Over the last fifteen years, superheroes have blossomed into a full-blown pop culture phenomena, dominating multiplexes and stealing their way onto television screens. With interest in comic book characters at an all time high, curious viewers may find themselves seeking out these projects’ comic book source material, only to find themselves lost in a web of reboots, crossovers and decades old continuity. In entry points I attempt to pair fans of movie and television adaptations with comic book story lines suitable for first time readers.
Recently, superheroes have seen a resurgence on the small screen with a wave of comic based shows taking over prime time. One of the newest of these is Gotham, a high-concept crime show that follows a young Jim Gordon as he negotiates the corrupt, pre-Batman world of Gotham City.
So far, viewers have remained divided on the show’s success, but regardless of what you might think of it, we can probably all agree that its central premise–offering a street-level view of Batman’s world–is an intriguing one.
The show takes its cues from a number of different comics, but while the overall concept may be similar, this is one instance where the source material far outshines its adaptation.
The cop noir angle has been a part of Batman comics for some time, stretching all the way back to 1987 with Frank Miller’s seminal story, Batman: Year One. Often touted as one of the best Batman stories ever told, Year One follows a young Bruce Wayne as he returns to Gotham City after years spent training abroad. Having studied under the best martial artists, criminologists and manhunters in the world, an inexperienced Bruce still finds himself struggling to make an impact in his war against crime.
Meanwhile, Detective Jim Gordon a recent transplant from the Chicago P.D. finds himself enmeshed in a police force where graft and corruption are just a routine part of the job.
Approaching Batman at the beginning of his career is certainly an inspired choice, however, the story’s true innovation lies in Miller’s portrayal of Jim Gordon. While certainly a major part of Batman’s world for decades, Gordon was often used as little more than a source of exposition, the guy who lit the bat signal then sat back while Batman did the heavy lifting. Year One went the extra step of rounding him out, treating him as a tough, honest, yet flawed human being, struggling to uphold his values after he’s targeted by his fellow cops. Miller also gives him some truly badass moments.
The story was a real departure at the time , far more influenced by crime novels and noir films than the usual colorful superhero tropes. David Mazzucchelli’s art brought a gritty, urban reality to the story, basing Gotham City on the seedier corners of pre-Giuliani New York.
The story is also highly accessible and self-contained, making it a great starting point for those curious about what comics have to offer.
The second major influence we’re going to discuss today is a wonderful little gem of a book called Gotham Central.
Released from 2002 to 2006, Gotham Central took the unique approach of tackling Batman’s world completely through the eyes of the city’s cops. Taking its cues from shows like Homicide and The Wire, the book offers a surprisingly grounded, straight forward procedural approach to Batman’s famous nightmare metropolis, with the members of the Major Crimes Unit enduring the usual assortment of day-to-day frustrations, while occasionally bumping up against criminal maniacs like Two-face and the Joker.
Unlike the TV series Gotham, the series doesn’t revolve around a single protagonist. Instead, it follows a rotating squad of over a dozen cops, split up between the day and night shifts. Another nice little touch is that the majority of these characters are new faces, giving the book a rare accessibility to first time readers.
And what about Batman himself? He does appear on occasion, always seen through the eyes of others, leading to a much different portrayal than in his own books. While he’s certainly good to have around in a crisis, Batman is something of a sore spot for Gotham City cops, forcing them to rely on someone who often does their job for them far better than they do.
Then there’s the little things, the unique details that make the book so fun. For instance, how does a modern police force work with an illegal vigilante without openly breaking the law? One of the more clever ideas the writers dreamed up is that Gotham City police officers are forbidden from lighting the bat signal. Only civilian employees are allowed to operate it, thereby giving the cops an extra layer of deniability. It’s a unique workaround that gives the book a sense of reality without losing the sensational elements that make the world of Gotham City so fun.
Throughout the majority of its short life, the book was handled by dual writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker who split the scripting duties, dividing their stories between the members of the first and second squads. It’s a novel approach, one that allows them to tell their own story arcs without tripping over each other’s toes.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a call out to Michael Lark’s fantastic pencilling. From page to page, Lark’s art is awash in the kind of mundane details that bring the stories alive. From the cluttered sprawl of squad rooms, to the characteristic snarl of a suspect’s face, his contributions are a large part of why the book works so well.
Despite its relatively short life, Gotham Central maintained a consistent level of quality, approaching its colorful world from a unique, fresh perspective. The series is easy to find, having recently been reissued in a number of paperback volumes.
One quick note. Although fairly approachable, the book does contain a few callbacks to earlier stories. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the absence of both long term Commissioner James Gordon and Gotham character, Detective Harvey Bullock.
My advice is to dive into the first few stories and see what you think. If you find yourself hooked, you can track down a copy of Batman: Officer Down, a multi-title crossover (released in a handy trade paperback) that explains Gordon’s absence, then follow that through to Detective Comics 758-760 (sadly uncollected), which wraps up Bullock’s story.