Police Procedurals Replete with Gritty Realism
By Josh Corin
While the primary focus of this column has been on international comics (we are the International Thriller Writers), it would be remiss of me to ignore American comics altogether—and one of the most sensational and daring American comics of the last 20 years has been the police procedural Gotham Central, co-created by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka for DC Comics.
Gotham Central, which first appeared in 2002, had a genius premise: take Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct and set it in Gotham City. As such, the focus was not on Batman, Robin, or any of Gotham’s more famous heroes, but instead on the men and women in blue of Gotham City Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit.
This cast of characters included fan favorite Renee Montoya, first seen in Batman: The Animated Series, and her partner, family man Crispus Allen; Marcus Driver, whose old partner is murdered as the comic book begins; Driver’s new partner, idiosyncratic psychic Josie Mac; and the able leader of Major Crimes, Captain Maggie Sawyer. Brubaker and Rucka alternated script duties on the book, with art provided first by Michael Lark and then by pencilers such as Stefano Gaudiano.
Much like McBain’s police procedurals, the story arcs of Gotham Central were replete with gritty realism, gallows humor, and deft characterization. These were tales of ordinary people, and as such their defeats equaled their victories. As in a real police station, socio-politics often served as a backdrop, and in the most decorated arc of the series, Detective Montoya is outed by former prosecutor Harvey “Two-Face” Dent and, as a result, watches her career go off the rails.
Gotham Central lasted for 40 issues, certainly an accomplishment for a DC Comics title lacking any marquee superheroes, and its influence continued well beyond its final issues. In world, Renee Montoya took on the mantle of The Question and Crispus Allen became The Spectre.
To TV viewers, though, the impact of Gotham Central was probably most visible in the CW show Gotham. Although not nearly as grounded as the comic, Gotham’s main objective was identical—to view the city and its strangeness through the eyes of the police.
Brubaker would later go on to reinvent Catwoman for DC and then Daredevil and Captain America for Marvel, but for our purposes, his most significant comics work after Gotham Central would have to be Sleeper, Criminal, and Fatale, all co-created with artist Sean Phillips. All three comics follow the antics and misfortunes of those on the margins—the forgotten sleeper agent, the unscrupulous lowlife, the femme fatale—and underscores it all with complex thematic takes on identity and family and justice. Criminal is especially excellent and may be one of the best neo-noirs of the 21st century.
And what Criminal is to neo-noir, Rucka’s comic Queen & Country is to the spy genre. The series, which lasted from 2001 to 2007, centers on Tara Chace, alias Minder Two; Chace is a field officer for MI6 and Queen & Country is especially interested in the real risks of the job and the ramifications that even a successful op can set into motion.
Rucka’s more recent series for Oni, the private investigator comic Stumptown, is now a TV show on ABC. He also has achieved notable success as the novelist of crackling thrillers like Keeper, the first in a series about a professional bodyguard named Atticus Kodiak.