Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with Michael Lark
The first I’d ever read about how civilians might react to superheroes in a non-positive way was reading about Marvel’s Damage Control. The series (composed of four limited series) follows Damage Control, a construction company skilled in cleaning up the property damage left behind by all those superheroics. I was paging through my brother’s copy of Les Daniels’ Marvel at the time, and I was blown away by the idea that there might be consequences for those actions. (I was, like, seven.) I never picked up Damage Control, but Gotham Central appealed to me on the same basis: superheroes can make life tough for people just trying to do their job.
Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty collects the first five issues of the series. Gotham Central focuses on the brave men and women of the Gotham City Police Department. It’s hard enough being a cop in one of the biggest cities in America, but when your city is swamped with supervillains, you can sometimes feel like you’re in over your head. Especially when you know that Batman is breathing down your neck… When a manhunt for a missing girl accidentally turns up Mr. Freeze, Marcus Driver watches his partner die before his eyes. The department races to apprehend Freeze before the night brings out the Dark Knight, as well as solve the original case.
Reading this, I was reminded of nothing so much as Law and Order. I did just recently polish off Top of the Rock, so it’s the police procedural at the top of my mind at the moment, but there’s also the location and time stamps and the dour, oppressive attitude. The introduction, by Lawrence Block, details the connection between Gotham and New York, making the connection even more explicit. When you’re doing a genre mash-up like this (police procedural meets superheroes), it is no bad thing to adhere to the golden standard of police procedurals.
Of course, it does flatten out the characters a little. Now, Gotham Central ran for forty issues and won plenty of awards (the ratio of awards to actual copies sold was apparently a running joke from 2003 to 2006), so I feel fairly confident that there’s plenty of character development to go around as the series continues. The “Half a Life” arc focuses on Renee Montoya being forcibly outed as a lesbian and dealing with its fallout, as Two-Face has fallen in love with her. (It’s the next collection, actually, so I should probably pick that up…) But take this from someone who watched House during her formative years: a procedural must, by necessity, dole out its character development slowly. With such a large cast and so much going on, Brubaker and Rucka must work quickly and subtly. The small amount of character development here gives me no cause for alarm, because it allows them to hit the series’ largest theme right out of the gate.
Towards the beginning of the collection, another police officer tells Marcus a story about his deceased partner. The late Charlie would jokingly assign Batman cases on the big whiteboard in the office; when told by a superior officer that it was demoralizing, he responded that it was the point. “He wanted that constant reminder that we didn’t do our job, someone else would…” the police officer tells Marcus. This is the core hook of the story, what makes it worth telling in the Batman universe instead of any other. How do you remain motivated when you’re up against superpowered criminals on one side and the Batman on the other?
Each character treats it differently—you can be flippant towards his involvement, you can be angry about it, but you cannot get away from it. We’re used to seeing criminals decry the Bat, but the law enforcement? Now, that’s interesting. Batman only shows up on certain cases—the missing girl case does not, apparently, rate Batman—but instead of the triumph that his arrival usually means in, say, the various film franchises, it’s heralded by despair. Batman’s arrival reminds them how powerless they are against those with superpowers, and how fickle his help can be.
The first five issues, while they do contain two story arcs, are also just a taste of what the series can be. I’ll probably press on for Renee, but hopefully, the next collection is a more satisfying meal.
Bottom line: Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty nails the police procedural tone, perhaps to the detriment of its hook and character development. Still, an interesting take unique to the Batman universe. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.