The Beat (Part 1): Ed Brubaker talks 'Gotham Central'

Mon, June 30th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Gotham Central" #9
It's one of the most critically acclaimed launches of the past year.

It's got a bunch of Eisner nominations, with some saying that there should've been more.

And it seems that most comic readers haven't caught on to DC Comics' "Gotham Central."

In this three part series of interviews, CBR News caught up with "Gotham Central" writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker and series artist Michael Lark to explore the creative process behind "Gotham Central," get a hint at upcoming stories and to introduce readers to a comic book series that all involved consider to be one of the best on the market.

"The main idea is basically, what is it like to be a cop in a city with the Joker, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, and you know, a Bat-Signal on the roof for when you need to call in the big guns," explains Brubaker of "Gotham Central's" driving concept. "What are the crime scenes like, how do the cops feel about Batman? Stuff like that. It's a way to look at Gotham from a different perspective, and a way to do character driven police procedurals in comics all at the same time."

The cast in "Gotham Central" is large enough to make Legion of Superheroes fans proud, but in order to keep things manageable; the characters are divided into two shifts, namely the day shift and the night shift. "The main characters on my shift are Marcus Driver, the last cop assigned to the Major Crime Unit by Jim Gordon before he retired, Romy Chandler, an ex-FBI cadet who wanted to be a cop more than a fed, and Josie Mac, who is a young black girl that just transferred in from Missing Persons. (She also starred in a back-up run in 'Detective Comics' and was created by Judd Winick and Cliff Chiang). Other than that, there are a lot of background characters that flow in and out of the story that we get to know over time."

Readers of both Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's respective work on "Detective Comics" and "Batman" in recent years were probably clued in to the fact that these writers liked the Gotham Cops- or at least writing about them. But it wasn't till a very recent crossover, ironic since crossovers are said to produce lesser results, that "Gotham Central" was solidified as the next "must do" project for the popular writers. "When Greg and I first met, I told him about the first Batman story I ever pitched, which ended up being cannibalized later to become 'Batman 603,'" reveals Brubaker. "At the time the story was called 'Slam Bradley's Final Case' and Michael Lark and I pitched it as a one-shot 'Legends of the Dark Knight,' and it got shot down. It's a story about the investigating officer in the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, and it was about how Batman and his villains changed the way the job is in Gotham.

"Greg liked that idea, and he'd been trying to put more and more cops into 'Detective' at the time, and so we just sort of kept talking about doing a cop book in Gotham. Then when we wrote 'Officer Down,' it just all clicked. So we started pushing hard for 'Gotham Central' that summer, pitched it to Bob Schreck over lunch at San Diego and he got right on board. It took a lot of doing for Schreck and Idelson to sell the higher-ups on it, after that, and then we waited for Michael for nearly a year, but it's all been worth the wait."

"Gotham Central" #9, Page 6
The first story arc of "Gotham Central" was written by both Rucka and Brubaker, a combination that pleased fans and the creators, but they've since begun writing arcs separately. It's not due to infighting or any other "Lying In The Gutters" type drama- it's simply a result of both men wanting to do their own thing as they choose. "Well, I think with any two writers, even if they get along, there is ego involved. I like to write with Greg because we each bring something different to the table, and we make each other's ideas better a lot of the time. But I want to be able to just do my own thing sometimes, too, and I'm sure Greg feels the same way. So we came up with the idea of each writing a separate shift, and then once a year or so, getting together for a big case. That way, we still get to work together, but we don't step on each other's toes, and no one has to be the leader of the band."

But with crime drama so prevalent in the mainstream media, from "The Sopranos" criminal perspective or "NYPD Blue's" cop perspective, it's a bit harder to make a crime comic seem like something fans haven't seen somewhere else before. In addition, Brian Bendis has made a name for himself with the crime drama about capes and powers called, well, "Power,s" and some might ask- what's the diff? "Well, I think the main reason is that it's also a book about Gotham City, which is as much a character in the book as any of the cops are," contends Brubaker. "I think that's what really sets it apart, because you focus on these cops, and it can seem like a straight procedural, but suddenly Mr. Freeze is whacking some cop and the whole world spins in a different direction. Then you have a character exploration of a crime that could only happen in Gotham."

And with any of these stories about officers and their tribulations, fans ask for a great degree of realism, which Bruabaker admits he does research to achieve, but also compares "realism" to another comic fandam nuance. "I read a lot of research, Michael watches cop shows and has talked to some police, and Greg has sources everywhere from research for his novels, so we're pretty well covered. But, at the same time, I'll sacrifice realistic detail to make a story better in a heartbeat. Research is like continuity - when it works it makes the story better, but when it becomes too much of what the story is about, then it just gets in the way."

One of those aspects that isn't quite grounded in reality is the incorporation of crazy men in brightly colored spandex committing crimes- or as fans would say, the evil of Batman's rogues gallery. It's hard for some to take comic seriously when a crazy clown is the deadliest villain conceivable, but Brubaker says that he and Rucka have taken a different approach to making those villains seem deadly. "I think the way we get away with it is showing them as little as possible," explains Brubaker. "When you're a cop, you're generally arriving after the crime, and you're chasing leads to find a suspect. When it turns out to be Mad Hatter, then you've got a whole new ball game. I think why what we do in this book works is that we take it all from the regular person's POV, much like 'Marvels' did, but with cops instead of a reporter.

"Michael's art certainly helps us get away with it all, too. He's so good at making them all look like they exist in the same world without question that you just don't think about it."

There's also the protector of Gotham City, Batman, and while he made his presence known in the second issue, his appearances have been sparse- and that's how Brubaker likes it. "[Batman will appear] as needed, really. We, of course, want to see the capes and freaks once in a while. But as I said before, we're seeing them from an outside point of view, so they are never going to be the star of the series. It's like, if the cops are the Red Shirts in Gotham, and Batman and pals are Kirk and Spock and the rest of the inner circle. Well, we're seeing it all from the POV of the Red Shirts. What do they do when all the action is happening?"

The scribe says he's been pretty much able to show everything he's wanted and notes, "The only problems we've had are with language, which is loosening up a bit. As you'll notice, there's no code on the book."

"Gotham Central" #9, Page 7
If anything, the latest story arc in the series, entitled "Half A Life" and written by Rucka, shows just how much Brubaker and Co are allowed to explore the depths of these characters. Renee Montoya, well known because of both writers' development of the character in their separate Batman comics and because of her appearances in "Batman: The Animated Series," has been revealed as a lesbian and fans are generally reacting well to the story. Brubaker notes that as with any story revealing a character to be a homosexual, there are always the same critics and he says people might not realize the flack both writers are receiving. "I think some people are [reacting negatively], you just haven't noticed. The main complaint I heard was that we already had one gay woman cop [Maggie Sawyer], so why make Montoya gay, too? Which is a silly point I think, because every character's story is different. Also, I always thought conservatives were against quotas. But the second this story hit, people got irate, saying things like 'Why can't there ever be a strong female character that doesn't go queer?' So, what, we've got how many gay female characters in comics? Three, four? And against that, we've got Wonder Woman, Elektra, Catwoman, Talia, I mean, like just about every strong female character is not gay. And Greg wrote Sasha Bordeaux in 'Detective' for years, and she was both strong and straight. This issue seems to really blind people to actual facts.

"The main reason I think the Montoya story works, as a reader, is that it's not the whole point of the story. There's a larger crime going on around the whole thing, and Montoya being outed is just fallout from that. So it's not just a gimmick to get attention."

In this day and age of epic storytelling, where seeds are almost always laid for some future story, Brubaker says that the "Gotham Central" creative team is focusing on making this series a personal one and not going for the huge story… yet. "There are some bigger things that we have planned, but no huge subplot that's slowly building. This is definitely a book about the day to day lives of these characters and what they have to go through and how it changes them."

But don't confuse that with the series having a finite life span or no long term planning being done creatively- "I will write this book until they cancel it out of my cold dead hands," asserts Brubaker.

That huge amount of ideas that the comic generates for Brubaker makes the job fun, but he also says it can be the hardest part of the job. "The hardest part? Probably making the story fit into the comic. These characters tend to want to write more dialogue for themselves, and that makes it hard to decide what to cut. Some of my funniest dialog ends up in the recycle bin. Which I guess means that the dialog is also the easiest part for me. The voices of these cops are clearer in my head than almost anything I've ever written."

As mentioned, both writers waited a year for Michael Lark to be free to work on the series and while his art seems to be loved universally, the question remains- why delay the book that long? "Realism," stresses. Brubaker. "A strong sense of story-telling. An ability to make a scene interesting, subtle, and powerful at the same time. When you're doing a book like this, with so much talking, you need an artist who can make those scenes dramatic. He also obsesses on the details, which I love. He made a 3-D map of the squad room just so he'd know where everything was from all angles."

Speaking of know things and people from all angles, when asked which character of the Bat-Family Brubaker would be if given a choice, the writer shows his humorous side and answers, "I guess Oracle, because I already sit on my ass in front of a computer all day, and at least she gets to spy on people all the time."

Despite the fact that "Gotham Central" has met with universal acclaim, it's still struggling in sales compared to many other DC Universe series and Brubaker thinks he may know part of the reason. "I've been told that a majority of retailers are not stocking the book for shelf-copies, and just doing mainly subscriptions, or pull-list copies for people. I know of a lot of stores that do well with the book, some that it's one of their best sellers, even, but the bulk of retailers seem to not be giving us a chance to find an audience to go along with that critical acclaim. DC recently did an overship on the book, in hopes of getting more shelf-copies out, so I'm still waiting to see what effect that has."

He also adds that he's not worried about the comic being prematurely cancelled, like acclaimed DC series "Orion" and "Chase" in recent years. "Not really. DC loves this book and are committed to making it work."

Looking at sales trends, it'd be improper to discount the increasingly popular fan notion of waiting for a trade paperback collection of a series to arrive before jumping on the fan wagon, and while Brubaker would love for those readers to buy the series monthly, he understands their decision. "I don't know if it's hurting the industry. In the short run, it may be, but it may also make the industry evolve in a way, by putting trades out sooner, and maybe altering the way the monthlies are packaged, even. I have books where I wait for the trade, and I feel guilty about it, but I prefer the trades on some books.

"I think it's a natural evolution with the way DC, and then more so Marvel, have begun collecting a large percentage of their books. Marvel has basically trained people, picking up from Vertigo, in a way, to wait for trades because they put them out so fast. I wish DC would catch up a bit on the speed quotient with trades now. Everyone is under the assumption, hopefully not incorrectly, that 'Gotham Central' will sell very well in TPBs."

Unlike some comics, Brubaker says he has no real funny stories about fans of the series, but admits he finds one complaint interesting. "Not really that funny, but we've had a few fans actually get mad at us for having Batman in the comic at all," explains the "Catwoman" scribe. "Which I found amusing considering, at the start, we had to promise to put him in a lot more than we ended up doing."

"Gotham Central" #12
If you're enjoying the series now, the cover to issue #12 will apparently rock your world and Brubaker can't help but smile when talking about it. "Just wait till you see the cover to number 12 and you'll shit your pants. We're going to do things with the next big story we write together that will literally shock people."

In the end, if you're on the fence about "Gotham Central," Brubaker offers up another reason to read the series. "Well, not to brag, but because it's a really good comic with amazingly good artwork. It also got nominated for a lot of awards this summer, tying with Fables for DC's most nominated monthly. And finally, people should buy it because the people who create it really love it and want to keep doing it for years to come. Doesn't that kind of commitment to our work deserve some reward?"

Look for part two of "The Beat" tomorrow, with Greg Rucka and you can learn more about Brubaker's work with CBR News' previous articles on "Catwoman" and the high espionage, high drama series "Sleeper."

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