14 December 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part V: Dead Robin

Comic trade paperback, 184 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2010
Gotham Central: Dead Robin

Writers: Greg Rucka with Ed Brubaker
Penciller: Kano
Inker: Stefano Gaudiano
Letterer: Clem Robins
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Fill-In Artist: Steve Lieber

After some of the lackluster stories of the previous volumes, Gotham Central goes out on the top of its game. Unfortunately, writer Ed Brubaker leaves early in the volume, and longtime artist Michael Lark isn't here at all, but that doesn't dampen these excellent stories. The first is one of those Batman's-relationship-with-the-police tales I love so much, "Dead Robin." The G.C.P.D. finds a corpse wearing a Robin outfit-- but he couldn't be the Robin, could he? They're forced to confront just how little they know about the Batman and his "family," and their already sour relationship is further tested when Romy Chandler shoots the Batman, still on edge after the death of her partner in the previous volume. There's even an appearance by the Teen Titans, which is fun if a bit dissonant, and Robin himself puts in his only appearances in the series, with some nice scenes between him and Stacy, the Major Crime Unit's temp. And the climax of the mystery was just great; Kano and Gaudiano draw an amazingly frightening Batman.

The story I wasn't expecting to like here was "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which tells what effect the Infinite Crisis had on Gotham. Though I know that things like that have to affect the city, it just seemed like the multiverse being remade would be so tonally inconsistent with this series. To my surprise, it wasn't-- the whole story is told first-person from the perspective of Crispus Allen, and he doesn't understand what's going on one tiny bit, but he still knows he has to do his duty getting Montoya to safety and finding his family, even if he did just run into Captain Marvel and the Spectre. It's the story of Allen's faith, as he begins by ruminating on how he doesn't believe in God anymore... and ends by praying with his family. I don't think the story of the Infinite Crisis could have been told in Gotham better than this.

The last story is "Corrigan 2," and it follows up on the events of the Corrigan story of the previous volume. The focus of the story is again on Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen, as Allen tries to stem Montoya's descent into anger and violence, with disastrous consequences for them both. This is completely a traditional cop story, with no Batman elements at all, but it really works here, with many of the character elements seeded throughout the series coming into play. The story is riveting and moving, a fantastic end to what had been a strong concept.

My only complaint is that there are some character threads from earlier volumes we'll never get to see now, not unless Sarge gets a larger part in your average Batman comic than I suspect he actually does. It's a real shame this series came to an end. But this was a great way to go out-- though I preferred "Soft Targets" in Jokers and Madmen, this is the most consistently strong of all the installments.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part IV: On the Freak Beat

Comic hardcover, 222 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2004-05)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2010
Gotham Central, Book Three: On the Freak Beat

Written by Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker
Pencils by Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Jason Alexander
Inks by Stefano Gaudiano, Jason Alexander, Kano, Gary Amaro
Colors by Lee Loughridge
Letters by Clem Robins

The best story in this book is Greg Rucka's "Lights Out," a single-issue tale that follows on from some of the events in the main Batman titles that I haven't read. Part of the peril of reading stories in collections like this-- apparently the Batman's relationship with the police really soured in that story-- is that major events happen in them that you don't know about. It makes sense that the Batman books would drive this one, but it's really unfortunate that we don't get to see exactly what happened, given the relationship between the Batman and the police is what Gotham Central is all about. Anyway, the G.C.P.D. takes down the Bat-Signal to repudiate any connection with him whatsoever, and we get to see reflections by a number of the characters on what the Batman and the Bat-Signal meant to them. I really liked Montoya's moment: "I was maybe seventeen, I was in my bedroom at my parents' apartment, it was late.... There'd been this story in the news, how the water supply had been poisoned. Everyone in the city was scared. I looked out my window." Crispus Allen, coming from Metropolis where you can trust your superheroes, is all for taking it down, on the other hand. And then you have the mayor, who says tourists expect to see the Bat-Signal. It's a nice summation of the G.C.P.D.'s often complicated relationship with the Batman, the relationship that drives this book.

The rest of the stories here are okay, but not great. There's a Catwoman tale by Ed Brubaker that didn't do much for me, where she interacts with Josie Mac some. Jason Alexander's ugly art doesn't help. The revelations about Josie Mac could be good, but the series never really follows them up. The book is book-ended by two Renee Montoya stories by Greg Rucka. It opens with "Corrigan," about a corrupt crime scene investigator, and ends with "Keystone Kops," where one of the Flash's rogues gallery comes to Gotham to cause problems. The first is fairly insubstantial, and the second focuses on an uninteresting villain too much to work, though I did like the stuff about Montoya and her father.

Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest set of Gotham Central stories thus far, especially given that at this point, the series' end was imminent. It's probably the lack of strong Batman stuff again; the books don't quite work when they're just generic cop stories with the occasional supervillain.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part III: Jokers and Madmen

Comic hardcover, 285 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2003-04)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2010
Gotham Central, Book Two: Jokers and Madmen

Written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka
Art by Michael Lark, Greg Scott, Brian Hurtt, Stefano Gaudiano
Colors by Lee Loughridge
Letters by Clem Robins, Willie Schubert

One of the neat things about the setup of Gotham Central is that the cast is divided up into a day shift and a night shift. Greg Rucka writes the stories about the day shift, and Ed Brubkaer writes the ones about the night folks. They cowrite the stories that are so big both shifts get involved. In the first two GC collections I read, nine of the twelve stories were Rucka day-shift ones, whereas just five were Brubaker night-shift ones, so it was nice to get Jokers and Madmen, where Brubaker's characters seems to dominate. Mind you, the writing the two do is so well-integrated that if it wasn't for the character thing, I wouldn't've known who was writing at any given point.

The first story, Brubaker's "Daydreams and Believers," is a one-off about Stacy, the temp who operates the Bat-Signal. She's a bit of an outside in the G.C.P.D for obvious reasons, and the story nicely capitalizes on that to show her perspective on the various other people who work in the Major Crimes Unit-- not to mention the Batman himself. There's a hilarious two-page sequence featuring Batman here that I didn't see coming. Brian Hurtt's detailed art doesn't really fit the Gotham Central style, but it works for this one tale.

The next story, "Soft Targets," is co-written by Brubaker and Rucka, and it seems to have been the basis for the recent Batman film The Dark Knight, as it sees the Joker terrorizing Gotham City solely as a way to get at Batman. (Okay, this probably happens a lot, but the political assassinations and the scene with the Joker in the interrogation room really made it seem Dark Knight-esque to me.) This is the single most successful story in all of Gotham Central, I think, seeing the cops scrambling to stop the Joker when really the Joker just sees them as ways to aggravate the Batman. All of the characters here are just caught in the intense struggle between these two figures, and the story is all the more intense for it. From the second page, I was gripped, and like "In the Line of Duty" in the first volume, it really manages to merge the considerations of a police story with a Batman one, as the characters have to negotiate city politics and the media as they try to do their jobs and take down the Joker before he blows the city to kingdom come. The story's set at Christmas, which helps too, as the art (which sees Stefano Gadiano taking over for Michael Lark and doing just as good a job) can be all snowy and moody. This story actually has the cops figuring it out before Batman, which is nice. But in the end, as far as they can tell, they're just paws in his insane game with the Joker.

After this is "Life is Full of Disappointments," a story which has an interesting form, as it take the form of a case that keeps on getting bumped from detective to detective, meaning each of its three different parts focuses on a different pair. This lets the series focus on some people who haven't had much page time thus far, like Sarge Davies, who is one of my favorites. Some of the tales are kinda tritte, though, like the one about the mother whose son plays in the Orchestra. Greg Scott's frankly weird art, which struggles to ape Lark's style unsuccessfully, doesn't help, either. I did like the one about the cop who knew the Huntress, though. The mystery here is so-so, but it's of minimal importance in a decent character exercise.

The last story in the book is Brubaker's "Unresolved," which has Driver and Josie Mac investigating a long-closed case that Harvey Bullock-- longtime member of the G.C.P.D. forced into retirement after killing a suspect-- was never able to figure out. The best part of this story is again the character work, especially Bullock's. A cop's cop, he can't deal with being off the force, and it's killing him. The scene between him and his old partner Montoya is particularly good. It's not really a Batman story, nor even a peripheral-to-Batman story, but it works all the same on the strength of the characters. Lark and Gaudiano work together on the art for this one, and it looks great, too.

Overall, the stories I find most fascinating in the series are the ones that really feel like peripheral Batman stories; the ones like that could be told in any cop story live and die on the characters, and though most of these characters are fine, there's too many of them to be effective, and not all of them are Renee Montoyas, Crispus Allens, or Marcus Drivers. Or even Josie Macs. Of those, some work, and some are kinda dull. It doesn't help that I can't always tell the characters apart, even with the handy (if inaccurate) guide in the front of the book. The book also has an overreliance on cop-killing to make things dramatic. It might be accurate to the way these things are shown in a Batman book, but here it sometimes feels like a gimmick to prove the situation is serious-- this department has a ridiculous rate of attrition. But this volume is definitely the series' finest hour, really showing what it's like to be an ordinary person caught in the middle of a Batman story.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part II: Half a Life

Comic trade paperback, 160 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 1999-2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2010
Gotham Central: Half a Life

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artists: Michael Lark, Jason Pearson & Cam Smith, William Rosado & Steve Mitchell
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letterers: Willie Schubert, Rich Parker, Todd Klein

The focus of this book is Renee Montoya, a member of the G.C.P.D.'s Major Crimes Unit, and her relationship with Two-Face. To add to the depiction of this relationship, there are a couple pre-Gotham Central stories from Batman comics showing Montoya. The first of these, "Two Down," is neat enough, with a premise of what would happen if Two-Face's coin just kept on coming up heads, and he kept on doing good. Two-Face helps Montoya in rebuilding the city after it's been ravaged by an earthquake, and she even intervenes against Batman to stop him from taking Two-Face down, pleading that she knows Two-Face can do good if she wants. A good story, but it's brought down by Jason Pearson & Cam Smith's overly cartoony art, which doesn't really fit the tone of the story. The other one is "Happy Birthday Two You...", set about a year later, on Montoya's birthday. It's a day in Montoya's life, a day where she's gone unappreciated by any one other than... Two-Face and Bruce Wayne? It's a solid little story on its own (there are only two colors, and that works fantastically), but it also sets up what's to come...

The bulk of Half a Life is taken up by a story called, appropriately enough, "Half a Life." This story is pretty famous-- it got all kinds of awards-- because it is the story that revealed Renee Montoya was a lesbian. Now, mind you her superior officer Maggie Sawyer had been revealed as one some time prior, but Montoya's was kind of a shocker reveal, and the whole story is about her forced coming-out. Two-Face reveals her in an elaborate plot to destroy her entire life so that he's all she has left. I like Montoya as a character: she feels real, a woman struggling not only to be a cop in Gotham City (which is tough enough), but to hide a second life from her colleagues-- not exactly the most tolerant bunch-- and her very conservative, Catholic family. The story draws some parallels between Montoya and Two-Face that work well. I also like the subplot about Montoya's partner, Crispus Allen, coming to terms with the fact that Montoya's been hiding all this from him. The art is great as per usual-- if anything, Michael Lark is better here than in In the Line of Duty, with his inks not quite as thick as in the first.

However, I have some reservations. Or rather, I think the story's pretty good. Above average, even. But great? Not quite. It's on the whole a competently executed cop story, with some nice Batman bits thrown in. (He once again saves the day. You could accuse it of being a deus ex machina, but that's the whole point of the series.) If you subtracted the lesbian component, I'm not convinced there's be anything memorable about. But that means my problem's not so much with the story as the way it's been represented. I liked it; I just don't know that I'd give it any awards. But in the often-homophobic world of superhero comics, this thing was ground-breaking in 2003, and that's kinda sad when you think about it.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part I: In the Line of Duty

Comic trade paperback, 116 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2010
Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

Writers: Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker
Artist: Michael Lark
Colorist: Noelle Giddings
Letterer: Willie Schubert

Gotham Central is about the cops who make up the Gotham City Police Department, specifically the ones in the Major Crimes Unit, the group personally selected by (ex-)Commissioner Gordon to handle the most difficult of crimes. They're also the cops Gordon trusted the most, the ones he knew wasn't corrupt. The stories are entirely told through their point of view-- Batman is in these stories, but only as much as the police see him.

The first story in In the Line of Duty has two cops, Driver and Fields, following up leads on the disappearance of a teenage girl when they accidentally bump into Mr. Freeze. Freeze kills Fields and runs off, leaving the police scrambling to figure out where Freeze is and what he's planning next. They know that summoning Batman is their best shot of finding the killer-- but they also know that once they do, it'll be the Batman who avenges the death of one of their own, not themselves. So they set themselves a deadline: figure out what Freeze's plan is before nightfall, when they can turn on the Bat-signal and hand the case over. What unfolds after that is a pretty typical "police procedural" like you might see on any number of television shows, as the police follow up leads by talking to known accomplices, hunting down people who might have sold Freeze the diamonds that power his technology, and so on. There's this nice device of a clock in the corner of the panels, telling you that they're running out of time. Lucky for them, they get a break just in time...

There's a touch that I like here-- since the official stance of the G.C.P.D. is that the Batman doesn't exist and the light is for deterring criminals, they can't activate the Bat-Signal themselves, legally. As a result, it's the office temp who activates the signal, as she's not a city employee. As they wait, Commissioner Akins asks Driver, "So you're okay with this then?" and he answers, "No... but I'm a cop in Gotham. I can't afford to live in denial." And even though the Batman wins the day against Freeze for them, you can't help but feeling that they've lost something in having to call the Batman in. The only thing I don't like about the story is that the cops' conclusion requires Freeze to have given them a cryptic clue at the beginning of the story, but I don't get why he'd do that-- he's not the Riddler or even the Joker.

The second story in the book, "Motive," also features Marcus Driver, this time working with Romy Chandler to follow up the kidnap case from the previous story. Though there's an appearance by the super-villain "Firebug" in this story, and some fun stuff about people who collect super-villain paraphernalia, it's essentially a normal cop story. Again, the resolution is weak because it depends on a leap of logic that seemed unfounded, but essentially it's a character story for Driver as he tries to come to terms with what it means to be a cop in Gotham. I used to make fun of the idea of the Gotham police-- why do they even bother?-- but these stories show them as people trying their best in a really messed up world, and I like that. The best bit of this story is the end, where Driver flicks on the Bat-Signal just to tell Batman they solved the case without them. Because sometimes they can do it.

The art by Michael Lark is great-- sort of sketchy, like you imagine the world that the G.C.P.D inhabits would look. Unfortunately, this backfires sometimes, as some of the white guy cops blend in to one another. But between his linework and Noelle Giddings's moody, suppressed colors, the art is absolute perfect for the bleak, despairing tone of this series.