Writers: Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka
Artists: Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Kano, Greg Scott, Brian Hurtt, Jason Alexander, Gary Amaro, and Steve Lieber
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Noelle Giddings, and Hollingsworth
Letterers: Willie Schubert and Clem Robins
The concept of Gotham Central is something that I have never quite understood why it’s not an approach that’s used more often because it’s quite brilliant. With Batman being such a popular character, most readers are at least somewhat familiar with Batman and the bat-family’s exploits in Gotham City and the occasional run in they have with Gordon and the rest of the GCPD. But what exactly happens at crime scenes with the GCPD once the superheroes are gone? Enter Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker who come up with the brilliant idea of incorporating elements of police procedurals with superhero comics, giving readers a new perspective on a character/location that had been around for decades while also fleshing out a large cast of characters. It really is quite an amazing accomplishment for a series that while critically loved, often gets ignored by the general comic reading audience.
The series debuted in late 2002 and immediately set the tone for the series with the first story arc, “In The Line of Duty” as we get introduced to detectives Field and Driver who are finishing up their shift by checking out a lead on a missing persons case and find themselves facing Mister Freeze. The intermingling of the typical grounded police procedural elements with the more fantastical superhero elements of Gotham are one of the many reasons this series is so beloved. Throughout the series and the various story arcs, you’ll get pages of the day or night shift detectives having typical conversations at the precinct and then are suddenly thrust into a fight that should be over their heads against the likes of The Joker, Mister Freeze, or Two-Face lead to a fascinating variety in storytelling that really keeps the reader hooked.
Another unique element to the series is that although there are various story arcs that are written by both Rucka and Brubaker, eventually the two split the writing duties with the detectives shifts. Rucka wrote the day shift and Brubaker wrote the night shift of the same precinct. What’s even more impressive is that the two writers were so in sync that while there are some elements of each writer’s style that come through, the overall tone is so consistent it’s hard to tell which of the two or if both wrote on certain story arcs. The quality of the writing really comes as no surprise given both writers have a reputation for excellent grounded storytelling. While both writers do an excellent job, Rucka’s stories stand out in particular because of the heavier themes that they deal with. In particular, Renee Montoya’s journey throughout the series stands out, which is mostly handled by Rucka, as she deals with being outed by Two-Face as a lesbian and how it affects her professional and personal life. The way this is handled and how Montoya is fleshed out in the “Half a Life” story arc and throughout the series is something rarely seen in super-hero mainstream comics. Not only does she have to deal with being outed at the precinct, she also has to deal with how her conservative traditional latin parents take the news which lead to some incredibly well written authentic scenes with Renee, her parents and brother.
Gotham Central often gets compared to television police procedurals but what is often left out is that this series stands with the likes of The Wire or The Shield in that this a police procedural done correctly. The characters of Gotham Central don’t always win and they don’t always solve the crime. The writing doesn’t rely on convenience and luck, the detectives use their skill to figure out the cases and track down the villains. These are real human beings with real motivations and with real risk. Throughout the series they’ll come in danger and the danger takes many forms; sometimes it’s power super-villain and sometimes it’s a corrupt cop. Ultimately the narrative is driven by the characters and not the plot as regardless of how interesting the setup is for any particular storyline, Rucka and Brubaker keep the characters of the GCPD at the heart of any story. Which is why the spin that the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit don’t particularly like Batman and consider him an advisory makes perfect sense. These officers and detectives risk their lives every day and have to work within the lines to accomplish their goal while Batman gets to swoop in with superior tech and resources; of course one would resent Batman.
While there are a few artists throughout the series, most of the art duties are handled by Michael Lark who also does an exceptional job at matching the quality of the writing. Rucka and Brubaker planned the series from the beginning with Lark in mind and it is very clear why immediately. While this is a rougher, younger version of Lark compared to his work on more recent series like Lazarus, his art style manages to capture the same gritty, grounded tone that the writers were going for. One of Lark’s main strengths is his ability to convey clear emotion and intent in his artwork that was and still is critical to the success of this series. Gotham Central is Batman meets Law & Order, so not only do you need to match the tone but you will also see a lot of scenes where it’s just people talking and so not only does an artist need to keep a reader's attention, the panels need to quickly and easily convey the exact tone of the scene. It’s not an easy feat given how varied the tone is but Lark manages it and then some.
The ridiculous amount of unique qualities and absolutely brilliant execution lead this series to one of the best superhero series of all time. The most unfortunate aspect of the series is that it was only 40 issues as it struggled with sales figures and was mostly kept going because it was much loved by the DC staff of the time. Seeing the obvious writing on the wall, Brubaker and Lark departed first leaving Rucka to continue on but it just didn’t feel right without it’s other creators and he too decided to end the series. The series ended in early 2006 and I’ve never quite understood why a similar approach hasn’t really been tried elsewhere. It may be out of respect or it may be that this wonderful series was the accomplishment of a unique synergy among it’s originators. While I may occasionally have thoughts of what could have been, I’m grateful for the 40 incredible issues we did get.