If Ed McBain wrote a comic book, it would probably have been a lot like Gotham Central: In the Line of Fire. You'll recognize the city name of course. It's Batman's stomping grounds. And, aside from Commissioner Gordon or the occassionally detective, you never really see the boys in blue from Gotham unless they are cleaning up after Batman has taken care of business.
That ends here. Ed Brubaker (before he bumped off Captain America) and Greg Rucka (before he wrote Catwoman) teamed up to create what amounts to the 87th Precint in Gotham. Batman is in this book, of course--we are talking Gotham City, you know--but he's rarely on stage. The focus here is the detectives, the blue collar guys and gals who punch a timecard, cash a measly paycheck, and try to earn some respect in a town with a superhero.
Detectives Driver and Fields, off duty, get a hot tip about a kidnapping case they're working. They knock on the apartment door, a scared weaselly guy opens it, and who else but Mr. Freeze is inside. He ices Fields completely and then ices Driver's shoulder and gun to a wall, purposefully not killing him. The ice man then proceeds to question Driver using Fields as leverage, leverage he begins to chip away at, literally. Injecting a bit of humor at this grim stage, Freeze actually gets annoyed that the detectives were not after him, nor even looking for him. Needless to say, Freeze escapes, Fields dies, and Driver burns with a desire for vengeance, a feeling the rest of the detectives in the squad room share.
The biggest question is this: how is Mr. Freeze connected to the kidnapping case? Or is he? Handing the kidnapping case off to the FBI, the Gotham detectives fan out over the city, searching for Freeze and clues to his whereabouts. And they have a deadline: dusk. They know that, come dark thirty, Batman will be on the prowl. In honor of their fallen friend, they want to nail Freeze before the Dark Knight Detective does.
In these panels, Brubake, Rucka, and artist Michael Lark really provide a good feel for real police work. They show four or five pairs of detectives, each team searching for some clue. Every so often, a clock, with time moving forward, appears in the left hand pane of the artwork. They work the street thugs, jewelry dealers, and the convicts behind bars, trying to glean some useful bit of knowledge that can lead them to Freeze. All the while, the hours trudge onward. Some of the detectives riff on "the Bat," whether he's good or bad. In a telling moment, late in the day, Driver realizes Freeze's target and tells the commissioner (not Gordon) to use the signal. When the commissioner questions Driver's turnabout, Driver replies, in a panel showing obvioius resignation, "There're too many lives involved now, sir. It's too big for us."
Realism like these scenes is what sets Gotham Central apart from other police comic books (not that there are many). These detectives are real people with issues, some they can solve (guilt over a fall friend), some they can't (there's a guy who dresses up like a bat and does your job better than you). The dialogue feels real as well, with the authors throwing in things like this ($*&$) to stand in for four-letter words you can't print in this type of comic book. The artwork infuses the pictures with its own type reality. Most of the coloring is subdued earth tones, giving the entire book a sort of sepia toned quality, like its real but it isn't.
Driver is the featured player throughout the interconnected stories of this first collection. He wants to be better than Batman, to prove to the caped one that the GCPD can do their jobs without his help. The final scene, with Driver and Batman, is poetically humorous but stops short of being laugh out loud funny because of the perspective. Batman is The Other in this book, as are the costumed villains. You get the sense from Driver and his fellow detectives that they'd rather just collar regular criminals rather that dealing with the costumed crazies, Batman included. It makes me wonder what they'd do against a truly insane criminal like Joker or a mastermind like Ras al Ghul. Mr. Freeze is a guy with a special gun. He, like Batman and the rest of the Rouge's Gallery, isn't superhuman.
You know, if Driver really thought about it, being a cop in Gotham ain't that bad. Imagine being a cop in Metropolis where superhuman bad guys constantly show up to try and take out the local superhuman good guy. Talk about your bad jobs. However, with all the destruction to the buildings in downtown Metropolis, I bet the construction industry always has job openings. If Driver hates being in Batman's shadow so much, maybe he could move to Metropolis and become a construction worker.
For other forgotten books, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.