I was a little cynical about Batman: Gotham Knights – Gilded City.
Gotham Knights has gotten decidedly mixed reviews (anyone else think the truth is likely somewhere in the middle?), and the idea of tie-in titles has never really sat well with me. (Stories should be for the sake of stories, and these books are often an easy cash grab. Also, just look at the wholly uneven Batman/Fortnite: Zero Point.)
But then I spoke with writer Evan Narcisse, and my cynicism felt a little misplaced.
Because in our chat, Narcisse grappled with my apprehensions by recognizing the tendency of tie-in books like this one, ultimately arguing (at least in part) that the issue is how they’re created. As such, he further countered by detailing both a genuine love and commitment to the Bat Family that informed a story not just to sell a video game but to uplift these beloved fictional characters and perhaps wring new truths.
So, has Narcisse, alongside artist Abel, truly succeeded, or is this more fuel for the raging fire of my eternal pessimism?
I should start with the parts that shout “no,” because they’re likely the most quiet. The whole premise — Batman deals with what is basically an emotion-manipulating virus — does feel a little hokey and not unlike a mediocre premise for an OK video game itself. And the first issue is slow enough that some of that narrative feels a little underwhelming, even as things happen with infected Gotham residents and some other mostly vital story-building aspects. So, in that sense, the story hasn’t entirely shaken off its initial connections to the game (or, maybe more specifically, my apprehension surrounding that connection), and that does inform how the “first chapter” performs in regards to its pacing and eventual payoff.
But Narcisse and company have excelled elsewhere, at least in some early ways, to start making this book transcend its initial intentions. The biggest one of that is the emotional development of the characters. Without spoiling too much, the fact that this is Batman’s “final mission” sets off a powder-keg of sorts among the Bat Family, and by the end of the first issue a big interpersonal drama is set up. Do I think that has the potential to be totally devastating and a proper bit of worldbuilding to actually lead into the game in a meaningful way? Sure. However, am I also a little hesitant give the the limitations of the first issue in terms of its focus and aforementioned pacing? Absolutely.
I think if the creative team can really nail some of the core “structural” issues, and really place the emphasis less on “set pieces” for the game and more on those rich character interactions, it’s going to really excel.
The other big “device” here is that Narcisse and company have created a brand-new vigilante in Runaway, who operates in Gotham circa 1847. His story, then, is interspersed through the issue via flashbacks, and we get an early idea of his work in a very different but ultimately similar enough Gotham City. In our chat, Narcisse talked about the value of Runaway as a means of exploring Gotham as its own “character,” and its larger value as a kind of socio-economic mechanism that chews up people and spits out monsters and grief.
Again, it’s harder to tell what will happen with the Runaway sections across the next five issues, but this decision alone is what makes the book feel really special. As I told Narcisse, the best books make Gotham stand out, and the Runaway bits give us deep insight into the history of the city and how and why people flock to it so intensely. It’s here that the book really transcends its video game origins and begins to feel like something speaking huge truths about this world and its inhabitants. If the game can mirror any of that — and Narcisse was a story consultant, FYI — then it’ll make for a more significant and meaningful narrative experience.
If there’s one element of this book that didn’t need to hook me or explain itself, it’s the art. Artist Abel — joined by colorist John and letter Steve Wands — made some important decisions for this book so early on. It feels very much like a comic — it reminded me so much of the Scott Snyder-Greg Capullo Batman run in terms of design choices and the overall aesthetic — and yet it clearly still gives some important nods to the Gotham Knights game in the way some characters looked, but also the overall “feel” of this Gotham. More than that, though, it gave its two “dueling” timelines just enough distinction to unite them around shared ideas/motifs while allowing the Runaway sections to also feel more distinct (and a little more “filthy” and chaotic perhaps).
It’s also this same level of design savviness that makes the Bat Family feel important. They’re clearly meant to be tied to their video game versions, but it’s done so in a way to feel hugely familiar to more comic-oriented fans. Batman, especially, looks great here, and through his design you also understand his place in the trajectory of his career and the levels he’s reached. Same goes for our surprise “guest” at the end (he’s a familiar face…), and we really see him elevated through his costume/design. I really came here for the story and worldbuilding, but it’s the visuals that supported these big ideas with subtlety and grace.
If I were to track it somehow, I’m still at about a 3.5 (out of 10) on the cynicism scale. I think this first issue of Batman: Gotham Knights – Gilded City was slow, but it made bold decisions to easily set itself for a great story that has more to do with what matters: telling a proper Bat Family story (a la Denny O’Neil, Mike Barr, etc. in the ’70s and ’80s) If it can focus even more on that essence of the Bat Family, and still give proper time and space for the entertaining Runaway parts, we may shuck cynicism entirely for something resembling pure optimism.
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