Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why Jim Gordon Will Be Like Jimmy McNulty

What to make of the news that Fox plans to produce a prequel show about Batman ally Commissioner Gordon, entitled "Gotham?"

I thought about it. And thought about it some more. And the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued. And the more I thought about Jimmy McNulty. Let me explain.

Jim Gordon is tied with Bruce Wayne himself as the oldest Batman character--which is to say, both he and Wayne are in the very first panel of "Detective Comics #27," the first-ever Batman story.

He isn't, typically, the central character, however--although he does find himself close to the action in some of the most beloved Batman stories. Alan Moore's seminal "The Killing Joke," for instance, focuses on the Joker's attempts to drive Gordon mad through horrific attacks on his daughter. And Frank Miller's iconoclastic, transformative "Batman: Year One" is often told from Gordon's perspective, as he navigates a crime-ridden, pre-Batman Gotham.


I dusted off my old copy of "Year One" after news of the Gordon show, and I was struck by how un-comic it is. No supernatural elements or costumed villains--save a dominatrix-turned-Catwoman. At the time, it was groundbreaking. Batman--who's battled sea monsters and traveled through space--was living in a gritty urban hellscape instantly recognizable to readers as New York in the chaotic pre-Giuliani era. Not only was Gotham populated mainly by hookers and hoodlums, but its cops weren't law enforcers, they were bag men on the take.

Miller took the franchise backwards and forwards at the same time. Superman is more directly descended from early hero fiction, (and maybe Greek mythology if you want to go really back), but Batman's roots mixed that genre with the noir landscape of the pulps--and in those places, you kept one eye on the muggers and another eye on the cops.

But the Gotham Police corruption also serves a practical plot purpose--why, exactly, does Batman have to be Batman? Why does a law-loving vigilante choose to break the law? Batman authors have tried a variety of ways to square this apparent circle. In some Golden Age tales, Batman is actually a deputized, honorary Gotham Police officer--he even carries around a blinged-out, diamond-studded Batman badge. (To discourage imposters, you see.) This aspect was continued on the famous 60s show with Adam West.

As Batman evolved into the Bronze and modern ages, his authors have focused more on the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Gotham Police Department. Batman breaks the law, because it's the only way to see the law enforced--the police aren't doing the job.

They haven't indicated so, but I'd be shocked if Fox isn't eyeing "Year One" as a template for their Gordon prequel, just as Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" is apparently the basis for the upcoming "Batman vs. Superman" movie. Miller still dominates the Caped Crusader--which is pretty impressive, since it's been years since Miller produced a well-received Batman book.

It seems probable that this will be something like a police procedural, except the hero detective is the only honest cop on a force thoroughly grounded in corruption. He not only has to put together clues to find the bad guys, he has to out-maneuver ambitious colleagues and complacent captains uninterested in turning over rocks which might stop the flow of stuffed envelopes.

Hell, that sounds like a good enough idea for a show on its own, without the Batman connection.

Gordon will likely join the ranks of television's rebel cops--hero detectives who spend as much time fighting their bosses as they do the suspects. Fox Mulder had the Cigarette Smoking Man, Jimmy McNulty had Major Rawls, and Lt. Jim Gordon will have District Attorney Harvey Dent, I guess.

Their motives are different. Mulder was driven by his wide-eyed curiosity, McNulty by his arrogant swagger and deep personal problems, Gordon by--I think--his desire to do his damn job, provide for his family, and be able to look at himself at the mirror at the end of the day.

We're used to seeing Gordon as the upright, stiff-upper lipped (actually, almost always mustachioed) counterpart to Batman, but it will be interesting to see the years he spent banging his head against the wall to get to that point.

It's not just a Batman thing. Americans have a twin love for rebelliousness as well as law and order, and crave heroes who satisfy this paradox. (Seriously--I remember this from my English class at Oberlin).

Of course, even at its best, Batman isn't "The Wire." it's like the Uncanny Valley--comic book characters can approach meaningful realism, but at a certain point we have to remember this is mythology, not realism.

But if it's done right, "Gotham" might be able to examine America's desire for moral norms and our continual frustration with institutions that fail to enforce them, on a more allegorical level than David Simon's Marylandian epic did.

But who knows. I honestly don't have a good idea in my mind how this show would, or should, look. And that's kind of exciting.

I hope that Fox resists the temptation to tie this in directly with the upcoming "Batman vs. Superman" movie. Yes, Marvel and Disney have had success with this strategy, including their apparently successful "Avengers" spin-off, "Agents of SHIELD." But there are more than one way to skin a cat, and sanding everything off to the lowest common denominator in the hopes of maintaining a consistent tone has produced a lot of bland, forgettable Marvel movies. "Batman: The Animated Series" was at its best when it departed from the movies which inspired it.

We Batman fans may be a narrow-minded, demanding bunch, but we're capable of processing more than one Batman continuity at a time.

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