The Beat (Part 3): artist Michael Lark talks 'Gotham Central'

Wed, July 2nd, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

The rough sketch for "Gotham Central" #9 (L) done entirely on computer and the finished cover.
In parts one and two of CBR News' extensive coverage of the highly acclaimed DC Comics series "Gotham Central," the writers of the series spoke, but now it's time for series artist Michael Lark to let his thoughts out. Like his Gotham cohorts , Lark has much of the same vision for "Gotham Central," but his different answers to some similar questions makes for an interesting perspective on the series. CBR spoke with him about his work on the series and for those who haven't read the previous interviews, provided readers with an introduction to series' premise.

"As I see it, it's a look at the insanity of Gotham from the cops' point of view. In comics, we only ever see it from the point of view of the superheroes. But if you stop to think about it, it's totally nuts to have all these people jumping around from roof to roof in their pajamas and capes. From the cops' point of view, it's a whole different world. When Mr. Freeze kills someone, it's going to mean a lot of overtime, and eventually it's going to mean having to turn on that damn searchlight on the roof. It's going to mean that these people, who've gone through specialized training and who are sworn to uphold the law and protect the citizens, probably aren't going to be able to do the job, and will have to allow a vigilante in a silly suit do their job for them. Imagine how that must feel. Imagine how it must feel to live and work in a city with more than its fair share of homicidal lunatics committing mass murders right and left."

To some, it might seem like the best way to attract readers to "Central" would be to make the characters look like movie stars or familiar cops, but Lark took the opposite route. "My take on them was inspired by trying to make them as real as possible, while still making them stand out. I didn't want them to look like television actors, or to look like cartoon characters. I wanted that dichotomy between the real people, and the freaks in the costumes. It was a challenge, I'll admit. It's much easier to draw Mr. Freeze and Batman. But a year later I think I did ok, for the most part."

The chance to work with Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka was the biggest factor in Lark's decision to join the "Gotham Central" crew and it's one he doesn't regret. "I always say that I'd rather draw two people talking than two people fighting. But that doesn't mean that I don't want to draw a nice action scene. If I do too much of one or the other, I get real bored. 'Gotham Central' is the first time that I've been presented with the opportunity to do a monthly that has enough of both to keep me interested.

"But the main thing for me was that Ed and Greg were writing. I like both of them, and I think they're both amazing writers. And I've come to respect them even more through the course of the last year - these guys are always at the top of their game. It inspires me to do my best work, to do justice to their writing."

The initial rough cover sketch (L) with a more complete version of the cover for "Gotham Central" #12
While some readers may be forgiving of liberties taken with police procedure and lingo in the plotting/scripting of the Bat-book, Lark has a tougher job with the visuals, as most fans seem to expect a strict adherence to "realistic" cop uniforms. "Ed and Greg do more research about the procedures and stuff. I'm more concerned with the visual end of things. For instance, I didn't want to draw the uniformed cops in the Nazi-like outfits that they had been wearing since NML. They just didn't look like real cops - they looked like something out of a video game. They didn't stand apart from the superheroes and villains. So, at least when I draw them, they're back in normal cop uniforms. When they put on body armor, it's the same kind of body armor the cops in my city would wear. That's going to do any good against Mr. Freeze or Firebug? It adds to the drama, the conflict.

"Same for the architecture - I want this to look like a real city, not a Bruce Timm comic book city, or even a Tim Burton movie city. To me, it's more fun, and more shocking, to have these bizarre things happening in a real city - like it could happen in your own town."

One of those bizarre things is the appearance of supervillains and it'd seem like a challenge to balance Lark's desire for realism with spandex clad champions of chaos… or is it? "The Joker would be damn scary if he showed up on your doorstep, wouldn't he?" asks Lark. "All the more so because he's dressed as an evil clown. So I'm going to draw the Joker as looking like he could sit down next to you on the subway and start killing everyone aboard. It's all part of the dichotomy that we're trying to show: 'What would it be like if you had to be a cop under these conditions? How do you coexist with this kind of daily terror and insanity?' It's the World Trade Center and the Beltway Sniper every day."

A costumed character that Lark doesn't want to see too often is Batman, though at first, he had a different opinion on what the Dark Knight's role should be in "Gotham Central." "At first I thought Batman should play a role in every story, and he should be on every cover. But now I realize that would be totally wrong.

[Mr. Freeze]"Now I know it depends on the story. Batman never played much of a role in the 'Motive' storyline, but the 'Line of Duty' arc couldn't have been resolved without him. I think we're walking a tight rope, and doing a pretty good job of it so far."

Lark's also happy to be given a lot of leeway by DC creatively and is especially happy not to have drawn a piece of Bat-mythos that scares him as much as George Clooney's Bat-nipples. "So far, so good. I was afraid, when I did the first cover, that someone was going to make me draw that awful phallic-laser Batsignal from the last few years. But no one batted an eye. Same for the Mr. Freeze redesign, and the police uniforms. They seem to trust our vision."

Perhaps the most talked about aspect of "Gotham Central" thus far has been the outing of Renee Montoya in the recent "Half A Life" story and like Ed Brubaker, Lark says it succeeded because Greg Rucka is that damn good a writer. "[It succeeded] because Greg wrote it very, very well. And also because it's an integral part of the story, not just a stunt. I admit that I was a little concerned about it at first, what with Maggie Sawyer being part of the cast. But Greg more than rose to the challenge, and I think it ended up being the best story I've ever worked on. I, for one, am really proud of it. I think those who may have a problem with it reveal more about themselves and their own prejudices than they realize."

The pride that Lark feels regarding his work on "Central" translates over to a desire to work on the series, "Absolutely forever," he says. "I'm excited about doing issue 100. I just hope that the sales warrant the book sticking around that long."

[Character Sketches]
"Lark says, "My initial character designs for the second shift - some of them have changed a bit, especially Romy's hair style (this one was too much like Kansinsky's)."

Passion doesn't equate to a paucity of problems and Lark is quick to admit to admit that "Gotham Central" presents it's own unique set of challenges. "The hardest part, for me, is capturing the balance between realism and simplicity. I don't want Alex Ross or Tim Bradstreet kinds of realism, but at the same time I don't want it to look like some of the more cartoony books out there. It's a fine line, and one that I'll probably be searching for my whole life.

"The easiest part is working with Greg and Ed on a book that I love dearly. I think I'm just about the only artist in the business who actually wants to draw such apparently mundane material day after day after day. I don't know anyone else who would like to draw an issue that takes place almost entirely in interrogation rooms (as #8 does)."

The stories in "Gotham Central" have been fairly serious so far and the art has reflected that tone. But Lark's job, keeping the light of the protagonists' quest balanced with the dark of reality isn't a simple one and he feels the complexity of the cops' world is reflected in the art. "Well, it's about real life, as much as it can be. So there are funny things and serious things. People crack jokes, they have funny discussions. Greg and Ed keep a good balance, and make it easy."

It's obvious that Lark's passionate about the book and considering both Rucka and Brubaker waited a year for the man, one might jokingly say he better be. His impact on storytelling is obvious because he's the series artist, but one must wonder if he'd like to have more impact on the plotting and scripting. "My ego sometimes wishes that I had more input, but in my more lucid moments I know that would be a mistake," laughs Lark. "I could never do as good a job as Ed and Greg. They actually allowed me sit in on the discussion of the plot for the story arc that starts with #12, and they listened to one of my suggestions - making the story take place in the winter instead of the summer! That's been the extent of it so far! :)

The Squad
"But we all have talked about different storytelling devices, and they both know that I'd like to experiment with things here and there, and they're all for it. And they also give me a lot of freedom when I'm drawing the books - I make minor changes here and there, at least in how the story is told visually. I think they probably hate that and curse me behind my back, but at least to my face they say they don't mind! :)

"Really, I think we each have a lot of trust in one another, which is what makes it such a great collaboration. We all respect each other's abilities, and no one wants to step on anyone's toes. We challenge each other, and that results in all of us doing our best work."

It may not be "Gotham Central" related, but it's interesting to note how the answers differ when each creator on the series is asked which Bat-family character they'd like to be. "Alfred. Because I live to serve Ed and Greg, and especially our editor Matt Idelson."

Even though most readers would be hard pressed to call "Gotham Central" a "bad" comic per se, the series isn't exactly burning up the sales charts- let's be honest, it hasn't cracked the top 100 in a little while. Any ideas Michael Lark? "A few reasons, but mostly because it isn't a typical comic book. I think it would do great overseas. American comics audiences have come to expect certain things - they've been force-fed superhero comics that are mediocre, at best, for so long now that a book like ours probably seems like it came from another planet. Retailers and publishers have the same problem. They don't know how to market to anyone but the superhero fans. We had to do a lot of convincing to get DC to agree to let us do this book. Once they saw the results, they were behind us 100%. I think that readers would be, too, if we could somehow get them to take a look."

Pencil version of the Montoya "perp-walk" scene from #8, showing the squad room design as it appears in the book (note that Kansinsky has no hair in panel 2!)
One way to get readers to take a look is collected editions- also called trade paperbacks- and Lark says it's essential that "Gotham Central" have TPBs- soon. "I think it's silly not to collect these things - they are two different markets. Comic books are periodicals, trades are books. This industry has got to grow beyond thinking only in terms of little magazines printed on crappy paper. Trades will only hurt the industry if the industry isn't willing to grow and change.

"And personally, I'm one of those guys who waits for the trades. There's nothing I dislike more than having a shelf full of those slippery little magazines full of ads."

If the fan reaction Lark has been privy to is any indication, the trade would sell great and he says that fans are converting to the "Central" side slowly but surely. "Those who have read the book love it, as far as I can tell. Oh, there's the occasional person who thinks it's boring, but I think the books that they read are boring, so there you go. It's just a matter of taste - some people don't like chocolate ice cream.

"One fan commented that they love Rucka and Brubaker, but they didn't like my art. That's fair. I asked then what they did like, told them I respected their opinion, and now they claim they like the art - so I made a convert!"

A page of pencils from issue 12.
The reason you haven't heard any interesting or embarrassing stories about Lark, Rucka and Brubaker's brainstorming sessions is because nothing crazy has happened, but come the Comic-Con International in July, Lark has hopes for anarchy. "We'll all be in San Diego together, so anything could happen. I know for a fact that both those guys could drink me under the table, so it should be interesting."

While you may think you know what's next for "Gotham Central" from Rucka and Brubaker's comments, Lark adds a new spin to the future that'll keep fans guessing. "The next story arc is going to make the ear scene in #1 look like an episode of Teletubbies. The cops are going to be putting in a lot of overtime."

And Michael Lark's number one reason to check out "Gotham Central?"

"Because it's a really good book. 'Nuff said."

 
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