Friday, January 11, 2013

Recommended Reading for 1/11: Gotham Central

I don't think there's a world, real or fictional, where being a police officer is an easy job. Imagine how much worse it is in a world where you could get called in for a domestic disturbance between a deranged clown and his harlequin girlfriend, where an umbrella left at the train station could be a machine gun, or where your patrolman's cap could have mind control circuitry sewn into it. And after a hard day's work, making sure the people of your city are safe, you see the evening news or newspaper, and some freak who dresses like a bat gets the credit for making sure the city is safe. These are the stories of the men and women who protect the streets of Gotham City. This is Gotham Central.

Published by DC Comics starting in 2003, Gotham Central was the brainchild of writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, neither of them strangers to Batman and the Gotham City Police Department (from here abbreviated GCPD). Rucka has already written Detective Comics for a celebrated run, introducing new officers like Detective Crispus Allen, bringing Maggie Sawyer over from the Superman titles, and spending time redefining classic characters like Renee Montoya and Harvey Bullock; Brubaker had just finished a substantial run on the flagship Batman title, and was still the ongoing writer on Catwoman. Now, the two respected crime writers, partnering with artist Michael Lark, would be writing stories focusing on the police of Gotham City, both new and old.

Gotham Central took place during an odd time during the history of the GCPD. Legendary Commissioner James Gordon had retired after being shot down by a corrupt officer, and his right hand man Harvey Bullock had quit the force after being responsible, indirectly at least, for the attempted assassin's death. New commissioner Michael Akins had a less cordial relationship with Batman than Gordon, and this attitude was reflected in many of the officers appointed by, or serving closely with, the new commissioner. This tension was part of what made the series different from other Batman stories focusing on the GCPD. Batman was neither menace to be hunted nor well regarded ally, but something to be mistrusted by permitted, although this would change as the series progressed.

The series focused on the two "shifts" of the GCPD; the day shift, stories featuring nearly all new characters, was written Ed Brubaker, while the night shift, featuring mostly established characters Rucka had written in Detective Comics, was written by Rucka. Series tent-pole arcs featuring both casts were cowritten by the two. Despite there being two writers involved in the series, the voice was consistent. The two writers worked together well, and a Montoya scene written by Brubaker was almost indistinguishable from one written by Rucka.

Brubaker's stories mostly focused on Marcus Driver, a recently promoted detective who believed in by the book investigation and who actively resented the GCPD's need for Batman. Exacerbated by the loss of his partner in the first issue of the series at the hands of Mr. Freeze, Driver would never be a fan of Batman. Along with Driver, the night shift is headed by Lieutenant Probson, another by the book cop, Driver's partner, Josephine "Josie Mac" McDonald, appeared in a series of backups before, but was fully fleshed out here. Romy Chandler, another second shift detective, was romantically linked with Driver, which added an element of interpersonal dynamic we didn't see in the first shift.

As I said, Rucka's night shift featured the better known characters. Renee Montoya dated back to the early 90s, having been created for Batman: The Animated Series. When Rucka started on Detective, he introduced Crispus Allen as his audience proxy, the new man on the force who could have things explained to him. By the point of Gotham Central, he had been partnered with Montoya for some time and was an established part of the GCPD. In charge of the Major Crimes Unit night shoft was maggie Sawyer, a character who moved to Gotham from Metropolis after the "No Man's Land" storyline. As one of comics' first out lesbian characters, her presence would be important when the stories most celebrated stories happened.

That story is the Eisner Award winning "Half a Life." In it, Renee Montoya begins receiving photos that would out her as a lesbian. Eventually she is outed, and it is revealed that Two-Face is behind the whole thing, having fallen in love with Montoya during earlier encounters. The story is the perfect example of what Gotham Central does best: character. Firstly, it takes a supervillain, a character who is by his nature somewhat unrealistic, and places them in a realistic context. Two-Face is played as a character with many levels here, and one who is tragic, a lost soul who can't understand why Montoya simply won't love him. It's Montoya's characterization, though, that won the story an Eisner. The agony that she goes through, the snide comments and alienation from many of her fellow members of the GCPD, and her being disowned by her parents, reflected the experiences of so many people who had gone through similar trials. It was a beautifully rendered and deeply human story, something that doesn't often happen in capes and tights comics.

My favorite story over the course of the series was not "Half a Life," despite it being excellent. No, my favorite was "Soft Targets," a crossover between the two shifts, and features the villain that fans had been waiting a year to see in the book: The Joker. This is one of my favorite Joker stories ever, partially because the Joker's plan, one that begins with an uncharacteristically mundane and low body count spree with a sniper rifle, ends with the Joker delivering a particularly chilling coup de grace to his scheme. Rucka and Brubaker's Joker has a wicked sense of humor, one founded more on irony than on typical punchlines, and that is wonderfully creepy. But beyond a great Joker plot, what's interesting about the story is seeing how the people who aren't Batman and his family deal with the Joker popping up. Batman takes the Joker seriously, but the people of Gotham are, not unexpectedly, terrified of him. The police go immediately on high alert and the civilians just hide in their homes until they know he's off the streets. Showing this ups the stakes; Joker is always a threat, but seeing him as an object of terror is a different reaction than what we're used to as readers.

As serious as much of the series is, there were also some light moments. Issue eleven was a one off called, "Daydreams and Believers," about Stacy, the Major Crimes Unit temp whose job it is to turn on the Batsignal, since as long as a civilian is doing it the police are not technically calling an unlawful vigilante themselves. Aside from that fun fact, the issue is a great piece to see inside the head of a "normal" person exposed to all the terror of Gotham. Also, she has a crush in Batman and regularly daydreams about him unmasking for her and the two beginning a relationship. It's a nice break between all the intensity of the other arcs.

But, in the end, the series comes around the Montoya's journey. In an early issue, we see Jim Corrigan, a corrupt member of the Gotham CSI squad. The name is familiar to any major DC fan, but by the end of the series, the reader knows it's nothing but a red herring. As Montoya's life slowly continues to fall apart, she butts heads with Corrigan, at one point beating him badly to get him to hand over evidence he stole that might exonerate Cris Allen from a charge of unnecessary force. As Allen tries to finally prove Corrigan's corruption, the rivalry reaches its climax with Corrigan killing Allen. This pushes Montoya beyond her limits, and the series ends with Montoya having given up her badge and moving toward the place she will be at the beginning of 52.

While various artists worked on the series, the principal artist was Michael Lark. Lark's gritty style was  perfectly suited for this series. A bleak pall hangs over everything, and rightly so in a city that seems to be cursed with violence and madness. His characters can be attractive, even beautiful, but they all seem real; proportions are perfectly within reality. His Joker is a personal favorite of mine, and I have a special spot in my sketchbook to someday get either a Lark Joker or Cris Allen.

There are plenty of other arcs in Gotham Central. Brubaker's "Unresolved" is one of  the best Mad Hatter story ever, and features the return of Harvey Bullock. "Keystone Kops" has one of Flash's Rogues appearing in Gotham, and Montoya on a clock to save one of the GCPD's own. And "Dead Robin", the final arc shared by Brubaker and Rucka, poses an interesting question: What would the GCPD do if they found Robin's corpse? Every issue is a page turner, a solid crime story, and a tale of the hard life of a cop in Gotham.

While originally collected in a series of shorter trades with issues missing, all of Gotham Central has now been collected in four substantial trades. All are in print and available at good comic shops everywhere.

No comments: