I've long since maintained that perhaps the most respectable thing about DC Comics as a publishing company is their willingness to do something different. From this philosophy, we've gained things like Wednesday Comics, 52, and Solo. And though its publishing format was the standard monthly, Gotham Central was a unique series that perhaps ended before its time. This newest volume of the series collected in hardcover is long overdue, and I'm happy to see that DC has finally continued the collected editions with Gotham Central Vol. 2: Jokers and Madmen, releasing September 9.
Jokers and Madmen collects Gotham Central #11-22, providing 12 hard-boiled issues of Gotham City madness, starring not the Bat-family, but instead the fully realized and multi-faceted members of the Gotham City Police Department's Major Crimes Unit. As Duane Swierczynski mentions in his forward, Gotham Central is "one of those why-didn't-I-think-of-that-first setups that make you want to find (Ed) Brubaker and (Greg) Rucka and kick their asses." It's truly a very simple, nearly obvious concept that leaves you feeling surprised that this angle hasn't been explored before.
Within the 12 issue span, we get a nice mix of stand-alone issues and shorter story arcs, the primary jem of which is the titular "Soft Targets". Seemingly inspired by the grisly sniper shootings of Washington, D.C. in the early 2000's, the story arc features a yuletide Gotham City under siege by The Joker, who has suddenly taken to murdering public officials. Brubaker and Rucka lace the story arc, as well as every other story in the collection, with surprising moments, pulpy noir goodness, and realistic police procedural set in the freakish world of Gotham City.
More importantly, the main draw of each issue is the depth of relationships between the considerably large cast of characters. Admittedly, the amount of characters is quite jarring at first, especially with the use of nicknames and the like; so much so that I found myself referring back to the MCU character guide in the beginning of the book just to make sure I was reading things correctly. It's honestly not a big hindrance, but I think it says something that even the most hardcore comic book fan could be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of character in these issues. Art duties are shared/split between Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Greg Scott and Brian Hurtt, all of whom do their best to provide visual assistance, but unfortunately many characters that have similar characteristics (middle aged white males) sort of become a blur, which is where the character chart came in handy.
One of my favorite aspects of this volume specifically is its focus on the other characters of the GCPD MCU that are lesser known in the DCU proper. Characters like Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya are still present, but are put on the back burner in terms of character development in favor of characters like Marcus Driver and Romy Chandler. And though each story arc deals heavily in the concept of regular cops dealing with the colorful Gotham criminal elite (Joker, Mad-Hatter, and Penguin all make appearances), the theme that really appeals to me - and makes "Soft Targets" so enjoyable - is its exploration of Batman and the effect he has on the attitudes and careers of the GCPD. As much as we love Batman, it's still rough to watch these characters have to accept his help, often relying on the Dark Knight to get them out of jams, whether they like it or not.
In fact, the conclusion of "Soft Targets" raises some lingering questions regarding the morality and agenda of Batman, at least in the perspective of the GCPD; these questions would remain in the thematic background for the remainder of the series. The exploration of the Batman/GCPD dichotomy is beyond interesting, and it's a shame this series isn't still going. Jokers and Madmen even covers the specifics of the operation of the Bat-signal, in the opening stand-alone issue "Daydreams and Believers", which follows the GCPD's temp-secretary, Stacy, and the only person authorized to operate the signal, as she is not officially a city employee.
Michael Lark and company provide just the right amount of seedy underbelly that one would expect in Gotham City, yet still manages to make the place look inhabitable. There are scenes in the last story arc of the collection, "Unresolved" - featuring the return of shamed cop Harvey Bullock as a cold case he was working on is suddenly thrust back into the spotlight - that show characters going to a coffee house, and the art team pulls off that Manhattan-like aura that makes Gotham City seem nearly plausible in the fantastical world of DC Comics, perfectly playing into the whole concept of this series: mixing real-life police procedural with complete insanity.
If you haven't experienced Gotham Central yet, there is no reason to wait any longer. While I would absolutely recommend starting from the beginning, the placement of the the "Daydreams and Believers" issue featured in Jokers and Madmen is well-placed and serves as a quick introduction to the series and its players for the uninitiated.
However, for those who have the original issues or the previously released trade paperbacks, there really is no reason for you to splurge for the hardcover edition, as aside from Swierczynski's introduction, there is no other new content to be found. The presentation is nice enough with the original covers presented at issue breaks, as well as title pages with credits for each separate story arc, but there is zilch in the way of any bonus content.
If you are looking for something totally different from pretty much every other book DC is currently publishing, you can stop your search here. Hell, even if you are a CSI or Law & Order junkie, there is something here for you.