Less Than Hero


A dark, vengeful enigma, Batman has terrorized the underworld of Gotham City for 65 years. In the new graphic novel Gotham Central, he’s more akin to a black hole—an unseen but implacable force perturbing the urban dystopia. Like the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, who bumble through an existence defined only by their brief interactions with Hamlet, Gotham’s cops see their leading man as more than a trifle nuts. World-weary from slogging after kidnappers, thieves, and murderers, Gotham’s finest are outgunned when an arch-criminal like Mr. Freeze wreaks spectacular mayhem. The cops grimly pursue these “wacko costumed freak[s],” resenting that only “The Bat,” with his secret fortune and preternatural invincibility, can finally vanquish them.

In a Voice interview, writer Greg Rucka speculates on the independence of fictional characters, asking, “Are the villains in Gotham City there because Batman’s there, or would they be there anyway?” Regardless, the costumed psychopaths all long for the day of Batman’s demise. They taunt him, and the working stiffs of the GCPD get caught in the crossfire: Mr. Freeze snaps the ear off a detective he’s just transformed into an ice sculpture, tosses the gruesome talisman to the cop’s wounded partner, then gives a preening lecture: “I just want to instruct our friend here in Gotham’s more advanced curriculum . . . the tragedy of surviving loss.”

Michael Lark’s noir drawings reinforce this gritty policier with spare but precise details: Irregular burgundy lines cross inky shadows, tracing the battered molding of a fleabag motel; plastic crime-scene tape stretches into yellow chevrons as detectives lift it to survey scenes of carnage. In Batman’s few, startling appearances, he is all midnight-blue angles and blank white eye-slits.

But at least he’s in character. Throughout It’s a Bird, Superman is repeatedly shoved aside as writer Steven T. Seagle ruminates on his own decidedly earthbound problems: crumbling personal and professional relationships, a debilitating hereditary disease, writer’s block—there’s not much battling of evildoers amid the spires of skyscrapers in this tale. Eschewing action for autobiography, Seagle gives us “Steve,” a writer whose hectoring agent offers him the Superman gig—”the top comic property in the world.” Typically snarky, Steve muses, “Not top-selling.” His real problem with Superman isn’t circulation numbers, but the absurdity of an invulnerable character careening triumphantly around an all too fragile world.

The story gains momentum through 20 vignettes, ranging from pathos—an ultra-geek shines for a single day in Superman drag, only to become suicidal when schoolmates rag him mercilessly for wearing it again the week after Halloween—to a funny, gnomish tailor marveling at the near divine proportions of the suit he’s cutting for Clark Kent. Seagle’s alter ego is a sack of angst who projects self-loathing when he complains that many contemporary comic characters “aren’t the least bit heroic. Just snide and mean-spirited.” But Steve doggedly pursues his craft, and ultimately discovers the optimism that has always been the Man of Steel’s true armor.

On the phone from L.A., Seagle is cheerier than his 2-D persona, and helps account for the multiple textures of his plot when he relates that he reads “more poetry than anything else.” He confesses to “a bent for Dadaist stuff and Gertrude Stein—anything indecipherable, I love.” Teddy Kristiansen’s kaleidoscopic watercolor styles—emulating everything from Attic vases to lo-res photojournalism—deftly track the characters’ flights of fantasy and depressions. Icons bear our hopes and ideals, and through this personal story Seagle broadens Superman’s shoulders just a little bit more.