On occasion, I buy whole series of books without reading them. You might be thinking, “What? Why? That’s a lot of money on an admittedly huge gamble.” You’re 100% right – it absolutely is. You see, I’m easily suckered into the glitz and glamour of things like “Deluxe Edition” this or “Absolute” that. If you’re a publisher releasing an acclaimed series I’ve never read in a fancy oversized format with a high price tag.. well, you’re going to appeal to the avid collector in me. I’m just so weak willed sometimes!
That’s why, when I saw it some time ago in a store, I bought the Gotham Central Deluxe Edition Vol. 1 hardcover and did not read it until two weeks ago. I decided that this is a story I wanted to opportunity to read all at once, so I patiently waited for the final fourth volume to come out before cracking the cover and reading it (I’ll admit, I peeked inside a couple times). And two weeks ago just happened to be my “once a year mega vacation”, so you better believe I sat and read the entire 40 issue series throughout the week while in the comfort of sun rays while poolside with a nice cup of some kind of slushy, sugary alcohol. And by the time I finished, I had found what is arguably my second favorite Batman story of all time.
Take a look behind the cut for some thoughts on why it should be yours, too.
There is something that any frequent reader of the site will know: I am incredibly unshy about saying that I do not really care for Batman. Yes, when I was younger, I too had all the toys and posters, but as I grew older my attention on the Bat left and focused on superheroes and/or other fictional characters I find more interesting. I still have enjoyed all those classic Batman stories that I’m sure you are willing to namedrop to me (or at least, I assume so), but in general I shy away from Batman unless it’s a creative team that I greatly enjoy (and/or other members of this site force me to read under threat of injury).
Once described to me as “The Wire of comic books”, such is the case with Gotham Central. While not specifically a Batman story in any way (in fact, most of the characters dislike him), it’s the creative team that brought me to the table: Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker. Anyone who has read any of their various crime fiction – from Sleeper to Criminal, or from Queen and Country to Stumptown – will know that when it comes down to it, these are two creators who know how to translate the best of crime into the comic genre. That’s where Gotham Central takes it’s main cues, essentially becoming CSI: Gotham and showing the realistic view point of the average citizen when pushed against the insane criminal behavior of characters like Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter, and the Joker.
Let’s be honest for a minute here: Batman is the least interesting part of any given Batman story. While not to deride or make blanket statements about an entire genre of fiction, in any given Batman story (let alone a superhero story) you know he’s going to win. Somehow, someway, Batman is going to defeat the villain even when all hope is lost and make some kind of wonderful and creative victory that is impossibly clever and only he could ever pull off. That, to an extent, is what the average Batman story has become. To me, this is incredibly unexciting, because while most superhero stories guarantee you a heroic victory, I generally tend to enjoy the longevity of those that don’t. That’s why it’s all of Batman’s supporting cast who really get to be the interesting characters. You have a series of loose cannons and undertained vigilantes who don’t have a degree in being amazing, all of whom who don’t neccesarily share the same strict ethical code that Batman has. It allows
these other character to cross different lines and perform more memorable actions. Look at the Joker, for instance. He is the single loosest cannon in all of DC, but people love writing and reading about him because anything is possible when you use him as a character. Such is the world that Batman lives in.
So while Batman may not be the main focus, we instead focus on the Gotham City Police Department. Primarily the story centralizes on the various Detectives who still day in and day out investigate crime, despite the Batman’s various interfearing. With a full cast of memorable detectives like Marcus Driver, Romy Chandler, and even some probably more familiar names like Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen (who both went on to have larger roles in the extended DCU), Gotham Central was a title that was unafraid to call it’s protagonists losers, because at the end of the day humans can not survive as easily in the world of the superheroic. Batman can take a few bruises from a guy like Doctor Hurt, but what he can do we’ve already established not everyone can – and reading the story about the underdog who has to meet the challenge is always more entertaining. The difference between this title and any other Batman-related title is that you can spend all day cheering for the heroes, but at the end of the day not everyone will be fortunate enough to come home, especially not in one piece. Not everyone gets to do the right thing and keep their jobs, and the heroes do not always get a clean, sunshine fueled and rainbow filled ending of positive moral lessons. No – this is the police department in Gotham City. This job is not easy to live with.
Gotham City sees Rucka and Brubaker trading off writing details to tell stories starring characters they have fine tuned, all of whom have full lives and character histories despite their lack of prominence in the DCU. Sure, you can probably recite the story of how Batman came to be all day and night, but that doesn’t stop a character like Marcus Driver or Romy Chandler from having a full life within the confines of the story. This is what Rucka and Brubaker seek to prove with the series, but also show much more interesting the work of an actual detective can be in comparison to the Batman’s paranormal detective work coupled with his last second heroics. After all, Batman is a character on the edge of the law, and his superiority complex to those around him is often quite apparent. It’s up to Rucka and Brubaker to take him down a few pegs and then explain why they’re doing it.
Rucka and Brubaker for the most part off, each taking an arc of the book to develop a particular character while always keeping the department interconnected. The further the story goes along, the more real it feels despite the impossible backdrop it’s put against, and as much as a book like Powers does a good job of showing police work in the midst of a world of superheroes, it’s Gotham Central really tones down the goofy superheroics and turns up the realistic detective work. It’s essentially liek reading a comic book about your favorite cop drama, but with more open ended possibilities for crime due to the supervillain aspect. Heck, the book opens with Mr. Freeze killing a cop and the department reacting – how on earth are regular guys supposed to stand up to that? Gotham Central, is how.
The books also show the incredible strengths of both writers, writing a rather diverse cast of characters that hits just about every type of character you could imagine. This isn’t a straight story of heroes and villains, but rather a group of people who want to do the right thing to the best of their abilities. The human element is what really makes this title sore above the avera DC title, because as much as it’s fun to look up in the sky and wonder if you’re seeing a bird or a plane, there is always an inherent disconnect between the realism and escapism that comics alternatingly give us as readers. However, for the same reason that we watch gritty television cop dramas to see the ordinary become a little bit more intriguing and extraordinary, Gotham Central – much like the past two most recent issues of Detective Comics – show we don’t need no stinkin’ Batman to do this right, and it turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.Continued below
Somehow this book didn’t sell well when it originally came out, which eventually led it to end post-Infinite Crisis (despite containing the most realistic reaction to the event). This boggles me. In a medium where people constantly cry out for fresh and original ideas, here were two creators and a handful of insanely talented artists taking a – to me – stale idea of a vigilante criminal fighting criminals and putting a much needed spin on the tale. Super hero comic books are a popular form of escapism from the real world, but at the same time one of the primary comments I hear about Batman is that people like him because he’s “realistic.” Here is a book that is more realistic than Batman himself, so what happened? Within the span of 40 pages, I cared more about the life of Renee Montoya than I have the life of Bruce Wayne in a long time, let alone any of the other cops who had an important role in the series – especially a character like Nate Patton (who you’ll have to read the series to find out why). It confuses me that a book that immediately nabbed Eisner noms for Series, Writers, and Penciller failed to find an audience when it was originally published (I say, having only read it in the collected edition just now).
So yes, I have a rather obvious slant in this matter. This entire article is peppered with my general distaste towards the average Batman book (keyword: average… and, to an extent, Batman). However, I’m never opposed to giving a story a look given a number of factors. Gotham Central sought to do something possible in the realm of the impossible, and it’s believability is what gives it it’s charm. Yes, there are aspects of the capes and tights sect within this story, but it’s handled with such an interesting spin that you could believe a man like Two-Face or the Joker could really exist, in our world as opposed to theirs. Nothing in this story is excessively far fetched, and even the wildest use of a supervillain’s super villainy is handled with a realistic tone that brings the story very down to Earth and allows the reader to connect with the story. That’s the most important about this comic: it’s escapism, but it’s more relatable escapism as compared to the average handfull of comic books.
Besides, sometimes it’s just nice to take a look at Gotham from the perspective of someone not dressed in tights.