Wednesday, March 01, 2006

'half a life'

I have found a hero in Gotham City, but it's not Batman. It's Renee Montoya.

Montoya has been a detective in the Gotham City Police Department since 1992. The daughter of Dominican immigrants, she works in the department's major crimes unit, where she helps to investigate crimes by Gotham's costumed criminals like the Joker and Mr. Freeze. And she's the central character to "Half a Life," a collection I just read twice after borrowing it from the local library.

I love my library.

"Gotham Central" is part of that relatively new genre of comic books set in the world of superheroes, but with superheroes and their colorful sparring partners used as backdrops rather than as the star attraction. The main story is the human drama of the people who inhabit the same world as the capes.

The art is incredible. For the bulk of "Half a Life," which incorporates relevant single issues from other Batman titles, the art makes good use of light and shadow, smooth lines, rugged lines, and color. It's got a gritty feel to it, which is appropriate, since it's about Gotham City, the seedy underside of DC's urban world.

But good as the art is, it's the story itself is what makes the collection a must-have. It starts out with an issue printed just after "Cataclysm," the Batman-event earthquake that rocked Gotham City in 1999. Montoya is out working with emergency crews trying to locate and rescue quake survivors trapped beneath rubble, and finds herself working with Two-Face.

Two-Face is former District Attorney Harvey Dent, horribly scarred on half his face and given to a pathology that leads him to cede major decisions to the flip of a coin, one side of which is defaced. If the coin comes up heads, he's your friend; if the defaced side comes up, he probably will kill you. Whatever he does do, it won't be pleasant.

Every time someone asks for help, Two-Face flips the coin. To Batman, the risk of the coin landing wrong would be too high, and he would take Two-Face down rather than face that risk. But Montaya is not Batman. She is a cop who finds needs Two-Face to help with the rescue effort. She has one bullet in her gun, and she is prepared to use it, but every time Two-Face flips the coin, it comes up heads and he helps. It's impossible but it keeps happening.

Montoya realizes that she understands the coin, and when Batman appears and tries to stop Two Face, she uses that understanding to keep Two-Face focused on the rescue effort and to keep Batman from interfering. That understanding reaches Two-Face in a way I don't think I've ever seen him reached before, and he wants to reach back.

Unfortunately, the only way he knows how to do that is through his coin, and the law of averages dictates that it has to come up tails the same number of times it comes up heads.

As "Half a Life" progresses, the story becomes about Montoya's own personal duality, an identity that she keeps secret, and the way that Two Face's reliance on the coin forces the two halves of her life out in the open and utterly destroys them both. It's a brutal process, and you can see the toll it exacts on Montoya's family, her friends, and her partners at the department, but especially on her. It hurt to read this comic, it was that well written.

I'm not going to reveal the nature of Montoya's secret, except to say that it's handled well. The only complaints I have are that the secret is a little stereotypical, given her career; and that I think Batman, while he makes a great part of the background, makes a lousy deux ex machina. But the story is handled extremely well and honestly.

It's no wonder this received the 2004 Eisner Award for Best Story. It is fantastic.

My library has saved us a small fortune in books and videos over the past year, and trips like this one have let me read about $60 worth of graphic novels and determine that I'd really like to own only $15 worth of them. The comic shop isn't nearly that understanding.

The other comics I borrowed from the library this trip include a collection from Mark Waid's run on "Fantastic Four" where they visit God, best skipped; and his series "JLA: Year One." That one at least is a decent, fast-paced comic with some real character development of the classic Silver Age characters and team, but it's worth reading only once, and will go back to the library today.

"Half a Life" stays until its due date, and then it goes on my list of must-haves.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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