Gates of Gotham is the story of Gotham in the present, as built by the Gotham of a distant past. Writer Scott Snyder has a love for these "secret history of Gotham" type stories, as seen in the recent Court of Owls storyline, but this book mostly avoids earth-shaking revelations in favor of a more methodical story of Gotham's growth. Do these less grandiose goals mean that Snyder is able to focus more on solid storytelling and character building, or does this book's lack of significance and smaller scale storyline relegate it to a collector's item only of interest to those who have a desperate craving for depictions of old school Gotham?
There are two complimentary stories in this book, the first is the more conventional superhero story. Batman and friends race around town, desperately trying to save famous landmarks from getting blown up and interrogating various members of the criminal element such as Hush and the Penguin to try to find out who is at the bottom of this most recent attack on Gotham. The villain gets a few good punches in, and in fact manages to destroy the bridges into Gotham in a scene that could've easily been a partial inspiration for 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. Along the way, our heroes learn more about Gotham's early days, and make a connection between the conflicts of old and this most recent affair. This part of the story is a lot of fun because of the team dynamic, but the villain's plot isn't anything special and there is a shortage of really good action scenes to liven things up. Despite some tense moments involving bomb defusal, this would be a perfectly skippable book based solely on the heroes' story.
This book works a lot better if you have at least passing familiarity with some of the recent changes to the Batman universe. The main two things that readers will need to know going into this book are that Batman is no longer Bruce Wayne, but instead former Robin Dick Grayson, and that Bruce has a son, Damian, who is now Robin. Knowing how this cast of characters, which includes former Batgirl and current Batman Inc. member Cassandra Cain and former Robin Tim Drake, relate to one another is a major part of appreciating the team dynamic at the core of this book. Damian's interaction with Cassandra, for example, makes little sense unless you know that Damian is hostile towards just about everybody and that both of these characters were trained to be assassins as children. With the proper context, this is a very enjoyable cast of characters that do a good job of complementing one another.
Less enjoyable is our main villain, The Architect; some sort of demented deep sea diver with a notably steam punk vibe. His plans are stupid, his combat abilities are minimal, and there isn't much in the way of charisma. His appearance is relatively brief, thankfully, and I will be more than happy to watch him fade into obscurity. Even though his design is fairly cool and new and compelling villains are something the comic book world can always use more of, giving someone such a thin motivation and basically having them completely fall apart when the story calls for it is no way to go about accomplishing this.
Batman's story only takes up about 75% of this story though. The remaining part is dedicated to a look back through Gotham's history. This story deals with the Gates brothers, an ambitious duo with plans to modernize Gotham in the 1880s. Assisting them in their quest are the wealthiest executives of that time, all of whom are the ancestors of some of Gotham's greatest heroes and most vile rogues. This group, which includes a Wayne, Cobblepot, Elliott, and Kane, has some internal fighting but is mostly committed to expanding the city they call home. Along the way, we learn about some of the famous buildings that were built as a result of the Gates' ingenuity, and the tale is interwoven to the present story through a tragic turn of events. This is the real draw of the book, and it is great to see what Gotham looked like in the distant past, and also to see how it became what it is today. The allure of seeing Gotham in the Gilded Age more than makes up for the fact that this story is somewhat superfluous and doesn't have any lasting impact or depth.
The artwork is a bit more cartoony than has come to be expected from a Batman book, especially early on. Line work is somewhat sparse and there isn't the kind of detail we've come to expect with either character faces or Gotham as a whole. The action scenes are pretty nice though, and capture what each character does well. Better are the flashback sequences. These scenes, through creative paneling, a sepia-colored tint, and great character designs, make for a far more pleasant viewing experience. The architecture of Gotham stands out more as well, and the slow construction of Gotham's skyline is an organic and beautiful process that plays just as much of a role in telling the story as the actual dialogue and narration.
One pet peeve of mine shows up in this book, though admittedly it isn't a huge deal in this particular collection. Artist Trevor McCarthy gives way to Dustin Nguyen for the fourth part of the story, and while they utilize a similar enough style for this book, there is definitely a difference in the two. Both are very talented, but the jarring switch takes something away from the book. It's quite bizarre to have a fill-in artist for a miniseries. There isn't the grind of a monthly ongoing, and one would think that delays would be acceptable when considering the fact that the book could just be released whenever it was done.
The main plot is a bit on the generic side, though it is a good bit of fun because it utilizes quite a bit of the Bat-family and mixes up the team dynamic by using Dick Grayson as the leader instead of Bruce Wayne. Gates of Gotham's main appeal is a well told secondary story that gives us some insight into the early years of Gotham City, and occasionally great art that brings this industrious and sepia-colored time period to life.