Diary of a Comic Book Virgin, Chapter 1: ‘Gotham Central’

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Here’s something a little different. Our British film and TV nut, and comic book virgin, is recording her first steps into the vibrant world of comics. Read on to find out the process for choosing her first book and her under-qualified but honest review.

At Monkeys Fighting Robots we are a community of pop culture enthusiasts – nerds, if you like – each with our own area of speciality. Film, TV, comic books, anime and beer are the general umbrella categories which can be subdivided further to include Star Wars, The Walking Dead, DC Comics, Archie, wrestling, etc. Many in the team are jacks of all trades who know a little (or a lot) about everything, while a few know a vast amount about a single area and zero about anything else. Nada.

I fit squarely into the latter category when it comes to everything but film and TV. I have enjoyed a beer or three in the past and I have appreciated the odd superhero movie (Iron Man, The Dark Knight) , but comic books I have very little experience of besides their being a source text for, let’s face it, most of modern popular culture.

Before joining the team at Monkeys Fighting Robots, I had appreciated the artistic skill and presentation but never got swept up in what I had perceived to be a cult community of comic readers. Frankly, growing up in rural England there was no cultural imperative to get into any comics beyond the Beano, a weekly magazine for kids and a thoroughly British institution. Furthermore, I enjoyed the experience of reading fantasy and historic fiction, ripe with beautifully-written descriptions and being obliged to paint a picture of my own. For that reason, I was at no point drawn to reading comics or graphic novels in which the visuals were already dealt with; I would leave that to the filmmakers.

The Beano
The Beano characters including the iconic Dennis the Menace and his dog Gnasher at the front.

Ultimately, I was of the Harry Potter generation. Myself and those around me were ensconced in the magical world while Spider-Man and his friends were confined to lunch boxes and pyjamas. I knew very few, if any, people who were immersed in comic books besides what was shown in the cinema.

Getting Started

Comic book stores are about as common as sunny days in the UK, so visiting an seasoned enthusiast was never going to happen. I could have plucked randomly at a Marvel or DC Comic online, but instead I sought the guidance of Wesley Messer, a fellow MFR writer, who was only too happy to introduce a friend to the colorful world of comic books.

“Well here’s how we start the party: what do you dig? What stuff do you find interesting in movies, pop culture, what have you. Because in getting into comics, I find that asking questions and figuring out what people like is better than saying, “Hey try this this this this, and you’re like, “The hell…?” I like tailoring the experience, so to speak.”

So I let rip with all the films, TV shows and books that have illustrated my life in recent (and not so recent) years:

“I’ve always been more into fantasy than sci-fi, and even then, not too far into the supernatural. I discovered David Eddings’ Belgariad series before The Lord of the Rings, both of which are magical and have mystical beings, etc. but are almost more medieval historic fiction than some of the surreal stuff, including Game of Thrones, which I’ve dabbled in since.

Lately though, I’ve been more into detective, mystery, thriller. CSI:NY succeeded Harry Potter as my ‘thing’ when I reached my teens, and I’ve also absorbed nearly all of Sherlock Holmes and some of novelist James Patterson’s earlier work.

I tend to look for tortured characters in real-life scenarios in what I read and watch, I guess of a noir theme. If I were to splurge movies I’ve enjoyed: anything Danny Boyle, Fight Club, Drive, Memento, Sixth Sense, In Bruges, The Dark Knight (exception to the rule!), Master and Commander, LotR, Nightcrawler, Fargo… TV: I bloody loved Mr Robot, How to Get Away With Murder, and like I said, I’m actually really enjoying Riverdale.”

After chewing through my extensive summary of ‘what I dig’, Wesley offered a plethora of comics that might fit my preferences from the predictable police procedural to the downright bizarre. After much deliberation, I decided to go with one of his first suggestions:

“If I had to recommend anything comic-wise based off The Dark Knight, I would easily say Gotham Central. It focuses on the detectives of the Gotham PD, with elements of noir, detective work, and crazy supervillains all thrown in.”

So, my first experience of comic books proper would be through the detective-noir pages of Gotham Central, Book One: “In the Line of Duty”.

The Proof is in the Pudding

I’ll be honest, it took me a little while to fight through the demons of negative perception blocking my way to page one. Once I opened the book, however, it wasn’t long before I found myself investing in the characters and really starting to enjoy myself.

The Dark Knight
The extent of my comic book/Batman fandom is found in Christopher Nolan’s pretty awesome trilogy, which I love…

Wesley had told me it was more police procedural than Batman super-story, and he was not wrong. My experience of Batman and Gotham is limited to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy (I have never watched Batfleck’s rendition), and I kept expecting or hoping that familiar names might pop up. A few did eventually, but it was the stylistic elements that transcended genre to color my reading. The comic’s noir style and moody spirit put me back in the Gotham of The Dark Knight with a bit of CSI:NY, Castle and Law and Order thrown in.

In the end, it took me very little time at all to get through all 245 pages of my very first proper comic book. We had one of those rare sunny days and I enjoyed a morning basking in bright rays and the work of Brubaker, Rucka and Lark.

My Honest, Ill-informed Review

With zero experience of comic books and only a passing interest in their rendering on film, mine is the last opinion anyone in their right mind should pay attention to. However, if you are also considering getting into comics, then the first impressions of another novice might just come in handy.

For someone whose favorite genre is noir, and whose relationship with super-heroes is under-developed, Gotham Central has been a very good place to begin. If you’re a fan of television detective dramas, you will feel very much at home in this version of Gotham, and indeed, it reads very much like a storyboard for TV or film. The only difference being that the ‘bad guys’ are a little more neurotic, a lot more dangerous and considerably more scientifically-advanced.

The story was a little clunky and hesitant at the start, but once it built up some momentum and made clear the motives and personalities of the G.C.P.D., it became far more ‘unputdownable’. The presumably long-serving, very well-established M.C.U. staff carry a distinct sense of frustration for their circumstances, but get on with their jobs anyway with a resolute determination.

Gotham Central

If we were to link it up to The Dark Knight films again, Gotham Central: “In the Line of Duty”, falls a couple of decades after The Dark Knight Rises, and a handful of years following the retirement of Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (played by Gary Oldman in the films), who is honored in the early chapters. The detectives in the squad room constitute the last of the old guard personally selected by Gordon, whom they hold in very high regard. That said, their perception of the Batman does not align with their benefactor, at least as in the Nolan films. One of the key protagonists in this book, Detective Marcus Driver, is particularly scathing of the G.C.P.D.’s dependence on Batman to help them with cases they can’t solve.

One thing I would say is that, having seen screenshots of iconic comics, I was expecting slightly more detail and precision in the drawings. However, the quality is quite enough to show the emotions on the faces of the characters and to depict the mood of the stories. The best thing about this book though, is the dominance and power of strong female characters. Detectives Romy Chandler, Renee Montoya, and M.C.U. Captain Sawyer work opposite the bored, brash and old-fashioned men typical of police procedural drama.

Half a Life

I am left with far more than a desire to find out what happens next in Gotham. Having finally popped my cherry, no more a comic book virgin, my perception of the whole community has shifted from a faint and unfair prejudice, to a greater appreciation for the artistry and reading experience of these visual texts. It is a very different journey from reading prose, but it cannot be considered a lazy substitute for novels as I had once thought. These are two separate pastimes which now have my mutual respect.

Don’t forget to check out Wesley’s far better qualified, more in-depth, and significantly more experienced perspective on comics. Here’s a man who knows what he’s talking about.

Finally, what do you think I should read next? Put your recommendations in the comments.

Emma Nicholson
A UK based film nut who got lost on the way home from a Product Design degree in Wales and leapt into postgrad study of the media industries in London. Obsessed with road cycling, Sherlock Holmes (the books too), neo-noir, historical epics and bored of formulaic spectacle. Still waiting for a Hogwarts letter...

3 COMMENTS

  1. I love the artwork in Gotham Central. It really brings to mind David Mazzucchelli’s gritty realism style of Batman: Year One.

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