The comic fell onto my desk like a sledge hammer coming down on a boulder – no one could tell you how exactly it would end up, but it was definitely going to leave a mark. It was the kind of assignment that would send plenty of reviewers scrambling to give their two cents before they could even muster up a penny. One thing was for sure, I wasn’t going to pass it up. It’s not every day some big hot shot writer shows up saying they’re gonna give the whole damn play a new opening act, but when they do, people tend to turn their heads.
In Gotham City: Year One #1, Tom King takes a look at a turning point in Gotham’s history through the lens of Slam Bradley, private detective. Set in 1961, it’s supposedly the last era of the city before it became the perpetually crime-ridden nightmare we all know and love. It’s a time period with the potential to offer a interesting look at an as of yet unexplored part of Gotham’s history that could give context to Batman’s crusade. It’s worth noting that while it is a dive into Gotham’s past, it will seemingly also be making some alterations to that past. There are some minor changes to the Wayne family tree, and Slam is roughly 30 in 1961 (at least I hope this is a retcon, and not meant to reveal that Selina has been sleeping with an octogenarian in the present day.)
The story is set up like a classic film noir, complete with grizzled narration and a dame walking into the protagonist’s office to kickstart the plot. On my first read through, it felt like something was off for most of the book, and that it only picked up in the second half. What I realized when I reread it was that it felt “off” because the majority of this issue is still written like the prologue. A lot of the text is Slam’s narration. That style is a staple of pulp detective stories, but only in the beginning sequences before everything kicks into gear. That’s why I felt that it was overly verbose and ever-present in the comic.
However, if this whole first issue is just the opening scenes the story, then it becomes far more appropriate and fits within the overall style that King is going for. It could be that after reading later issues of this series, I will retroactively be more positive on the first chapter. Unfortunately, I can’t wait until then to give my review of this issue. It’s a problem with modern comic publishing where everything is a 6+ issue arc that can’t be fairly judged until the story is over. Hardly anyone publishes a complete story in a single comic anymore; they’re all writing with the trade paperback collection in mind. I suppose it’s not inherently a bad thing, and I know a lot of people prefer that more decompressed style, but if your job is to review every issue as it comes out then it can lead to problems. For now I will say that King’s writing style fits the noir aesthetic he’s going for, but that praise is dependent on future issues having less constant narration and more diegetic storytelling.
While it takes a bit of time to really get started, the plot’s mystery becomes genuinely intriguing in the back half of the story. The way that city politics, class conflict, scandal, and prejudice all seem to work together reminds me a bit of the movie Chinatown, which can only be a good thing. We’re only shown a small bit of the overall picture, but there’s enough there that I can say that I’m hooked and want to know more.
Phil Hester’s art does a great job of making the story feel like a pulp detective story. The bold lines and dark shadows are perfect for emulating that “city lights streaming in through a pair of blinds” aesthetic that one expects. There are even a couple of panels where Slam looks just like Humphrey Bogart, which I feel has to be intentional. I’m also a fan of the stylized, simplified character art that he uses. It’s slightly reminiscent of the comic art from the 60s when this is set while still maintaining a modern flair.
Jordie Bellaire’s colors are something that I was initially not too keen on, but like King’s narration I think I like where it’s going. The warm color tones in the beginning seemed in conflict with the jaded detective narration that were overlaid on top of them. I’m so used to that stark, black and white grimness of these types of stories that it felt “wrong.” However, the colors started to become more of what I expected as Slam delved further and further into the city’s dark underbelly. It’s an effective use of visual storytelling to convey to the reader without words what the protagonist learns. This is another aspect that may be a bit too early to call, but is very promising and I’m excited to seeing more of it.
The “descent” is something that I expect to be a running theme in the story. Slam makes a point of explaining how idyllic Gotham is to many people, but even then there are hints of something amiss that don’t become clear until later. Plenty of people talk about revitalizing of “slums” and improving the city, but the people who live in those neighborhoods are an afterthought at best and something to be dealt with at worst. There is no better example of the moral decay hidden under the surface than the Waynes themselves. They present a noble and dignified exterior to the public, Slam quickly learns that it’s all a façade. They clearly don’t love each other, remain separate as often as possible, and at one point Mrs. Wayne even subtly expresses contempt for her husband by telling Slam how much he detests tobacco in the house as she smokes a cigarette.
In addition to the motif of decay under a veneer of prosperity, something that the comic is obviously going to focus on is race. I mentioned earlier that the Wayne’s “revitalization” project ignores or even actively harms the people living in the city’s poorer South Side, but what the story is very emphatic on pointing out is that the people who live there are almost all black. Even Slam talks about how “improving” the city is code for making it white.
It’s no coincidence that the story is set in the early 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement. It pulls no punches about highlighting the way black people are treated systematically based on the color of their skin, and how powerful people only see them as either an obstacle or a tool in enriching themselves. Red lining and racial profiling are front and center as key plot elements to the mystery. This is such a focus that DC decided to place a content warning before the comic. So far everything has been handled with a deft hand and I’m enjoying the way that such a serious topic is being woven into the story (though having such a serious warning at the beginning did make it a bit ridiculous when the comic made sure to still censor any swear words.)
If there’s one plot element that has me worried it’s the twist that the man who kidnapped the Wayne’s daughter uses a bat as his calling card, and is even called the “Bat-Man.” Again, like many thing it’s too early to say anything definitively about where this is going. However, my fear is that King is going to try and make Batman’s persona the legacy of some criminal as a shocking twist, which I would find annoying more than anything else.
- You’re a fan of film noir
- You want to see what Gotham was like before it became so dark
- Mature story elements are something you enjoy in comics
- You don’t mind a slow start to a story
Gotham City: Year One #1 takes its time building up its mystery, meaning that we’re only offered a glimpse at the overall story by the time the issue ends. It’s difficult to say at this point whether the extended introduction will be worth it, but the hooks are enough to make you want to come back to learn more. Dual themes of moral decay and racial prejudice create a complex narrative that hopefully future issues will be able to successfully execute on.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided a copy of this issue for the purpose of this review.