Saturday, March 1, 2014

Gotham Central: The Ed McBain of Comics

Scott D. Parker

(Here's a little article I wrote for Criminal Element.)

If Ed McBain wrote a comic book, it probably would have been a lot like Gotham Central. You recognize the city name, of course. It’s Batman’s stomping grounds. It’s the town where all the wackos come out to play, wreak havoc, and then go home to Arkham Asylum. And, aside from Commissioner James Gordon or the occasional detective (I’m thinking Harvey Bullock here, not Chief O’Hara), you never really see Gotham’s boys in blue unless they’re in the background, cleaning up after Batman has taken care of business.

That deficit ends with Gotham Central. Ed Brubaker (before he bumped off Captain America) and Greg Rucka (before he wrote Batwoman) teamed up to create what amounts to the 87th Precinct in Gotham. Batman is in this series—we are talking Gotham City—but he’s rarely on stage. The focus here is the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit of the G.C.P.D., the blue-collar guys and gals who punch a timecard, cash a measly paycheck, and try to earn some respect in a town with a superhero.

The interesting thing about Gotham Central is its unique place in the DC Comics universe. After Congress indirectly killed crime comics in 1954, the genre all but disappeared. It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that noir-themed, non-superhero titles started making a tentative comeback. The irony, however, the so-obvious-it’s-easy-to-ignore fact, is that most of all published comics, and all superhero titles, focus on crime. In the 1930s and 1940s, Superman and Batman fought crooks who wanted to rob banks or steal secrets for the Nazis. By the 1970s, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Spider-man faced teen drug use. Even a seemingly non-crime character like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman deals with crime, in this case, theft. Just as it’s difficult to escape cop shows on TV and in the bookstores, it’s difficult to escape the near universality of crime and mystery themes in comic books.

But instead of real cops like the ones who fill the squad rooms of “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” or “The Wire,” the cop’s role always went to the guy in the tights and a cape rather than the one with the uniform. Thankfully, Batman never muttered “Book’em, Jimmy” to Commissioner Gordon. Real cops seemed an afterthought. When regular folks who wore a badge—and a few that didn’t—started to show up within the covers of comic books, more often than not, they were solo warriors: private investigators (Max Allan Collins’s “Ms. Tree”), gangsters (Collins’s Road to Perditon), or ones that are more difficult to pinpoint (Brian Azzerello’s 100 Bullets).

That’s what makes Gotham Central so special: it showcases an entire group of people whose only common bond is the badge they all wear. It’s not the story of just one individual and how he or she reacts to the pressures of a job whose main rival is a man dressed like a bat. It’s the story of all of them. Sure, certain players step to center stage for a story or an issue, but only for a moment. The group, according to Brubaker and Rucka, is more important. And not all of them survive.

With superhero titles, you’ve got the obvious elephant in the room: if a hero’s got his name on the cover, he ain’t likely to get offed—despite major marketing stunts. Batman might get hurt or beat up, but good, old Alfred will patch him up in time for next month’s issue. The detective of the G.C.P.D. don’t have that luxury. At any time, any one of them could find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun or, in the case of the first two detectives we meet in Issue #1, the barrel of Mr. Freeze’s ice weapon. What? You didn’t think the suits of the M.C.U. only do business with run-of-the-mill hoods, did you? This is Gotham City. Nothing is normal.

Off-duty, Detectives Driver and Field get a hot tip about a kidnapping case they’re working. They knock on an apartment door.  A scared, weasel of a man opens it, and who else but Mr. Freeze is inside. He ices Fields, then traps Driver to the wall, purposely not killing him. The ice man proceeds to question Driver using Fields as leverage that villain Victor Fries can chip away at, literally. Needless to say, Freeze escapes, Fields dies, and Driver burns with a desire for vengeance, a sentiment the rest of the detectives in the squad room share.
There, early in the series, lies the crux, the theme of the entire run: how can regular-joe detectives compete, and not only against Batman as a detective? How can they hope to thwart villains who are so over the top that nothing normal applies to them? It is a constant battle in the souls of the men and women of Gotham Central, a battle not all will face with the same stoicism. But face it they must, and they do so to the best of their abilities, both collectively and in the quiet moments when they’re all alone.

It’s during these quiet times when the artwork of Michael Lark and others really shines. Most of the coloring has a sepia-tinged quality, harkening both to nostalgia and the vague ambiguity of modern life. Even though this is a cops-and-robbers title, this isn’t “Dragnet” with its crystal clear delineation of good and bad. Brubaker, Rucka, and Lark infuse their tales with a humanness that is both refreshing and humbling. It’s just plain real.

The obviously realistic aspect of the stories is their focus on legit police work. Often, you’ll see pairs of detectives conducting investigations, interviewing witnesses, casing shady establishments, looking through files both on paper and pixels—all the boring parts that happen during the commercials of “CSI: Miami.” Along the way, the detectives remind the reader that they’re human and have to deal with human issues. Perhaps the most prominent story arc, “Half a Life,” involves the outing of Renee Montoya by Two-Face. In the span of five issues, Montoya’s work life and personal life are turned upside down. Not only does she have to face the snide remarks by her colleagues, but also the reaction from her parents, whose strict religious beliefs provoke them to turn their backs on their only daughter. Interestingly, one of Detective Montoya’s staunchest allies is the Dark Knight himself. They share a professional relationship that grows during these stories and extends beyond the conclusion of Gotham Central.

For the other detectives, Batman lurks in the shadows, a constant, often unseen presence. All the detectives riff on “The Bat,” whether he’s good or bad. In a telling moment, late in the Mr. Freeze story arc, Detective Driver identifies Freeze’s ultimate goal and tells the commissioner (not Gordon) to use the signal. When questioned on his turnabout, the detective replies, resignation all over his face, “There are too many lives involved now, sir. It’s too big for us.” Later in the series, one of the detectives utters a familiar lament: “We’re always chasing Batman.” That kind of demoralization grinds down the spirits of even the most strong-willed cop. That kind of acceptance can kill the soul, and marks the stark contrast between the cops and Batman: he is The Other. He is alien to normalcy. Almost without exception, he is drawn in shadow, barely there, just his eyes shining out from the darkness. Think of those scenes in “Batman Begins” where Batman crouches outside Jim Gordon’s house. He’s there one minute, gone the next. Batman has his own motives and they don’t often align with those of the detectives, a point made abundantly clear when he saves the life of an innocent victim rather than a detective’s.
You get the sense from the detectives in Gotham Central that they’d rather just collar regular criminals rather than deal with the costumed crazies, Batman included. I’d offer a counter argument to the good men and women of the G.C.P.D. Being a cop in Gotham ain’t that bad. Most of the time, Batman will save the day. All you have to do is punch a timecard and try to keep your personal life upright and secure, as difficult as that can be when you live in Gotham City.

They should imagine being cops in Metropolis, where truly superhuman bad guys constantly show up to try and take out the local superhuman good guy. Talk about your bad jobs. With all the destruction in downtown Metropolis, however, I bet the construction industry always has job openings. If the cops in Gotham hate being in Batman’s shadow so much, maybe they should move to Metropolis and become construction workers.

No comments: