Batman: Gates of Gotham
Gates of Gotham is a very strange book in the Batman canon: in that it is at once both old and new, stand-alone and serialized, expected and inventive. Gates should serve as an entry point for the over-arching narrative that will unfold in the Bat Universe books during their New 52 runs, but instead it stands a most foreboding structure, one only the established fans of the many existing stories could afford to toll. Batman as pop-culture knows him – ie. Bruce Wayne – appears only once as a face on a screen while the story centers on the scores of sidekicks that surrounds him: the many Robins and Robinette’s that exist now within Gotham’s corners, and yes, even the cowl itself. This complication of characters is itself proof that the heroes who inhabit this crime-infested city must now have had hundreds of issues devoted to developing their histories, while the streets themselves have not had one and this is where Snyder’s book steps in.
Gates balances build both a new history of Gotham’s past and a skeleton for the stories of its future with its own self-contained tale; any one of which alone would be a feat for a book this small, but all three is perhaps too tough an ask for any author. This book, like The Black Mirror before it – Snyder’s recent Detective Comics run – puts the focus more on Batman’s sleuthing skills than on his ability for action, though there is plenty of that too. The story is constructed around a modern day mystery with massive consequences – a series of bombings that target specific Gotham landmarks – but the book weaves through time to tell it; from the most modern point of core continuity back to the time of Gotham’s own construction. Which is well before the first Bat was born and yet there is the one new villain connecting both these chapters. Who is he? How can he still be around? And most importantly, for serious readers, why is he trying to take down the ‘families’ of Gotham?
All of this information is drip fed to us via extracts from the diary of one of the cities original architects; we are given these pages in chronological order and so we see the ground rise up around him into the skyline that we love, before it is then ripped right out from under him in a tragic manner. Following Gotham from the foundations up is a fascinating enough exercise on its own, but the way that Snyder manages to weave these potentially plodding pieces of education into the middle of that mystery makes them not just palatable but utterly exciting, especially since the book invites you to play along and try to figure things out on your own. For instance the men that our architect finds himself involved with, they aren’t initially named but based on little clues you can figure out their important identities before you are eventually told.
This in particular is such an important reveal to realise because the book is not a technical manual or companion filled with dry diagrams and obscure, useless factoids, but a fully fleshed story; one in which this dryer material is offset by a more emotional through line of family. “The families will fall by the Gates of Gotham,” that is both the comics tagline and the calling card left at each crime scene; though it is the latter alliteration that was turned into the title the former is just as potent within the pages. Which families? And again that question, why? Though the answers to these questions are not so cut and dry as those aforementioned. What is clear though is that family plays an important part in the book thematically as well as narratively. The most intriguing part of this premise for me was the way in which it juxtaposed with that problem of corralling all the characters, it is never made explicit but I feel that the book is best when read as a commentary on relationships within the Bat-family.
“There were no innocents left, only sons waiting to become their fathers.” The Architect rails against the monarchistic rule of Gotham by the collaborating powers and yet it is ironically the perpetuity of his psychosis that kicks the central story into action. Things in the Batcave however are a lot more cordial: There is a nice interplay introduced between Damien’s Robin and Dark Bat; they are akin to brother and sister, constantly feuding but bonding in the process, Red Robin is an older brother looking our for his sibling while Bruce Wayne proves himself a handsome father figure to the lot of lost boys. Most importantly though going mostly unheralded, is the fact that Dick Grayson has inherited the mantle of Batman above Damien, a change in position that proves the Bat-family and therefore Batman Inc. to be a meritocracy rather than a monarchy. So in a way Batman manages to both break the bomber and the cycle that created him; perhaps then there is hope yet for the city. When read in this regard the book does justify its inclusion of so many characters, known and unknown, but that doesn’t to my mind completely excuse the confusion it will surely cause.
“You will bear witness to the end of an era and the beginning of the next!” The most important passing of the torch however occur outside the books themselves and that is between Morrison and Snyder. Snyder surely sees himself in Dick Grayson, perhaps wondering himself whether he was good enough to be Batman and Gates is really the story of him coming to grips with the reality that for better or worse he is now in charge of the all-important character. With this book Snyder rises from acolyte to architect, truly establishing control over the universe by re-establishing just what that universe is. Morrison took us on a masterful ride through the meaning of the mask, just how central that cowl is to the city and the character wearing it, while Snyder will clearly centre his run on the city itself.
Gates of Gotham is then a foundation to a much larger structure still to come, so though the book may fittingly feel overburdened by its past now we should really wait and judge it by its future; and if this book is anything to go by that future will surely be a bright one.