Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Gotham By Midnight: We Do Not Sleep (comics)

Writer: Ray Fawkes
Artist: Ben Templesmith
Collects: Gotham By Midnight #1-5

Gotham's a freaky place at best, built like a shrine to art deco, clad in stone gargoyles and replete with any number of psychotic criminals on any given night. Would anyone really be surprised to find that things go bump in the night around that city? I mean, hell, Slaughter Swamp is a stones throw away. Solomon Grundy pulled his dead ass out of that muck. Gotham and the supernatural have a long standing relationship. But Batman doesn't deal with that kind of thing, unless he can't help it. It's not his wheelhouse.

Good thing Gotham has a task force just for that, then. Well, good for the citizens. Not so much for the poor saps assigned there, even as weird as they are. Meet the Midnight Shift;  Detective Jim Corrigan - you might know him as the host of the Spectre - Doctor Tarr, Sister Justine, Detective Lisa Drake and Lieutenant Weaver. They're the ones protecting Gotham from the spooky, the biblical, the downright demonic. We're gonna be riding with them for a bit.

So, I've been slowly making my way through Rebirth and a quick glance at the past couple months of reviews will show I've loved it thus far. But if I have any qualms about it at all, it's that it plays things a little too safe. Every single title they put out was guaranteed to appeal to some kind of audience and likely hold down an okay readership. The downside is that there isn't a single risk in the bunch. It's pretty firm in its use of classic superheroes and longstanding properties, to the point that continuing Gotham Academy for another series is the closest it flirts with something different. That's great for the health of the line, I'm sure, and judging by the legs it has and that it went over a year without a cancellation, it's worked, but it's the safest the entire line has felt in a decade.

The New 52 is maligned for its visual masturbation to the nineties and uneven quality - and let's be honest, there were as many crap books as there were good, including a largely dismal five years of Superman comics and a controversial five years of Wonder Woman - but one thing it did well is cater to things outside of straight superheroics. I'm not convinced anything like I, Vampire or Xombi would get past the pitch stage right now, they still haven't done anything with Swamp Thing or Animal Man since their acclaimed New 52 runs and I kind of doubt Gotham Academy would have enjoyed a second series if it hadn't already established itself in the previous era.

I can't imagine we'll see anything like Gotham By Midnight again for a while yet, either.

Essentially a horror comic, Gotham By Midnight does well differentiating itself even among all of the other Gotham centric books. Most of them would choose the parts of Gotham that are more immediately familiar to readers. This book centers itself around spooky happenings surrounding Slaughter Swamp. How many people here even remember that's a part of Gotham City? It has its roots deep in the macabre, with nasty, demonic creatures terrorizing families and taxing the squad. The root cause of the disturbance ends up being the psychic remnants of genocide, of the people of settlements that were wiped out to make way for the founding of Gotham. That's crazy dark, in a good way.

But beyond the spooky imagery and ugly revelations lies heart. Jim Corrigan is the only cast member you're going to recognize, but that doesn't mean you won't get to like the rest of them by the end. Each has their quirks and backstory. Each is pretty likable in their own way. I'm not a religious sort of person and I don't much trust the people involved with organized religion, as I find many of them can't even seem to hold to the virtues they preach, but Sister Justine ends up a pristine reminder of the best of them. Late in the book, as Gotham faces judgement and the rest of the cast, scattered across Gotham and struggling to converge, freak out, she casts her gaze to heaven and prays, defending the people of Gotham through her words and asking for mercy, to take her instead. Whether her prayers are answered, I'll leave to you to find out, but it did make me a little misty eyed.

That said, the spooky imagery is still pretty important. I'm pretty familiar with Ben Templesmiths work, as I imagine a good number of people are. Most were probably introduced to it in 30 Days of Night. My first exposure came in the Dead Space comics he did art for. At the time, I have to admit I hated it. I don't know if that's because it's so far outside the norm I just instinctively recoiled or what, but it kind of repulsed me. Over time, I grew to appreciate it and realized that's kind of the point, given how well the style fits with horror. Everything he draws is vaguely ugly and wild, but the oddities grow on you after a while until you just get used to how he draws people.

Where it really works are the monsters. They look nasty without resorting to things like copious amounts of blood or spilled guts. That's the part that made me appreciate his work. A lot of artists would rely on that, while Templesmith can do wonders with simple use of a hue of red washed over everything, heavy inks or simple deformation of a monster. That takes skill.

Unfortunately, there are only two volumes of the book. Despite a lead-in by Batman Eternal and a really strong start, Gotham By Midnight only lasted a year. I guess I should be thankful for the fact that DC likes to give more rope to series, rather than just canceling them at five issues and making something a miniseries when pre-orders aren't amazing, but having now read and enjoyed it, it's still upsetting this book didn't last longer.

I don't know, maybe DC has the right idea after all with Rebirth. Apparently really good books like this that stray from immediate convention just don't sell. See also, the failure of the DC You initiative, which had a dumb name but carried some gems. I can't help being a little bitter about that.

Still, I recommend rolling with the Midnight Shift for a bit. It's a fun ride.

My Opinion: Read It

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