Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gotham Central: A Retrospective

It may come as no surprise to you that comic books and I don’t exactly have a long history. Even before I entered a major where such things were beneath contempt, they just were never really around the house. Of course, I knew who Batman was, and Superman, but most of my interaction with them came from the excellent television series bearing their respective names…and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, but I don’t really like to think about that one.

Comics books were always kids fare, or at the very least, the kind of hobby enjoyed by the 40 year old basement dwellers under Zelda bedsheets. But then something happened in those tumultuous, condescending college years.

Something that I am more and more coming to realize is a key moment in my artistic and critical life.

I saw that awful Watchmen movie.

No, no, I kid. In my opinion, Watchmen the movie isn’t awful by any means. But it does accomplish the difficult task of vaulting from high peaks of awesomeness into bottomless abysses of suckitude within the span of a few frame. Weirdly read dialogue is juxtaposed to gorgerous visual stylization, and a strange, badly soundtracked sex scene comes just a few mintues after a badass prison break…you get the idea. Overall, I think Watchmen is the literal definition of a decent movie. It was certainly good enough to get me interested in the source materiel.
See, my college had this movie channel where every month they would broadcast grainy versions of the hottest new releases, or every once in a while a classic or a really popular film that they knew everyeone liked. Watchmen, coming along my senior year, was one of these, and while I knew it was based on a comic book, I was still rather shocked at the themes and motifs it was delving into…themes and motifs that the movie only did an okay job at portraying. It was one of those situations where what I saw was good enough to make me hungry for more, and more was what I got. The library in our university had a copy in their tiny little graphic novels section (though I should probably count myself fortunate that there were any comics in the place), and snuck it in between the completed works of Wordsworth 1786-1801 and the critical summaries of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves that I was also checking out. And, obviously, I fell in love.

I wanted more comics—I needed more, just like Watchmen. Ones that tackled tough issues with maturity, that took advantage of the visual forms unique attributes…I was 20 years behind, I had a lot of catching up to do.

Of course, being a huge Neil Gaiman fan, I started to tackle the Sandman series. But the one that caught most of my attention, the one that truly secured my place as a comic book fan, was just a relatively short-run early 2000’s series that may just be the best Batman book I have ever read.

This, of course, is Gotham Central.

Now I’m not going to pretend to be a Batman expert. I sure at least one of the four people reading this in Tibet can list off every minor costume change he’s ever undergone over the past seventy years, including ones for miniseries and special events. That being said, I believe I am pretty knowledgeable about Batman, and have certainly seen enough of him that I know the “version” if you will, of Batman I like. I shall call this the Animated Series version. This is a Batman who is humble, stoic but tortured, well-mannered, with Kevin Conroy’s delicious voice. He is fallible, but not conquerable. He strikes from the shadows and rarely lets himself be seen. He is not ostentatious. He has all of these cool gadgets, but there is always a “get your hands dirty” feel to him. This is the Batman present in Gotham Central. I know that’s an odd thing to say considering he’s in the comic for, oh, maybe four percent of its total pages, but it is there. The stealth, the honest-to-god detective work, even the fallibility; nothing says “Batman” to me more than when he suddenly appears in panel, nothing but a black cowl with two white slits for eyes. Gotham Central understands this.

And not only does it understand it, but it takes a very unique position on it. Batman always works best when there’s an air of mystery about him, a broodiness, if I can use that word without evoking pictures of lame 80’s anti-heroes. What better way to shroud a person in mystery than to see him through the eyes of those he comes in (rare) contact with? Gotham Central takes a different position on who Batman is, what he means to Gotham, why he’s important…like I said, it’s the best version of Batman I’ve ever seen, as he’s on the page for less than forty pages out of nearing 1000 in all four trades combined.

So this is a thoughtful retrospective of this fantastic, unique, and in my opinion, slightly unappreciated series. Why it works, what makes it work, and why it made me a comics fan for life. Some of the reasons are overarching explications of the entirety of the book, some of them are more minute, little details picked out of individual stories. It’s not a hierarchy, or a ranking, but it is the things that stuck out to me most upon my second read, when I a gazing it with a more critical eye (close reading, for all you sad English majors out there).

So without further ado:

Sequential art is a unique medium. And as a unique medium, it has certain advantages over its brethren: e.g. television, movies, books, games. Of course, this is true of all unique mediums: movies can do things books cannot, books can do things movies cannot, games can do things movies and books can't, etc. Discovering the unique attributes of whatever medium you are writing/creating in is a boon for a person's work, because they can take full advantage of whatever method they are using to get their story across. Problem is, many creators and fans don't understand this. Which is why you get amateur novelists trying to fit things in prose that would work best visually, or see screenplays that have novel-like descriptions even though you can only see what's presented to you visually in a movie. (It's also why a lot of people have problems with adaptations of their favorite works...but that's another post. --E).

Now the advantages that comic books have are in themselves singular in the medium. That is, they are a synthesis of two mediums, books and film, and therefore can plunder whatever they want from either. This gives it much more of a range than it would otherwise have. Sure it has limitations, but it also has more freedom in some ways. Want to have a dynamic angle on two
characters hinting at their past backstory and the conflict between them? You can. Want to have powerful prose descriptions and philosophical eruditions? You can. Want to do a dramatic zoom in on a character, have a quiet moment of reflection, stretch a moment into a lifetime? You can. Want to set a visual style while still having character introspection? You can.

Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker understand this dynamic that comics offer, and take full advantage of both the written and visual portions of the comic book milieu. Gotham Central is decidedly film noir, and Michael Lark’s (1) pencils are full of dark, heavy lines that accent the aesthetic. The colors are very muted and plain. You can tell Gotham's a drab, dingy, and disreputable place without even reading a word of dialogue. The writers also take full advantage of the comic's unique “sequential” structure, but do so by focusing on minimalism and as little affectation as possible.

Not that multi-page spreads and flowing, staggered panels are bad—the recent issues of Batwoman are proof enough of that, but they would be unsuited to the stark, methodical nature of the series. Rucka, Brubaker and company use every tool at their disposal to make Gotham Central look and feel correct even before they get in the nitty-gritty of writing. The panel layout is very basic, maybe five or six at the most with rare exceptions. They are usually square blocks, and extremely sequential. While in other comics this could possibly be construed as stunted or even unimaginative, in Gotham Central it merely serves to highlight the characters and stories we are going to be reading. The comic is, after all, a police procedural, and so the comic is structure in a very tight, grounded, no frills way, just like its characters.
Rucka and Brubaker also make use of one of my other favorite comic tricks of the trade, what I call a “pause panel.”

I've always like these due to the powerful emotions and depth of character present in one simple frame. We see the guilt, or the joy, or even the connection that partners have, in half a second of visualization. Could you do this in a movie? Probably, but it would have to be much more complicated with very clever camera work, and it wouldn't have the immediateness that comics have. Because comics have the advantage of interrupting a conversation, having a pause panel, then going back to that conversation with no “time” having passed. If you had this sort of thing in a movie, you would have to have the “look” or “pause,” then pull back out and get the characters in the flow of the conversation without having the third character ask something like “What was that look about?” Has it been done in movies? Sure, but in my opinion it doesn't carry the same weight that it does in a comic, simply because a pause panel in a comic can be half a second of narrative time, that, because of its structure, can be its own self-contained character story.
Another advantage of comics that Rucka and Brubaker take advantage of is the comic form of single pictures forming a complete narrative. Basically, comics take frames in a movie and pick and choose which ones they want that still get the story across. The plus side of this, of course, that you can have advancing moments of time right next to each other, and you can show whatever you want with every panel, like a movie cut. Difference being, that if every frame in a movie were a different cut, it would cause confusion and probably a few headaches. But in a comic you can “cut” however much you want. A panel with a close up can be next to a panel with a wide vista can be next to a panel of an entire city, and so on.

Of course, this also allows for one of my favorite Batman effects, his “next panel appearance.”

Now obviously the use of this is by no means unique to Gotham Central, but considering that I have already stated I like Batman best when he's shrouded in mystery and shadow, it's no surprise that I get a particular joy out of this visual play. Nolan's Batman films have done similar things, but it's not quite the same, because in a movie, a cut is necessary between two views to have the same kind of effect. In a comic book you can have the same exact view, but have Batman enter in the second panel. This adds more weight and dramatis to him, and more pertinently, gives us an insight into how the characters of the comic view this masked vigilante, whom they can never be sure is trustworthy.

That’s the meta-sense of what makes Gotham Central a good comic: it makes full use of the intricacies of the form. But there’s more to it than that. A good aesthetic must be supported by a host of factors, including but not limited to:


The cast of Gotham Central is one of the best of any work you could ask for, television, movie, novel, what have you. Rarely do you get such a varied group of individuals who are fleshed out and given life to such an extent. Cris Allen, Renee Montoya, Sergeant Davies, The Probe, Maggie Sawyer, Marcus Driver, Josie MacDonald, Romy Chandler, Stacy the Temp. Each one is three-dimensional, with their own griefs, joys and dangers. Each one has their own voice and personality. Each one sounds and feels like a real person…seriously, this is some of the best characterization of an ensemble cast I have ever seen.

What sets Gotham Central’s characterizations apart is the dialogue, which is some of the best you’ll see outside a David Mamet play. Rucka and Brubaker, for whatever reason, are entirely tapped into what “real” dialogue sounds like; not necessarily dialogue you’d hear in everyday life, but dialogue that sounds true to the human mind. The cops in Gotham Central have hints of the best of Raymond Chandler’s 40’s noir in their interactions, but in the end the characters are built on a steady emotional core that comes through their words. Remember, GC doesn’t have the grand sweeping vistas of a Jim Lee, or the film advantage of a music score or a novel’s beautiful prose to put you in the right frame of mind, to get you to care for these characters. All the comic has are the pictures in the panels and a few words in a square or oval box. And while the pictures are well-done, as we discussed, they are intentionally grounded in quotidian details, or barren to the point of bereft to set the tone of Gotham City. As such, the characters themselves have the same grounded, realistic feel…yet you really have no trouble telling them apart, even though objectively some of them look similar, and that fact can be entirely traced back to the dialogue that gives each of these characters heart.

To give every character in a story his own unique voice is a challenge, and to do it in a true ensemble like GC is remarkable. There are no less than thirty main-to-side characters walking around, and each of them has their own little dialogue to let us know who they are. Renee is brusque and honest, Crispus is cynical and sarcastic, Marcus is stoic and brooding, Burke is flashy and suave, Davies is bombastic and querulous, and so on.

Now this isn’t to say that each character conforms to an archetype: like Davies is the “funny” one and the Probe is the “official” one. Archetypes have their place, certainly, but in GC they would not have meshed well with the tone of grounded realism, and Rucka and Brubaker were wise enough to understand this. So while each character has base traits expressed in their dialogue, it never devolves into pastiche and self parody. That is, each character is complex and thought out to the point that their personal dialogue can still run the gamut from despair to compassion.

For example, let’s look at Sergeant Davies. Hard-nosed. Likes to debate. Likes to ride and mock people, all for fun, of course. He’s a wise-ass in the best possible way. So let’s take a look at him when he is experiencing the keenest of disappointment, after he has been passed over for promotion to Lieutenant:

Right here we grasp Davies, sadness, disappointment, and humanity, while keeping his same base character traits that we’ve known him to have. Likewise, Tommy Burke: sure he’s a playboy and a gambler to boot, but when the going gets tough, he’ll back you all the way. Take a look at this exchange here, when he’s helping Partner Procjnow sneak in to see her son’s violin concert:

Again, maintain the characterization we understand—Burke can smooth talk his way out of anything—but using it to highlight a moment of compassion and selflessness.

Now obviously the dialogue is not the only thing that is giving these characters their heart and their unforgettable souls (although I will say that it’s a rather large reason). The other biggest factor has to do with the art I mentioned slightly above. You know, when I said it has less to do with the characterization than in other comics? That’s still true, but the art does provide the other important piece in GC’s characterization puzzle: action.

I realize I’m risking devolving into a Fiction 101 course at this point. Most discerning readers would look at the preceding paragraphs and go: “character is determined by action and dialogue? No shit, Sherlock!” And while it is true that at its root what I am saying is one of the most basic, guiding principles of storytelling, I think every once in a while it’s good to review the fundamentals, and how and why they work. In the stories of GC for instance, the fact of the form signifies the type of actions that are going to take place. That is, implied action. Since we are looking at still photographs, we don’t have the privilege of seeing the action in full motion, or having every bit-by-bit detail elucidated to us in prose. The actions are shown in frames, and it is up to us to fill in the back story. On the one hand, this can lead into misinterpretation of confusion about what is being shown (see some of Grant Morrison’s work), but on the other, this allows for implications and subtleties that really form the emotional core of the characters.

I’ve already mentioned the “pause panels,” one of my favorite conventions and uses of comics, and in GC they really shine through, giving character emotions and depth, letting us know their shames, hopes, the awkward moments of forced contact, the realization of a truth, the regret of words best left unspoken—the saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words” never had a better representation than GC. The pause panels are not simply ways to get a point of emotional poignancy across. Because they can be examined indefinitely, arguably are even meant to be examined in such detail, each one adds weight and emotional and realism to the character. We see partners exchanging knowing glances, indicating the partner relationship is so complexly connect they know what the other is thinking (as Simon Lippman pretty much says verbatim).

Likewise, some of the panels evoke disappointment, introspection; some of my favorites are when the whole room falls silent, when someone enumerates a truth that the other detectives knew but hadn’t really wanted to face.

Again, the entire point of this is characterization: this series, foisted in realism, can’t ride on amazing feats of the characters: none of them can through buildings or shoot green lights from magic rings. If the audience is going to read this series, basically Law and Orderin Gotham City, it has to care about the characters. Now, of course that’s not to say having good characterization in traditional superhero comics is not important; but in a series like this, where we’re basically focusing entirely on supporting characters from Batman and Superman, people who would have had bit roles or have been sidekicks otherwise, when they are the main characters, we have to have a reason to keep reading beyond, oh, what’s Batman going to do to save the day in THIS issue of Gotham Central!?

And on that note, we’ll get into this more in a bit, but it’s a testament to the strength of the characters that I honestly did not care if Batman showed up in an issue or not. The stories without him were just as good as the stories with him, and that can entirely be traced by to what Rucka and Brubaker did with the ensemble they created; and you know what? That does nothing but make the Batman in this series a more believable character.

But like I said, we’ll get to that in a minute.

The more ostentatious actions also inform the kind of characters we’re dealing with, like the dialogue. More importantly, the character’s actions make sense and fit into the context of the story. Realism, like I said, is the name of the game in GC. Characters get in major trouble for losing or misusing service weapons, meaning every gunshot has a purpose and a meaning. Whether the cops are chasing after a perp on the run, hounding one for information, or cutting off a couple of delinquent kids cool as cucumbers, there’s a sense of realism. Verisimilitude is the apt word for this. The setting of Gotham informs the actions of the characters; but more importantly, the characters actions also inform the setting. Since they make sense in the context of the world that has been created, the character’s actions feel real, whether or not they would be in real life (although from what little I knew about the Police force GC is relatively accurate for a work prominently featuring a masked man in a bat suit). For a pertinent example, let’s look at one of my favorite moments in the entire series (SPOILERS ABOUND!):

In this scene, Romy Chandler has accidentally panicked and shot Batman; this is due to a steadily building anger and frustration at Batman, because she believes he was tangentially responsible for the death of her partner Nate Patton.

Now there’s a lot going on in these three pages, but let’s focus on Romy, and how the action in the panels builds her character. Now Romy has been billed the entire series as a tough, no nonsense kind of girl, like Renee, who doesn’t shy away from knocking some teeth loose or dating a fellow detective. But her reaction here is one of confusion, panic and downright bafflement: did this really just happen? What this does is serve not only to enunciate the gravity of the situation at hand, but to add a lot of depth to Romy’s character. Sure, she’s tough and no nonsense and can handle pretty much anything, but this? Even this might be beyond her abilities to contain. Discharging her service weapon at an unarmed man alone is enough to get her fired, but possibly killing the Batman? That’s an entirely new realm that no one would know what to do with. I really like how Rucka, Lark and Brubaker structure the panels on the title page, providing a dominating portrait with little snippets of the following conversation lining the right side. The small panels and shorter focus inherently make the pictures go by faster; this has the effect of putting us in Romy’s head. We can feel everything spiraling out of control just like she does.

On the next page, the actions tell us more about Romy, specifically about her instincts in a moment of loss and confusion. Notice the first panel: eyes closed, gun still aimed and pointed. If this were Maggie Sawyer, or Detective Crowe, would they have reacted like this? Maybe, but probably not—their characters have been informed to be more tolerable of quick changes in paradigm. Romy, however, is caught completely off guard, and so, as befits her character, we learn that in a moment of panic she immediately falls into wary aggressive-defense mode. She aims the gun because, well, what the hell else is she going to do? The situation is out of hand, and the only thing to do to block it out is the keep the gun aimed and the eyes shut. I especially like how the action is rendered with blank backgrounds with single solid color. It really puts us inside the madness of the situation and the stark turmoil of what’s occurring.

Also, we learn the Batman has no qualms about hitting women, and young rookies new to MCU can’t stand up to the bat-glare.

So by the end of the third page, when the crisis has passed, and detail returns to the panels, we learn something else about Romy Chandler: she recovers quickly, and drops back into competency at the drop of a hat. Cast into a situation for which she had no protocol, thrown into a raving panic, then getting her nose broken, still doesn’t manage to keep her in a fugue. She pops right back out of it—this highlights not only how tough she truly is, but how professional she is. The first thing she realizes? Her weapon's gone. And the look on her face tells you all you need to know.

Not to go back into the comic form section about, but if this were, say, a film, then this three page scene would have been over in thirty seconds; that offers its own rewards and analysis to be discovered, but the scene being in comic form allows us to dissect those moments more incisively, and get at the heart of the matter: what are these panels telling us about Romy? What do they say about Batman? How do they both respond to things, and why, and what happens to them after? All of these things inform the characters. They make them feel real. Romy’s reaction is a completely understandable one, and her moment of frailty in this scene where she had previously shown very little makes her a more compelling character to us because we relate to her and cheer for her, hoping that everything comes out all right in the end. From there, the writer has almost unlimited paths he can take with a character, but it all stems from the small moments—an action here, a word there, a pause in the right place—that gets the writer to that spot in the first place. Rucka and Brubaker have this down to an art, and that’s why the twenty-four detectives in MCU are people who are not only fleshed out and complex, but also heroes that we are willing to cheer for, and whose stories we are willing to follow to the bitter end.

Now a lot of this is personal taste—actually, I’m sure the entire argument is personal taste, but anyway. Unlike Superman, who has constant warring versions of himself at play in the hearts and minds of his fans: Golden Age toughness, Silver Age wackiness, dark age seriousness, and Modern Age conflictedness—fans of Batman typically, not without exceptions but typically, like the vision of him as a dark, brooding champion of the night. A man who strikes from shadows, can appear behind you and disappear in nigh-impossible frames of time, who is smart enough to come up with a solution to any problem, and driven enough to see it through. There are fans of the 60’s era Batman campiness, but for the most part, fans of Batman like the darkness, the angst, the cape and cowl, the shadow in the half-light of evening.

I’m no exception. I think Batman works better this way, not only because it adds an air of verisimilitude—you can’t see a normal man doing the things Batman does, but you could buy it better than if Batman, being a normal man, ran at gun toting thugs in the middle of the day without getting his head blown off—but because it sets him up as a natural foil to Superman. I think the dynamic between those two characters is very interesting, their methodologies and ideologies, and one of the best things about DC comics since the 1980s. Light vs. Dark. Revenge vs. mercy. Hope vs. Rage. Plus there’s just something about that dark outline, with only the narrowed slits of his eyes shining through his cowl—it's terrifying. Gotham Central understands this.

Now it’s ironic that one of the best pictures of Batman occurs in a comic where he’s featured in person in less than forty pages. But that’s what makes it so profound. Batman in GC is a force of nature. He hangs over everything and everyone in the MCU. When they can’t solve a case and Batman does, the MCU takes it personally. When they need Batman despite their reservations, and they know they have no other choice, it hurts them, because they feel as if they aren’t doing their job. Every “freak” that walks through the doors is connected to the masked vigilante in their city—and some of the detectives blame him for the deaths of close friends and other officers.

So even when he’s not in the comic, his shadow is there, and it makes his portrayal very powerful indeed. Rucka and Brubaker didn’t feel the need for Batman to have to solve every case, or swoop in and save the day every time. This makes the moments that Batman is needed feel more serious, and his appearances gain a different sort of perspective. In this comic, there’s no internal narration by Batman, no pathos for him, nothing that humanizes him or makes him relatable. He’s not the main character: we’re seeing him entirely through the eyes of those he inevitably comes in contact with. This gives him a sort of…ambiance, I guess. We see him as he truly would be if he existed in our lives: a terrifying spectre to behold.

One of my favorite moments he’s involved in is in the Dead Robin arc. A man has been going around killing young men and dressing them up into Robin costumes that are nigh-indistinguishable from the real thing. The plot concerns the GCPD trying to hunt down the man, as well as figuring out who is leaking secret crime scene photographs to the press.

A man finally turns himself in, voluntarily—because he wants to be a part of the “world,” as he calls it. The world of superheroes. He’s been killing these boys and dressing them up entirely because he wants to talk to Batman—and if he doesn’t get the chance, another child will die.

Faced with an untenable situation, the police summon Batman despite their deepest reservations. What follows is pure awesome terror (MORE SPOILERS ABOUND!):

A lot of things are happening in this scene: MCU turning to Batman when they don’t want to, tacitly condoning torture of suspects, giving into the demands of a criminal; but I want to focus mainly on Batman and how he’s used. Not a single time is the superhero ever in anything but his outline, which is as MCU sees him. Then we get a first-hand look at what a normal schlub would experience if they every got their wish to meet Batman. I simply love the progression of panels from the lights going off to Batman’s murky appearance in his first panel, and his grizzled: “You could say that.”

What really comes across in these panels, though, is what Batman is truly built around: fear. Striking ball-shriveling terror into the heart of his enemies, turning them into sodden, weeping messes. It helps that there’s very little fantastical elements in GC, save by editorial mandate (Sunday, Bloody Sunday). This is a truly grounded Batman, one whose sole realm are the evil pricks that prowl our streets, and it adds a layer of reality to the comic that the comic depends on. Suddenly all the little touches—the nods to bureaucracy (no one from MCU can technically touch the Bat-signal because it would imply that the cops know of Batman and approve of his actions) to the very somber and true-to-life crimes that you could almost see playing on the news(Marcus Driver’s investigation of Bonnie Lewis’ death, the Joker sniper shooting spree) all seem to come together to support this vision of Batman, one whose relative lack of presence in the comic makes him more viable, believable, and menacing than in many of his own comics.


Yes, even the good ones.

As I mentioned before, GC is the perfect combination of film noir aestheticism, gritty realism, and superhero zaniness. All three work in conjunction together splendidly, and that alone would make GC unique among many of its peers.

But Rucka and Brubaker reached higher, crafting stories of such subtlety and understated complexity that they could very easily be parsed and puzzled over in a college academic course.

Comics as a medium have been very slow to grow up about things. Hell, DC rebooted its entire continuity just six months ago, and proceeded, in 2011 mind you, to make every character that wasn't a goddess into a goddess(like Amanda Palmer), and make characters that were already goddesses into almost self-parodic exploitations (i.e. Starfire and Catwoman). In light of this, GC was refreshing to read as a comic simply because it surprised me with the depth of its stories, the weight of the narratives, and the complicated and sometimes even controversial issues that it handled with deftness and nuance. Probably the most famous of these is Half a Life, where Renee Montoya is deliberately outed by Two-Face, and is one of the most maturely handled, emotional, and heartfelt treatments of a homosexual character, her struggles, and the reactions among her peers that I have ever seen. It's not a condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle, nor is it an idealistic portrayal of a Utopian dream where Renee's sexuality is received with universal praise. Some of her colleagues outright mock her, some of them poke fun at her, blissfully unaware that they're insulting her. Her brother, already knowing her sexual orientation, still loves her but doesn't accept her lifestyle. Her family, otherwise, rejects her and condemns her because of their Hispanic background and their Catholic faith. Her partner, Daria, of course is on her side, and her other partner, Crispus, is entirely supportive, at the most gently admonishing her for not letting him know sooner. In a moment where the entire story could have been a one-note political statement for either side in the raging issue of homosexuality, GC instead chose to go for introspection, complexity, and human connection.

And best of all, it’s all tightly bundled into a completely “Batman” story, where Two-Face has developed a raging hard-on for Renee due to the kindness she showed him in a previous series. What I found interesting and really liked about the story was Two-Face's justification for his actions, and why he finds Renee so alluring. He sees himself in her: she leads two lives, as does he, and its implied that him breaking down the walls between those two lives will save her, and ultimately, him as well. Or so he believes. Two-Face is insane after all, and I simply love the moment where Renee berates him for the whole thing:

And Two-Face is literally so far gone that he simply cannot grasp the idea that a woman who likes other women does not like men, including him.

We could talk about any story in any of the books in some detail. We could talk about the very first arc, and how it establishes Marcus Driver's character, the goodness and compassion of the MCU, and their relationship with Batman and how a police force would respond to an illegal vigilante that they nonetheless need for their cases. Or Soft Targets which has an absolutely terrifying vision of the Joker coming only a year or two after the Beltway Snipers in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. Dead Robin is singularly unsettling in its portrayal of media coverage hurting investigations and the desperate need people have to be involved with things that appear “above” them. All great stories, with great pacing, characterization, subtext...everything you need in a good, affecting story.

I obviously don't have time to go into them all, and I certainly don't want to ruin the stories for the one person reading this blog; I would, however, like to break down one of my absolute favorite arcs in the comics, which I will call the “Corrigan Arc.” So, I'm gonna go ahead and put up the SPOILER WARNING! for the one person who reads this and is interested in reading the comics without the story getting ruined.

I like to talk about the Corrigan Arc because of the issues they bring up and the themes it has about loyalty, integrity, kindness, and even revenge. Not to mention that the second half of the arc is the ending (more or less) to the series as a whole.

Corrigan is a corrupt C.S.U. toady whose racket is stealing evidence from crime scenes and selling it for extraordinarily high prices on the DC Comics version of Ebay. Also, he’s not very bright.

So part one of the Corrigan arc (aptly named Corrigan I) comprises of Gotham Central #23-24. In it, Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya are enjoying a nice dinner together, discussing a family gathering they are going to have at Renee’s and Daria’s place. Right away we understand how deep the relationship between these two has become, and how much they care about each other.

On the way out from the restaurant they spot a few thugs from local gang B.T.M. heading into a decrepit old building, and they follow after calling for backup, in the end arresting two of the attacking gang members and killing the leader of the enemy gang, Johnny Lamonica, a.k.a. “Black Spider.”

This leads to the normal Police protocols: CSU investigates the scene, IAD takes Allen's duty weapon until the matter is confirmed, and both detectives have to make their statements. It looks pretty open and shut until a) one of the two arrested gang members claims to have been shot by Allen while in handcuffs, a charge that his ambulance-chasing lawyer is gleeful to jump all over, and b) there is no way to deny this, because as it happens there's a bullet missing from the crime scene: the scene Corrigan was charged with investigating.

To keep Allen from coming under suspicion, IAD detective Esperanza—er, hints to Renee that Corrigan might be at this seedy joint where most of the corrupt Gotham officers go. Renee goes there, finds him, and pretty much beats the information out of him. Turns out he did sell the bullet for a cool 10 grand to an old biddy out in the country that has an obsession with crime memorabilia. Renee and Esperanza head out there and convince the old woman to trade for the bullet; this puts Crispus in the clear. But there's a price: Esperanza had been building a case against Corrigan for a while; but because a fellow officer beat him up and coerced information out of him, Corrigan now has a legal defense against any sort of internal probe—meaning there's no real way, now, to get him off the force.

Corrigan I is not the best couple of stories in GC. Really good mind you, but so are all of the others. There are some moments, however, that I would like to bring to the forefront, the first being the core of Allen's and Montoya's relationship. I simply love how great of friends and confidantes they have become. As Simon Lippman says in another story, they can basically finish each other’s sentences. As such, Crispus and his family's acceptance of Renee and her lifestyle is very real without hitting us over the head with poignancy and sap. The dialogue really shines through here—I like the moment where Crispus jokingly chides Renee for having videogames:

I also like the scene where Daria tries to visit Renee in the hospital; but she's denied doing so because since they are in a homosexual relationship she doesn't “count” as family and therefore has no visiting rights. It's GC commentary on social issues at its best: layered, nuanced, and subtle, not dropping an anvil on you or preaching a message, but getting its point across just the same. In that same scene, we see a pause panel of Esperanza watching the interaction between Renee and Daria:

This occurs just after Esperanza gets Daria beyond the first desk. I like it because of what it says about forbearance and Esperanza's character. Here we have a man whose entire job is devoted to investigating other cops: he's not very popular to begin with, with anybody. Good cop, bad cop, no matter how corrupt or honorable you are you dislike Esperanza simply by what it means to see him walking towards you. But Rucka/Brubaker unexpectedly make him a very good, honorable person who legitimately cares about his job and about doing the right thing. We see this in his attitude and actions towards Daria and Montoya, and I love the pause panel selection here: it just says so much about Esperanza. You can tell he's not a fan of Montoya and Daria's lifestyle. It's so plain on his face. But he lets Daria come back to visit Renee anyway, because he knows it's the right thing to do. In one panel GC makes a hard-hitting commentary about moral rectitude sometimes superseding personal opinion, and Esperanza is a walking personification of this, right down to his decision to set Renee loose on Corrigan at the cost of his own investigation. He sacrifices the chance to kick Corrigan out of GCPD forever in order to save Allen's reputation, the embarrassment of a lawsuit, and possibly his career. And mind you, he's doing this for a detective he barely knows and has no personal connection to. But keeping a lousy CSU tech in exchange for holding onto a truly good cop? Is it the right thing, the wrong thing? GC doesn't tell us.

But decision does come back to bite

And that leads us to Corrigan II. And Corrigan II is, quite simply, one of the finest comic book tales I have ever read. If Gotham Central is one big pile of rubies, then Corrigan II is one of the diamonds sitting on top. It's a fantastically depressing and haunting way to end such a gritty, realistic series that prided itself on holding nothing back.

So Renee Montoya has been crumbling slowly but surely throughout the series, partly due to stress from her parents, and partly due to stress from the job; but things really come to a head after the stories “Keystone Cops” and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” the latter taking place in the span of DC’s Infinite Crisis. At the beginning of Corrigan II, Renee’s already staying out all night, getting wasted at a gay bar and fighting just about anyone who wants to take up the challenge:

Meanwhile, Allen, finally having found out how Renee and Esperanza gave up their case against Corrigan to save his job, is investigating Corrigan on his own, trying to dig up enough information to reopen the case with hard evidence that is untainted by either Esperanza’s or Montoya’s hands:

What this culminates in is some hard words between Renee and Cris. Cris is worried about his partner, so worried that he threatens to find a new partner if she doesn’t get help. Near about the same time, Renee finds out that Cris is investigating Corrigan without support of the GCPD. Renee confronts Allen about it, and Allen reminds Renee that he couldn’t tell her because bringing her in the loop on this would taint the investigation since she was involved in the previous coercion of Corrigan in Corrigan I. 

Cris goes to talk to an informant who’s working with Corrigan, but little does he know that Corrigan has already rooted out the informant and has beaten him to death with a wrench; Corrigan and his cronies are lying in wait for him, and Corrigan shoots Cris through his body armor five times in the back.

This leads to the beginning of the next part, with one of the must gut-wrenching scenes I’ve seen in a comic—again, all based on Rucka/Brubaker using the silent power of comics and their great characterizations to their advantage:

What makes Maggie Sawyer's reaction her so heartbreaking is her character setup as a tough and implacable leader who can’t be shaken by anything. Her hiding in her car, unable to hold back tears, not only lets us get a glimpse into the heart of her character, and how much she actually cares about her detectives, but just how traumatizing this is to the MCU: if it breaks Maggie Sawyer, it’s bad. Real bad.

Sawyer breaks the news to Renee and Daria:

And Renee is understandably distraught. She digs the file Allen was working on from his desk, and the others agree to work on it. Meanwhile, Corrigan and his cronies work out a story to tell the police, as Josie Macdonald and Marcus Driver track down the weapon Corrigan used to blast through Allen’s body armor. They bring him in, but their story is ironclad, and the murder weapon ballistics come back saying the bullets were from a rifle and not the Kevlar-piercing GCPD pistols they thought (due to ballistics having another crooked cop in Corrigan’s pocket). They have to let him go. Maggie promises that they will nail the bastard, but it’s not enough for Renee, who slips out before they notice. She visits the Allen family, then says goodbye to Daria before going off to the bar to get drunk.

Wasted and mad with grief, she then goes after Corrigan, in a scene that has to be seen to be believed:

But she can’t do it. She can’t do it because at her very core, she’s not a murderer; but at this moment, she wants to be. And haunted by this weakness, her inability to avenge the death of her closest friend, and the overall corruption of the police and city in which she lives, she’s had enough, and she leaves the force behind:

What Corrigan II does most of all is leave you with a sad, bitter feeling of futility. I know that’s not a very good way to make a recommendation of the series, but there it is. But it mirrors the whole series, really: the entire run was populated by darkness, with very little points of life and hope shining through. The series is dark, and it highlights the state of Gotham City and the nature of Batman, and it ends on that same note.

Really, I appreciate the ways by which Corrigan II illustrates the camaraderie and familial atmosphere of MCU, an us-against-the-world mentality. Everyone is working this case in the very end, because it’s one of their own that’s dead and that…that is almost unimaginable.

I also like the way Renee reacts. It just feels slightly mad, slightly disillusioned, and entirely grief filled. Her frantic search through Allen’s desk, desperately searching for the file on Corrigan oscillating between wild anger and almost childlike happiness when she finds it and shows it to Marcus is just so well done, written and illustrated. This loss hurts Renee, and because we have grown to care for her, we are hurting too.

Probably the best scene in the entire arc is the assault on Corrigan and his girlfriend. It provides a nice contrast between the two people, and what makes them intrinsically different. Corrigan sees Renee as merely “self-righteous,” (Corrigan I), but in this story Renee proves that she’s more than just a selfish do-gooder who’s merely trying to put herself above everyone else. The story provides a nice, circular contrast between what Corrigan is, and what Renee is. Corrigan kills a cop in cold blood, with no guilt or regret, by shooting him in the back. Renee, in a fit of drunk rage, assaults Corrigan, in a spirit of revenge, face to face, even puts a gun to his head…

But she just. Can’t. Do it.

She cannot murder a man.

And while Renee herself, it’s implied, thinks this makes her weak, the way the comic is set up, it lets us know that, far from being weak, she is truly honorable, and as far from the filth that Corrigan is that she can possibly be. In this way Gotham Central makes a comment on humanity, and what makes a person have or lack integrity. It would have been very easy for Renee Montoya to be a Corrigan. What stopped her? Was it an intrinsic difference, an inescapable fate? Are we all doomed by genetics or the products of our birth? Is Corrigan at fault, or was he born that way? What was different in Montoya’s life? How was she able to resist the corruption that Corrigan gave himself to?

And was she right, not to kill Corrigan? Certainly the bastard deserves to be shot in the head, but for whatever reason Renee can’t go through with it. Maybe it’s cowardice. Maybe it’s courage. Who is to know? Who is to know.

(Fortunately (or unfortunately, in some cases, but not this one) Renee’s story doesn’t end here. She goes on to become a leading role in the absolutely awesome weekly series 52, which deserves its own article, and provides some closure for certain people (like yours truly) who so wanted to know where Renee turned out –E)


Comic books are really just beginning to be taken seriously in mainstream media. It started with such high-concept works as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, and now, with the birth of the superhero movie, where it has been made apparent that superheroes can have pathos and say things about society to the mainstream (The Dark Knight), the momentum of all comics is growing in leaps and bounds. People are starting, slowly but surely to see their worth—maybe they don’t read them, but at the very least, they don’t make fun of people who do anymore.

So in that light it’s a travesty that GC has not gotten the respect and attention it deserves. It never cracked the top 100 during its run, and though the trade books have grown its popularity and solidified a loyal fanbase, it’s barely a tenth of what something of its quality deserves. This deserves a television series. This deserves action figures. This deserves a rabid base that would foam at the mouth when news about it
came out. This deserves a webforum with 100,000 members who gripe and complain about every little coloring error.

Comics are a unique medium, singular in all their own, and Rucka and Brubaker and all the artists and colorists and panelist and editors have created a group of stories that take advantage of every single aspect of them. This is a comic to be proud of. This is a comic to show people. This a comic to illustrate everything that comics can do…so please, please, won’t you read Gotham Central? And tell all your friends! And maybe one day, one day, I can let my love of comics be known in the bowels of the coffee shops and bookstores, and we will all rejoice in our unity and love for comics books!

(Note to self: might have taken that a little too far. –E)

Until next time,

Mr. E
  1. Lark left the series after issue 25, but the illustrators succeeding him kept the same design aesthetic.

No comments:

Post a Comment