Sunday Slugfest - Gotham Central #27

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Bob Agamemnon, Jason Cornwell, Egg Embry, Rob Irwin, Jason Sacks, Olivia Woodward
“On the Freak Beat: Part Two”

Bob Agamemnon

Plot: In the conclusion of the two-part “Freak Beat” story, Detective Josie McDonald works to discover who is behind the murder of televangelist Buford Pressman. This is made more difficult by the fact that Josie, a closet psychic, is being blackmailed by Catwoman, who has been accused of the crime. After the case is resolved, Josie makes a decision regarding her partner, Marcus Driver.

Comments: Gotham Central #27 is a lyrical exploration of the human face: The face in repose or tensed in concentration; the face written over with lines of exhaustion or drawn up in a satisfied grin. This face belongs to Detective Josie McDonald, and on every page of this comic, save one, it is lovingly featured either as straight portraiture or as the center of a panel’s composition. Artist Jason Alexander’s expressive theme-and-variation approach lifts this book above the week’s other releases by an order of magnitude.

Brubaker’s garden-variety murder plot (a televangelist secretly into S&M is murdered) is given salience through Catwoman’s threat to reveal Josie’s psychic abilities. Josie’s fear of discovery provides the book with the psychological current powering its narrative. Each rendering of the detective’s face reveals another glimpse of the electricity roiling beneath the surface of her skin and the comic’s stylistic veneer. The common denominator among these portraits is duress, the pressure of a secret kept for too long.

This tension is present in the dark shading under the eyes, in the thick lips either pursed or slightly parted, in the ever-present black lock dangling tautly at the side of the face. Alexander’s spare compositions magnify the effect: In panel after panel, the characters are drawn against a blank, solid background. Only occasionally does a roughly sketched computer keyboard or the lines of a doorway break in to balance the figures. Yes, this is a “talking heads” issue, but one so expressive as to make a virtue of vice and absorb the reader’s gaze with as much, if not more, intensity as any action-packed slugfest.

The universality of Josie’s plight—secrets are hardly the sole property of superhero fantasy—and its careful visual exploration in this two-part story are the kinds of qualities that define Gotham Central as a series. While recent books featuring Batman (if the disastrous “War Games” are an indication) tend to be psychologically incomprehensible with characters reacting in baffling ways to problems lacking any grounding in the reader’s experience, Brubaker and Rucka have found a way to infuse the Gotham City mythos with a fresh relevance. Admittedly, they are working with a roster of brand new characters and thus are free to build from the ground up. But they do so with such care and insight that one sees little reason why the same couldn’t be done with other Batbooks.

Only once does this issue’s attention to its thematic concerns tread dangerously close to the trite. In the story’s conclusion, Catwoman visits Josie to confirm that their obligations to each other have been met. As Catwoman leaves she solemnly counsels, “But the thing about secrets, Josie, is that when you keep them from the people you trust. . . the only one who suffers is you.” That it is Catwoman, an outlaw, who convinces the police detective to come clean is deliciously ironic, but the line itself smacks of after-school specials gone by, and is a little too on the nose to feel believable. Still, this is a minor misstep in execution, not in conception.

With Michael Lark—Gotham Central’s regular artist who forged the dark visual style of the book—gone to greener pastures at Marvel, the hunt for a new artist is on. If this two-issue guest spot for Jason Alexander served as an audition, he has passed with flying colors. His work is a departure from Lark’s more realistic style, but the emotional content of Alexander’s panels ratchets up the drama of the series. For a permanent addition to the creative team, Brubaker and Rucka need look no further.




Jason Cornwell

Plot: As Josie Mac finds herself dealing with the fact that Catwoman has threatened to expose her secret unless she is eliminated as a suspect in the murder of Reverend Buford Pressman, Josie continues her efforts to locate the killer, and she manages to come up with a promising lead thanks to information that Catwoman provides her. The path to find the true killer proves to be quite simple from that point, and Josie Mac doesn’t have to use her gifts to solve the crime.

Comments: I’m not going to deny that I was far more impressed with the opening chapter of this two-issue arc, as it didn’t really focus on the mystery, but rather the majority of the attention was centred upon Josie Mac, and her fear that her secret would serve to alienate her from her fellow officers. However, given this issue has to wrap up the murder investigation, most of its attention is focused on answering questions like why was Reverend Buford Pressman killed, who killed him, and how was Catwoman tied to the whole affair. Now this issue provides all the answers, and all the loose ends are neatly tied off, but I have to say it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill solution, that I had pretty much pieced together once we learned what was inside the safe, as nothing provides a better motivation for murder than a guilty man desperate to conceal his secret. Now one could ask why the man kept such damning evidence of his sins, but there are a number of cases where the guilty man provides the evidence that leads to his downfall, because
subconsciously he wants to be caught, and I expect this to be the case here. It should be noted that this conclusion goes out of its way to show Josie Mac solving the case without using her special talents, but frankly I felt this arc could have used an extra scene that showed us Driver’s reaction to her confession, as the next issue will likely jump to another pair of detectives, and we won’t get to see the fallout from this exchange until the spotlight swings back in her direction.

Jason Alexander could really use a more polished inking style, as there are times when the black spots look like they were simply thrown on the page, with little to no regard for how it impacts the final product. I also have to say that while I’m all for making the cast members of this series look more down-to-earth, making Josie Mac look like she’s just come off a 24 hour drinking binge was a bit much, as it becomes a little difficult to accept that no one takes note of how rundown she appears. However, the art does some nice work capturing the little moments: from the moment of amusement that she has with Slam Bradley as they discover the Reverend’s secret to the scene where Catwoman puts a good scare into the man who killed the Reverend. The cover image also has a nice unique look to it that I rather enjoyed, and it sells the idea that Catwoman is a pretty good suspect for the murder.




Egg Embry

[WRITER’S DISCLAIMER: I do not want to damage Gotham Central. It is a near-perfect book… normally.]

I LOVE Gotham Central! When I was offered the opportunity to review it, I thought, “Man, I’m gonna do it right! After all, this is my favorite DC Comic!

So naturally, this was the first bad issue of Gotham Central. Ever.

(Let me add this, Jason Alexander’s art is just fine in this story. I miss Michael Lark, but Jason is no slouch.)

I’m Jewish and an American (a country that has religious freedom and tolerance); however, the book was incredibly anti-Christian/anti-Church (which is not very tolerant of the Christian faith)… which translates to anti-Semitic in my mind as Christianity is based upon the teachings of the Rabbi Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism upsets me naturally. Now, I don’t need to read anyone’s negative thoughts on God or his church(s)… if you don’t believe in it, don’t worship, but please give the rest of us the freedom to follow our beliefs and don’t ask us to pay for your viewpoint (pro or con)… And most importantly, as a Jew, I REALLY don’t need to be charged to read your anti-establishment opinion! Basically, I paid $2.50 to read some anti-everything story in which [SPOILERS AHEAD] the preacher is the bad guy and into domination/S & M sex and dislikes minorities and was going to kill his best friend after Catwoman stole the preacher’s videos of himself being sexually tortured or whatever… so Catwoman’s actions caused him to attack his friend in an attempt at a murder/suicide… the friend then had to kill the preacher and yet, she is the hero… and the cops are fine with that!? They think she’s gold and a standup character because… she helped them solve their murder case which she instigated in the first place!? Wait! Wait! Wait! I was not a happy camper because that was trash.

So, please read Gotham Central #1 to 25 (as #27 is the second part of a two part story arc, I’d also ask you to skip #26), leave a hole in your collection and start back with #28 which, Yahweh willing, will be a police drama and will not be someone’s personal views on the “ evil” of religion… and hopefully the bad guy will get their just dessert and be made into a hero because they instigated a murder!

Oh, and if you’re a writer or editor… think about it before you mention Yahweh or God or Allah or Buddha or any real religion… for it or against it… cause once you take a stand on religion, you’re going to offend someone in the room.

As I’m sure I have with these thoughts.




Rob Irwin

Okay, here’s the deal. One of the reasons I haved loved Gotham Central from the start is that everyone in it is just so damn ordinary. In a city of costumed freaks, Gotham Central provides a window into what it must be like to be a normal person living in the middle of the madness, which is a really cool premise. Toss in the fact it’s always felt like watching a good, well-written TV cop show, and you have why Gotham Central has always been near the top of my reading pile.

But is it all starting to go horribly wrong? Last issue, we were treated to a dose of psychic powers from Detective Josephine MacDonald (Josie Mac) as she worked towards solving the murder of a televangelist.

Now, I know the Josie Mac character has been kicking around for a few years but, damn it, it’s precisely because of people who aren't blessed with superpowers or abnormal abilities that I like reading Gotham Central. If I wanted superpowers, I’d read a book about characters with superpowers. I see absolutely no fun in investigations where one of the characters can just pick up a psychic vibe that leads them, in no matter how roundabout the way, to the answer at the end of the book. That’s not how detectives work - that’s just lazy writing.

In fact, if you think back to those lists people used to make in the 20s and 30s of what makes for good detective fiction, you’ll find things like unaccountable intuition or supernatural elements (both of which could be applied here to some degree), have long been regarded as extremely weak, avoid-at-all-costs plot devices. Why does Ed Brubaker feel the need to roll-out this character and make use of such powers now?

Sure, there’s the whole concept of Josie’s psychic powers being secret and the concept of, “Oh no! What if someone finds out?!?” but in a book which has already dealt with secrets being revealed that readers could perhaps relate to (Renee Montoya’s sexuality comes to mind), whether Josie Mac’s power is discovered, or not, doesn’t really interest me. And I don’t really know of any psychics out there who will be rooting for her, either.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this story, it’s that the murder has now been solved and the rotating nature of Gotham Central’s lead characters means we hopefully won’t be seeing Josie for awhile, and I won’t have to endure month after month of dumbed-down detective work like:

Marcus: “Hey Josie, you cracked it! I thought that case would never be solved.”
Josie (thinking): “Thank goodness the dead man’s half-eaten cheeseburger told me!”




Jason Sacks

I've been a fan of this series since it started. Gotham Central has presented a great cop’s-eye view of crime in Gotham City, with the wonderful approach of showing crime from the level of ordinary people rather than super-heroes. At its best, this series has really been like a comic version of a TV cop show, with interesting mysteries and good character interaction.

The book has also featured fine art by Michael Lark. Lark’s style fits the book perfectly with its clean and detailed style. This issue, however, featured the thicker and uglier style of Jason Alexander. Alexander draws very ugly people. All characters have massive bags under their eyes and long looks on their faces, as if their life was a constant torture to them. This style has its place, especially in the Batman mythos, but it just didn’t fit the more lightweight story that Ed Brubaker was telling. Josie Mac, for instance, looks absolutely haggard, but the story has her handling things relatively well. Alexander also has an odd way of drawing Slam Bradley, Catwoman’s friend. Bradley’s face is always in shadows or has a sketchy look to it. To me, that style takes away from the character - part of the fun of this old-fashioned man is that he’s a bold color character in a much more grey world.

Brubaker’s story is fine as usual. I’m not crazy about Josie having a kind of super-power; I always liked that each of the cops were normal people without powers, but it’s relatively harmless. I was more frustrated that Brubaker and Alexander seemed to work at cross-purposes here, with the writer and artist sometimes working against each other.

I know Lark signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, but I hope they can find a more suitable artist for this series. Guy Davis, maybe?




Olivia Woodward

Synopsis: The Reverend Buford Pressman was murdered in his office with scratches on his face and signs of an interrupted robbery. Well, this is Gotham, and all the clues point towards Catwoman as the perpetrator of this crime. But Detective Josephine MacDonald isn’t buying it. Her gut tells her that the scene has been set up, diverting the authorities from the true villain.

And why should she trust her gut feeling, when all of the evidence clearly points to a different solution? Josie has a “special” ability, a psychic awareness that offers her insights beyond those which are directly observable. But it’s something of a shameful secret. Josie is afraid of telling her partner about these extrasensory perceptions; she fears being labeled a freak, like those that trouble Gotham on a regular basis. In part two of “On the Freak Beat,” secrets are kept and revealed.

Critique:

"It looks like your gut was right…as usual."

This is a solid police procedural story wherein the criminal investigation is a reflection of the protagonists inner conflict. On one hand, the story is about the murder of Reverend Pressman and the underlying secrets that led to this situation. On the other hand, the story is about Josie and her guilt and fear in regards to her faint metahuman abilities. The juxtaposition of these two parallel plotlines creates for a rich narrative dialectic.

Powerful characterization is the engine that drives the plot. Convincing dialogue and compelling characterization bring the characters to life. Frustration and reluctance weigh heavily on Josie’s speech; it’s clear that she’s a very unhappy woman. Likewise, her partner, Detective Driver, speaks in regards to her detective work with suspicion and edginess. Fans of Brubaker's Catwoman will enjoy the guest appearance of Slam Bradley, written with his signature idiosyncratic style. Even the backup cast is made distinct through word and action.

Of course, the artwork plays a huge role in establishing character. Alexander’s facial and stance depictions are excellent. Especially noteworthy are the eye portrayals; they truly are windows to the soul in this issue. The scene wherein Catwoman confronts the perpetrator is intensified by the use of astute ocular renderings.

But there are some shortcomings to the art. While Alexander preserves the gritty feel that Michael Lark first established in this title, it’s not as refined. The first problem is in the inking; it’s too heavy throughout the issue. Faces constantly look battered and bruised. Darkness clings to the figures and structural forms, as if the snow of Gotham is full of tar. The overuse of silhouette deprives it of its dramatic impact.

The second problem is in the verisimilitude of the setting. The actions of this story takes place in a virtually featureless nowhereland. The visual touchstone that bring the setting to life aren’t there. Detective Driver’s desk is without clutter, and there is no bustle of activity in the background. Catwoman and Josie meet in a cemetery while snow falls around them, but the scene contains so few reminders of this fact that they could be talking anywhere. I’m not saying that we need a hyperactivity of meaningless detail flooding the composition, but we do need enough to emerge ourselves into the scene. As is, this issue has no viscerally compelling setting.

My final problem is in regards to Lee Loughridge’s colors. Turn up the contrast! I understand that the muted tones help convey the mood. I understand that the pervasive darkness is meant to distinguish this title from the “four color” style of traditional superhero comic. But these reasons don’t excuse it from the basic concepts of color theory. Look at the scene where Slam and Josie discuss the crime. The panel arrangement and overall composition is superb, but it’s lost under the murky colors. I’m not arguing that we should go all Caravaggio here, but some accentuation through contrast would strengthen the scene. The techniques of chiaroscuro still have relevance to modern illustration and we ignore them at the risk of our artistic expressiveness.

Appraisal:

"Keeping that secret…what he was really into…he couldn't handle that kind of weight."

Brubaker delivers a powerful story. It’s well paced and full of superb characterization. Its thematic resonance makes a strong ethical statement that transcends the story. Secrets are a heavy burden. They alienate us from our friends and family. We flirt with hypocrisy when we espouse openness and honesty, but are unwilling to confess our problems to those we trust. And the guilt of keeping the secret taints our every action; it spreads like a cancer throughout our lives. It makes us into freaks.

This is a mature story that speaks to a core conflict of human experience. It does so while relating an engaging plot and making great use of the genre conventions as symbolic signifiers of the ethical subtext. It is this talent that sets Brubaker heads and shoulders above the rest of the “grim and gritty” school of writers that infests modern comic books. Therefore, I highly recommend this title.

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