You've probably all heard of Smallville. Maybe you loved Heroes. And you might even be super-excited for the upcoming Arrow, which looks like it'll be hitting the CW this fall. But did you know that you missed out on what would've been the best comic book TV show of all time? We all did, in fact… because sadly, it never got made.
That series is called Gotham Central, and it was SO close to becoming a television show a few years ago. In a 2006 interview on the Around Comics podcast, series co-writer Ed Brubaker talked about his book's would-be television adaptation. "Everyone at Warner Bros. just loved Gotham Central," he said, "and if they hadn't had a moratorium on Batman TV shows [we] could've set up Gotham Central at the WB in a heartbeat." That moratorium, by the way, was caused by the short-lived, fairly awful Birds of Prey series. Way to ruin it for everyone, guys.
But even though Gotham Central hasn't made it to the small screen, the comics are still there for all of us to enjoy. DC recently rereleased the entire 40-issue run in four trade paperbacks, the last of which came out just a few weeks ago. So what makes Gotham Central so awesome?
Well, for starters, let's talk about the plot: Gotham Central follows a branch of the police department in Gotham City, also known as the home of Batman. Specifically, it focuses on the Major Crimes Unit, a group of detectives hand-picked by former Commissioner Gordon to solve crimes involving super-criminals, because Gotham has lots of those. The 40 issues of the series track about a dozen cops who work for the MCU; we get to know them pretty well through both their cases and their personal lives, and they end up seeming like real, flesh-and-blood people, which can sometimes be lacking in superhero comics. In fact, Gotham Central is probably the most realistic comic featuring a big-time superhero you can imagine. It gives serious thought to the question of what law enforcement might look like in a city where a popular vigilante is thought to solve most of the crimes. It's really smart and compelling, and chances are that you'll be hooked after the first issue.
What would have made Gotham Central such great television, though? And why, almost a decade after it started being published, does it still stand out as such a unique and amazing reading experience? Well…
1) It's a perfect police procedural. You don't need to look very hard through the TV listings to see how popular shows like this are. You've got your Law & Orders, your NCISs, even your NTSF:SD:SUV::s (okay maybe that last one doesn't count). But it's pretty much a fact that shows where viewers get to follow along with cops as they solve crimes are super popular.
2) But also, Batman. Now throw that police procedural into a city where the Caped Crusader lives… and where his villains live. So instead of cops trying to bust a drug dealer, they've got to hunt down Mr. Freeze or the Joker. Sometimes Batman shows up to help… or to do things his own way… but usually the police are on their own. That means that, when we do see Batman, it's both awesome and kind of scary… typically he's portrayed only in the shadows, barking commands or tips to the police before he darts off to take care of something else. Presumably, if you lived in a world with Batman, this would be most people's experience of him. It really lets you feel his presence in a way most Batman comics don't.
3) The stakes are higher than in most superhero comics. Other than featuring Renee Montoya, plus guest appearances from Harvey Bullock and Commissioner Gordon, Gotham Central follows a relatively new cast of characters. So where most superhero comics and shows have to maintain the status quo as much as possible (Smallville's not going to do any serious harm to young Clark Kent, because he's got to grow up to be Superman), there are no such rules in GC. Characters can die… and fairly often they do. You know this series is for real when on the third page of the first issue Mr. Freeze shoots a cop with his ice gun… and the cop is just dead. Unlike Batman, these heroes don't have access to the best technology or billions of dollars. Their lives are really in danger, and it hooks readers in in a way lots of other comics can't.
4) You just feel for the characters. Because the people of Gotham Central seem so real, and because anything can happen to them, you develop a bond to them that it's tough to get in superhero comics and even in some cop shows. If GC has one main character, it's Renee Montoya, who early on in the book is outed as a lesbian by a criminal with a grudge. The effect that the fallout of that has on Renee's world is kind of heartbreaking, and as you track her through GC you realize that she never really recovers from it. That leads to an ending that even the most attentive readers probably won't guess, but let's just say there are no capes or tights to make everything okay at the last minute here. Gotham Central wraps up on a real gut punch, and it's all the more special for it.
Of course, there's no way of knowing what direction the TV show would've taken. Still, reading the four trades of Gotham Central, it becomes clear just how perfect a TV show this would have made… and just how excellent a comic it still is years later.