Way back in my review for issue #1, I said that the main themes of Gotham City: Year One looked to be racial prejudice and moral decay. The series has thrown one major twist after another at its readers, but ultimately that’s what everything comes down to. The veneer of respectability surrounding Gotham City has collapsed, and blood is in the streets when a black woman is blamed for killing the Wayne’s baby daughter. All of the cards have been laid on the table, and Richard Wayne’s conspiracy to steal his own wife’s money has left a wake of destruction across the entire city. All that’s left now is the final confrontation between Slam, Richard, and Constance Wayne.
The last issue ended with Slam charging into Wayne Manor after learning that Constance was the one who took the baby from Richard’s hideout and buried her in the backyard. Here, Slam’s fight into the manor is intercut with shots of the riots in Gotham as we get backstory as to what exactly made him become a detective in the first place. The opening’s brutality is visceral, as Slam’s narration about how he mostly just took whatever path in life was simplest is contrasted with bloodshed and violence. Jordie Bellaire’s colors really shine here, as stark, pale depictions of Slam highlight the reds of the fire and blood.
The way the present action is actively described in the past tense creates a simmering tension. Each step bringing us closer to whatever waits at the top of the stairs. The only complaint I have with the writing style is that, in such an otherwise mature story, seeing swear words continue to be censored comes off as distracting and silly.
As the black people of Gotham are violently attacked during the riots, Slam talks about what it was like for him growing up. His was a unique childhood because his mother is black, but his skin was pale enough that he always passed for white. He was able to adopt white privilege, and justified it by how much easier it made going through life: “there are certain spaces I’m not allowed into unless I mark the wrong box”. It’s an understandable reaction to an unjust society.
The reality of the system which Slam chose to be a part of becomes unavoidable when he finds his brother’s criminal records at the station. The same station where his brother was walked in one day and never came out. It turns out his charge was “NWC”, which the chief tells him stands for “negro went crazy”, code for whenever the cops feel the need to put black people in their place. This is all wonderfully mixed in with Slam fighting his way into the heart of the city and pillar of what Gotham supposedly stood for. Talking about how they killed his brother for being a black man who stepped out of line while he shows he’s no longer accepting the façade they’ve built is an act of triumph. It’s an implicit embracing of his black heritage when he talks about the “negro went crazy” label as he punches out the Wayne Manor security.
Once at the top of the stairs with Richard and Constance, we reach the climax of the entire story. Any story which can put this much drama and excitement into what is ultimately just a conversation between all the principle players should be celebrated. Richard is reduced to the pathetic man he always was, as it becomes clear that both Slam and Constance know what’s been happening. Despite being seated almost the entire time, Constance completely dominates the scene. She’s been an incredible character throughout the series. Here at its final moments, she manages to calmly control the conversation even while Slam and Richard struggle over a gun. Despite her calm demeanor, there is a righteous fury that exudes from her has she talks about the ways Richard treated her.
That righteous fury crescendos into Constance taking the gun and shooting Richard in the head. It’s extremely satisfying to see him gone after painfully experiencing all the problems he’s caused. It’s a cathartic release for both the characters and the readers. Constance is shown to have taken full control of the situation, and simply continues talking how he lies dead on the floor. Phil Hester does some extremely impressive work with negative space here. After all the excitement, there is simply emptiness between Slam and Constance, and the area between them becomes an impenetrable void occupied only by the silhouette of Richard’s body.
With Richard gone Constance immediately takes control of the situation. She sees herself as one of the Waynes, and the inheritor of their legacy. As such, she takes careful steps to maintain that legacy and her place in the city. Blaming the poor, black citizens of Gotham for her daughter’s death was always her plan so that she could come in as a savior calling for peace. In her own words, the “hero Gotham needs”. It’s cold, calculating, and a bittersweet ending in a city that could never offer anything more. To paraphrase Chinatown, “forget it, Slam. It’s Gotham.”
Where the story falters is when it ties everything into being a story about Gotham. It’s almost easy to forget, but the title is meant to be an origin for the city. What’s revealed is that Tom King went a step further and created a metaphorical, if not literal predecessor to Batman in Richard Wayne. In doing so, he created a perversion of the mantle. Richard used the name “Bat-Man” as an alias as he slept around with every woman he could in town. The Batcave was his hideout where he would collect trophies of his sexual conquests in a disgusting twist on Batman’s collection of mementos. He even used the passageway behind the clock as a way to sneak out at night.
The Wayne legacy, or at least what left of it there is, becomes a point of disdain and embarrassment. No longer was the slaying of Thomas and Martha that one fateful night in Crime Alley the crisis point which created the Gotham we all know. Instead, Gotham’s rot began at least a generation prior, arguably because of the Waynes. Richard’s chemical plant which he fought so hard for later falls into a state of decay and becomes the Ace Chemical where Joker would be born. It’s Richard’s infidelity and subsequent conspiracy which causes the veneer of Gotham’s presentability to fall apart.
It’s even heavily implied that Bruce Wayne isn’t a Wayne, and that he’s the grandson of Slam Bradley instead. Bruce’s father Thomas is born nine months after Constance and Slam slept together and Constance shot her husband. Constance reaches out to Slam to try and get him to help raise the boy so that he doesn’t do something stupid like “march down some alley at night”.
The problem is that by using the established continuity like this as a way to deliver a shocking twist for the characters, you disregard what made that continuity work. Setting a story within an existing world goes both ways; you cannot take what’s already there in order to make your story have a greater emotional impact without considering what your story would mean for the larger world. That goes doubly true when writing an “origin” story like this one.
Gotham City: Year One tears down the legacies of the characters that readers care about because it makes for a shocking revelation and adds pathos to its own story. However, when you apply those deconstructions the other way, it diminishes the work being used as context. You might argue “well none of that matters because it’s an elseworlds” (and I’m not really even certain whether that’s supposed to be true for this story) but the broader context of the existing world is still relevant. You’re offering a new interpretation of the characters, but the baggage of what those characters represent is still there. At best it’s trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, and at worst it’s a complete disregard for the sandbox you’re playing in.
- You’ve been waiting for the final confrontation between all the players
- Constance remains one of the best characters I’ve seen in comics
- You don’t mind that the story plays fast and loose with established characters and continuity
Taken on its own simply as a detective story, Gotham City: Year One #6 is an incredible ending. It manages to tie up all the loose ends, meaningfully place a thematic poignancy on the characters’ actions, and remain tense and exciting through to the end. If this were a standalone comic I would have almost no complaints. However, it’s not a standalone comic. It’s also (indirectly) a Batman story, and the way it relates its Gotham with the one we know doesn’t work. Overall, Gotham City: Year One is a mostly great story that is held back by its messy connections to the titular city.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purposes of this review.