From the title, some may deduce what I’m about to say here about the glorious arrival of Gotham by Midnight. Recently, at the Gotham panel at Thought Bubble in the UK, the creative teams behind Gotham Academy, Batgirl, and Batman talked about the “studio feel” of this new corner of the Gotham universe, including Gotham Academy, Batgirl, Arkham Manor, and now Gotham by Midnight, and the ways in which this is essentially tapping into the developments of creator owned and indie comics, and Scott Snyder even went so far as to say that DC was wisely allowing creators with that wealth of indie experience and style to invigorate Gotham.
As someone who has come up out of the indie scene as a journalist, I can say these books are definitely “for the rest of us” and I’m a prime example of the demographic these books are successfully reaching. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the more mainstream bat books, particularly those by Scott Snyder, but with even Snyder creating books at Image, who’s to say there’s a clear line anymore between indie and mainstream creators? And that’s very good news for the creative health of mainstream comics proper. I’d say that creators who have worked on indie books have had the room and the necessary get up and go to more fully “find themselves” as writers and artists and have naturally developed more of an individual sense of their own creative voices that often creates a “bottled lightning” effect when they take on familiar long-running universes. That’s certainly what we see in Gotham Academy and Batgirl and now, in Gotham by Midnight.
I’ve been a fan of Ben Templesmith’s work for a number of years, from 30 Days of Night to Fell, and a host of series since, and he’s been in the forefront of individual style couched firmly in horror and atmosphere while working on creator-owned projects, Kickstarters, and the like as well as for Dark Horse, IDW, and others. The city of Gotham is a natural fit for the horror elements he excels in, but to be honest, seeing him work on a DC book as the main artist was not a day I thought would really ever come, and that’s down to this new direction for Gotham mentioned above. I even have a Batman print produced by Templesmith a couple of years ago hanging in my study, and often mused upon how amazing it would be if he was given that chance to present his vision of Gotham.
Writer on the series Ray Fawkes opens with an archetypal set up for a horror book, all caps captions reading, “Gotham City is cursed. Poisoned by shadow. It can’t possibly survive…without protection”. Curses, poison, shadows, survival. It’s all there. In the same wide-screen, 4 panel page, Templesmith shows us his Gotham, from a looming distance shot of the city, to its beleaguered citizens (who by the way appear under the “shadow” of Batman, making you question who the “poison” is), interiors of Batman and Gordon talking, and the collective “protection” of the police. It’s an excellent way to bring us into this new visual world, establishing the characters and settings the way you might through a Greek chorus in a play, comics-style, with visual and text elements. And if this is a play, it’s likely to be a tragedy of sorts.
But then we enter a world we might not have quite expected, the police drama of a “midnight shift” of GCPD officers. That’s when a reader will recall Templesmith’s already vast experience working with “detective” type stories with elements of the police procedural (though usually paired with the occult). Sergeant Rook, who appears as internal affairs to investigate this division founded by Gordon even alludes, it seems to this element, or it’s a happy alignment of elements, when he mentions “supernatural investigations” and “crazy stuff” he’s been hearing about. Our Lieutenant Weaver actually admits that they handle the “strange stuff”, making you wonder what’s coming down the line for this comic, and a page turn for the reader reveals a massive ad for the Constantine TV show as well, which did make me laugh out loud given the context. Enter Jim Corrigan, a nun, and an Eastern European forensics expert and yes, we are firmly in Templesmith territory.
The things is, we as readers should be well aware of the occult elements within the DC universe (even Constantine has been brought into the New 52 with the cancellation of Hellblazer from Vertigo), but it’s surprising that it takes this kind of book to remind us of this. It’s just not something we expect to see addressed so directly. I posit that it’s the use of “Gotham” in the title of this book. It suggests this is not a side-line to the DC universe, but a more centrally located book, in the same way that Gotham Academy’s title does. And that’s another reason “the rest of us” may feel more included than ever with the position these new books seem to maintain in the DCU.
There’s actually a satisfying correspondence between the character of Rook, who is the dubious “normal” cop ready to shut down this operation and the “insider” members of the task force with their quirks, eccentricities, and of course, belief in the paranormal and supernatural. It’s as if Rook represents the relatively “normal” Gotham portrayed in more central DC books (though that’s relative when it comes to Gotham), and the members of the team are the shadowy elements of more bizarre storylines that have popped up in the DCU over time, now condensed into a dedicated series.
The team proposes to persuade Rook to their perspective through eye witness experience and take him along on a case involving abducted and returned children, and they hope to “change [his] mind in one night”. Things are looking good for the odds of success on that mission based on the first issue alone. We have ritual marking, B.P.R.D. style investigations, children speaking in strange languages, and essentially we are headed into True Detective territory (which to some extent means we are getting into Lovecraftian territory). It’s a Festivus miracle.
Obviously, Ray Fawkes not only knows exactly what he is doing, but also exactly what he wants to do. It’s like a soccer or football player suddenly seeing an opening in the defense and charging down the field to take the opportunity while the coast is clear. Both Fawkes and Templesmith feel like they are flying out of the gate on this comic, to pile on another metaphor, and all the elements that have most appealed to them about Gotham as comics readers are fuelling that charge. Gotham has always been so very strange, and we know that, but these two know it more than most and are setting out to prove it.
A further word on Templesmith’s artwork and why it harmonizes so well with our past perceptions of Gotham while taking us into the unknown: he knows his hard-boiled cops and criminals, he knows his freaks and eccentrics, and he knows how to construct a horror panel and page. When this issue increases in intensity, he knows how much to show and how not to show things to develop tension, and that’s not something you see developed so fully in a bat book very often. It takes us back to the Arkham Asylum graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, or ventures into Sam Kieth territory. We could go further and say this gels very well with Tim Burton’s view of Gotham as well. It’s a particular distillation of one very intense side of Gotham’s personality that’s usually only used as an accent in other stories to increase drama. Here it’s the whole focus, giving Templesmith and Fawkes room to develop new language of nuance within that sphere.
But, as a fan of Templesmith’s art, I’ll add that it’s a real joy to see his Batman, always angled, always looming, always more bat-like than most artists have seen fit to draw him. Strangely, it creates a geek-out effect as if you’re seeing Batman and being in his presence for the first time. And making Batman himself part of this horror world, creating that recognition in readers as if they are seeing Batman and Gotham for the first time through new eyes, surely that’s what these new bat books are all about. I don’t have any grievances to air about Gotham by Midnight. I’m just happy to be included in the DCU in such an engaging way.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter