May 23rd, 2012

Blue spirit

On the Beloved Freak Beat

Who will be a dear and comment on the loneliest post of all time? I have friends writing books! That's worth commenting on!

For years, I'd been wanting to read Gotham Central (full Goodreads reviews: Book One, Book Two, Book Three, Book Four), by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with art by Michael Lark, so when Angelo got me the first volume for Christmas and I stumbled upon a hundred dollars I didn't know I had, I bought the other three volumes and ended up burning through the series in a matter of days in time to meet Greg Rucka.

What, pray tell, is Gotham Central? It's Batman meets The Wire! As fun as superheroes are, it can sometimes be even more fascinating to read about the normal people living in that world. Brubaker and Rucka, two of the best crime/spy fiction writers in comics, bring their considerable talents to Gotham Central Police Department, bringing it to life impressively quickly. Seriously, I was sucked in from the very first issue. They have a way of maximizing what they can get out of each page, effortlessly melding small character moments with utilitarian plot mechanics. As a result, Gotham Central feels populated with living, breathing detectives. It's hard to keep them all straight at times, but the ones who get major focus are compelling characters, the best and most interesting, of course, being Renee Montoya, notable not only for being a well-drawn woman of color in comics but also, as this series reveals, a well-drawn lesbian of color in comics, and how often does that happen? The series has quite a few good female characters (in fact, the highest-ranking officer is Captain Maggie Sawyer).

Although there is no overarching story, per se, there is clear continuity, as the consequences of one case (often deadly consequences) can affect the next: not on a plot level but on a character level. We deal with romantic relationships, bureaucracy and politics, secrets between partners—you know, the kind of things you normally see in cop drama. Except now, bonus superheroes and supervillains! I was sort of conflicted on the role of the supers in this story. On the one hand, I was perfectly happy watching these characters solve crimes and have lives, and it felt almost gimmicky to involve costumes (will I spend each story waiting for the TWIST that it's actually the Riddler or Croc or Bane or whoever behind it?). On the other hand, this is Gotham, and they're Major Crimes, so they deal with the freaks; that's kind of their THING. And although it is a delicious, fiendish surprise to learn that a familiar face is involved, that's never the point of the story. The point is getting to watch good old-fashioned police deal with them rather than Batman.

As for Batman? We so often see Batman going to the GCPD for help, but Gotham Central shows us what it's like on the other side. Where regular people are just trying to do their damn jobs, and sometimes this freak in a bat suit drops in. Sometimes he saves the damn day, as if they couldn't have done it themselves. They don't look up to him. They resent him. It's a very interesting perspective.

Gotham Central ends up being a character-focused police procedural where both the character elements and the procedural elements are compelling. Brubaker and Rucka make this shit look easy, as if these stories were just waiting to be told. Despite the presence of costumed heroes and villains, the storytelling remains grounded, also thanks to Michael Lark's art. I could have read many more issues of this series; it's just so consistently good. But, alas, it was not meant to be. Instead, we're left with forty issues of how do to a crackerjack police procedural in a superhero world by focusing on characters and always keeping things grounded, bringing the supers down to a realistic level. Adios, GCPD Major Crimes Unit. I hope you're in a better place.

Wait, you're all still in Gotham. Scratch that.

Flex Mentallo, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, is difficult, even for a Grant Morrison comic. The ostensible plot follows Flex Mentallo, Man of Muscle Mystery, a fictional parody of Charles Atlas created by an in-universe Wallace Sage who then stepped out of the comic pages and became the fictional sense. Still with me? That's not even entirely relevant, since this Flex Mentallo seems to be living in a different world than the one in Doom Patrol, from whence he came. But it does make him the perfect character to use for Grant Morrison to get his Morrison on. So Flex Mentallo investigates some mysterious bombs that aren't really bombs and discovers that someone else from the pages of his comic may have become "real." Meanwhile, Wallace Sage, now a drug-addicted pop star is committing suicide and having an existential crisis, and all reality is about to come crumbling down. Excuse me: all realities.

All of this narrative is really a platform for Morrison to muse on the history of comics (Silver Age, Golden Age, Bronze/Dark Age, New Age), what comics mean to him (and humanity), what superheroes mean to him (and humanity), The Crisis on Infinite Earths and the role of the multiverse in fictional and "real" reality, where these ideas all come from, and what comic books and superheroes should be. It's bold and dense and hard to really grasp on a first reading. To be honest, I don't fully comprehend it all, and I don't want to put in the work to do so right now, but I know that Morrison is playing with interesting ideas that I would love if they were a tad bit accessible to me. As always, I respect his ambition, and even if I don't quite follow it all, I can still appreciate the great lines, gonzo superhero/supervillain creations, and fantastic art.

My initial reaction: I have no idea what the hell I just read, but I think it's supposed to be mindblowingly amazing? Er, 4 out of 5 stars. Let it be known, however, that Angelo gives it 6 out of 5 stars.