Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Some thoughts on Gotham City and the art (read: common courtesy) of the Introduction

I just finished reading Volume One of Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark's Gotham Central, and I know I'm late to the party, but that is some damn fine comicbook storytelling.  Nothing much more to be said here other than if you're a fan of crime comics, noir, and Batman, you should definitely be reading these collections.

What I want to talk about here is Lawrence Block's introduction to the book and how phoned in it seems.  The basic premise is that Block believes that Gotham City is actually New York City.  An interesting idea, especially given all the fun facts he provides about New York history, but as an introduction, it makes it look like he didn't even read the book he was introducing.  Not once does he mention any of the creators involved in the book; he barely even mentions any of the characters who are introduced, and I'm pretty sure none of the plot elements are brought up at all.  Call me old-fashioned, but I'm of the opinion that if someone invites you to introduce his or her book, you should probably say a couple of things about the people who worked on the book, or at least mention something about the book, something that shows the readers why you agreed to writing an introduction in the first place.  It just seems like kind of a dick move, giving no clear reason for us readers to believe you even read this book in the first place.  Complaining any further about what Block should have done with his opportunity of writing an introduction is just another exercise in futility since it's already been written, published, and read, so let's move on to the heart of his "introduction": his ideas about Gotham City.

Block talks about his belief that Gotham City is actually supposed to be New York City.  He brings up a lot of interesting tidbits about different writers' varying fascinations with New York City (none of which have anything to do with comics or Batman), then when he finally gets around to mentioning Bob Kane's art in 1939, his only reasoning for Gotham actually being NYC is that at the time, NYC was the only city with a skyline anywhere near resembling that of Bob Kane's Gotham.  But then Block goes on to say that NYC's aesthetic has changed.  He points out that NYC is no longer the only city with a vast skyline and that the streets of NYC aren't as mean as they once were.  So what is it, Mr. Block?  Why is it that you believe Gotham City is still actually New York City?  Here's his explanation:
So it's not the crime rate, and it's not the tall buildings.  What is it?  the answer's somewhere in the following gag: Tourist to New Yorker: Can you tell me how to get to the Empire State Building, or should I just go #%!&#!!! myself?  
The New York energy goes beyond anything you'll find anywhere else.  It's too much for some people and it grinds them down, but it lifts up and animates the rest of us.
It gives us the New York edge, which is attitude and something more.
He goes on to ask if we can picture any of Batman's villains committing their crimes in other cities like Albuquerque, Fargo, Cleveland, Peoria, or Fresno.  And that's it.  That's Lawrence Block, big time crime fiction writer of world renown Lawrence Block's reason for Gotham City being a  pseudonym for New York City: because he can't imagine it as anywhere else.  Because he just thinks New York City is so great, how could Gotham City not be New York?

WHAT?!  That's the reason?!  Lawrence Block!  You mean to tell me that your reasoning as to why Gotham is actually NYC basically boils down to "just cuz?"

I'll admit, Lawrence Block knows his stuff when it comes to New York City, but based on what I've gathered from his phoned-in introduction to this comicbook, it's clear to me that Mr. Block needs to learn a little bit more about Gotham City.

I got some ideas, in case you were interested.

Gotham City is NOT New York City.  Maybe at one point early on in its inception it was loosely based on New York City, but Gotham City and its most famous vigilante have been around for over seventy years at this point.  Things have changed.  Gotham City is now something else, something that is distinctly Gotham City.

Let's get one thing out of the way first.  It seems that much of Lawrence Block's reasoning for Gotham actually being NYC stems from Block's NYC pride.  Having recently moved to NYC from the small town of Los Angeles, I totally identify with harboring a strong sense of hometown pride.  While I do think it is important to take pride in where you're from, it is more important not to let your hometown pride completely overtake your perspective.  I find that this is a common problem among Angelinos and New Yorkers.  These are two great, major cities that are easy to love when you're from there, but just because you're from there doesn't make you any better than anyone else, and it doesn't make anyone else's experiences with his or her hometown any less authentic or valid -- even if that city is entirely fictional.

While it is entirely possible that Bob Kane may have used New York City as inspiration for Gotham City, the fact is that Gotham City has been around for over seventy years.  Anything that has been around for seventy years has experienced its fair share of changes.  Gotham has definitely changed -- so much so that it certainly is no longer an analog for New York City.  Gotham is something different, something more.  The most memorable takes on Batman almost always include a memorable take on Gotham.  Bruce Timm's art-deco noir Gotham City of Batman: The Animated Series, Frank Miller's cesspool of corrupt politicos and street gangs in Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, Doug Moench and Kelley Jone's haunted, gothic atmosphere that made us feel like the entirety of Gotham City was nested deep in a dark cave that would never see light, Grant Morrison's hip, pop-art socialite hotspot, and more recently, Scott Snyder's take on Gotham as a black mirror of the soul.  All are great Batman stories.  All are distinct interpretations of Gotham City that extend beyond referring to it as a stand-in for New York City.  (And we're not even going to get into the can of worms that is the Batman movies.)

If Gotham is actually New York City, why not just set the stories in New York City?  Could DC not get the rights for it?  Did all of New York City refuse to have something written about them?  Because New Yorkers are historically known for HATING depictions of New York in movies, television, and books, right?  If this were the case, Scorcese and Woody Allen would just be that intense Italian guy and the stammering Jewish guy you'd find any day at Sal, Kris & Charlie's Deli, The Sandwich King of Astoria, and not the New York institutions that they are (and that The Sandwich King of Astoria should be).  Gotham City is called Gotham City because it is Gotham City.  If it were New York City, it would have been called New York City.

I will say that there is some value to Lawrence Block's assertion that he can't imagine any of the rogue's gallery's capers taking place in any other place than Gotham City (or, ahem, Lawrence Block's stand-in for New York City), but I will disagree with him on the implied knowledge that what he actually means by Gotham is NYC.  (Also, a Mr. Freeze in Fresno story would definitely be something I'd read.)  What has merit here is the idea that Batman and his villains are institutions of Gotham City.  You see Batman, you see the Joker, you see Two-Face, you think Gotham City.  However, just because they are institutions of Gotham City doesn't mean they can't be enjoyed outside of Gotham City.  You can watch "Annie Hall" in Los Angeles and still enjoy it.  The conceit of trading supervillains is always a pretty entertaining convention in superhero comics taking place in a shared universe.  Grant Morrison's new series Batman, Inc. is all about taking that fixture of Gotham City, the Batman, and taking him to other parts of the world, spreading a gospel of crime-fighting and justice.  So while, Batman and his allies and villains are institutions of Gotham, the fact remains that they are all excellent and well-developed characters independent of the city they came from.  Being from Gotham, being from New York, being from Los Angeles, being from Keystone, or being from Metropolis doesn't make you an interesting person.  Being an interesting person makes you an interesting person, and interesting people always travel well.

Anyway, read Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark.  It's a great book made by great creators.  Maybe in a few years they'll re-release this volume with an introduction written by someone who isn't so full of himself.

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