Review: Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty trade paperback (DC Comics)

Friday, September 21, 2007

[This review comes to us from Scott Cederlund of The Secret of Wednesday's Haul.]

I can't imagine it is easy being a cop in any city but imagine being a cop in a city where you have to deal with masked and costumed lunatics on a daily basis. Imagine a city where perps have names like Mr. Freeze and Firefly and where a nightmare like the Joker is a incredibly true and almost daily threat. Now imagine being a cop in that city and whenever you feel like you may have a true break on a case, another costumed lunatic like the Batman beats you and solves it before you can even get out of your car. Welcome to the Gotham City Police Department and, more specifically, the Major Crimes Unit (MCU). Welcome to Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka's Gotham Central.

With Gotham Central: In The Line of Duty's opening two part story, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka immediately plunge the reader into a murder as two detectives, investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl, have the bad luck of finding Mr. Freeze instead. A simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time turns into a homicide as Freeze kills one of the cops and leaves the other with a frozen hand as a warning. The manhunt begins for the cop killer as both the day and night shifts of the MCU are called in and race to find Freeze on their own before the masked vigilante Batman does.

After living in Batman's shadow for years, the Gotham City police department gets the spotlight in this book. Brubaker and Rucka flesh out these supporting characters, dividing into the different shifts and different partnerships that exist within the MCU. Familiar detectives like Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen share the streets of Gotham with newcomers Nate Patton and Romy Chandler. Gotham Central is an odd mix of genres. It wants to be a true cop story but you can never get away from the influence of Batman. That influence is so strong that it even becomes a plot point as the cops do everything they can to eliminate the Batman-factor and close the case before he can get involved.

In the Line of Duty explores the fractured relationship between the police and Batman without mainly focusing on it. The first two pages lull you into thinking that this is going to be a standard cop book but Rucka and Brubaker turn that around when Freeze shows up and you realize that this is still Gotham and that there are still freaks. But by making it personal to the cops with the murder of one of their own, the stakes are raised for the MCU as they come to the realization that they've let Batman be the authority in Gotham for years rather than themselves. The citizens and cops of Gotham have come to depend and count on Batman to make everything right, good and safe but isn't that the cops job and duty? Aren't the cops supposed to be the ones defending the average person on the streets?

That tension between the cops and the masked vigilante runs through the second story, where Brubaker goes solo on the writing, as two detectives continue to investigate the missing girl that cost a detective his life. Batman's presence hangs over the entire story but he's barely seen. Was the girl killed by some boys for the batarang she found at her high school or did the homeless guy she befriended in the park finally snap and kill her? While detectives investigate her apparent murder, other cops chase Firefly over the rooftops of Gotham. Even as you read about something as grisly yet mundane as a murder, Brubaker doesn't let you forget that there are masked lunatics running around.

Michael Lark's artwork brings the stories to life through it's normality. These people aren't heroes. They don't have rippling muscles and gigantic breasts. With a few simple lines and brush strokes, Lark can make you believe in the rooftops that the police have to chase over (with A.C. units and fire escapes), or highway underpasses where murderers attempt to cover up their crimes, or even police morgues. Borrowing heavily from David Mazzuchelli, Lark grounds the series in a Gotham that we're familiar with from Batman: Year One without overtly making us remember the Miller/Mazzuchelli classic.

In the Line of Duty reprints the stories that began the forty issue run of Gotham Central and I don't know if the series ever got any better than this (and is barely ever got worse). By telling the stories of normal people who's lives exist and work under the shadow of the Batman, Brubaker and Rucka's story works on two levels, as a superhero story (because really, it's about Batman and how he influences everyone in Gotham) and it's a cop story (because really it's about the men and women of the Gotham City police department.) Yes, it's really both of those and more. Gotham Central is a look into the inner workings of a fictional universe; a look into what happens in the background of every crime scene that Batman's trampled on and every crime that's too minor to pull him out of the Batcave.
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