Gotham Central: Jokers and Madmen
Writers: Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka
Artists: Brian Hurtt, Greg Scott, Michael Lark
Colourists: Lee Loughridge
Note: This is a discussion of the 2011 paperback of Gotham Central Book Two: Jokers and Madmen which includes issues 11-22 of Gotham Central
Once again experiencing the crusade against crime from Gotham’s foot soldiers, the men and women of the GCPD, the second volume ratchets up the crimes. A sniping spree, an old case brought back to life and the appearance of one of GCPD’s most infamous officers makes the year even more stressful yearfor GCPD as it undergoes a drastic shift in personnel.
James: From our last talk, I think we both enjoyed Gotham Central, but I think I had a bit more reservations with some of the execution. As we dig deeper into the series, I think a lot of those issues start getting addressed to some degree, but then the series also throws us some curve balls. I’m particularly interested in what you think about the first standalone issue in this series where we meet the person who actually operates the Batsignal: Stacy. Do you think that character’s story works or did you think it was a bit too out there?
E: Ah, yes that first issue does seem to arrive out of nowhere, does it not? I think part of the issue rests with one of the qualms I had with the first series of stories, mainly that, few of characters were easily identifiable. They were one and the same for the most part. Because of that, I actually had no clue who the hell the girl was in this story, Daydreamers. It was a neat attempt on the part of the writers to think outside the box (in a series which itself is already thinking outside the box in terms of Batman comics), which I thought was cool, but in the end did not do much. It felt like the authors were under some obligation to explore that character which I didn’t feel was absolutely necessary. Where do you stand on that particular issue?
J: I’d agree that it does come out of nowhere because the series didn’t establish that she was the character flipping on the Batsignal. I did think it was interesting that they explored the idea of what would a person who actually had that job think about Batman…and well, the result is not what I would expect, but it is interesting and I think it works in the vision of the comic of being a much more grounded look at Gotham. I think on that front, it worked for me, even though the story does come out of left field, so to speak. Of course, I imagine we felt a lot more familiar with the next arc which brings in the villain I think both of us have probably been waiting to see in this series. What did you think of Soft Targets and The Joker’s appearance?
E: The arc that is shared in Soft Targets is where, in my opinion, Gotham Central begins to hit its stride. I recall that in our first discussion about this series of books you and I had complaints about a number of things, but one the most important was that it felt like it was having a hard time balancing fan service with an original take on the Batman universe. This story arc however evolves much more organically than anything in the first book. At first, it functions like a mystery, which suited my fancy since we are supposed to be tagging along with detectives. Once it is revealed that the Joker is behind the assassinations, things really kick into high gear primarily because Batman plays only a small part. It really feels like the Gotham detectives are working this time instead of watching Batman save the day. James, did you think they struck the right balance between iconic villains appearing and having these new characters instead of the Batman do their part?
J: Yes, I agree that this is where the book finally gets it right. It starts out as a series of random shootings with no real lead but slowly you get the reveal that it’s The Joker behind it all and it fits with the character. We all know The Joker is no stranger to causing random mayhem, and it also shows how the cops are caught inbetween Batman and the freaks. We get to see the story from this perspective and it shows how the cops have to cope with being the collateral damage in this epic struggle and that made it work for me. I think this is where the series also started doing a better job of giving the characters a bit more identity and making you feel more connected to them. Did you like the characters more compelling this time around or did you find them all interchangeable again?
E: You know, that’s a really good question and while I do have a definite answer, what I find odd is that I’m unsure as to why I have that feeling. Essentially, yes, I did connect with the characters more this time around. Montoya, Sarge, Driver, Mackenzie, I mean, I can remember their names this time! That being said, is this new connection due to the fact that by the time Soft Targets commences were at issue 12 or thereabouts and the simple fact that we keep seeing them has created the connection, or are the writers doing a better job? I like to think it is the latter, in part because I’d say the writers are doing a respectable job at continuing story lines from past issues, or creating new ones that span two, three, four issues. I really like the Driver-Mackenzie team for example, I’m glad whenever they’re at the forefront of stories now. Do you think the characters are better developed?
J: I do. I think it’s more than just spending over 20 issues with them now and the fact that the series has gotten past that initial introduction and we’re getting glimpses into their lives. We find out about family tensions behind the scenes as well as some of the tensions inbetween people in the department. Likewise, I think we start seeing how certain cops react to things differently. I don’t think we’re getting deep or complex character portraits, but I think as an ensemble, the cast of characters is growing more interesting as we begin to pick up on details and see new dimensions of characters that you might not expect at first glance. For instance, one of my favorite part of this run is when one of the cops decides to take his partner to her son’s recital, which she decided to not go to because her son didn’t invite her. In the context of the plot, it has nothing to do with the overarching story, but it’s a moment like that which shows a bit more about who these characters are.
E: Argh, you beat me to it, James. I was thinking about that very issue. That is such a nice little touch precisely because it allows the readers to better understand who these people are. That cop, however much she loves her son, seems too proud to ask him for a ticket, and because of that must rely on her partner taking her too the concert. When they arrive, her partner also concocts a neat excuse for them to be there without tickets, which speaks to how he operates too. Very good stuff overall. I also liked Sarge having to wrestle with the fact that he did not get the promotion he has worked his butt off to obtain. He’s such a cool guy and you want him to get it, but he doesn’t, which helps forge, perhaps in a manipulative way, the reader’s attachment to that character. There are some other classic villains that make appearances. In fact, two are utilized in the same storyline; Penguin and Mad Hatter. We also get some backstory on the Mad Hatter. How did that story sit with you and what did you make of the story exploring who the Mad Hatter is a little further?
J: I really, really liked that story. For one, it’s a great use of the Hatter. I think he’s one of those b-level Batman villains that often gets shoehorned off into bits that aren’t that good, but his ability to manipulate people’s mind, when done correctly, can be used to tell some creative stories, and this story was very creative. The Mad Hatter does such a good job manipulating people, they don’t even realize it’s him. The crime is an unsolved case from years back that only comes back up when one of the survivors of the Hatter’s attack ends up going crazy and killing himself…because The Hatter is still in his head. And you also get a drunk, retired Bullock into the mix and I loved the way Ed Brubaker used him in this story. Of those we’ve read so far, this is my favorite storyline in Gotham Central so far. What were your thoughts?
E: Yes, the notion of the Mad Hatter still being in that man’s head, thus causing him to think he is going crazy, is a clever touch. Particularly macabre as well, something I don’t think the series, Batman or otherwise, does very often, save perhaps when the Joker is the villain. I think the main strength of the story, part from some to the qualities you and I have already highlighted, is that for the first time since issue one the reader gets to taste a really epic story. It starts off with a gruesome yet understandably small incident. It then evolves into something that has spanned several years and involves multiple suspects. It isn’t the type crime Batman investigates often, it certainly feels ‘right’ for the Gotham police to be handling this, yet it feels big, it feels epic. Speaking of suspects, the authors throw another curveball as you called them earlier at the readers. Turns out the culprit is an old, crusty, racist, puritanical woman. Before revealing my own thoughts, I’d like to know what you have to say about that character, who in the end plays a huge role of course.
J: I liked that angle. It shows that crime can come from all places and also from misguided intentions and lies told in fear. That element of the story shows the long-term ramifications of what, at the time, probably felt like a small lie but then grew into something much, much bigger. Like you said, this feels like a truly epic arc and there’s quite a bit of complexity to the case in terms of how all the various suspects and victims interact. I thought that was yet another reason why this is my favorite arc of the series so far. It’s complex, but not convoluted and you can get a sense of why someone might commit that crime, even though it’s heinous and reprehensible.
E: Well, I certainly didn’t expect it, I can tell you that much. I suppose I am on the fence, so to speak. It is a great reveal for how difficult it was to guess, at least on my part. It guilty party different from anybody one would normally assume, especially since it is hinted rather strongly that the Penguin is possibly responsible. As far that that character goes, there was something about it that was a little over the top. That’s probably a dumb argument to have considering the sort of villains we read about in these stories. I just thought that it was kind of convenient, stereotypical even how crazy the old woman was. It wasn’t as though she willingly had those teens killed but was somehow forced into doing it, or that it was a horrible mistake she had to live it. No, she’s just a crazy old hoot. I get where you’re coming from though and you did make some good points. I still like this story, mind you. Something else I thought the series is doing rather well all of a sudden is handling the politics of the GCPD, like when the new boss arrives, or the the problems related to overtime work. Did those details work for you or were they more a distraction?
J: I think that goes back to showing us more of who these characters are. Dealing more with the day to day politics of the job adds more to the characters and shows how much the job is a strain on these character’s lives. Getting the new boss shows that there’s both a wider world of political influence they have to consider (he gets the job because he’s friends with someone in the mayor’s office) as well as showing there’s that bottom line that has to be considered, that at the end of the day there are cases to be solved and you can either stuff whatever crisis is in your life and do the job, or leave your badge and gun on the desk. Once again, another way in which I think the book is drawing us more into the lives of these characters. Anything else you wanted to talk about?
E: Not in particular. This was an especially smooth and fun read. It was also a welcomed surprise because I concluded my end of our first review by saying that while the stories were fine, I was unsure how much better they could get. Turns out they could get a whole lot better.
J: Agreed. This is a major improvement, especially from my perspective. I think the series has addressed all the qualms I had with the earlier stories and has come into its own as a crime drama that feels specific to Gotham City, which is no small feat. I look forward to seeing how the series adapts different characters into the story as well as how the cops relationships evolves over time.