20 April 2008

The Greatest Gotham Stories Ever Told

DC Comics published forty issues of Gotham Central from 2003 to 2006. The magazine won admiring reviews, industry awards, and consistently low sales. This comic book stretched the bounds of storytelling within the oldest superhero universe, but ultimately showed the persistent dominance of the traditional superhero tale.

I first saw Gotham Central recommended by comics creator Eric Shanower. But that was before I'd decided to explore my fanboy roots through the Robin characters, so I didn't follow up. Last year I read all five "graphic novel" collections of the series with pleasure.

Created by writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker and penciler Michael Lark, Gotham Central was a police procedural set in Gotham City, the home of the Batman and all his crazy nemeses. The stories read like Ed McBain's novels of the 87th Precinct in comics form, except that every other criminal out there is the Deaf Man--with super powers.

The detectives and commanders of Gotham's police department depend on the half-crazy vigilante named the Batman to capture those crazies, but also resent their dependence. Ordinary cops get caught in the sights of mad criminals like Mr. Freeze, the Joker, and the Firefly. Gotham politics and society are corrupt. Some citizens have become fixated on supervillainy, trading souvenirs from crime scenes on eBay or committing spectacular crimes to gain attention. And in the middle of that all is the GCPD's Major Crimes Unit, trying to solve what crimes they can, manage their personal lives, and keep from beating each other up.

The series was not without its weaknesses. As in some procedurals in prose and on television, the realistic depiction of police work means a large, changing cast. The noirish art style and fly-on-the-wall dialogue which work so well at setting the mood also make it hard to keep all those detectives straight. One character reveals some psychic powers, a development that never gets fully explored but bends the series' dedication to regular folks. Even so, these stories are far grittier than the grittiest Batman melodramas.

The Gotham Central series eventually came to focus on two partners in the Major Crimes Unit, detectives Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya, both introduced in earlier DC stories (Montoya actually in the animated Batman TV show). A major ongoing subplot was Montoya's relationship with her traditional parents, aghast that she was in love with another woman.

It looks to me like DC tried to tie issues 33 through 37 more closely to its superhero world, perhaps in an effort to boost sales. This story arc, collected in Gotham Central: Dead Robin, follows the investigation of a serial killer murdering young men in Robin costumes--meaning that the first issue could scare comics readers into wondering if the real Robin has died. Subsequent covers feature the Batman and the Titans instead of series regulars. Tim Drake eventually enters the scene, as quietly decent as ever, and the Batman's never been scarier. But that superhero celebrity didn't save Gotham Central, and the series ended with issue 40.

As soon as this comic book was canceled, Allen became the human host of the Spectre, a Golden Age comics figure who embodies the avenging wrath of the murdered. Montoya took the identity of the Question, a 1967 creation for Charlton Comics. I can't think of a clearer example of how superhero stories dominate mainstream American comic books than how that genre literally swallowed up the heroes of Gotham Central.

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