Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker know how to tell a good story, but Gotham Central’s real genius is in its premise: it’s a police procedural set in Gotham City. It follows the detectives of the Gotham police department’s major crimes unit, who are the only honest cops in Gotham. Like any procedural, the characters are somewhat interchangeable and the story is sometimes formulaic or predictable, but the real pleasure for me, at least, often doesn’t come from the mystery or story itself. It’s from seeing what living and working in Gotham City is like for good, honest detectives. And from the arcs I’ve read so far, Batman doesn’t often appear, but he casts a long, dark shadow over everything.
I think Morrison is really on to something when he tries to portray superheroes as some kind of New Gods, but something he hasn’t addressed yet is what that means normal people living their lives. Book after book shows us these divinities fighting their dark, supervillain doubles and even each other. This may be a feature of Batman especially, who is often portrayed as interested more in tracking down, fighting, and then locking up crazed supervillains than in actively fixing the world. Batman: The Killing Joke is the perfect illustration of this: fighting supervillains like the Joker is his obsession. People like Barbara or Jim may get in the way and get maimed or brutalized, but they are ultimately just pawns. In the end, it’s Batman and the Joker, and everything else is extraneous.
What happens to everyone else? What happens to the mere mortals on the ground, especially before and after Batman shows up? Gotham Central opens with the brutal reality of life in Gotham: two detectives get a tip from a junkie about a kidnapped girl; it’s the end of their shift and the tip is almost certainly no good; they check it out anyway and go to the apartment the junkie tells them about; the tip is indeed no good, but Mr. Freeze happens to be hiding out in that apartment.
Mr. Freeze is sometimes a ridiculous villain, and he usually doesn’t pose much of a threat for Batman. That’s true of many of the villains the detectives must deal with. But the detectives are no Batman.
The detective on the right gets his hands and feet frozen; Mr. Freeze forces him to watch as he breaks his partner, on the left, into pieces. This is the recurring theme. Our sense of a world with superheroes and supervillains is distorted because we mostly focus on them, but in fact a place like Gotham is repulsive, dehumanizing, and extremely dangerous. Absurdly, our detectives try to be good and honorable in a city where only superheroes can safely claim such attributes. Most cops are utterly corrupt because their city is corrupt, and corruption makes sense and is a good survival strategy. Being on the take is a good survival strategy. Sleeping with prostitutes, protecting your fellow corrupt officers, and minding your own business are good survival strategies. As one dirty cop observes, what do good and evil even mean for a normal person when the world has beings like Batman and the Joker in it?
The detectives of the major crimes unit are often one step behind Batman, and they hate it. They genuinely believe in their own abilities and the importance of the law, and they often say that they had better solve their case before nightfall, because that’s when Batman will come out and deal with it in his own way. The problem is that Batman isn’t the law, but his own law, and he’s strange and inscrutable.
In a story midway through the series, the Joker has attached a bomb to a news anchor he’s kidnapped; one of the detectives has tracked her down and is racing against the clock to disarm it; Batman shows up. The bomb detonates, and Batman somehow rescues the news anchor, but the explosion leaves the detective in a coma from which he never awakes. Throughout the rest of the series, the detectives wonder what exactly happened in that room. How did the bomb go off? How did Batman escape with the news anchor, and how come their friend and colleague couldn’t get out too? They, and we, never find out. The news anchor was unconscious, and of course Batman isn’t talking. It’s easy to forget that to those who aren’t either other superheroes or the reader, Batman is a mystery, a guy in a mask who does things that are for the most part, but not always, manifestly good, but he never explains himself and is accountable to no one. He’s a crazy guy in a mask fighting other crazy guys in masks. It’s a stroke of luck that his craziness usually corresponds roughly to what is good and right.
They know he saves lives; they know he can do things they can’t, and while it repulses and appalls them, they activate the bat signal and get his help when they need to; but he’s not a good thing. He’s a necessary evil, and that he’s necessary is an indicator of everything that’s wrong with Gotham: good people doing the right thing not only aren’t enough to save the city, but they’re also the people with the biggest targets on their backs. They are better than Batman. They remain good, even though they don’t have the luxury of being anonymous; they work out of an overcrowded squad room, since they don’t have the benefits of a fortune and a Batcave; they obey and fight for the law, which Batman and his personal code, if anything, undermine; they fight crime, even if all they have are their wits and handguns.
I mentioned Mr. Freeze above, a villain who is sometimes ridiculous when seen from the perspective of Batman, but who is terrifying and brutal from any other angle. They encounter the Fisherman, a villain who, as his Wikipedia article explains, “utilizes specialized lures and a fishing rod with a razor sharp hook and titanium-steel line as weapons to entangle his enemies.” He’s an absurd Silver Age creation if I’ve ever seen one. He kills three officers, and it takes four more to bring him down. Even the Mad Hatter racks up a body count. But that’s what life in Gotham for mortals is like: an inexorable course towards death or corruption, and this is the story Gotham Central tells again and again.
It’s only a world of marvels for superheroes, and in a way Gotham Central is a more sustained and biting critique of superheroes, superheroism, and Batman in particular than The Killing Joke, Marshal Law, or any other book I’ve read. And it well may be that Morrison is aware of this too, and Batman, Inc., and Batman’s newfound openness are a direct reaction to it. There, the solution seems to be that we should not be, like the detectives, good men who obey the law and roll the dice. On the contrary – we should all be superheroes.