Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Gotham Central Book Two by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka

Posted by on March 3rd, 2010 at 1:00 PM

DC Comics; 288 pp.; $29.99; Color; Hardcover

Not being a reader of detective novels or viewer of cop shows, I didn’t know there were such things as “police procedural tales” until I read the introduction to Gotham Central Book Two: Jokers and Madmen. So I’m probably not the best person to evaluate the genre. But on first blush, the series, written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka and drawn by Michael Lark and others, has been fresh, lively and absorbing. Part of the attraction is the inherent novelty of the methodical — if essential and potentially dangerous — scutwork carried out by an ensemble cast, a crew animated by bureaucratic tensions, group dynamics and personal dramas.

Of course for someone raised as an inveterate superhero reader there’s the special kick of the precinct being in, as he has been known to threateningly hiss through clenched teeth, the Batman’s city. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at the apologists’ thesis that superheroes represent the classical gods re-cloaked for a modern era, you’ll at least get to see how the rationale might get an amen in Gotham Central. With our sights trained squarely on the routines of mortals who serve and protect, the unpredictable intrusion of The Caped One, swooping in at critical junctures to decisively intervene, all masked and laconic and inscrutable, does seem otherworldly, operating on a scale apart from that of working stiffs.

Thus in one of Book Two’s longer stores, the seemingly obligatory Joker tale, we as readers aren’t doing the usual. We aren’t following Bats around through preliminary skirmishes, dispatching underlings with ear to the ground and picking up clues. We aren’t retreating with him to the Batcave to analyze dirt scraped from a boot only to eventually crash through the skylight in the nick of time and save the day. We don’t participate in that moneyed, privileged super-sleuth position of remove. In this particular Joker arc we go along quite nicely, if bloodily, in Batman’s absence. We may wonder where he’s at, keeping a lookout for him in the corner of our eye, but our focus is elsewhere. Until suddenly, far from the showdown, he unaccountably materializes, shoves people through the roof fire door as the sniper fire begins, maybe/maybe not catching a bullet himself. And once safely inside, nobody is opening that door back up in order to bring this episode to Bat-closure. Everybody’s too shaken, out-flanked, out-ordnanced and pinned down. The narrative stays huddled in the stair well, with the peeps, rattled and pulling themselves together. Spooky Batman is, now as ever, on his own, off in his own orbit entirely.

For his part, the Joker assumes his otherworldly status as well, as an embodiment of equally unfathomable motivations, seemingly allied with raw, fundamental, malignant chaos. From that psychological vantage point he is guided by a rationale inaccessible to mere men, women and beat cops, operating hidden until all hell is in the offing. The Joker teeters between brutally obvious clarity and woefully occluding madness, generating a glimmer of empathy and gag of revulsion that Brubaker and Rucka make stick. They are also able to convey the very special nature of his grotesque monomania, an established tenet in Bat-history but seldom twisted home so persuasively.

In its own way, Gotham Central is as radical a make-over of the franchise as was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It reads more convincingly and substantive than the wrinkle bequeathed to genre characters by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross in Marvels. The players in Gotham Central are not bystanders, groupies, commentators or philosophers in the shadow of these ubercreatures. They’ve got their job to do, one that can bring them into direct contact, for better or worse, with such shadows. The mayor plots empty publicity gestures while waiting for the Batman to step in and take care of things. The rank-and-file officers bristle at the implication. The chief berates the vigilante who operates beyond his control and his keen. Superheroes and supervillains are the 800-pound gorillas in the room but the job description for Gotham cops doesn’t allow the option of ignoring them.

On second blush, this Joker story creaks a bit. As the climax approaches, the cops are a little more disturbingly secretive (and improbably successful) at withholding pivotal information from the public for plot’s sake; the commissioner is a little more dim for a reveal’s sake. (And the Jewish detective is a little more petulant and techy about Christmas, for what’s sake?) You might be able to chalk it all up to a fully orchestrated demonstration of the lack of sleep all the characters were feeling at that point. But that awkward heightening of tension leading to the climax serves to sharpen the perception that the book’s other long arc is the smoother, superior and more palatable tale (uh, incidents of mind control aside). In that story of a reopened crime and a disgraced detective’s return, Batman does not figure at all, save for a timely, off-panel gathering of Bruce Wayne-bankrolled lawyers.

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