It’s a bold move on DC Comics’ part to launch a prequel to the Batman mythos that takes place before Bruce Wayne was even born. Still, we’re getting just that with Gotham City: Year One. Launching today, Tom King and Phil Hester aim to deliver a noir story revealing the “secrets that made Gotham become Gotham.” We know Gotham is a crime-infested place, and these creators aim to reveal how it became that way and more.
I think I can speak for most when I say I started reading this book with some trepidation. Questions like, “how do you make a Gotham book without Batman?” and “will they screw up what we know about Gotham by peering into its past?” I’m also quite curious about the project, as King is known for playing with form as he did with David Marquez in Batman: Killing Time. Going in, we know this isn’t just a straight prequel but a play with the comics format and how we read the book.
Gotham City Year One #1 is a really good noir detective thriller. It’s also very good at capturing the time, as it’s 1961. As a period piece, you get the feel of an older time on the first page, with an opening full-page splash of an old newspaper called The Blade. We soon meet Slam Bradley, who is given a mysterious note with the words “Master Wayne” printed on them. Through captions giving us Bradley’s thoughts on the matter and the world, we learn he’s a stand-up guy, a very good detective, and a man who solves cases more than not.
Bradley’s captions do a fantastic job of putting us into his headspace and gathering the time and place Gotham was in. As he proceeds to bring the letter to Wayne’s estate, we get details about Gotham being like a small neighborhood where people took care of each other. Before you can think he’s looking at Gotham through rose-colored glasses, he assures us there were the usual problems, but in general, people cared for each other.
This is juxtaposed well with the second half of the comic, as Bradley is not only in over his head, but we get a little more detail on the “wrong side” of the tracks of Gotham. The long and the short is that Gotham was going through its issues with civil rights and the treatment of African Americans. It’s also an exciting way of showing how Gotham was undoubtedly safer, but not for everyone and not everywhere. It may have been great, but due to racism and exploitation of power, things are moving in the wrong direction.
That is very evident when it comes to Bradley himself. King and Hester have crafted an idealistic detective who pines for the good old days. He isn’t racist but observes it with reluctance on what to do. Much like Gotham, we learn that letter is moving Bradley’s life in the wrong direction setting in motion an adventure that might get him killed by the Waynes, or maybe even something worse.
Hester draws each character with great attention to detail with good distinction between them. The goons working for the Wayne family look the part, with one being a bit soft but huge and the other carved out of a wooden block. The Waynes themselves are compelling, too, with Richard Wayne (presumably Batman’s grandfather) looking like a man who has spent plenty of time at the country club while his wife is a riff on Jackie Kennedy. His work is lifted up by the use of shadow with harsh blacks cutting into faces and backgrounds. The noir aspect is alive, be it extreme close-ups of letters and ransom notes or Bradley walking in the rain cast in shadow.
Joining Hester is inker Eric Gapstur with colors by Jordie Bellaire. The inks are genuinely doing some incredible things in this issue, with great touches like the shadow of a pencil over a gun in a drawer or the harsh shadows of the trees over a strange man answering a door. Bellaire lifts everything quite well too. Slam Bradley is getting out of his car in one panel, and Bellaire captures the sepia-looking building well with the old school car popping in the middle ground. It’s no accident Mrs. Wayne is one of the brightest things in this comic, with a splash of purple for her blouse. Red-drenched offices and more striking use of color are used later in the issue when things get far more dangerous for Slam.
If you’re hoping for a Batman connection, give this a read. There are not one but two connections that should satiate fans who need at least a little Batman. This is very much Slam Bradley’s story, so expect a more hardboiled detective mystery than anything else.
Each character is firmly realized in Gotham City: Year One amongst a backdrop relatable to the American experience of the 1960s. Gotham City: Year One is dripping with noir nihilism and atmosphere in a can’t-miss look at a city falling into shambles that’ll one day need a Batman.
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