Monday, September 22, 2014

Before Gotham, there was Gotham Central

On Gotham, Donal Logue stars as that douche in high school who thought he looked cool in fedoras but fucking didn't at all.
One of the most anticipated hour-long dramas of 2014 is Gotham, which premieres tonight on Fox and takes place in a Gotham City where Bruce Wayne, the millionaire who fights crime as Batman, is only a boy whose parents have just been murdered, and the supervillains he'll later face aren't quite supervillains yet. Yep, it's another prequel, and any time there's a prequel on the big screen or the small one, Patton Oswalt's old bit about the pointlessness of prequels comes to mind ("I don't give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love! Hey, do you like Angelina Jolie? Does she give you a big boner? Well, here's Jon Voight's ballsack! That's right! The pink, glistening ballsack she swam out of!").

But Gotham appears to be far from pointless, inconsequential and Jon Voight ballsack-y because it's neither about Batman nor yet another origin story about his early days as a crimefighter, for now, that is--why beat that dead horse again after Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Begins?--plus lil' Wayne is only a minor character (David Mazouz plays Bruce). One promising sign about the new show--developed by Rome and Mentalist creator Bruno Heller and visualized by Danny Cannon, who directed the Gotham pilot and is best known for shaping the distinctive look of the original CSI--is that it's taking narrative and stylistic cues (as well as a few characters) from the now-defunct DC Comics procedural Gotham Central. That crime comic proved that a risky concept like a series that takes place in the Batman universe but doesn't center on Batman or another costumed hero--which sounds an awful lot like what Heller wants to accomplish with Gotham--can work.

In Gotham Central, the protagonists were detectives from the Gotham City Police Department's Major Crimes Unit, while Batman was a peripheral character, and Batman's cop ally Jim Gordon, who, at the time of Gotham Central's run, had retired from his job as police commissioner, made very few appearances. But on Gotham, the cast of cop characters is a lot smaller, and Gordon is the central character. Instead of the more familiar-looking authority figure in the pornstache, the Gordon we see on Gotham is a pornstache-less and much younger detective who hasn't risen in the GCPD ranks yet and is played by Ben McKenzie from both Southland and--before the cop show phase--The O.C., bitch. (McKenzie also previously voiced Batman in Batman: Year One, an animated 2011 adaptation of DC's 1987 "Batman: Year One" storyline.)

Like in Gotham Central, the entry points into the twisted, grandiose and operatic world of Gotham are detectives: in this case, Gordon and his older partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue from the much-missed Terriers). While watching Gotham (which, by the way, is scored by Graeme Revell, whose previous comic book adaptation scoring credits include The Crow and Sin City) doesn't require reading any issues of Gotham Central to understand what's going on, it's always a good time to discover Gotham Central in digital form or trade paperback (TPB) form.

The GCPD switches on the Bat-Signal to ask Batman his opinion on whether or not that bitch from the New York Times was racist about Shonda Rhimes.
Gotham Central was one of DC's most underrated titles of the '00s, despite winning an Eisner Award and a Harvey Award, the two most coveted awards in the comics industry. It's also a great standalone crime comic that's perfect for either crime genre fans who have never gotten into comics; readers who grew frustrated with superhero comics because of their overly convoluted mythologies (or the lousy quality of much of the writing, especially material written for characters of color) and quit reading comics for a while; or readers who simply don't care for either superhero comics or the character of Batman himself.

"Yo, what could possibly be racist about a white billionaire running around at night exacting vigilante violence?," said Yo, Is This Racist? wisecracker Andrew Ti, when he responded on Tumblr to a reader's question about whether Batman is a racist franchise or not (Ti thinks it is and doesn't care if he pisses off Batman nerds, whom he finds to be racist too). Whether their dislike for Batman is because racist fanboys worship him or because he's an overexposed character, readers who don't care for him will likely find Gotham Central to be up their alley because Batman isn't the hero of the series--the detectives are--and Gotham Central's view of the Dark Knight is interesting and complicated (and even more so than the Rashomon-inspired 1992 Batman: The Animated Series episode "P.O.V.," which looks like a rough draft for Gotham Central).

Just like the detectives who have to compete with Batman's presence on the streets or tolerate it, Gotham Central is split between siding with him and finding his brand of justice to be either flawed or an interference in the MCU's work, like when a criminal winds up not getting convicted because Batman arrested him (Batman is basically Captain Freedom from Hill Street Blues, except he's not a joke, he barely speaks and he's as much of an imposing force on the streets as the Latino and Irish gangs Captain Furillo frequently had to make deals with). Drama-wise, alternating between both sides is a more compelling position to take than simply viewing Batman as a dark knight in shining armor.

Gotham Central is one of the few comics I have every single issue of because of the consistent quality of the writing (aside from a couple of annoying tie-ins to DC crossover events) and illustrator Michael Lark's suitably noirish and--to borrow a word from Gotham Central co-writer Greg Rucka regarding Lark's steez, "photojournalistic"--artwork. All 40 Gotham Central issues are available digitally from DC or as TPB collections. The following five Gotham Central arcs are must-reads, because of either the writing or substantial appearances by characters who are featured on Gotham.

As for the Joel Schumacher version of Freeze, he likes people to suffer by subjecting them to his shitty puns.
"In the Line of Duty" (issues 1 to 2)

"We take it all from the regular person's POV, much like Marvels did," said Gotham Central co-writer Ed Brubaker about how his series' approach mirrored the acclaimed 1994 Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross miniseries' approach in a 2003 Comic Book Resources interview. Brubaker, who transformed the Captain America superhero comic into an espionage series and writes terrific crime comics like Criminal, and Rucka, who created the espionage comic Queen & Country and the P.I. comic Stumptown, kicked off Gotham Central's run with a relentlessly paced two-issue storyline in which the MCU must figure out how to take down a cop-killing Mr. Freeze. In keeping with the regular person's POV, Freeze is only shown when he comes into contact with any cops (as is Batman). Brubaker and Rucka's version of Freeze is more sadistic and vicious than the acclaimed reimagining of Freeze as a vengeful victim of corporate cruelty on Batman: The Animated Series, the show that remains the best screen version of the Batverse (sorry, Christopher Nolan trilogy), unless Gotham exceeds expectations.

"In the Line of Duty" nicely establishes the cops' resentment of Batman, as well as their occasional hard-boiled sense of humor, which is reminiscent of the detectives from Homicide: Life on the Street (you could easily picture either Munch, Lewis, Howard or Giardello saying, "Freeze knows as well as we do, as soon as the sun goes down... he's going to have a bat up his ass"). Taking inspiration from a Homicide episode that glimpsed what the squad house was like when the regular characters were away, Brubaker and Rucka agreed to split the writing duties after "In the Line of Duty." Brubaker would handle any storyline centered on the night shift, while Rucka would write the day shift storylines or vice versa, and then any time the MCU had to deal with a Homicide-style "red ball" (a.k.a. high-profile case), Brubaker and Rucka would join forces again.

The lawyer Bruce Wayne sends to represent Montoya has helped Wayne out of a hell of a lot of sexual harassment lawsuits from male massage therapists.
"Half a Life" (issues 6 to 10)

On Gotham, Detective Renee Montoya--who appeared prominently as a uniformed officer on Batman: TAS and later suited up in a fedora, mask and trenchcoat as the Question towards the end of DC's pre-New 52 continuity--is a supporting character played by Victoria Cartagena. But in the "Half a Life" arc, Montoya takes center stage when a rapist she once collared wreaks havoc on her personal and professional lives by outing the closeted detective to both her colleagues and her ultra-conservative Dominican grocer parents. Then the perp turns up dead, and when Montoya is framed for his murder, her African American partner Crispus Allen--by the way, the abundance of characters of color in the cast is another thing I appreciated about Gotham Central--must resort to unusual measures to clear her name.

While there are valid points in Ti and his Yo, Is This Racist? readers' frustrations with what they view to be the racist overtones of the Batman franchise, Batman's actions in "Half a Life" would poke some holes in the Yo, Is This Racist? comments. Would a racist ever do what Batman does to help out Montoya and Allen in "Half a Life"? Plus Batman isn't alone in helping out Montoya and Allen--African American cop Josephine "Josie Mac" MacDonald, a rookie detective with secret psychic abilities who was created by writer Judd Winick, plays a huge role in exonerating Montoya--and that keeps "Half a Life" from turning into yet another godawful white savior story.

Good thing Crispus Allen doesn't look like a Christopher Darden clone anymore.
Gotham Central characters Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones) and Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) make the jump from the page to the screen on Gotham.

The many twists and turns during "Half a Life" were deftly handled by Rucka, who has a knack for writing complicated and flawed female protagonists, whether it's Queen & Country's Tara Chace, the British spy who's known as a "minder," or Montoya, who has a frank and remarkably written moment with Captain Maggie Sawyer, another lesbian on the force. The captain offers advice to Montoya about dealing with the challenges of being out, but the detective takes offense to her advice and points out to Sawyer that it's more difficult for a lesbian of color to come out. It's a moment that Rucka avoided turning into an out-of-place sermon about race and sexual orientation by staying true to the terseness of his and Brubaker's cop characters.

Rarely do you see such nuance and maturity in a DC title that doesn't carry the "Suggested for Mature Readers" label. In addition to being a thrilling mystery, "Half a Life" is also a landmark storyline for LGBT characters in comics (one intriguing thing about owning "Half a Life" in its original form is the coincidental appearance of another character of color who's a lesbian cop--Kima Greggs--in an HBO ad for The Wire on the back cover of one of the "Half a Life" issues). No wonder "Half a Life" earned Gotham Central both an Eisner and a Harvey.

Christopher Darden tangles with the Joker.
"Soft Targets" (issues 12 to 15)

"This town has always been a circus. It's just the attractions that change," grumbles Montoya during Brubaker and Rucka's tense four-part storyline about a bloody Christmas killing spree masterminded by the Joker, who's taken down not by Batman--he's got his hands full as usual while trying to help the MCU stop the psychotic clown's sniper attacks--but by an armed Sawyer in the arc's most badass moment. "Soft Targets" was a huge influence on The Dark Knight: the imagery of panicked citizens rushing to leave the city due to the Joker's reign of terror is straight out of Brubaker and Rucka's arc, as is the cops' interrogation of the Joker, who, just like in "Soft Targets," simultaneously loses and wins when his bloodbath is over. The deaths of several cop characters in "Soft Targets" and other Gotham Central arcs were an example of why the gritty series stood apart from the rest of the much more fanciful DC universe: superheroes and supervillains can always come back from the dead because of either superpowers, magic or an overcaffeinated DC book editor, but regular people in Brubaker and Rucka's more grounded crime title don't have that luxury.

"Soft Targets" also downplays the Joker's usual penchant for prop comedy and has him delivering his threats on a slightly more realistic and cybercrime-inspired scale, via a sniper attack countdown page and webcams he sets up all over the city to trick the MCU. It's one of the most genuinely unsettling Joker stories in comic form. While looking back on "Soft Targets" as a Joker story, Rucka told ComicsAlliance, "He should be frickin' terrifying! If one of the theses of the book is that this is why Batman is a problem, but this is why you need Batman, then you need Batman. That story was just me and Ed looking at the Beltway Sniper and just thinking 'The Joker with a sniper rifle,' period."

Bullock threatens the Penguin by forcing him to watch a DVD of Farce of the Penguins.
"Unresolved" (issues 19 to 22)

Both the Penguin, played by newcomer Robin Lord Taylor, and not-so-by-the-book cop Harvey Bullock are being singled out by TV critics as the breakout characters on Gotham, and in Bullock's case, that's due to Donal Logue's ease with juggling both humor and pathos, which Logue previously demonstrated as a rumpled and morally complex SoCal P.I. on Terriers. The Penguin and Bullock turn up in Brubaker's "Unresolved" arc when one of Bullock's cold cases--a high school locker room bombing--comes back to haunt the former detective, who quit the force after taking the law into his own hands and arranging the execution of a perp who shot ex-Commissioner Gordon. A remnant of an old-school era of what remains the country's second most corrupt police department (right below the crooked force in Hub City, home of the Question), Bullock launches a one-man vendetta against the crime boss he believes was the culprit behind the bombing: Oswald Cobblepot, who's been successfully maintaining a front as a legitimate businessman ever since he started running the Iceberg Lounge nightclub. Moral ambiguity is a major part of Gotham Central, and in "Unresolved," it's the actions of Bullock that the MCU detectives are seen debating over instead of the actions of Batman, who sits this arc out. Batman was probably too busy having one of those days where you just can't get rid of a bomb.

As a black psychic, Josie Mac puts Miss Cleo to fucking shame.
"On the Freak Beat" (issues 26 to 27)

One of Gotham Central's most lightweight storylines, "On the Freak Beat" centers on the murder of a televangelist with an off-camera penchant for bondage. That's what passes for lightweight in Gotham Central. But the brief arc is noteworthy for both focusing on Josie Mac (whose psychic weirdness and mismatched banter with more jaded detectives like Allen and Marcus Driver are a welcome relief from heavier material like Montoya's ordeals) and being one of the final times Brubaker wrote material for Catwoman, who turns to Josie to help her clear her name when she's accused of killing the televangelist.

From 2001 to 2004, Catwoman was revamped by Brubaker (and artists like Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart) into a slightly more heroic, Robin Hood-style career thief in goggles, a cat-eared aviator helmet and an Emma Peel catsuit (the Mrs. Peel outfit was suggested by Brubaker's wife), a sleek look that has stuck with the character ever since and influenced both the look of Anne Hathaway's Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and newcomer Camren Bicondova's hoodie-clad take on a teenage Selina Kyle on Gotham. Brubaker's Catwoman was the kind of Catwoman who always deserved her own solo live-action film, not whatever the hell the unwatchable Halle Berry version was.

Steampunk Selina is so steampunk she robs Gotham 7-Elevens with a wooden gun.

Because the murder victim in "On the Freak Beat" is a televangelist, the subject of religion seeps into Josie's conversations with her partner Driver--he's an atheist, while Josie isn't--and their brief discussion of God brings to mind the philosophically minded and often funny car conversations between Bolander and Munch or Bayliss and Pembleton on Homicide. That's the quality of Brubaker and Rucka's comic in a nutshell: third-season, at-the-peak-of-its-powers Homicide in Gotham City instead of Baltimore. It's doubtful that the dialogue on Gotham will be equal to what Brubaker and Rucka achieved during their nuanced and mature take on the Batverse within the pages of Gotham Central--a couple of reviews have described the new show's dialogue as tin-eared--but if the show can pull off a few taut and gripping crime stories in the vein of "In the Line of Duty" or "Soft Targets," then the Bruno Heller version of Gotham will be a town worth visiting each week and the opposite of a pink, glistening ballsack.

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