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.

Friday, February 28, 2014

What is he Building?

Russel D McLean is currently in seclusion somewhere. The neighbours are hearing a lot of banging and scraping and they're wondering,

What is he building in there?*

*actually they're hearing the banging of keyboards as Russel catches up on some final edits and other work... but still...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Beginning with the End

Guest Post by Chris Irvin

The very first scene I wrote for Federales in late 2012 was to be exactly that – the opening scene of the book.  In medias res, I thought, you got this. Sparing you spoilers, the scene sets the tone, gives off a specific (read: dark) vibe. How’d we arrive there? That’s to be the job of backstory and flashbacks. All will be covered and explained in due time. I’m in the action where I need to be. Then I stumbled upon Benjamin Percy’s (author of Red Moon) essay, “Don’t look back: The Problem with Backstory, in Poets & Writers.
The essay argues against the overuse of backstory, especially by beginning writers, and immediately clicked with me. If I had something closely resembling V, why not begin with A as opposed to cramming it and the rest of the alphabet into the span of a few scenes? I went back to the drawing board. Did I still have backstory in the end? Sure, but it wasn’t the back and forth mess I set out to originally create.*
But what writing that ‘first’ scene did for me was pin down the approximate end and help me outline the rest of the story. Gave me a path for where I needed to go. Was it hard? Oh yeah. I’m a plotter by necessity, but rough plotter and I usually leave the end a bit vague to keep myself interested. If I’ve already written the book/story/etc. in my head, it’s difficult for me to duplicate on paper. So much so that the first draft of Federales I gave to my writing group consisted of the beginning and the end, with an explanation to something of the effect, “stuff happens in the middle. I’ll make it work.” It was a grind. But I learned a lot about my writing process along the way.
I began my current WIP novel in a similar way – found where I wanted to go and asked the question, how do I get there? Well, “there” changed as the first 1/3 of the novel took form, but it still gave me a point to aim for.
Every writer’s process is different, but maybe give beginning with the end a shot. It could be the scene(s) that transforms and feeds the rest of the work.

*For those interested in the merits of backstory, check out Eleanor Henderson’s rebuttal of Percy’s essay, “I Wasn’t Born Yesterday: The Beauty of Backstory.”

Christopher Irvin has traded all hope of a good night’s rest for the chance to spend his mornings writing dark and noir fiction. His short stories have appeared in several publications, including ThuglitBeat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey. His debut novella, FEDERALES, is due out in March 2014 from One Eye Press. He lives with his wife and son in Boston, Massachusetts. For more, visit

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Return of Short Fiction

A Guest Post by Travis Richardson
Holly West: I remember the first time I met Travis Richardson. It was at a SoCal MWA meeting featuring Stephen Jay Schwartz and Attica Locke in conversation about their debut novels. Back then, I knew very few people in the Southern California writing community, but Travis sure did, and he didn't hesitate to introduce me to a lot of them. Despite his penchant for writing gritty crime fiction, he's one of the friendliest people I've ever met.
His latest novella, Keeping the Record, is about a disgraced former home run king whose rampant steroid use has modified the former All-Star into a testicle shrinking, soprano speaking, bra wearing recluse. Hiding from creditors, he discovers that his single season home run record--the only thing he has left, asterisk be damned--is about to be broken by a second baseman. Determined not to let that happen, he sets off for St. Louis from the East Bay, leaving a trail of destruction and bodies in his wake.

I'm so happy he a
greed to write a post for Do Some Damage today.
Travis Richardson: I am very honored that Holly West has asked me to write a guest post here. If you haven't read Mistress of Fortune, I highly recommend that you do. Holly’s Isabel Wilde is a fascinating and complex character who hustles like nobody’s business in 17th century London. I’m looking forward to more books in the series.

olly: Thank you for that, Travis! This sounds like a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society. What else would you like to talk about today?

Travis: I read and write both short stories and novels. I was fortunate to be asked to sit on short story panel at the upcoming Left Coast CrimeConference. I love the compactness and power of a good short story. They rarely get the notice of a novel, outside of a few classics like "The Lottery" and “The Most Dangerous Game” or collections of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe tales. Perhaps that is understandable since a novel is a commitment of several hours/days unlike the minutes it takes to read a short story. The novel is like a multi-state road trip, whereas a short story is like a drive across town (albeit possibly shady and dangerous)... at least in terms of mileage compared to pages.
Yet I feel like we're in a new renaissance of the short story (and even more so the novella). Jumpa Lahiri and Elizabeth Strout have won Pulitzers for collected works (and several collections have been finalists). Short story websites have multiplied, and ebook and print-on-demand technology has made it easier for small publishers to enter the market with anthologies, giving extra opportunities for writers to put out their work.
Good short stories pack a wallop and get to the point, leaving the fat on the cutting board. Lean but developed characters burst onto the page with desires and obstacles they must overcome to get to a swift conclusion. 
If fiction were music, a good short story would be like a hit song: three to five minutes of perfectly executed (or engineered in today’s pop world) instruments and vocals. Thousands of songs are made every year, but only a few make the charts. Same goes with fiction and the explosion of new material that comes out weekly. Like songs on the radio where a listener has picked a specific station over dozens of others, a reader chooses a website or a magazine with short stories and might read one after another similar to listening to a DJ’s playlist. Each story makes an emotional punch, followed by the next one. Yet in the end, a few stories will resonate strong like a song you can’t get out of your head even after hours of random music.
A friend and I recently started a blog, It launched on January 29, Anton Chekhov’s 154th birthday. We are reading and reviewing all of the short story master’s 200+ English translated stories (out of the over 700 he wrote in total). Chekhov began writing out of necessity to take care of his mother and siblings after his father fled town in debt (they paid short story writers back then), and he did it while going through medical school (so what is your excuse for not writing today?). I remember being blown away by his story “The Bet” one summer that started a love not only for his stories, but short stories overall.
Years later I found myself bored with most of the “literary” shorts (Look, another affluent, unhappy couple!) and fascinated with crime fiction. Stories where critical choices have severe consequences. Stories where violence is always an option. Stories with sharp, bloody edges that would leave me wounded afterwards. Stories that I find on Shotgun Honey, Plots With Guns, All Due Respect, Needle (nod to Mr. Weddle) and Thuglit, among other great publications.

I’m hoping the site will help me to not only become more disciplined by writing daily reviews (with the weekends off to catch up) and to study the craft from a lifetime of a single writer’s work, but to see if the doctor/writer still has the power to captivate me as he once did when I was younger. Reading his stories in chronological order, I’ve noticed young Chekhov making observations about his fellow Russians – both the ruling class and the peasants – and poking fun at them, as well as trying different formats. (The Swedish Match is a “murder” mystery.) Although he nails a few poignant moments, I know there will be many more as Chekhov matures.
I think we are in exciting times for shorter, compressed literature, especially in crime fiction. Perhaps it’s not a golden age (silver possibly?), but in a world of short attention spans, digital devices, and Internet word of mouth, I’m hoping that short stories (and fiction in general) will take off again and we can inspire new generations of readers and writers.
Thanks again to Holly for letting me post here today.
Holly: No, thank you, Travis.
You can find out more about Travis Richardson at His latest novella, Keeping The Record from Stark Raving Group is out now

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Fog of Memory


So, I’m writing these historical mysteries now, set in the 1970s and I’m reading a lot of newspapers from the time – newspapers I delivered at the time – and I’m finding a few things that didn’t happen the way I believed they did.

Here’s an example. In October of 1970 in response to a couple of high-profile kidnappings and a murder the Canadian army was in the streets of Montreal. Jeeps, tanks, sandbags, the whole thing. And I remember that during that time my brother took me to the Montreal Forum to see an exhibition game between the Montreal Junior Canadiens and the Soviet national team.


The juniors won the game 6-3 but I remember thinking how different the third period was from the first two. At the end of the second period the Canadiens led 6-1. But the Soviets had the puck for pretty much the whole third period and scored the only two goals.

I remember people joking at the time about how at home the Soviets must have felt with the army in the streets and talking more seriously about what they must have really thought about that. The western world sure looked shaky at the time.

But here’s the thing – that game actually happened in 1969. There was no army in the streets then.

Still, I thought about putting that in Black Rock – could be a cool scene, the young cop taking his little brother to the game. Who’d know it wasn’t the right year? And who’d care, it’s fiction afterall.

But I chose to stick as close as possible to the actual time line of events as they happened. But I don’t think it matters, I think when something is fictionalized it can be as much or as little fictionalized as the author wants.

Here’s something – Stephen King and James Ellroy both wrote about the assassination of JFK. When I finished reading Ellroy’s account I believed that there was a widespread conspiracy involving the mafia and the CIA and Cuban exiles. And when I read King’s version I believed that Oswald acted alone.

So did one of them fictionalize the material too much? Or just enough…

Monday, February 24, 2014

Quick Notes: Sin-Crazed Psycho Killer, Dead Aim, Hyenas, The Last Night of October

Here's another batch of novella reviews:

I've read a couple of the Popcorn line of books and Sin-Crazed is my favorite by far. It's a wicked little psycho-noir that takes place in WWII of all places (is this the first historical psycho-noir?). This is a wild, bloody, violently over the top pulp book that straddles the line between crime and horror. Early on you'll have a sense of where the ending is heading but Smith takes it about ten steps past that point, so even the closest of readers will be surprised. 

A solid Halloween themed ghost story with some genuinely creepy moments. This also has a YA audience potential. My kids are middle-school aged and I'll be making this book available to them (whether they read it is a different story...). A worthy addition to the Halloween canon of books (Dark Harvest, October Dark, others).

Dead Aim and Hyenas by Joe Lansdale

Both of these titles were originally released by Subterranean Press as limited edition hardbacks and are also available as e-books. Both Dead Aim and Hyenas are are Hap & Leonard novellas. Chances are you know about Hap & Leonard and if you do you'll want to go ahead and grab 'em. If you don't, either of these shorter works would serve as a great introduction to these long running series characters.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

You don't deserve a trophy for showing up

by: Joelle Charbonneau

There is this weird trend that I don’t understand – giving kids trophies for just showing up to their sporting event or whatever other activity they’re in.  They show up.  They get a trophy.  For….showing up.  Which really means the parent probably deserves the trophy because they’re the one who brought the kid to the event.

When I was a kid (back in the days of big eighties hair and New Kids On The Block), you didn’t get a trophy for getting dressed in the morning and being dragged to your activity.  You had to earn it.  Oh – don’t get me wrong…at the end of whatever sporting season you would get a certificate signed by your coach saying you were a part of the team, but you didn’t get a trophy.  Trophies were a big deal.  Trophies were earned not because you simply showed up – you practiced hard, you improved and you put that effort into play and won.  The trophy rewarded those efforts and getting that trophy meant something.  Not simply that you had won – because – duh – winning is kind of a huge reward in itself.  NO…the trophy was a reward for all the things that went into the victory.  The practice.  The frustration.  The striving to be better.  The failures (because as we improve there are always failures).   And the ability to pick oneself up after disappointment and get back to work.  

I guess I’m thinking about this participation trophy thing a lot because of the Olympics.  I love the Olympics.  I love the celebration of hard work and dedication and the striving for one’s best even though the odds are stacked against you to win anything.  Showing up – being part of the Olympics is its own reward.  That’s the trophy and for the majority of the athletes that go to the Olympics, the experience and memory of that experience is the only reward they will take away from the Olympic village.  They know that going in.  They know winning a medal only happens for a small number of the athlete’s there.  But that doesn’t stop them.  And when they win a medal – the Olympic version of a trophy – it means more because they had to do more than just show up to receive it.  They had to be their very best.

So, I guess my point is – not everyone deserves a trophy. 

Sorry!  I don’t think it helps build self-esteem.  Kids understand that they won it for doing nothing.  What it does is build an expectation that they simply have to show up in order to be rewarded.  No other effort is required. 

Um...NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!   I’m sorry, but effort is required in life and sometimes the effort isn’t rewarded by a big shiny trophy.  Sometimes the effort and the learning and the accomplishment needs to serve as its own reward.  Because it IS a reward.

This “win a trophy for showing up” attitude isn’t just seen in kids’ sports.  I see it everywhere.  Parents who believe their kids shouldn’t be penalized for not doing their homework on time…after all…they showed up to class.  College kids who complain that they aren’t getting the education they want, but don’t bother to talk to their advisors or to do more than the bare minimum to pass the classes they don’t like.  And writers who feel as if just because they wrote a book they deserve to make a million dollars.

Yeah – you had to know that this was going to swing back around to writing.

When I started writing, I didn’t go into it with the idea that I would be published or that it would become a career.  I wanted to write a story.  So I did.  It was bad, but it was written.  Did I know it was bad when I wrote it?  Of course not!  I was proud of that book.  When people said I should try to have it published I thought, “Yes!  I should.”  And I have the rejections to prove that I tried. 

That book was bad.  I showed up.  I did some work.  But I didn’t deserve the proverbial trophy.  So, I had a choice.  To keep writing or to walk away.   There wasn’t any question in my mind what to do.  I sat down, opened a new book and got to work.  For years, I went to conferences and writer meetings.  I wrote hundreds of thousands of words.  I entered contests and won none of them.  I queried more books and got rejected.  There were no trophies for me.  No positive public acknowledgment of my work.  Not a single one.  But still I showed up.  Because I wanted to be better.  I wanted to push myself to be the best writer I could.  To me…being a writer was a lot like being at the Olympic Games.  I was in the door.  I was competing – not with other writers, but with myself.  And it was that competition – that striving to become better – that was the ultimate goal.

With the rise of self-publishing (and I am in favor of self-publishing so this isn’t about whether or not you should self-publish…those kinds of posts have been written by others way better informed and articulate than I on the subject), the attitude of “I showed up so I should win a trophy” seems to have infiltrated the writing community.  I’ve met dozens of writers who believe that just because they wrote a book they deserve to be published.  They deserve the trophy.   They showed up.  They wrote words.  They want to be published and have hundreds and thousands of readers and they want it now.

This attitude isn’t indicative of all writers.  Not even close.  But, I have seen the “I deserve a trophy” attitude become more and more prevalent in online discussions and in my face to face conversations with other writers.  In those moments, I see people who are so concerned with how fast they can get the trophy that they discount the journey to get it.

The journey is important not just the destination.  It is in the journey that we learn.  We grow.  We become better.  As a writer that journey is about learning the craft and the business and understanding your voice.  The journey is filled with triumphs big and small, terrible failures and low moments where you feel incredibly alone and without skill, and quiet moments of success when you least expect it.    It is that journey not the trophy at the finish line that turns aspiring writers into authors.  The trophy is meaningless without the journey.  But, I would argue the journey has value above measure even when the writer never holds the trophy aloft.   

When I wrote my first novel, I was proud of showing up at my keyboard every day because there was nothing to make me.  There was no reward other than the desire to push myself.  There wasn’t a trophy that I could hold aloft and show to the world.  There was just me and the blank page and the desire to see what I was capable of. 

Are there trophies now?   Well, I guess so because there are books.  Shiny, wonderful books that I am incredibly proud of.  Books that I love and that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  But there’s something they don’t tell you about trophies.  Trophies are acknowledgements of achievements that are in the past.   They are shiny and fun to look at, but those moments are done.  The real question is – what are you going to do in the future?

Admire your trophies or sit down and get to work on a new journey where there is no guarantee of a trophy just for showing up and only the promise of learning during a new adventure?

I’m sitting down to work.  How about you?