Readers of the Lost Arc: Gotham Central
By Courtney Small
The streets of Gotham are a playground for those who take pleasure in wreaking chaos and havoc. A hotbed of corruption and crime, it is a city where gangsters and psychopaths in clown make-up unflinchingly display limitless depths of their ruthlessness. The only thing that seems to strike fear in them is a vigilante in a bat costume who lurks over Gotham like one of the gargoyles adorning a city skyscraper.
The stories of the caped crusader and his foes have captivated us for generations. One does not think of Gotham without envisioning the golden bat symbol shining like a beacon of hope in the bleak night. However, it is easy to forget those who are caught, frustratingly so in fact, in the middle of the war Batman has waged against the criminal elements of Gotham. I am not talking about the average citizen who helplessly watches their city erode from the tyranny of evil. The ones who truly go unnoticed are the brave men and women of the Gotham Police Department who struggle to make sense of the deranged circus-like atmosphere that consistently envelopes their city.
It is these frequently forgotten heroes of law enforcement whose lives are so exquisitely explored in Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central. Though the short lived series was not the commercial success DC had hoped for, one can only hope that fans of Fox’s Gotham will venture out and re-discover this gem of a title. From its inaugural issue Brubaker and Rucka waste no time in capturing the essence of great Batman stories without having to rely on Batman himself.
Similar to the cape and cowl adorned hero, whose tales the series is spawned from, Gotham Central is first and foremost a crime story. The series features procedural tales about cops trying to solve crimes through standard detective work. However, unlike the hardboiled sleuths found in pulp novels, the biggest roadblock for the cops of Gotham PD is not substance abuse or a mysterious dame who randomly walks through their door. No, it is something far worse.
Their hurdle comes with having to constantly live in Batman’s shadow.
In the first two arcs of the series, Brubaker captures that palatable rage that is simmering throughout the entire Gotham PD force. The one who embodies this delicate mixture of frustration and anger the best is Detective Marcus Driver. Having witnessed the death of his partner at the hands of Mr. Freeze, Driver follows a tip regarding another case, which inadvertently leads him to stumble onto the hideout of the man once known as Dr. Victor Fries. Det. Driver is more determined than ever to prove that the police can do their job without the assistance of Batman. His cold and distance demeanor almost rivals the frozen heart of the villain he is chasing. In one telling moment, Det. Driver practically begs his superiors not to turn on the bat signal for one night.
The looming presence of Batman, though not actually seen often within the pages of Gotham Central, hangs over Gotham PD and the city as a whole like a rope that can both save and strangle them depending on the circumstances. On one hand, he is the only one who can handle those as vicious as The Joker, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, and the countless others who fill his rouge gallery of villains. However, how can the officers do their job of upholding law and order when their superiors are constantly seeking the help of a mysterious man who frequently breaks the law? Even when they are able to solve a case without Batman’s help, there is little satisfaction to be had.
The fact is that one small victory is barely a ripple in the sea of crime that surrounds Gotham. Even Batman himself can only muster up a “Good. Thank You” response upon hearing that he was not needed to solve a case.
What makes Gotham Central such a unique and interesting title is the way it blends this continuous struggle to achieve the small wins with the complex relationships that make up the detectives’ own lives. Brubaker and Rucka bring a sense of realism to the world that is often missing from many DC titles. That is why storylines such as the one where Detective Renee Montoya in unexpectedly “outed” to her family and co-workers, via a photo of that captures a romantic moment, feels weighted and not just another comic gimmick. Brubaker not only brings us into the thankless world of the Gotham PD, but makes us care about the characters in an unexpected way. This translates to other titles in the Batman comic universe as well. When folks like Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen pop up in other titles, take the latter’s appearance in Brian Azzarello’s Broken City for example, they are more than just random cops delivering exposition.
Gotham Central has shown us a side of both Gotham and the Batman universe that was both captivating and rather original. It offers a stripped down look at the folks of Gotham PD. The ones who live in the shadows of the bat, hoping, as they march in the murkier trenches with each new case, to bring a glimmer of light to the city they aim to protect.
This article first appeared in issue 7 of Comix Asylum Magazine (September, 2014).