Overview: In Gotham City: Year One #3, Slam Bradley puts out some shoe leather as he does some old-fashioned sleuthing, leading to the next dark depth of the Wayne kidnapping case.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): Gotham City: Year One #3 opens with a red, black, and white flashback to the day Slam Bradley, police detective, snapped. His superior interrogates a young black man, carelessly shooting the man through the hand with a pistol. Slam begins beating his boss mercilessly at this casual cruelty.
In the present, Slam turns over the unconscious Richard Wayne to his security team after the failed ransom meeting for baby Helen Wayne. Tormented by visions of the missing baby girl, Slam spends a restless night before being visited by Constance Wayne, beaten by Richard last night in his rage at the failure. She gives him $10,000 to avenge her daughter’s murder, knowing in her heart that baby Helen has been slaughtered and knowing only vengeance. Slam agrees (thinking to himself he would take that vengeance for free) and heads out for blood.
He spends the money like water, opening doors and loosening tongues to find the young black woman who delivered the murderer’s messages – Queenie Lydell, he learns. Visiting his “Ma,” a black fortune teller, he learns Queenie’s address and visits. Hearing a baby crying, he brutally beats the man at the door, Queenie’s uncle, only to discover the baby crying is the man’s daughter. However, he looks at the backyard, finds a fresh grave, and digs it up, revealing a tiny bundle wrapped in Helen Wayne’s owl blanket.
The final page flashes back to Slam beating his boss for the sadistic torture of the young black man as Slam narrates to Bruce his feelings about that day.
Analysis: Tom King and Phil Hester’s love letter to film noir and hardboiled detectives plays some phenomenal artistic tricks throughout Gotham City: Year One #3. The opening and closing, using red, black, and white to highlight Slam’s moral awakening as a police detective, is rendered in bleak power by Hester and the rest of the artistic team, inker Eric Gapstur and colorist Jordie Bellaire. The page-long sequence of Slam’s sleepless night, from the shower to the tossing and turning as baby Helena appears in his mind’s eye, provides a similarly virtuoso example of just what Hester and the artists, working with King’s minimalistic scripts leaving room for the art to really breathe and share the emotions with the reader, can do. All in all, this book will stand out and be remembered for sequences like this.
It likely won’t be remembered for the plot or characters, however. I’ve gone on record as loving what King does with characters, relationships, and emotions – and really appreciating his standard structure of scattering feelings and plots, and ideas throughout the first parts of his stories and then pulling them all together poetically in the final few issues. However, these first three issues of Gotham City: Year One have relied too heavily on film noir/hardboiled detective tropes for the characters to really pull the reader in if you’re not willing just to let the puzzle pieces move around the table. This kind of pieced-together pastiche of a former era has its own pleasure, of course, but King usually imbues a lot more emotion into the characters so that the final plot weaving together leaves the reader gasping in pain, joy, and surprise.
Unfortunately, the direction of this plot – Slam and Constance coming together, probably committing adultery in the next issue or two, the coming up against a corrupt city mayor/police department who have slaughtered the baby Helen Wayne to manipulate/control/handicap the dangerously powerful Wayne family – it’s all so leadenly predictable and joyless. Hardboiled detective stories are supposed to be bleak, but for the bleakness to hurt, the reader must care about the characters being put through the meat grinder. So far, even with pieces like Slam’s search for justice, his care for the black citizenry of Gotham, and his flirting with both Queenie and Constance – there just isn’t a character there to connect with so much as a collection of the most predictable tropes of a hardboiled detective. The soul of the character is missing. Or perhaps this Golden Age detective novel fan isn’t the right audience. Whatever the case, one hopes that King can still work his magic and pull out some twists that enliven the hoary tropes he’s pushing around the page with the expert help of his brilliant artists.
Series artist Phil Hester provides a jazzy main cover, with a bandaged Slam with a shovel looking down at Helen Wayne’s cartoon owl as his Ma looms over him with tarot cards falling – a purple, orange, and black-washed image of pure noir. Tom King’s Human Target collaborator Greg Smallwood paints the cardstock variant, with the bandaged Slam tipping his hat to the reader as the Wayne parents look on behind him in a much more classic floating figures composition, with Smallwood’s trademark gorgeous painterly style. Franco Francavilla turns in the final cover, a 1:25 incentive, with Slam (and again, his bandages) looking down at the Bat-symbol letters as the rain slants down on him, a mysterious city meeting appearing in his coat, the whole scene lit with neon yellow and blue in another pure noir cover.
Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with a copy of this comic for review purposes. You can find this comic and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this issue digitally on Comixology through Amazon or a physical copy of the title through Things From Another World.