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
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
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
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
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.
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.