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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: Gotham Central: Book 3: On the Freak Beat

Law and Order, but with Batman. That's how I describe Gotham Central.

For those of you who (like me) haven't seen any episodes of Law and Order, Gotham Central is a police procedural comic book which takes place in Gotham City, the home of Batman. It focuses on the Major Crimes Unit, the only unit in the Gotham City Police Department which is free of corrupt cops, each one handpicked by the commissioner, who at this time is Bat-history, is Michael Atkins. Written by the dynamic duo of Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, this multiple award winning series is quite possibly one of the greatest comic book series of all time. In the third hardcover collection of Gotham Central, there are four stories. There's "Corrigan," focusing on how Detective Renee Montoya reluctantly teams up with Internal Affairs Inspector Manuel Esperanza to clear her partner Detective Crispus Allen's name. The second story, "Lights Out," shows how the G.C.P.D. reacts to the gang war featured in the War Games crossover, and how Commissioner Atkins has the Bat-signal removed, severing the department's ties with Batman, official or unofficial. "On the Freak Beat," written and drawn by the B-team of Ed Brubaker and Jason Alexander, respectively, deals with a seeming high profile burglary gone wrong which may involve Catwoman. Detectives Marcus Driver and Josie MacDonald handle this one, with a subplot about Josie's psychic powers and her angst over it. The final story line, "Keystone Kops," features Montoya and Allen again as they investigate an accident involving an old laboratory of Dr. Alchemy's in Gotham, and how one good cop is turned into a monster by the chemicals in there.

The genius of Gotham Central is that it features a commonplace part of an extraordinary world. And the funny thing is, the appearances of Batman himself are few and far between. But what really makes it work, and I'm not the first one to say this, is the characters, characters which could only exist in this setting. It's great to see a very human police department, stacked up against the larger than life personalities of the superhero community. We see the trials and tribulations of these men and women, who react to them as normal humans would, and they've all got their own rounded out personalities, even if some of them aren't as well developed as others. We've got a great dynamic between the characters, especially Montoya and Allen. They're pretty much the main characters of the story, although we have a whole host of hero cops to choose from. Above all, it shows why the cops in Gotham City might have a dim view of their local superhero.

The story is pretty good too. The telling of the fallout of War Games from the G.C.P.D.'s point of view is a sight to behold, from the Commissioner to Stacy the temp. It's easily the best story of the bunch, and my personal favorite. Even the weakest story, "On the Freak Beat," isn't so much bad as it's not very well supported by the art. Said art looks like someone trying to badly imitate Michael Lark's style, and only succeeds in making everyone look frumpy and ugly. "On the Freak Beat" does shines a light on the religious lives of Driver and MacDonald, which is interesting, though I would have liked to see more of it. At any rate, Brubaker doesn't seem to think much of televangelists. Oh well. At least it guest stars Slam Bradley, which always equals awesome.

"Keystone Kops" features some more character development for Renee Montoya as she works with Allen to help save a good cop she knows. There's also some new developments on her relationship with her father, who disowned her after she was outed as a homosexual back in "Half a Life." I think that Mr. Montoya might be learning to love the sinner, hate the sin. This story was kind of interesting, but I didn't think the conclusion was very satisfying. I guess I'll have to wait for more on the next one.

I'll say this though, aside from "On the Freak Beat," the art is pretty solid all around here. Michael Lark does a great job capturing that gritty noir style, and Stefano Gaudiano doesn't do a half bad job on his portion of the book.

All that said, I've got to say that On the Freak Beat isn't nearly as strong as the previous volume, Jokers and Madmen. One of the things that contributes to this is the effective termination of the cast's relationship with Batman. As much as I hate to say it, that's what makes this title so interesting; how a police department would handle their relationship with a masked vigilante. And while they kind of botched their explanation of how the Bat-signal works in the previous volume, I'll give Rucka and Brubaker credit for recognizing that there would be a problem with keeping a thing like that in operation. Another thing is that this issue just doesn't have the same forward momentum as the Joker on a sniping binge, or the interesting character exploration of the third string detectives, or the intricate howdunnit of a mass murder involving the Mad Hatter. Maybe the next volume, which contains the climax of the ongoing conflict with Corrigan plus a case involving Robin, will have more steam. I'm not saying that On the Freak Beat was bad by any means, just that it wasn't quite as good as previous Gotham Central stories.

Also, I'd like to warn that there is some gore of a couple people getting shot, some bleeped out swearing, one bed scene, and a brief stop at a bondage club. I'd recommend this for ages 15 and up.

RATING: 8.5/10

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Fun fact: Gotham Central was going to be made into a televisions series, but the plans were canceled after the failure of Birds of Prey and the execs decided to impose moratorium on Batman based TV shows. They somehow came to the conclusion that people don't like Batman based TV shows, as opposed to just not liking bad TV shows.