Gotham Central, Vol. 1
Created by: Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark
Published by: DC
ISBN: 1401201997 (Amazon)
I grew up loving superheroes. As a first grader, I faithfully watched Spider-Man catch thieves—just like flies. In fourth grade, I picked up my first Marvel comic on a road trip. In fifth grade, my mother took me to my first comic shop. And for the next seven years, I was wholly devoted to the superhero and the hero’s genre. I belonged to superheroes and they belonged to me.
It was the kind of relationship that is built on a foundation of passive aggression and enablement. The heroes would string me along and I would love them for it.
And then, at long last, I grew up. Or something. That probably comes off as being a bit of snobbery, the idea that no longer being a child, I put away childish things. A.K.A. superheroes. While there’s certainly some truth to the idea, it’s probably a bit of an overstatement as well. While the superhero genre is nearly overwhelmed by childishness and pandering, this isn’t entirely the case. There are occasional examples worth seeking out and spending time with. But I will say this:
Good comics that are also superhero books are pretty rare.
So while I’ve almost entirely abandoned the genre, I will occasionally pick up superhero books if a) they’ve come highly recommended or b) they glow with arcane magicks. We’ve seen two recent examples of just how well Option A has worked out for me. Still, undaunted, I picked up Gotham Central for the same reason: I had heard good things about it. It also helped that the three creators involved (Rucka, Brubaker, and Lark) have also produced work that I’ve enjoyed.
(I may as well also note here that I haven’t heard anything about any books conferring arcane anythings, let alone books that would glow while in the act of conferring.)
So after the last two underwhelming experiences, I was a bit reluctant to try out another romp through the DC Universe. It’s not that I didn’t believe that fun or interesting stories could be told there. More, I just believed that those kinds of stories weren’t currently finding their way to audiences. But I gave DC another chance despite my reluctance and because Gotham Central is actually pretty good, it kind of justifies my opinion.
See, the thing is, every character in Gotham Central, a book about precinct detectives in Batman’s Gotham, is at odds with the DC Universe. These are detectives trying to solve cases in a world where Batman can seemingly solve any crime so long as he’s given enough time (there is only one of him after all). So really, less than being the only way that families and loved ones can gain closure after a terrible crime, these detectives really just find themselves stuck in a sort of game of Cops and Batman. The goal of the game is of course to close cases before Batman does. The detectives pretty much rely on the fact that Batman will get the collar if they’re too lazy or too dense or too unlucky or too overmatched, so the book tends to play a lot on their frustrations with a game that is rarely tipped in their favour.
Of course, most of this is subtext and Rucka and Brubaker rarely get mired in that aspect of Gotham Central's world, but it’s always there, always present. And it goes a long way to explain these detectives’ short tempers and overtly competitive feeling toward Batman. They all seem well aware of the idea that were there more Batmen, they would all be obsolete, unnecessary relics of that brief period of law-enforcement history when there were no indefatigable costumed vigilantes.
And because this foundation of the story generally remains in the shadows—much like the Bat himself, only appearing at opportune moments to assert his presence and remind us of just whose city we’re visiting—Brubaker and Rucka are able to tell some just plain good crime stories without having to worry so much about heroes and villains. Of course Batman has to make his appearances and of course his rogue’s gallery is bound to take their part as well, but Gotham Central succeeds in keeping a lot of that noise off-screen, where we’re aware of its presence but can pretend alongside the detectives that its the normal people, the citizens, victims, and detectives who are the ones who matter.
It’s all part of the game and Rucka and Brubaker are happy to help us play along.
“It is finished.” Batman is like a Creepy Jesus.
Michael Lark, for his part as artist, is probably the perfect choice to help the reader imagine that these detectives’ cases matter. He illustrates these men and women with a subdued, sober-handed treatment, eschewing both the more bombastic fantasy-indebted artwork that people will commonly associate with the genre and the facsimile-tracings that have seemed to multiply over the last decade. With Lark’s artwork, we are much more easily drawn into the illusion that these stories matter—that were these detectives not closing cases, Gotham’s civilized aspect would quickly grind to a halt. I loved Lark’s work for its ironic insistence that we could trust what we saw.
So far as the writing and storytelling goes, with but one complaint, my entire experience in Gotham Central was exactly what spending time in such a story should be. I was excited by the cat-and-mouse chase. I was involved in the wonderful cast of detectives and their host of interpersonal troubles, affections, and loyalties. I was anxious for them to solve their murders and kidnappings, if only to see them stick it to the Bat, to sneer at the Fates as it were.
My sole issue with regard to the story is in regard to the hinge on which each case is solved. For all the hard work these detectives put in, the solutions they find (at least in this first volume) each rest on unbelievable discoveries, recollections, or leaps of logic. Raymond Chandler would not be impressed. Rather than reasonably deduce a perpetrator’s identity or whereabouts, these detectives come across their answers by what amounts to narrative magic.
And as much as that disappointed me as a lover of the intrigue of a good detective story, it really does fit Gotham Central squarely in a universe where miracles and metanatural occurrences are a matter of course. A universe where a yellow sun can make a guy more powerful than a locomotive, where an invulnerable Amazonian warrior would employ a lasso as a primary weapon and still do okay, where a wealthy man in what amounts to a Halloween costume could keep the entirety of a criminal city in line (for the most part). In the end, even Gotham’s police force finds itself working miracles and making use of uncanny powers of observation, insight, and prediction, marking them as superheroes in their own right. In a world of Batmans and Supermans, these officers of the law will never be seen as more than just normal people, but in comparison to we readers, they are powerful examples of how in a fantasy world, even the mundane are creatures of fey magic.
I very much enjoyed the three stories contained in this volume and look forward to reading the rest of the series.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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