Entry Points: Gotham Central

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.

Gordon meets his new partner Det. Flass - DC Comics

Gordon meets his new partner Det. Flass – DC Comics

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.

DC Comics

DC Comics

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.

DC Comics

DC Comics

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.

Police discover one of Mr. Freeze's victims - DC Comics

Police discover one of Mr. Freeze’s victims – DC Comics

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.

DC Comics

DC Comics

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.

DC Comics

DC Comics

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.

DC Comics

DC Comics

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Thanos: History of a Mad Titan

Disclaimer: This post contains mild spoilers. However, I have attempted not to reveal story conclusions so that these tales may be sought out and enjoyed by readers picking them up for the first time.  

Probably best know from an Avengers post-credits cameo that sent nerds into overdrive, while leaving casual viewers scratching their heads, Thanos made his second appearance in this summer’s smash hit The Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s obvious from his looming presence, that Marvel films has big things in store for this character, but who is Thanos and why is he such a big deal?

Marvel films

Marvel films

Thanos is one of the more unique villains in the marvel comics stable. Unlike similar characters, he isn’t tied to any particular book or even to a particular hero. He isn’t even always cast in the role of villain. His only real constant is that he’s almost always presented as an A-level presence with close ties to a rotating cast of space-themed characters.

The character’s unusual nature is largely down to his creator, comic book writer and artist Jim Starlin, who has chronicled his adventures on and off again for the past 40 years. More than anyone, Starlin is the one who has shaped the character into the incredible powerhouse he is today.

His story begins in 1973, with Starlin using a long gestating idea for a villain in the pages of a fill-in job in Iron Man #55. Riffing on designs of the character Metron featured in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga (likely the subject of a future post), Starlin concocted Thanos as kind of cosmic wanderer.

Metron - DC comics

Metron – DC comics

After looking over the character designs, his editor Roy Thomas told him point blank, “If you’re going to steal one of the New Gods, at least rip off Darkseid, the really good one.”

So, Thanos was beefed up from a frail seeker of knowledge to a more powerful physical presence.

Darkseid - DC comics

Darkseid – DC comics

Thanos - Marvel comics

Thanos – Marvel comics

Stacking them side by side like this, it’s obvious the two characters look a lot alike, but those similarities begin to disappear when you look at them closer. Darkseid was portrayed by his creator Jack Kirby as the ultimate tyrant, a fascist god with an entire planet under his sway.

Thanos is much more of a schemer. Born on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, Thanos hails from a race of highly-evolved demi-gods known as Titans, ruled by his father Mentor. Having embarked on a failed campaign to usurp his father, Thanos was banished from his home world and wandered the universe, gathering a group of henchmen in an attempt to take the moon by force.

There’s also the matter of his romantic desires, which, shall we see, run toward the unique, but we’ll get into that a bit later.

In this first appearance, Thanos plays the part of puppet master to a group of alien brawlers known as the Blood Brothers.

The story is also significant for introducing Drax the Destroyer. Well known to fans of Guardians of the Galaxy as the gruff warrior who doesn’t grasp metaphors, Drax’s comic book origin differs greatly.

Created by Titan’s chief god Kronos as a means of countering Thanos’ threat, Drax is an interesting variation on the myth of the Jewish golem, raised from the soil of Titan and charged with ending the titan’s life.

 

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

In this earlier incarnation, Drax was much more powerful than the simple brawler viewers saw onscreen, commanding such diverse talents as flight, enhanced strength, energy projection, and powerful psychic abilities.

He also sported a much different look, consisting of a cape and headpiece, along with this fantastic championship belt.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

After suffering an early defeat, Drax helps Iron Man defeat the blood brothers, with Thanos revealed at story’s end to be a robot stand-in.

That might have been the end of things. Fortunately, Starlin took over as both writer and penciler of Captain Marvel that same year, bringing with him the groundwork he had laid in this initial story.

Created by Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan at the end of Marvel comics’ first wave, Captain Marvel was something of a failed property. He never caught fire like the rest of his superhero contemporaries and for two years he simply coasted along, before finally landing in Starlin’s hands.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

Starlin was a perfect fit for the floundering title and set about slowly edging away from traditional super hero tropes, as the book adopted an increasingly cosmic tone.

Thanos was a big part of this, unfurling an elaborate plan to secure the cosmic cube, a small crystalline object possessing near-limitless, godlike power.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

In the ensuing story, the Captain fights his way through a variety of colorful henchmen, struggles with his role as a warrior, and eventually attains the status of cosmic awareness.

Thanos remains a strong presence throughout, continuing his role as a shadowy mastermind, unleashing a full-scale beatdown on the Avengers and engaging in a bizarre psychic duel with Drax before finally throwing down with the good Captain.

The story also reveals his unholy obsession with death, not the phenomenon, but the literal incarnation of this force with whom he is in love.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

This brought another interesting facet to the character, imbuing him with frightening motivation, while simultaneously making him slightly more human.

In many ways, these read like typical comics of the time, full of never-ending fistfights and overwrought dialogue. Look beneath the surface though and you’ll notice something else going on too, a growing reflection of counter culture ideas.

Starlin’s writing played with vast themes such as eternity and death, while his artwork took on a decidedly psychedelic tone.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

Then there was the character’s quest for cosmic awareness, mirroring the new age philosophies becoming popular in counter cultural circles.

These innovations became a part of the industry as a whole, pushing comics into what is often referred to as the medium’s bronze age. It’s something Starlin would expand upon even further in his follow up series Warlock, where Thanos would put in his next appearance.

A quick note if you’re interested in reading these stories, they can all be found in a trade paperback called, The Life and Death of Captain Marvel, which compiles Iron Man #55 together with Captain Marvel 25-34 , and a Captain Marvel-centered Graphic Novel.

Marvel comics

Marvel comics

It’s a few years out of print, but a likely find on the secondary market. You can also find all of these issues electronically on the marvel app.

A brief disclaimer, if you do go the trade paperback route, save the last chapter for later. It takes place at a much later time and spoils a lot of what happens in the second big Thanos arc.

Next time, the Thanos saga continues in Warlock