One major dichotomy in the Batman mythos has always been the tension between Batman's portrayal as an "aloof loner," and the existence of the Batman family, including Robin, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon. While Batman is supposed to be an unlicensed vigilante, he has for most of his history enjoyed tacit police approval from Gordon, with Gordon's officers mainly staying out of Batman's way.
The Gotham Central series -- written by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker shortly after the "Officer Down" crossover that saw Jim Gordon retire -- therefore offers a non-traditional take on Batman. Without Jim Gordon to provide the united face of the Gotham police force, we see a Major Crimes Unit that often considers Batman an impediment, and even an embarrassment. As shown from the perspective of the Gotham police, Batman is a vigilante in line with his own legend; in this way, the relatively short-lived Gotham Central series may one of the purest portrayals of Batman available.
Through the five trade paperback collections of Gotham Central (read all the Collected Editions Gotham Central reviews), Rucka and Brubaker give the Gotham police good reason to resent the Batman. Over about half-a-dozen major cases, Batman surpasses the Gotham police in stopping Mr. Freeze and Two-Face, and solved both the Joker's bomb plot and the Dead Robin case. It's only officer Josie MacDonald's mention of Batman that keeps disgraced detective Harvey Bullock from killing himself in Gotham Central: Unresolved Targets.
Additionally, when Batman is unsuccessful or uninvolved, the cases usually end tragically. In Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead, Officer Peak has to kill his partner, the mutated Officer Kelly, when Batman can't subdue him; in Gotham Central: Dead Robin, Batman never appears in the "Corrigan 2" storyline where Detective Crispus Allen is murdered.
Yet, the Gotham police are not uniform in their reactions to the Batman. In Quick and the Dead, where Gotham Police Commissioner Michael Atkins formally splits from Batman after the Batman: War Games crossover, Allen and Detective Renee Montoya debate Batman's role with the police. Allen, originally from Metropolis, believes Batman's vigilantism breeds chaos in the city, whereas Montoya, originally from Gotham, credits Batman for her decision to become a police officer.
Detective Marcus Driver, one of the first characters introduced in Gotham Central and arguably one of the series' leads, actually changes over the course of the series in terms of his attitude toward the Batman. At the beginning, in the In the Line of Duty trade, Driver resents Batman's presence in solving the murder of Driver's partner by Mr. Freeze. Driver changes his mind, however, once he understands the scope of Freeze's plan.
When Driver's girlfriend, Detective Romy Chandler, shoots at Batman in the Dead Robin trade, Driver explains his own gradual understanding that Batman is "on our side, in his own way." Driver mediates with Commissioner Atkins for Batman's help in the Dead Robin case, and Driver's later description of his love/hate relationship with Gotham City could as easily be a reference to the Batman.
One potential reason for the Gotham police's mistrust of Batman is distinctly because of his loner status. One of the strongest themes in Gotham Central is the importance of partnership, including Driver and the loss of his partner Charlie Fields, Detective Nate Patton sacrificing his life for Chandler, and Montoya's work to save Allen from the corrupt Jim Corrigan. Batman, as an independent entity, represents a lack of partnership, and this comes strongly into play during the Dead Robin case, when the police must consider whether Batman's own partner has been killed. Allen notes, "Any other case, we'd put the partner at the top of the list of suspects."
The resolution of Batman's relationship with the Gotham police is somewhat unsatisfactory, perhaps due to the quick cancellation of the series. Aside from the change in Driver, there's no large-scale formal reconciliation between the parties. After Batman finishes the Dead Robin case, however, Captain Maggie Sawyer grudgingly admits to reporter Simon Lippman that Batman's "help was instrumental in the arrest." This, and Batman returning Chandler's offending gun, have to serve as the coda to Gotham Central, shortly before both Batman and the Gotham Central title are swept up in the Infinite Crisis crossover.
I struggled with whether the final Gotham Central storylines in Dead Robin, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Corrigan 2," really felt like a proper end to Gotham Central, given their ties to Infinite Crisis and obvious lead-in to 52. Ultimately, however, Allen's death, and the culmination of Montoya's fall with her quitting the police force, show exactly what many of the Gotham police note all along -- that it's hard to be a cop in Gotham City and make it out alive.
Indeed, Gotham Central is often about the dark side -- witness, indeed, the use of Jim Corrigan, probably one of the most recognizable good-cop names in the DC Comics Universe short of Barry Allen, here filling the role of a villain. Gotham Central is a series filled with strong friendships, but also tragedy, and it's the tragedy that wins out (and of course, if you're not satisfied, you can always follow the characters into their various spin-offs).
We return, finally, to Jim Gordon's cameo in the first storyline of In the Line of Duty, where he notes that "whatever you do ... you're going to make a difference. A lot of times it won't be huge, it won't be visible, even." The writers obviously meant this as a parable for the Gotham City police, but it's just as true for Gotham Central, a series that, while not a commercial success, sets a standard for comics in its characterization, plotting, and unique take on both the Batman mythos and the DC Universe.
Just six issues remain uncollected (#11, 16-18, 26, and 27), and this trade paperback fan hopes we haven't seen the last Gotham Central collection after all. [Edit: Gotham Central has subsequently been released in hardcover volumes which collect all issues of the series, including those previously uncollected.]
What's your favorite Gotham Central trade?