As a guy who voluntarily inhales the stench of fandom on a daily basis I can definitely tell you: The
times comics, they are a’changin’. Gotham By Midnight is a totem to that.
Forget superheroes, forget the Big Two, the medium, at the core, is changing. Now with anything as continuous as the comic book charting progress and trends can be pretty difficult. Shit, there are debates about how many “ages” of comic history there are. Three? Four? Six? None?
DC Comics has always been a bit slow in regard to change. They’ve been the standard, the rock, of the industry for nearly eighty years and their history has been marked by large sweeping changes instead of incremental tweaks. Marvel employs the latter method to profitable ends, and generally has allowed for more experimentation within their line.
DC smartly co-opted the tactics of their younger, more vibrant and successful brother with the “DC You” movement, a June/July release of semi-eclectic titles promising ingenuity and diversity. Though not extremely lucrative to this point it’s an encouraging sign from the auteur POV.
The paper and ink omen to this trend was apparent in the last wave of New 52 titles: Arkham Manor , Gotham Academy and Gotham By Midnight. A trio of tributaries feeding off the rich Bat Mythology River. Arkham Manor, (truncated to a miniseries) funneled the familiar and fiendish Batman baddies through Shawn Crystal art, Gotham Academy tackled the popular boarding school genre in no-brainer fashion, and Gotham By Midnight promised occult fun in one of modern fiction’s most famous settings.
In Gotham By Midnight Ray Fawkes and artist Ben Templesmith use crime-lush Gotham City as a fecund source of drama and imagery. The creative team is a marriage so wonderfully symbiotic that it must’ve been conjured by a demon at the request of Dan DiDio. With 30 Days of Night and multiple horror and fantasy credits in his back pocket Templesmith is freakishly justified for this book. Fawkes is less accomplished as a creator but his work, both indy and DC, often carries an appeal of oddity. Together they complement each other with vigor, neither traditional in their approaches but with enough headiness to not make anything inaccessible.
The series is essentially a team book, a bit of a spiritual successor to Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central. Of concentration is the Gotham City Detailed Case Task Force, also known as the Midnight Shift. The known quality is Jim Corrigan, the human vessel of The Spectre, one of those Golden Age delights that DC has repeatedly shelved and celebrated over numerous decades. I’ve always considered Spectre’s origin to be one of the best in all of comics: a guy is brutally murdered and then tasked by God (oh sorry, “The Voice”) to eradicate all crime on planet Earth. Think about that. The highest being in all of existence says, “Hey, you know that evil that I created? Well that’s on you to stop, and don’t come back until you’ve finished the job completely!” How delightfully biblical is that? I guess it’s better than a global flood.
The Midnight Shift is quickly introduced and it’s pretty much a police procedural with a spooky slant. Lieutenant Weaver is the leader of the occult squad; Dr. Szandor Tarr is the science geek who’s noticeably excited about his work; Detective Lisa Drake is a regular cop who can apparently portend death with a blood-curdling scream; Sister Justine is a nun with a soul so immaculate she’s basically a good luck charm; and rounding out the principle cast is Sergeant Rook, the outsider bureaucrat from Internal Affairs who is aiming to shut the whole operation down.
Rook’s arrival works as the occasion for the story and it’s apparent the Midnight Shift has been operating for a decent amount of time. Fawkes’ handling of the in-house mood is refreshing. Aside from Rook (who could be playing possum) these cops and cop-affiliates are vetted in, and unsurprised by, the horrifying spiritual monstrosities they encounter. After all, they live in Gotham City, where nihilist clowns and puzzle-obsessed criminals routinely commandeer the city.
That feeling of commonplace supernaturalism could be easily built into an indy book but it works so effortlessly inside the DC universe and really allows Fawkes and Templesmith to not have to worry too much about world-building and focus more on plot and character. Gotham City is a really shitty place, and this book celebrates that while at the same time assuming the reader knows what’s up. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman, The Gates of Gotham miniseries, All-Star Western, Gotham Central, Gotham City Sirens and obviously, the show called Gotham that essentially forgoes the town’s most famous citizen… The pretend city has been methodically built, brick by evil brick, into a monolith over the last decade. By placing so many terrifying crime dramas in one place a sinister aura has sprouted from the concrete. Why do so many bad things happen there? The Snyder/Capullo run has been particularly interested in the idea of Gotham as entity, a thing with a sublime personality and set of rules.
Literally, the evil of Gotham is the antagonist of this first arc. The prime mystery of the storyline centers on a demotic spirit related to smallpox, booze and the corruption of children. Although Fawkes never outright names Native Americans it is more than implicit that the story’s big bad, Ikkondrid, is the embodiment of colonial era genocide. We’ve always known that Gotham is a terrible place, and the creators make it clear — it’s been a terrible place since inception.
Templesmith has remained a presence in comics for much of this modern age but I believe this might be his most significant corporate comics work to date. With linework that is closer to the Marvel house style than DC’s his appointment on this series is a pretty big indicator that the publisher is looking to break from the its self-imposed standards and simply deliver good comics. In fact, I might even dub this an artist-driven project in a time when those are sorely lacking. There is a hint of an Eastern influence in Gotham By Midnight, most noticeable in the characters shaped by their big eyes and emotive mouths. The action falls way short of a traditional superhero comic, and even manages to break the physics of that very malleable world. It’s at best awkward, at worst nearly indecipherable. Luckily, those buying this title wouldn’t be expecting a technically sound smashfest. The bread and butter resides in the feeling and acting of the characters. Awkward stances and bad posture are practically a motif, an indication of the askew environs and the shifty personalities lurking in the alleyways. Templesmith takes all the best parts of Bill Sienkiewicz and Sam Kieth then adds a touch of Dave McKean and swaths the result all over Gotham.
The lack of kinetic penciling and perfect anatomy is made up for in atmosphere. Again, this comic is all about the setting, in plot and premise and even mired right into the aesthetic. Templesmith expertly confines the story to tight spaces, like the shoddy headquarters of the police squad or a quarantine room in a hospital ward, giving the story a sense of claustrophobia that resonates. Even the final battle, a giant Spectre fighting a towering Ikkondrid, feels somehow minute, a Godzilla-sized throwdown against a dreary, endless backdrop for the souls of denizens we don’t really see. The color choices are interesting. monochromatic and putrid, and likely a bit too understated. They help perpetuate that closed-in feeling.
The plot itself is pretty nifty, a smattering of small missions that lead to a bigger reveal. So pretty much standard comic book pacing. The story is primarily told from Corrigan’s perspective, and in his characterization you see signs of Fawkes’ experience with John Constantine. While not nearly as flippant or condensing Corrigan shares with his DC brethren an emotional distance, an outsider mentality that makes him identifiable and mysterious in the same breath. The major secondary characters are Drake and Justine, and through a pair of revelatory flashbacks we get two of the best scenes in the whole collection. The one who really receives the short end is Lt. Weaver, who does work in laying down exposition in the opening pages then completely disappears throughout most of the first arc. That’s forgivable though. I don’t expect a writer to squeeze in four or so new characters in five issues while also servicing the needs of the plot and making sure Batman shows up.
Fawkes handles the obligatory appearance very well, having Batman cameo in #1 and then playing a supporting role in arc’s finale, #5. Bruce is used as a respectable source of comic relief, the straight man to the horrific funny. In one lovely scene he shoots a missile at a hate-monster then sideswipes a skyscraper and crashes his plane. I have no idea why I loved it so much, but I did.
Gotham By Midnight Volume 1 is a comic book that would not have existed ten years ago, at least in ongoing form, and that’s my favorite aspect of it. Although its a purely an outside factor, that is, the intended quantity of this story should have no bearing on quality, I kind of enjoyed this more because it’s intended to be a continuous narrative. The idea that the adventures of the Midnight Shift could extend far beyond this opening act is exciting and promising. Of course, it could be canceled tomorrow. This is DC we’re talking about.
Templesmith and Fawkes combine to treat the average comic reader to an above-average, off-center title that is both familiar and other. Gotham is a living, breathing thing, and it might be one of scariest things in comics today. A patch of land, a set of buildings, cannot be redeemed, but I certainly enjoyed seeing this group of characters try.