops. Even before Frank Miller reimagined Batman for the gritty urban landscape, the dark urban fantasy of Batman seemed just close enough to the noir storytelling techniques to tell these kinds of stories, about people facing impossible situations well outside their control.

Set inside the Major Crimes Unit of the G.C.P.D., Brubaker and Rucka’s Gotham Central feels a lot like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Beautifully illustrated by Michael Lark and a host of other artists, the series favours old-style grid panels with well-defined gutters, with muted colours and lots of shadows, as if trying to evoke the visual language of the film noir. The writers, like Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, borrow freely from the noir archetypes, the sense of hopelessness and powerlessness at the heart of a city that doesn’t care or understand, festering corruption and indifference.

A cop on the slab…

It’s telling that the department seldom manages anything that could be consider “a victory.” At best, they generally seem ill-equipt for the insanity thrown at them, while at worst they are trapped like pawns in games between heroes and villains that barely bring themselves to acknowledge the existence of the police department. The superb Dead Robin (which stands with Soft Targets as one of the truly great Batman stories), features a killer dressing young boys in outfits like Robin, the Boy Wonder.

When he confesses, he withholds the location of his last victim from the authorities. He claims to want to be part of “the world”, but it’s not the world inhabited by the officers doing their duty to protect and serve. Though they are left to pick up the pieces, they aren’t worth his time. “You still don’t understand why I’m here, do you?” he asks the interrogating officer. “I can’t tell anyone but the Batman. This is my entry point. This is how I enter their world.”

Looks like somebody clipped his wings…

One fantastic sequence, opening the final part of Keystone Kops, features the traditional dialogue between Batman and the villain-of-the-week, as Doctor Alchemy has torn his way through Gotham General Hospital. The pair posture and make the typical threats, but we don’t see them. As we are treated to the dialogue, we witness the destruction caused by their confrontation, the holes in the building, the bodies on the floor. We see in the consequences of this little conflict playing out, something that wouldn’t get a moment of though in any other Batman book.

Batman is an ethereal presence throughout the book. He barely appears, and when he does, he’s cloaked in shadow. We’re led to believe that Batman’s interactions with the police force aren’t nearly as numerous as other examples might lead us to believe. One corrupt cop points out how rare Batman sightings actually are. “Does anyone who’s ever seen the Batman — and I can count the cops I know who have on one hand — think he’s a good guy?” he wonders.

The lights go out on Gotham…

Indeed, we’re far more likely to feel Batman’s presence than we are to actually see it, like when the cops head to Arkham Asylum to conduct an interrogation. All the suspects are already bruised and battered. “We do bedchecks every hour, understand,” Director McKenna explains. “Some time between the one-thirty and two-thirty checks, something happened… the inmates, a lot of them, well… they started presenting injuries. Bruising, mostly. Some bleeding, a couple black eyes. A couple more serious.” The implication is obvious: Batman has been here first.

When Batman does show up, he’s antagonistic and aggressive. He doesn’t offer dialogue, but instead barks orders. Ambushing Renee Montaya in her apartment, he instructs her not to negotiate with Doctor Alchemy. “Desmond,” he curtly states. “Don’t deal.” During the Dead Robin case, the only statement he offers the cops is a warning: “Stay out of my way.” Rucka and Brubaker’s series doesn’t use Jim Gordon, the Commissioner who struck up a rapport with Batman, and I think that this allowed them to explore this darker, more antagonistic relationship between the officers who protect Gotham and the Caped Crusader on its rooftops.

Who we are in the dark…

We don’t see enough of Batman to really confirm it one way or another (and this is a good thing, as it lends the series a wonderful feel), but there’s the sense that this is the sort of “paranoid loner” version of Batman that was often seen in the wake of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Indeed, this is Batman as anything but a simple heroic figure, as seen by the men and women on the streets of Gotham, and it seems that many characters remember a time when it wasn’t so bleak. “You didn’t used to be so cold,” Renee observes, a line that seems to hit home. Even Robin confesses, “I really miss the old days.”

Keystone Kops allows Rucka to contrast the relationship that exists between Gotham and the Dark Knight to that between Keystone City and the Scarlet Speedster – although arguably any other major DC superhero might have worked. Keystone seems genuinely proud of its iconic hero, with the Flash’s logo decorating the airport and signs proclaiming the city “home of the Flash.” Hell, it seems like the Duty Free does a great trade in Flash merchandise, something that probably isn’t featured so heavily for Batman at Gotham Airport.  “Must suck not being able to trust your guy,” Detective Morillo remarks to his colleagues from Gotham.

He who fights monsters…

It’s interesting to consider the complex relationship that Gotham shares with its Caped Crusader. Rucka and Brubaker suggest that Gotham is the best place to set these stories because it hasn’t advanced its relationship with the superheroes in the same way that other cities have. It’s still something that feels like a conventional police department, because it’s never completely embraced the insanity of these sorts of adventures, as opposed to Keystone, which seems much more familiar with the world of sci-fi superheroics.

Montaya is surprised to hear that Keystone’s villains are a collective known as “the Rogues.” She asks, “Christ, they’ve unionised?” Morillo seems surprised that any law enforcement official is unfamiliar with the concept, “Your guys don’t do that?” When Detective Allen is introduced to “the Rogue Profiler for the Keystone P.D.”, he remarks, “We should get one of those.” Part of noir is the tragedy that its protagonists are unable to adapt to change, and are often left behind – arguably the entire Gotham Police Department has yet to adapt to its new reality, even years after Batman first arrived.

Itsy-bitsy Spider…

The relationship between the Police Department and Batman is repeatedly characterised as soemthing akin to a bad romance, perhaps befitting the noir themes of the title. “The Commissioner is making a statement, Detective Burke,” Allen explains as the Bat-signal is dismantled, “announcing in no uncertain terms that the G.C.P.D. and the Batman are no longer on speaking terms.” You’d swear the pair were jilted lovers in the middle of a fight. Even Maggie Sawyer defines the dismantling of the Bat-signal as something akin to the break-up of a long-term romatic relationship. “You know what happened, Simon. He screwed us. What else is Akins supposed to do?”

After all, these cops don’t know Batman quite as well as we know Batman, after decades of media exposure to the stories and character. Batman is one of the most recognisable pop culture icons on the planet, and even those who will never pick up a comic book are intimately familiar with his world and his character. The cast of this series don’t have that luxuy, and it’s fascinating to hear them make various assumptions about the Caped Crusader, all of which seem logical in context. On finding Robin, one of the detectives ponders, “Maybe Batman is one of the parents?” Looks like she’s read Grant Morrison’s Batman run.

It’s alive!

We might know Batman is a hero through years of pop culture exposure, but Rucka and Brubaker go to great lengths to clarify that the Gotham City Police Department doesn’t have any information to allow it to make a similar assumption. They don’t know about his parents, gunned down in an alley. They don’t necessarily know about his no-kill rule. They don’t know that he’s secretly Bruce Wayne, who donates massive amounts to police charities. He’s an unknown to them, an alien entity in an uncertain world.

“We both want to protect Gotham,” Batman assures the Commissioner. “We both want to keep its people safe.” Akins points out he has no evidence to support that assumption. “That’s what I want,” he replies. “But I don’t think that’s what you want.” This prompts Batman to ask, “What else could there be?” Akins replies, “I don’t know.” And he doesn’t. It’s not unreasonable for him to be reluctant to trust a man who dresses as a giant bat based on blind faith.

Don’t mess with Montaya…

Of course, Batman is nothing but a very small supporting character in this title, at least in terms of the panel space that he occupies. He doesn’t even appear during the final arc, Corrigan II. So the fact that the series manages to say so much about him is a testament to the quality of the writers, and really illustrates how wonderfully the series carved its niche into the Batman mythos. That said, there’s a lot more to Gotham Central than offering a unique perspective on the Caped Crusader.

I think that Gotham Central offers the most fascinating portrayal of what “normal” life must look like in a world populated with superheroes and supervillains, where there’s really no frame of reference for what’s going on. I’ve always been a little curious about that – about how ordinary citizens of these fictional worlds must live, knowing that they could get caught up in a random Joker spree or stumble into an abandoned laboratory. The surreal nature of this world is wonderfully summarised as two cops stare at the second body in a Robin costume. One seems surprised that the kid hasn’t been sexually assaulted. “You’d be more comfortable if our perp was molesting the vics?” Josie asks her partner. “Hell yes,” Driver responds. “At least that I’ve seen. This is just… nuts.”

Batman down…

Hell, even Josie, one of the police officers, hides her latent telepathic abilities because she’s worried about the reaction – she’s worried that her fellow officers will treat her as one of the freaks they encounter on a day-to-day basis. “They’ll all think I’m like them,” she suggests, “the other freaks of Gotham.” I think that’s where the series really succeeds. Police officers face tremendous risks every day in the line of duty, from any number of potentially random threats. Rucka and Brubacker just reposition those fears and concerns within the framework of a fictional universe as immensely vast and impossibly fantastical as the DC universe, and create a truly unique and compelling narrative.

These characters know that they are just “small fry” in the grand scheme of things – they know that they’ll never arrest Batman, or they’ll never put the Joker away for life. They know, for example, that drawing a major character as the prime suspect in their murder investigation will lead to nothing but dead ends, because they aren’t the stars of this epic superhero story. They don’t get to have the “big” moments. “You gotta be kidding me,” Driver remarks as he adds up the evidence. “Catwoman?” When his partner confirms it, he responds, “In that case, I want it on record that you are the primary on this one, Josie. Have fun never closing it.” He’s aware of the conventions of superhero comic books enough to know there’s no chance two supporting cast members in a fringe Batman book will bring in Selina Kyle. “Because you’re gonna catch Catwoman? Yeah, right…”

It’s the end of the world as he knows it…

The series features a tie-in to Infinite Crisis, which was the gigantic event unfolding across the DC line at the time, with all its iconic heroes facing impossible odds to save the universe. It feels like a strange element to tie into a story about police officers in Gotham. However, I think that it might be one of the very best tie-in issues I have ever read, right up there with the issues of Swamp Thing written by Alan Moore to tie into Crisis on Infinite Earths. As a rule, I generally worry that big events derail individual stories, and they distract writers from their on-going arcs, but Rucka actually manages to use a big comic book event to tie into the themes of the on-going series.

In short, the tie-in works because you could tell the same story without the crossover. You could read it purely in the context of Gotham Central, and it would still work. It’s a story about a police officer in a metropolitan city dealing with what he perceives to be the end of the world. It’s something so incredibly and vastly outside the realm of his experience that it’s just incredible. It’s a clever take on these big events, which are often written featuring “important” characters doing “important” things. How do “unimportant” characters with no frame of reference and no handy explanations deal with things like this?

Red sky at night…

Detective Allen finds Captain Marvel lying against the ground. He’s rambling about some conflict where the Spirit of God’s Vengeance has done something with universe-shattering consequences. To Allen, it’s all gibberish. “And then he speaks, and I don’t understand what he’s saying.” As he watches the disasters unfold, he thinks, “The things I’ve seen, so many things… Batman in the night sky and the Joker in the box and murder a thousand times over… but nothing like this, nothing ever like this…” The concern that Captain Marvel has for his own family raises some pretty potent concerns about those of “mere mortals” unfortunate enough to get caught in the middle of this huge earth-shattering crisis. “If he’s worried about his family surviving the night… then what hope does mine have?”

I think it perfectly encapsulates the appeal of the series, following officers of the law dealing with situations that are entirely out of their control. After all, how does a cop deal with somebody like Mister Freeze or the Penguin? That’s perhaps my favourite aspect of Gotham Central, but it’s not the only thing about the series to love. As much as works as a high concept superhero series, it also works as very engaging crime story in its own right, revelling in the tropes and clichés of the genre. There’s even a nice little homage to The Silence of the Lambs as Montoya and Allen interrogate an egotistical supervillain, trading information for information. “Quid pro quo,” he teases them from behind a glass wall, not unlike Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter.

These cops always had a weakness for the green…

There are moments where it almost feels like a cross between Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Wire, as Rucka and Brubaker manage to create a rich and diverse cast of complex characters all trying to live their own lives in the shadow the Bat-signal. I think you can judge their success by the pivotal roles that characters like Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya have played in the wake of the forty-issue series. Rucka’s work in particular contains some superb characterisation for the pair, and I think a large part of the appeal of the series is that it feels like an honest-to-goodness character-driven police drama… just with supervillains.

There’s a rich texture that Rucka and Brubaker bring to the story, using old tropes like corrupt cops and the divide between the uniforms who walk the beat and the detectives in the Major Crimes Unit. Even after all these years, the pair paint a Gotham that is just as morally corrupt as Frank Miller made it seem all those years ago in Year One. Sure, there are more “freaks” on the loose, but there’s also the more banal form of evil, with crooked cops murdering with impunity and various illegal underground transactions taking place.

A little birdie told her…

The artwork is awesome. Although Michael Lark’s involvement on the title decreases significantly in the second half of the saga, he’s succeeded by several worth artists. In particular, Stefano Gaudiano gives the series a strange “pop” which manages to at once seem like pulpy noir, but also very much like “pop art”, for lack of a better word. Though muted, there’s an increasing array of colour to be found in these pages, provided by Lee Loughride, which creates this wonderful blend between the gritty urban realism we saw in Year One and the more bright and colourful world Batman now inhabits.

Ed Brubaker departed towards the end of the series, to work at Marvel. Michael Lark would work with him to produce what is my own favourite Daredevil run. Apparently, despite disappointingly low sales, DC comics offered to continue the title perpetually, something that I honestly respect about them. Rucka decided, with the original band broken up, to wrap up the story, giving it something approaching an ending. Of course, borrowing heavily from noir cinema, it’s not a happy ending, nor is it conclusive, but it is an ending. That’s something that very few comic book series get, and I appreciate Gotham Central all the more for it.

Closing the door on this one…

Gotham Central was a great little series, and one of the few boldly original superhero stories ever told by the “big two.” I think, taken as a whole, it’s probably the best volume of Batman stories ever told – at least measured against any other on-going title. It’s clever and it’s insightful, but it’s also well-written and well-drawn. I don’t think any Batman title has been this consistently good.

2 Responses

  1. Great review of an excellent series. While I would have been happy for this team to keep making this book forever, I like how it exists as a finite thing. Sealed off and forever awesome.

    I haven’t been half as thorough in my Dark Knight Rises reading as you guys. Might need to go read Year One.

    • Year One is great. I actually prefer it to The Dark Knight Returns.

      Although, re-reading The Dark Knight Returns might be a good idea. It’s not the same story, but it’s closely thematically related, like Batman Begins was to Year One. All about Bruce without Batman. They even include the bionic exo-skeleton. (Albeit briefly.)

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