Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Ed Brubaker isn’t walking through that door

Gotham Central #1

What does Ed Brubaker leaving Captain America have to do with New-52 storytelling? For me, the connection goes through Gotham Central.

Okay, that requires a bit more explanation. Mr. Brubaker isn’t leaving Captain America on bad terms, but apart from Winter Soldier he’s not especially interested in writing any more superhero comics. It’s not the same as Chris Roberson’s principled departure from DC, but it puts me in a similar mood.

Like Roberson, Brubaker is a good storyteller who can incorporate shared-universe lore effectively into his comics. For example, Winter Soldier’s first issue started out as a straightforward super-spy caper, but abruptly veered close to Silver-Age-Wacky territory with [SPOILER ALERT, I guess] the arrival of a gun-toting ape. The rest of the arc combined a couple of longtime Fantastic Four villains (one minor, one pretty major) with the threat of regional warfare. It never did get truly goofy, but it was rooted in a Marvel Universe where the former Soviet Union had some pretty odd operatives. Of course, the Winter Soldier concept itself is a retcon (Bucky was revived as Soviet covert agent) of a retcon (he died near the end of World War II).

While Gotham Central didn’t trade extensively on DC trivia, its premise depended similarly on Batman and his allies being well-established elements of the law-enforcement landscape — and being as odd to cops on the job as gorillas with assault weapons. That’s something I don’t think works as well in the New-52’s five-year timeline, which isn’t quite comfortable with its treatment of superheroes to take the air out of them. Put another way, it’s a concept which works best when you’re kind of tired of the very idea of Batman, so it helps if Batman’s been around for a while (i.e., so he’s had enough time to become annoying). Otherwise, it risks sounding contrived: “WHY-IS-THIS BAT-MAN-HUMP BUSTING-MY-BALLS?” It’s like launching Justice League Dark and JLI at the same time as Justice League — you don’t have time to get used to the primary book, so you have less context for the spinoffs.

First, though, some background. Before moving to Marvel, Brubaker had well-regarded runs of varying lengths on a handful of Batman titles. (Speaking of shared-universe lore, one of his supporting characters was the daughter of venerable Gotham gangster Lew Moxon.) He co-created and co-wrote Gotham Central with Greg Rucka in 2003, and wrote all or part of 22 of the first 36 issues. In fact, part of Gotham Central’s inspiration later became one of Brubaker’s Batman stories:

“[T]he first Batman story I ever pitched … ended up being cannibalized later to become Batman #603,” [Brubaker told CBR in 2003]. “At the time the story was called ‘Slam Bradley’s Final Case’ and Michael Lark and I pitched it as a one-shot [for] Legends of the Dark Knight, and it got shot down. It’s a story about the investigating officer in the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and it was about how Batman and his villains changed the way the job is in Gotham.

“Greg liked that idea, and he’d been trying to put more and more cops into Detective at the time, and so we just sort of kept talking about doing a cop book in Gotham.”

In 2011, Brubaker explained further to The A.V. Club:

[W]e realized how cool it would be if we did a comic like this every month. Where it was always about a crime scene where The Joker walked through and killed a bunch of babies. Just seeing the horror from a perspective that… You don’t see it from Batman’s point of view. These people, they do this every day to the point that it becomes a grind. And how angry they must get, and feel powerless that they can’t catch these people, but Batman’s going to do it. And half of the time, they’re not gonna get convicted, because Batman arrested them. Things like that. It just seems like a comic that really needed to exist.

Indeed, for most of the 1990s the Bat-books flew pretty high above street level, balancing brutal, high-stakes action with gaudy superheroics. Often this meant inter-title crossovers, starting with 1993-94’s “Knightfall,” “KnightQuest” and “KnightsEnd,” wherein a new Batman made himself into a shiny, pointy action figure to demonstrate just how deadly serious he was about the grim business of eradicating crime. After the old Batman returned, the events continued: fighting Russian mobsters in “Troika,” trying to stop a deadly super-virus in “Contagion,” chasing Ra’s al Ghul around the world in “Legacy,” and then dealing with a massive Gotham earthquake in “Cataclysm,” “Aftershock,” and “No Man’s Land.”

That last set of arcs started in 1998 and took all of 1999 to resolve. “No Man’s Land” even played out in real time, chronicling Gotham City’s quake-ravaged 1999. It also provided a transition between one set of veteran Bat-writers (including Doug Moench, Alan Grant, and Chuck Dixon, each of whom had been with the books for at least seven years**) and the next. Initially, that next group included Rucka on Detective Comics, Devin Grayson on Batman: Gotham Knights (Shadow of the Bat’s replacement), and Larry Hama on Batman. Brubaker followed Hama, whose seven-issue stint is perhaps most memorable for worst-villain-ever candidate Orca. Her introductory arc — which Chris Sims described as “the last story before Batman got good again [under] Ed Brubaker” — took up three of those issues.

This was in contrast to Rucka’s excellent Detective Comics work (drawn with a sublimely minimalist style by Shawn Martinbrough), which introduced pivotal characters like Whisper A’Daire, Vesper Fairchild, Sasha Bordeaux, and the just-transferred-from-Metropolis Detective Crispus Allen. Brubaker’s approach complemented Rucka’s pretty well, and was certainly a nice change of pace after Hama’s more blunt storytelling. Both writers worked hard to make Gotham City feel authentic — well, authentic for a habitat of well-financed urban vigilantes and the criminal psychotics they fought — and like a place actual people could live and work.

Their efforts were helped by the familiarity which accompanies a shared universe’s established characters. Rucka and Brubaker created new characters for GC, but they also used Crispus Allen, stalwarts Reneé Montoya and Harvey Bullock, Commissioner Michael Akins (at the time, Jim Gordon had retired), Maggie Sawyer, and the psychic Josie MacDonald (created for a Detective Comics backup by Judd Winick and Cliff Chiang). Seeing a mix of characters with varying levels of GCPD experience helped give Gotham Central the feeling that generally, the Major Crimes Unit had been dealing with the Bat-family for longer than it would have liked. In 2003, that meant somewhere around ten years. As mentioned above, if Gotham Central were relaunched today, naturally it could include the same names and faces, but it might have to go farther to create such a convincing world-weary atmosphere.

In particular, Gotham Central benefited from the kind of fictional history which grows up organically from decades of prior comics. Occasionally, when fidelity to that history takes precedence over storytelling concerns, you get complaints that continuity is killing comics and/or driving away potential new readers. (Despite their longevity, I don’t remember the Grant/Moench/Dixon Bat-books of the ‘90s doing a whole lot of looking back.) Sometimes, though, that trivia can provide the details which bring a setting to life. The Rucka-written 52 and Checkmate (both of which followed GC) also grounded themselves pretty firmly in an “old,” established DC Universe.

Now, I don’t pretend to believe in one approach for all superhero books. The Bat-books of the ‘90s did pretty well with new villains (especially Bane), and Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” arc would probably look a lot different — and be a lot more byzantine — if it had to line up precisely with seventy years of Batman continuity. (This week’s Batman Incorporated #2 also goes a long way towards explaining how a ten-year-old Damian Wayne fits within a five-year Batman timeline.) There is a lot of history in the New 52, and a lot of dots to connect, but apart from the “historic” books like All-Star Western and Demon Knights, Snyder’s work on Batman and Swamp Thing, and Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, much of it feels a mile wide and an inch deep. The New-52’s backstory doesn’t appear to lean on existing stories as much as the old one did, which reinforces the perception — good or bad — that DC now sees its voluminous library as a storytelling liability.

That’s the publisher’s prerogative: if that’s what brings it more business, that’s what it’ll do. (I realize I’ve been arguing on behalf of a cult-favorite comic cancelled for six years.) Besides, it’s not like the only books Ed Brubaker knows how to write depend on retcons and shared-universe minutiae. I’m happy for him that he’s more free now to focus on his own creations.

Even so, whenever a publisher decides simply to cut itself off from its own fictional history — regardless of how complicated that history may be — it strikes me as short-sighted. In a market saturated with superheroes, where Batman stars in four monthly books and his allies star in four or five more, there can be so much “sameness” that anything too different might be too odd even to sample. However, we readers need that difference in order to avoid being beaten down intellectually. After a decade of flashy, gaudy superheroics, Gotham Central cast a critical, but respectful, eye on the public face of the Batman mythology; and the Bat-books were better for it.

Ed Brubaker probably won’t be writing for DC’s superhero line anytime soon, and (as with Chris Roberson) the New-52 books seem content to get along without him. At the risk of gross generalization, a certain air of superficiality still hangs over the New-52 books, which I think discourages unusual titles like Gotham Central. The Bat-books of the 1990s weren’t entirely similar, but I think some of the same high-concept thinking is at work across the New-52 generally. In 2003, Gotham Central was a thoughtful, introspective response to all that flash. I imagine it’ll be a while before the New-52 books look at themselves in such a way — but this time, DC appears less willing to mine its own past.

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* [Brubaker wrote Batman from 2000-02 (issues #582-87, 591-607) and Catwoman from 2002-05 (issues #1-37, plus an introductory 4-part backup feature in Detective Comics); and in 2003 wrote several issues of Detective itself (#s 777-82, 784-86), following Greg Rucka’s three-year run on the title.]

** [Chuck Dixon wrote some 87 issues of Detective Comics from May 1992’s #644 through February 1999’s #729. (During this time Dixon also wrote Robin, Nightwing, the pre-Brubaker volume of Catwoman, and Birds Of Prey, but I didn’t total those up.) In his second extended Bat-stint, Doug Moench wrote 79 issues of Batman, from Early July 1992’s #481 through October 1998’s #559. Alan Grant was even more of a constant, starting with Detective Comics #s 583-97 (February 1988-February 1989), #s 601-621 (June 1989-September 1990), and #s 641-42 (February-March 1992); plus 19 issues of Batman in 1991 and ‘92 (#455-66, 470-71, 474-6, and 479-80) and all 83 issues of Shadow of the Bat (1992-99). (Where appropriate, these totals include October 1994’s “zero issues” and November 1998’s “one million” issues, in case your math isn’t working out.)]

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22 Comments

I’ve actually been re-reading Gotham Central, about as near-perfect as a mainstream comic can get.

I bought and have been reading all of the re-jacketed GC trades that DC has been releasing over the past year and a half or so, and I totally get why it was such a cult favorite. I loved the series and didn’t want it to end. I actually didn’t know it had such a short run, so when I got to the end of the 4th trade (“Corrigan”) and realized it was the end of the series, I was very bummed. In general, I really prefer Bru’s non-superhero work and hope to see him writing more of this kind of stuff now that he’s moving away from the Big 2.

Too much complexity for something simple like “Im tired”.

I would love to see Brubaker and Rucka colaborate on a project for Marvel. Maybe a new SHIELD series, or at the very least, give us a Winter Soldier/Punisher mini-crossover or limited series.

Believe it or not–I would actually like to see Brubaker work on either a Transformers book or GI Joe. For TF, maybe a procedural starring Autobots like Prowl, Nightbeat, and Streetwise, or a book featuring the urban-combat specialist Joes like Shockwave, Bullet-Proof, or Mayday.

Rob,
Brubaker and Rucka did collaborate on a Daredevil arc towards the end of Brubaker’s run on the book.
If I’m not mistaken, I believe its the “Return of the King” arc.

I remember Brubaker said, years ago, that the reason he signed exclusive with Marvel is because DC editorial, for whatever mind-numbing reason, didn’t include him in the plans to build up to Infinite Crisis. “What if Ed Brubaker had stayed at DC?” is one of many possible scenarios that would play out if Dan Didio wasn’t such a fucking idiot

Rucka didn’t create Vesper Fairchild. Moench did in his amazing run with Kelley Jones :)

Apart from that, great article. I know people bag the 90’s comics – but Batman was amazing over that period. Mid 90’s – Mid 00’s. Two very different groups of creators – Moench, Dixon, Grant and Rucka and Brubaker – but they are all exceptional! Knightfall-Knightquest-Knightend and NML are still me 2 favorite crossovers in Batman history.

Gotham Central was of course a standout – but the last few issues of that series, IMHO, were just ‘good’ not ‘great’. Or maybe its just the fact it turned 2 of the main characters into super heroes, which I didn’t really like. I also ended up missing Driver near the end – who sort of got taken out of the spotlight in favour of Crispus Allen and Reneé Montoya.

I think Batman’s currently in FIVE monthly books — Batman, Detective, Inc, Dark Knight, and and Robin.

Five monthly Batman comics and not one you can give to a child. Sigh.

Yes, Gotham Central unfortunately ended on a whimper thanks to Infinite Crisis and the grander plans for Allen and Montoya (where are they NOW?) A gritty, street cop drama that has as one of its last scenes Capt. Marvel falling out of the sky … kinda sucked the wind out of its sails. Never understoodthe misdirect of the crooked cop “Jim Corrigan” and the birth of a new Spectre. Was it a misdirect all along, or did someone decide the new Spectre should be minority and editorial said, “hey! i know just the guy!”

Regardless, Brubaker will be missed in superhero comics. I dont read a lot of Marvel, but among the few I most recently id were Brubaker’s Daredevil run and the first 30 or so issues of his Captain America. Enjoyed Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito and look forward to reading Fatale collected soon. I’ll continue to read his creator-owned stuff.

maybe brubaker can get back his deadenders from DC? or does it belong to him entirely already?

Drew Melbourne

July 1, 2012 at 9:06 am

“Gotham Central was of course a standout – but the last few issues of that series, IMHO, were just ‘good’ not ‘great’. Or maybe its just the fact it turned 2 of the main characters into super heroes, which I didn’t really like. I also ended up missing Driver near the end – who sort of got taken out of the spotlight in favour of Crispus Allen and Reneé Montoya.”

I don’t disagree with you, but you realize the reason for that, right? Driver was Brubaker’s character and Allen/Montoya were Rucka’s. When Brubaker leaves, the focus shifts to the Rucka characters. That’s also the reason Allen and Montoya had superheroic afterlives (as the Spectre and the Question respectively) but we’ve never seen Driver since.

I know that Brubaker is mostly done with Marvel/DC, but I’d love to see him do a paranormal police procedural in the style of Gotham Central.

God, I miss “Gotham Central.” To this day, it remains the only book that’s ever shown how cops would really react to a walking WMD like the Joker (in fact, I’ll go a little farther and suggest that the Joker would have been “shot while resisting arrest” after his second or third murder spree). That issue where he’s just killed half the squad room–Sawyer does exactly what a real cop would do: Aim for center mass and empty the clip.

Personally, I liked Catwoman better than Gotham Central. Especially the first 20 or so issues. Issues 17-19 were some of the most amazing writing I have ever read in mainstream superhero comics.

Gotham Central is my favourite series set in Marvel or DC universes. It really was an outstanding series that worked perfectly in Gotham City. The hatred of Freaks and mistrust of The Bat were perfect.

I am coincidently rereading it at the moment (just had the comics bound into two hardcovers). The thing I had forotten about that was great was the bickering between Sarge and Crowe. They were cool characters; have they been used since?

Agree the end wasn’t the best and hate that those two became super heroes. Crispus Allen especially shouldn’t have; that just doesn’t fit his character at all.

Oh, and the Bru/Rucka/Lark team worked on the Daredevil arc ‘Cruel and Unusual’, not Return of the King.

I actually don’t think Brubaker can leave Marvel, since he has a contract with Marvel

I really hope they try to refocus Detective now that Tony DAniel is gone to at least include some of Gotham PD as main characters. WHo should be the writer? It doesn’t sound like Brubaker is in the running, but I’d love to see Fialkov get a whack at it. He seems to juggle multiple voices quite well in IV

His catwoman was amazing! I’m always going back to those trades it’s collected in. He is a legend

@Eladio Garro

We have no idea what the contact was or how long for etc. I know it was an exclusive contract so he can’t do any other paid for work. Not sure about creator-owned – Criminal and Incognito were through Icon; Fatale is Image so either he can do creator-owned or his contract is up.

As far as having to work for Marvel (as opposed to no allowed for anybody else) that is very unlikely. Even if that was in his contract I doubt Marvel would force him to write something if he wanted to leave. It wouldn’t be enjoyable and would needlessly burn bridges with a high profile writer, who may well come back to work for them at some point.

I think a Gotham Central book would be great about now. Imagine Gordon forming a team to track Batman down, only to gain Batman’s trust. Gordon then shuts down the Unit, only to have the DA re-open it behind Gordon’s back. It makes more sense to me to have a ‘Batman Squad’ created 5 years after his debut than 10, continuity-wise.

I literally just bought the first volume of this series today at my LCS! Looking forward to reading it even more after seeing this article!

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