Down These Mean Streets: Gotham Central


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Many years ago, when Public Libraries still had Graphic Novel sections, I took the opportunity to read stories I would never otherwise have touched if it had involved a penny of my own, strictly limited, pocket. Sometimes that was all it was. And sometimes it was curiosity that didn’t kill the cat but instead fed it a large bowl of cream. The most extreme example of that was Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. But I tried a couple of volumes of Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central, which were enough to make me explore eBay prices for the books, only to discover they were never cheap enough for me to get involved, especially when factored against my limited storage space.
A DVD collection of the series, which ran for forty issues between 2003 and 2006, takes up no space, and even less when there are a half dozen different series on it. Given that it’s a Twenty-First Century series, I had no intention of writing about it, just of having some enjoyable reading, but when I turned to it, I found Gotham Central to be even better than I recalled, and to be too good not to want to praise it for the qualities that make it so memorable.
Plainly and simply, Gotham Central is a procedural. It’s a crime series, ordinary, mostly-human crime, featuring an ensemble cast of Police detectives, a Major Crimes Unit. The hook is that this MCU is operating in Gotham City, the famous and infamous Gotham, and they are Police trying to do a job, their job, in a City dominated by the Batman.
Just like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, even in a more limited fashion, it’s about imagining into being a realistic, non-sensational, above all natural look at what it’s like to live in a superhero Universe. What does the constant, in-the-shadows presence of the Batman, and all the murderous, psychopathic freaks he attracts, do to the job of being a Murder Police?

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The series was the concept of two writers, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, both of whom were writers with an interest in crime fiction (Rucka is also a well-regarded crime novelist). The writers co-wrote the opening two-parter, which begins with the killing of a Detective by Mr Freeze and the subsequent efforts of his partner to have the case worked by the Department and not the Batman, and teamed up again for a five part story, but otherwise each wrote arcs separately. The original series artist was Michael Lark, whose work I knew from one of the later Sandman Mystery Theatre playlets, a calm, deliberately unsensational artist with a neo-photographic style that eschewed detail, creating a grounded atmosphere for the series.
And it’s clear that a lot of the stylistic approach to the series derived from Homicide: Life on the Street, down to the presence in the squadroom of the visual of that series’ (and the real-life Baltimore Homicide Department’s) Board, which is another reason why I liked the series so much.
Lark left after issue 25 but his successors followed his visual method, always ensuring that the series remained grounded in human authenticity, and an avoidance of the spectacular.
The series featured the whole MCU squadroom and showed it for what it was, a workplace composed of very different personalities, thrown together by a shared skill, but not by a shared temperament. Though they were all cops, and all on the same side, especially when one of their own were threatened or harmed, they were not on the same side as people, with their own twists and thoughts and dreams, and the series benefited immensely in the variety of characters.
Inevitably, just as Pembleton and Bayliss came to be stars in Homicide: Life on the Street, the ‘show without stars’, certain pairings began to dominate. Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock’s former partner and Crispus Allen, both with unwanted, undeserved futures as superheroes, Marcus Driver and Josie MacDonald, Romy Chandler. Stories involving them began to proliferate: Montoya’s outing as gay, her estrangement from her family, her growing, unresolvable anger were all stories battling, this time in more Hill Street Blues style, with the crimes.

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As you might imagine, Gotham Central didn’t sell. It should have done. It should have been massive, but it wasn’t superheroes, was it, and the audience is long since conditioned to only accept or understand superheroes. DC kept it going because its Graphic Novel collections were selling well, because it was good work that they considered deserved to be seen, and could be carried.
But it’s noticeable that from about the halfway point first supervillains, then superheroes increasingly play a part. The Penguin and The Mad Hatter share a story. There’s a procedural crossover with The Flash, involving a trip to Keystone City to bring back Albert Desmond, the original Dr Alchemy, for questioning, involving Detectives Fred Chyre and Reuben Morillo. A CSI by the name of James Corrigan starts to feature, which would have got us oldsters excited, waiting for him to be killed and returned as The Spectre, but this Corrigan is a scumbag who will end up killing Crispus Allen, and then he comes back as The Spectre.
There’s even a story featuring fifteen year old boys dressed in highly professional Robin costumes showing up dead all over the city, throwing suspicion on The Batman, and causing The Teen Titans to drop in and attest that it’s not the real one.
It made no difference to the sales, which continued to be low, but what sealed the series’ fate was Brubaker’s decision to leave. Rucka always thought of the series as belonging to both of them and agreed to write a final story to close the major storylines. Brubaker’s last issue was no 37, the Infinite Crisis crossover, after which the entire DC Universe leaped One Year Later, not that the final three-parter would have you notice.

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It was a grim ending. Allen is going after Corrigan on his own but is made: a trap is set-up and Corrigan kills Allen. He’s a step ahead of the Department, and beats the investigation. Montoya, strung out as far as she can be, beats him and prepares to kill him but he pleads pathetically for his life over several pages. The issue left it open as to whether Montoya pulled the trigger or not, but alone and last, it having gone out of her (like Pembleton at the end of Homicide: Life on the Street season 6), she hands in her badge and gun and leaves. In 52 she becomes the new Question.
It was an ending that was strong in itself but weak in the distance its melodrama is from what made Gotham Central in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still a clear, distinct series, full of good writing and good thinking that should be running still. Just one more reason why I find nothing to attract me to comics’ future.

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