The Beat (Part 2): Greg Rucka talks 'Gotham Central'

Tue, July 1st, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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[Gotham Central 11]
"Gotham Central" #11
If you haven't heard the news, "Gotham Central" is one of the most acclaimed mainstream comic books and DC Comics' talked about Batman-related series is nominated for a bunch of Eisners (your comic book equivalent of Oscars). In Part One of this three part feature on this series, CBR News spoke with series co-writer Ed Brubaker (of "Sleeper" and "Catwoman" fame), but today the focus is on the series other writer, Greg Rucka ("Wonder Woman" & "Wolverine"). For those who haven't perused part one of this CBR extravaganza, Rucka is happy to get you up-to-date with the basics of the series.

"It's a cop book and it's set in Gotham City," explains Rucka. "The series really answers a fundamental question: what's it like to try and be a good cop in the same city where Batman works, with all that that entails? That's sort of the twist on the old, tired cop drama genre. The series follows the Major Crimes Unit in the Gotham City Police Department-the M.C.U-and in theory, these cops are the best of the best.

"Gotham is renowned for having an incredibly corrupt police force and that's ones of the tropes you have to accept if you play in the DC Universe: Gotham's PD is riddled with corruption. It has to be or there's no purpose in having Batman. So there's a handful of straight, honest, good cops and say for every one good cop you have, you get another ten or more who are on the take or who are really just phoning in the job or who are there for just the wrong reasons, for lack of a better way to put it. So the M.C.U is the squad that was originally created by James Gordon when he was Commissioner of Police and the cops in the squad were picked by Gordon because he views them as the best, and he knows they're unimpeachably clean. He's not going to put a corrupt cop in the unit-these are the cops that the higher-ups know they can trust. Then in that squad there's certain characters:

"The squad's commanded by Maggie Sawyer, who was a character in the Superman books but came over to Gotham city a couple of years ago. There are detectives that have been seen in 'Detective Comics,' the original Batman title, like Renee Montoya, and Crispus Allen. To try and describe these characters seems like something I'm not sure I'd know how to do."

Rucka mentioned Jim Gordon; a character considered a staple of the Batman mythos, and one of the most well known Batman police characters, along with Harvey Bullock and Chief O'Hara. But his role has changed dramatically in recent years and he's no longer a cop, but with a new series focused around the Gotham PD, it's natural to wonder if the former Commish will be returning to the force. "We've talked about it, but one of the things that's important to do is that when you make a decision in comics, you stick to it unless there's a compelling reason to change it. And right now there's no compelling reason. Gordon is retired, that doesn't mean he's not there, but 'Gotham Central' deals with the cops as they work, in their day-to-day lives and they're not seeing the retired commissioner, they're seeing the new guy who works there now. Ed's using Gordon in 'Detective' and that's probably the best place for him to be, because putting him in 'Central' begs the question why. As far as I'm concerned, there's no reason."

Greg Rucka's work on "Detective Comics" over the last few years used the Gotham City Police Department in a way that hadn't been seen in a long time-some fans would say never seen before-and it was obvious that the scribe was aching to shine the spotlight on these men and women of Gotham. "Both Ed and I and Michael [Lark, artist on 'Gotham Central] love P.I. series and cop dramas. Ed and I each hit on the idea independently-we had both proposed, to different people, that a cop book set in Gotham would make for a cool series because I think we're both fascinated by what it means. If you're a detective and you're trying to do your job and you go to a crime scene and the Joker is responsible for it, you don't have super powers and you're not Batman, what does it look like from the ground? Not the Batman point of view, but the Joe Cop point of view. Then Ed and I started working together and we both loved this idea and tried to see if we could convince anyone else that it'd be great. So we started pitching it, and it was a hard sell; DC higher-ups didn't seem to get it and didn't seem to think it'd work. Matt Idelson, who's the editor on the book, loved the idea and really started championing it and we pushed it and pushed and pushed it-it took about three years of that.

"What really made it possible was Bendis and Oeming and 'Powers.' I remember walking into Mike Carlin's office and saying, ''Powers' is selling 30,000 copies a month-how can you tell me there's no room for a cop book? That was the idea we came to you with three years ago' [laughs]"

It's mentioned in every part of CBR's "Gotham Central" interviews, but realism is a big concern for many comic fans ["Which is silly the second you say Superman flies," says Rucka and adds, "And the Batmobile never gets stuck in traffic"], but Rucka's own approach to comic book realism is as unique as his collaborator's perspective and speaks to why this series resonates with it's audience. "We do a lot of research. Both Ed and I are voracious readers. I know a few a cops, I talk to them a lot-we do the research. It's not like, 'oh, a cop book, let's make believe.' There's an element of fiction where dramatically you do what is going to tell the best story and what will tell the best story is not necessarily or always the most accurate thing. There are limits to realism in drama. If you're too realistic, you could end up with a really boring story: one of the things I'm proud of is that-I think-in our first year we've only seen cops fire their weapons once or twice. That to me is kind of cool and that's an accomplishment: that's pretty realistic. These are not guys who go to their guns easily or eagerly: they go to their weapon with a purpose and not at the drop of the hat. There's an element there of research and if people were running around shooting people as much as, oh, say television cop dramas, they'd be in trouble and we'd wonder when the cops became military."

"Gotham Central" #9, Page 10
Most would agree that's a very good philosophy, but Rucka's got a potential obstacle to that-super villains. Batman's rogue's gallery is known for breaking out of Arkham Asylum whenever the need arises and that means cops should be, in theory confronting them. So how does Rucka intend to portray super villains (as was done in the first arc with Mr. Freeze) without undermining the "realism" of the series?

"I think that one of things that, when you read the book, you accept it's Gotham city and all the things that come with it. The thing is with Batman, you get Two-Face and the Joker and the Mad Hatter and all the weird costumes. Those things in and of themselves don't wreck the tone. You gotta shoot straight with it. This is why the last couple of Batman movies sucked so much. They didn't take themselves seriously and it's why 'X-Men 2' is such a great film-it doesn't make fun of itself. It says, 'Look, you paid your money and you're here for the ride, you know what you're getting into.' Mutants don't exist. But for the purpose of this story you have to believe all this stuff does and the minute you believe there's a guy who dresses up as a giant bat and he fights crime, the second you take that seriously, the rest comes forth-that doesn't mean there isn't room for humor, but the humor has to come out of the world. You don't make fun of your own material, because if you do, you destroy your story, see what I'm saying? Yeah, the Riddler would look kind of wacky wandering around in spandex and if someone said, 'hey, you look kind of wacky wandering around in spandex,' that's fine if it comes out of a character. But if it's there because Ed and I wanna say, 'hey look, we're cool, we think it's stupid!' then it doesn't work. That's a lot of what the movement towards no more costumes and no villains dressing up is all about-of course, if you want to be realistic, if you want to be a criminal, you wouldn't dress up in an outfit saying 'Look at me!' But the conceit in this world is that some of them do."

While super villains may then be part of the package, as it were, in "Gotham Central," Batman and his band of characters haven't been appearing a great deal in the series thus far, and it makes one wonder if these characters will be primary players or just periphery characters whose actions inadvertently impact the MCU, rather than the Bat-family actually interacting with Gotham's finest.

"We want [the Bat characters] to be constant characters, but you should rarely if ever see them. Again, if we're talking about the impact they have on these cops, their presence is rarely seen, but always felt-the cops know if they don't get this guy, Batman will clean up their mess and they'll look like fools. The way Batman handles it may not be the way they want it handled. For that reason, if no other, we're almost less inclined to say, 'oh here's Batman to save the day.' When that kind of figure shows up, he should be imposing-you always hear in the Batman legend about how scary he is, right? So when he shows up, you want the cops to jump up and be like, "ahhh! Where did you come from? You freaked me out. Go away now." And it's not just his Bat-cod piece. [laughs]"

From some of Rucka's comments above, readers may get the impression that DC wasn't completely behind the "Gotham Central" series and while there was some difficulty pitching the series, Rucka says DC has been very supportive and allowed him a lot of leeway. "I gotta qualify this because it's gonna sound like 'oh DC didn't like the book and they're not supporting it.' It was a tough sell getting them to commit to it, but once they committed to it, they've been behind us 100%. The only consistent fight we have is over language in the book. We wanted to be able to use the profanity more, at least the profanity you would see on television at 9'o clock at night. We didn't want huge expletives, but we wanted them to talk as close to cops as possible, but that's been a fight because we've wanted to use words we couldn't use. You gotta be careful with expletives-you can't say Jesus, God, Goddamnit, bitch, bastard. Then again, they'll let it through-there's a line in 'Central #7' where a cop calls Montoya a dyke. Just 'dyke.' And I was afraid we were going to have to fight for it and at the end of the day, my understanding is that the fight was pretty small, because it was felt the moment, the dialogue, was so integral to the story. There was nothing else to be used there. DC's been very supportive of the book and Ed & I are very grateful."

The current story arc in "Gotham Central" is entitled "Half a Life" and is written by Rucka (Brubaker and Rucka alternate writing stories), which focuses on Renee Monotya being framed by someone from her past and within that frame, something interesting has happened-she's been revealed as a lesbian.

"I can't hazard a guess at why it's gone over so well, but the current story is a story that I wanted to write for about five years. As a result, the fact that she's gay is part of the story, but it's not the story-it's a critical element of the story, a vital part of the character, but it is not the engine for the story. The engine for the story is that Montoya's been framed, someone's outed her, someone wants to get back at her by taking this secret she's had and putting it out in daylight to destroy her. The other thing that I hope people are responding to and I hope they like it, and this is a phrase that Idelson and Lark and I used, we didn't want it to read like an After-School Special; there's serious emotion involved in this. If you talk to anyone who's been outed, it's a horrible, traumatic experience. It's not easy. We didn't want to turn it into, 'Ding! Wave a magic wand and you're ok. Everyone's Happy.' It goes back to taking everything seriously. We wanted to be emotionally honest while telling a story about a cop who lives in the same city as Batman.

"Gotham Central" #9, Page 10
"I've been going to great lengths to avoid message boards to avoid that feedback and I know some people have been screaming, 'PC PC' or others asking why I 'made' Montoya gay, which I don't like, it's a stupid thing to ask-as far as I'm concerned, she always has been. I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to make her queer!' I'm sorry if people don't like what I'm writing, they don't have to read it. We've had some real good response and we've had the traditional, 'Comics are for kids. I don't want my kids to see this' or 'These are not appropriate matters for comics.' My response to that is, number one, then don't let them read it-it's not my job to tell your kids what they should and should not read.

"Number two, I disagree with the fundamental argument that we shouldn't see this stuff, because that's the same logic that says the whole world is white and male. It's not. The world isn't. The world has thousands of hues and at least two genders [laughs] and lots of religious and cultural points of views. What entertainment should do is open the eyes a little bit-there are Hispanics in the world, there are Latinas in the world and SOME of them-gasp-are gay!

"It's ridiculous to say it has no place in comics. It's like saying Wonder Woman has no place in comics because she's female or Superman has no place in comics because he's an alien and there are no aliens. That's what the logic extends to and for those who say, 'You shouldn't put that in front of me,' well, I didn't! You bought it. If you don't want your kids reading it, read it first and then decide-that's not my job. My job is to tell the best story I can and DC, Marvel, whoever it is paying me, they pay me under the premise that I'm pretty good at it-I didn't just walk in off the streets [laughs]."

With this story being one that Rucka's wanted to tell for five years, it would stand to reason that perhaps Brubaker and Rucka have more story-arcs like this in waiting or perhaps, even long term arcs that will develop over time.

"When I first started writing in the Batman group, I did a story about Montoya and I knew this was where I was going to go with it. There are other ideas but none like this, none that were seeded so quickly. There are some things that Ed and I talked about. We have got plans… lot of plans. I think-Ed & I haven't discussed this-it would be really neat to take a year, like 12 issues, and over the course of the 12 issues build one case while other things are going on so that over the course of the year you see this overall arc resolved while other things are going through. We don't have any plans to end the series right now and if the book gets cancelled, we'll try to come up with something [laughs].

"It's an ongoing, we've got a really big 4-part story coming up that Ed and I are writing that kicks off Year Two of the book. After that, we'll do some focus issues, so that people get a chance to see the partner-teams that we haven't shone the spotlight on-I think if we made one mistake in the first year, it was my mistake and it wasn't Ed's, this 'Half a Life' story deals with characters we've seen before and we've got characters wandering around in the background, without everyone knowing who they are.

"We both want to rectify that and so when we say, 'This is who Procjnow is,' you know Detective Procjnow and something about her relationship with her partner."

Working on any comic comes with it's ups and downs, and as Rucka explains, "Gotham Central" presents it's own unique challenges and benefits, specifically the artist whom the two writers waited a year for before launching the series.

"Gotham Central" #12
"The easiest part is Michael Lark. And the hardest part is Michael Lark. Michael brings so much to the book it's not funny. Y'know, comics are so beautifully collaborative and when they do work, you get something that's more than the sum of it's parts, and when it doesn't work, you have people in a vacuum trying to work together. Michael's as much a writer as Ed or I are-he takes the scripts that Ed or I write and has to make the choice how best to do it visually. His senses are unerring and he is extraordinarily gifted. As much as Ed and I work to make it sound believable, all the acting on the page, that's Michael-he felt it, he's the one that makes you believe it. That's the easiest thing.

"Hardest thing? Probably finding the right story and finding the right way to tell it. I've had some books where I sit there and try to figure out which story to tell and wander around banging my head on the wall figuring out a plot, but that's not a problem here. The problem is the choices, how do we tell it. These are dense books. They're not quick reads-that's another credit to Michael because he's not getting open scripts. He's got a lot of material and again and again, it comes across beautifully. Ed and I have known each other for a few years and I consider him a friend. I didn't have the pleasure of working with Michael until this and I absolutely understand why Ed would take a bullet for Michael Lark. Artists of his caliber are few and far between.

"Michael gets it. He's part of the process and it's not like the script gets sent out and we don't hear from him. Comics do not lend themselves to realism-when people say that's realistic art, it's not, unless they're talking about Alex Ross or Tim Bradstreet, of that quality and that style, or an iconography that makes it look real. Michael is exceptionally gifted at making everything on the page something that you believe-the people, the sets, the weather. There's few, few artists in that realm that are that good. Michael may have dreams of doing Superman and I don't know what it would look like if he wants to do it, but there's a difference in approach. We've seen his Batman, we've seen his Mr. Freeze-it takes some talent to take a character like Mr. Feeeze and make him look scary, and I thought he was terrifying!"

As all the "Gotham Central" contributors have been asked, Rucka was quizzed on which Bat-family character he'd be and why, to which he responded, "AWWW, you didn't just ask that! God, they're all so screwed up. I'd be Alfred. He's so cool. [Laughs] He was a secret agent, combat medic, real smart and he's the anchor for the Bat-group. And he's one of the few people who didn't watch is parents die in front of him as far as we know. [laughs]"

If you're looking for a reason why "Gotham Central" may not be selling at the level of the core Batman comics, there's the fact that a lot of people are waiting for the collected trade paperback edition of the series-or at least that's the perception. "It's good and bad, like almost everything in the industry," says Rucka of that trend, which he's seen with his other must-buy book, "Queen & Country" from Oni Press. "Low issue sales can kill a book, and if those numbers come about because people are waiting for the trade-which in many cases may never come-then they've missed out on quality work for no reason. The flip side, of course, is that trades are much easier to distribute into bookstores, they're easier to handle, and they-conceivably-are more bang for the buck. A strong trade backing can save a book-and that's more a publisher issue than a fan one."

But as Rucka pointed out earlier, a series like "Powers" is selling respectability and while "Gotham Central" had a decent debut sales-wise, it's been fighting to retain it's position and Rucka has some thoughts as to why. "There are a lot of books out there and that's one. Two, I'm not sure that we've found the audience yet and with some books it takes time, and we're one of those. It's certainly not because the book is bad, because I don't believe it's bad and even if I can't write my way out of a paper bag, it's Michael Lark, so pick it up! Now! The last part of it is that some retailers don't know what to do with it: for every one retailer that gets behind it, there are four or five who say they don't think they can sell it or don't know who wants it. It's based on order numbers-how many come into the store and if you can move them. Most retailers will err on the side of caution and if they stock what they can't move, they lose money. So if they stock ten copies of 'Central #8' and sell all 10, they say 'whew, we sold all ten' and don't touch it, that means five more people who came in looking for it won't have found it. Or five people who read this and said, 'what a scintillating interview' now can't find it.

"Ed, Michael and I worry sometimes about the longevity of the series, but DC have made it clear they're behind us and they are not willing to write us off, so we'll be around for a while.

"I have to say, to be perfectly honest, if they ever say they have to cancel it, I'll be sad, but I won't be bitter because they gave us a chance. There are great books out there that people aren't reading, y'know, some outstanding stuff: 'Sleeper' and 'Catwoman' should have much, much higher number, Ed's books. 'Alias' should be selling much higher than it is and you can't say Marvel or Bendis aren't promoting it, but for whatever reason people aren't picking it up. It's doing well, but I think it should have higher numbers-I'm in an interesting position though, you have to understand. In May, I have the #1 book and the 114th book and God knows where 'Queen & Country' ranks. I don't know. It does prove that the numbers don't tell you if the book is damn good because we all know there's been some stuff at number one that wasn't great. And how does that happen? I understand when a retailer sees Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee and says, 'Whoaaaaa.' I understand that. I have a harder time buying 'The Transformers' or 'Battle of The Planets.'"

And at this point, Rucka denies an involvement with new nostalgia books, especially a new "Smurfs" books. "How'd that get leaked? It wasn't supposed to be announced 'til San Diego! [laughs] I'd rather lose a leg than do the Smurfs book. I'd have the Gotham Cops use their weapons and it'd be ugly. Maybe a Wolverine crossover where he hunts the Smurfs everyday… [laughs]"

Though that comic would get, shall we say, a unique reaction from fans, Rucka also says that a post from Ed Brubaker on the DC "Gotham Central" message boards yielded interesting results as well. "Ed posted something on the boards after the first two issues and challenged fans to guess which of the parts of the issue were written by each of us. No one won-not by lack of interest, but because no one was right. I take that as a good sign, because Ed and I are so on the same wavelength that you can't tell which of us is doing what on the same book."

For current fans of "Gotham Central" or those who are getting interested in the book, Rucka offers some teasers for the future of the series. "We're going to have the current story arc ending with #10, #11 will focus on Stacy-the story is written by Ed-who is the MCU gopher, secretary, desk jockey and it's a stand alone story. Issues #12-14 are a big case and involve a known villain, but we're not going to cough that up yet."

If you're one of those readers who might have scrolled down to see Rucka's closing comments, here they are, the reasons you must read "Gotham Central." "It's one of the five best comics being published today. Certainly one of the best books DC is putting out and I'm unduly proud of the work that everyone is doing on the series. If you want a smart series that will keep you wanting to read the next issue, this is it."

Look for Part 3 on Wednesday of CBR News' exclusive and extensive "Gotham Central" spotlight as we conclude with Michael Lark talking all things Gotham.

 
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