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‘Gotham City: Year One’ HC (review)

Written by Tom King
Art by Phil Hester and Eric Gapstur
Published by DC Comics

 

“You think you know Gotham?”

Award winning writer Tom King partners with illustrator Phil Hester to craft the definitive backstory of Batman’s iconic hometown in Gotham City: Year One, a six-issue limited series from DC Comics.

Prior to the series release, King says he set out to “add something large and essential to the mythos of the Dark Knight.”

The result paints Batman’s stage with a coat of social realism and proves that crime stories still have a place in contemporary comics.

Set in 1961 amidst the neon optimism and mid-century modern affluence of Camelot-era America, Gotham is a “shining city on the water” poised for a fall.

Capes and cowls are replaced here by trench coats and Stetsons as private investigator Samuel “Slam” Bradley becomes entangled in the “kidnapping of the century”— the disappearance of the infant daughter of Batman’s grandparents, Richard and Constance Wayne.

As Slam is drawn deeper into the mystery, his investigation exposes the hard social and economic truths underpinning the city’s prosperous façade.

Gotham City: Year One blends a story based on the famed Lindbergh kidnapping case with the tropes of hard-boiled fiction, the aesthetics of film noir, and the social realist sensibilities of modern writers like David Simon and George Pelecanos. Slam Bradley could comfortably trade stories down at the bar with the likes of Phillip Marlowe, Jake Gittes, and Jimmy McNulty.

And who exactly is Slam Bradley?

The character first appeared in Detective Comics #1 in 1937, two years before Batman would make his own debut in the comic with which he has since become synonymous. Developed by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster a year before they changed the course of pop culture with the creation of Superman, the adventuring detective became the longest running character to have debuted in Detective’s inaugural release. Decades later, Slam Bradley would be folded into DC’s shared universe and most recently revived in the 2000s as a supporting character in the Catwoman ongoing series.

The artistic collaboration of illustrator Phil Hester, inker Eric Gapstur, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterer Clayton Cowles brings the series to life in a seamless, unified style reminiscent of classic Saul Bass title designs for such films as Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm. The aesthetic effectively evokes the spirit of both the period and the crime fiction popular during that era.

Hester carves his images with crisp lines and sharp angles, bolstered by the weight of Gapstur’s heavy blacks filling every bit of negative space. Bellaire renders Gotham in a muted palate by day, while the nights pop with primary colors. Meanwhile, Cowles’ lettering adds another dimension to the mix, unobtrusively matching the style and flow of Hester’s linework as pows radiate from punched heads.

King has recently been nominated for his second Eisner Award for Best Writer in part for his work on Gotham City: Year One. Here, he steps outside the superhero sandbox to craft a solidly plotted mystery. King’s mastery of the crime genre and its tools propels the plot, but his nuanced characterizations carry the story.

Slam himself is a man of his time whose story demonstrates how people shape the places where they live, influencing the lives of those to come in unintended and unimaginable ways. From a hospital bed years later, Slam recalls his idealized Gotham— “A beautiful place: new grass in the parks, new glass on the buildings”—is a city propped up by unspoken corruption and tolerated social and economic segregation. The life he recounts is a set of narrowly confined options which he navigates with choices that bear consequences across generations. He chooses to reveal his secret history of Gotham to Batman because “Sometimes it takes a straw to see which way the wind is blowing.”

Each issue of Gotham City: Year One notably begins with a warning that the story contains language of a racially offensive nature. The disclaimer serves as both trigger warning and mission statement. The language, the setting, and the characters are all deliberate creative choices which both contextualize the story and comment on the often problematic and underexplored legacy of the biases embedded in American pop culture. Slam’s earliest appearances certainly contained no such warning.

Much like John Ridley’s recent The Other History of the DC Universe, Gotham City: Year One holds a fresh lens up to DC’s characters and their milieu, grounding their relevance for contemporary audiences while maintaining their essence. King and his collaborators skillfully peel away the veneer from the “way things used to be” to tease out the racial and class biases at the foundations of comics and much of today’s pop culture.

And they deliver a wildly entertaining hard-boiled crime thriller in the process.

Gotham City: Year One collects issues #1-6 and
will be collected in hardcover in September.
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