Here at DC Histories, we try to make sense of the continuity that perplexes, befuddles, and intimidates. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. This week, we’re talking about the incorruptible Commissioner James Gordon.
James Gordon is the oldest member of Batman’s supporting cast. Dick Grayson, Alfred Pennyworth, and even the Joker came to comics only after Gordon was already established. In fact, his first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, the very first time that Batman himself ever appeared. A friend of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, Gordon was a fine head of the police force, even if he did have a penchant for allowing random civilians to tag along at crime scenes.
For much of the first several decades of Batman stories, the Gotham City Police Department was a fine, upstanding organization. There was no corruption and every officer tried his (never her) best to bring criminals to justice. As the 1940s wore into the 1950s, Batman, his friends, and his villains became less intense. Gordon’s waistline expanded as the years went on, giving him a bit of a paunch. Slight, silly stories aimed at kids were in vogue and Batman’s adventures followed suit.
For example, a 1955 story revolved around a contest set up by Batman allowing anyone who donated the most money to charity to become Batman for a day. Gordon won that contest. Luckily, his modified Batman costume allowed him to keep his glasses on.
In the following years, Gordon grew even more useless. During the late 1960s, when the Batman television show was on there air, Gordon’s role seemed to mostly be to contact Batman at the first hint of danger and occasionally be a hostage. Luckily, the 1970s brought a bit more dignity back to the character, when comic book creators like Denny O’Neil, Neil Adams, and Jim Aparo got their hands on him. Gordon was once again a strong cop, tied to police work by a desire to help clean up Gotham City even if he had to be bound by red tape to do it. However, very little was shown about Gordon’s home life. In 1967, Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, was introduced when she took on the role of Batgirl, but Barbara’s mother was never seen or even spoken about.
Gordon wouldn’t get a real back story until the 1980s and ’90s. It was during these decades that a narrative for Gordon’s life emerged. It would be a bit sadder and darker than anything that came before.
James Gordon began his career as a police officer in Chicago. Already several years into a difficult marriage with his wife Barbara, Jim was still a fairly young cop. His time in Chicago was soured when he saw corruption in the ranks of his fellow officers. His attempts to ferret out that corruption brought him long hours on the job, which caused even more strain to his marriage. His investigations also didn’t help his relationships with the rest of the force. Eventually, he was able to prove certain illegal acts perpetrated by those around him, but how he went about it broke his trust of nearly everyone. Knowing that he had irrevocably soured his ability to work in the Chicago police force, Jim allowed himself to be transferred to Gotham City where he’d have a fresh start.
It turned out that Gotham City was an even dirtier a town than Chicago. During the events of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, Jim’s marriage stretched even thinner when the added stress of Barbara becoming pregnant added to the couple’s problems. Between dealing with the latest corruption Jim was noticing in the GCPD and his marriage troubles, the only bright spot in his life was spending time with his partner Sarah Essen. Unfortunately, the pair became too enamored of each other and an affair began.
Knowing that his relationship with Sarah would be used against him as blackmail, Jim told Barbara the truth. It helped further the rift between the two of them. Even the birth of their son, James Jr., couldn’t fix their relationship. Knowing that she and Jim couldn’t be together but seeing each other all of the time brought great strain to their lives, Sarah transferred to New York City.
During this time of marital strife, a fourth member of the Gordon family entered the picture. Barbara Gordon, the only daughter of Jim’s brother and sister-in-law, entered the family. Roger, an alcoholic, had made some poor life choices.
During a bout of drinking, he crashed the car containing both him and his wife, killing them instantly. Barbara came to live with her Uncle Jim and Aunt Barbara shortly after Batman debuted in Gotham City. In order to help differentiate the two women, Jim took to calling his new daughter ‘Babs.’ The name stuck.
Unfortunately, adding another person to their family didn’t help matters between Jim and his wife. A divorce happened soon afterwards and Barbara took James Jr. with her when she returned to her family in Chicago. Jim was left alone with Babs, who he would come to call his daughter.
It would eventually be revealed that Babs may not have been Jim’s niece but actually his daughter. In a letter that Babs had intercepted from her mother, it seemed that Jim and his sister-in-law had been having an extramarital affair around the time that Babs’ mother became pregnant. Jim may actually be Barbara’s biological father. However, a DNA test was never done to figure out if that was actually the case.
Sometime after Babs became a part of Jim’s life, he got the job of Police Commissioner. He would go on to be one of the best Police Commissioners in Gotham City history.
Years later, after Babs began her career as Batgirl, the Joker tried to prove a point to the world. He claimed that a single bad day could ruin a person. It didn’t matter how good or virtuous a person was, everyone had within them the ability to be just like the Joker. To prove this, he kidnapped Jim and shot Babs in the spine. Even after being drugged and forced to watch the desecration of his daughter, Jim still knew that the law worked. Jim wanted justice, but he wanted it done right. His commitment to what he believed was unshakable.
Since comics are written by committees of writers and artists occasionally decades apart from each other, sometimes little details fall through the cracks. These things just happen. During an aside in a Batman annual the following year, Jim lamented the death of his ex-wife. It’s implied that the pair hadn’t gotten divorced but that Barbara had died in some unnamed tragedy. Perhaps this tragedy took James Jr. as well, but he’s not mentioned.
In future stories, Barbara and James Jr. would both appear to be very much alive. It’s continuity problems like this that future DC events like Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis were designed to fix. There’s nothing that a few resets of the DCU’s timeline can’t set right.
A bit of joy came back into Jim’s life in 1991. Sarah Essen returned to Gotham, still a police officer. She’d transferred back to the GCPD and was now working alongside her former lover. Jim and Sarah picked up their romantic relationship right where they left off. The only difference was that now, they were older and it wasn’t an affair. It made Jim feel like a kid again right up until the moment he had a heart attack.
Jim’s heart attack became a promotional moment for DC Comics. They partnered with the American Heart Association to create a PSA that was found in various titles later that year. While his years of stress, eating poorly, and constantly smoking hurt Jim’s health, the consequences were felt by young readers like me. It was a memorable image.
Jim eventually recovered from his heart attack and continued his relationship with Sarah. Feeling that he was living on borrowed time, Jim finally bit the bullet and proposed to his girlfriend. Just a little while later, when he and Sarah found themselves on a sinking ship with a corrupt judge, Jim ordered the judge to marry them right then and there. He agreed.
Thanks to Batman, everyone survived.
Jim and Sarah’s marriage was a happy one. Babs was glad that her father found love and was open to letting Sarah into their lives. Sadly, everything changed during No Man’s Land.
After a massive earthquake hit Gotham City, many of the city’s buildings and infrastructure collapsed. The United States Government condemned the city, saying that they wouldn’t rebuild it. Thousands of people ignored an evacuation order to clear the city. Among those who stayed were Jim and Sarah. They were dedicated to seeing that gangs wouldn’t overrun whatever remained of the city that they loved. At the very end of that story, just when things seemed brightest, Joker kidnapped a group of babies. Sarah was the first person to figure out where the Joker was hiding. Unable to call in backup due to a broken radio, Sarah entered the Joker’s hideout alone. There, the Joker killed her.
It was a tough time for Jim. Just a few months later, when Gotham City was reopened for business following its reincorporation by the United States, Jim was mysteriously shot in the back while trying to bring in Catwoman.
After his attempted assassin was found and arrested, Jim realized that the past few years had taken a large toll from him. Between Babs’ spine injury, his heart attack, No Man’s Land, his wife’s murder, and his near-death experience, Jim just didn’t have anything more to give his job as police commissioner. He retired from the role.
Just like that, Jim walked away from the job he loved. It was a tough time both for him and the department which adored him. His replacement in the role of Commissioner was Michael Akins, a man who didn’t like Batman all too much. Akins’ tenure as Gotham City’s Police Commissioner was detailed in the excellent series Gotham Central.
Shortly after Infinite Crisis, the entire DCU continuity got bumped forward a year. Titled One Year Later, this bump forward in time revealed that, somehow, Jim Gordon was back as Gotham’s Police Commissioner. Details about how this happened were never fully revealed but it was implied that corruption in the GCPD had increased under Akins’ watch. Perhaps Akins was forced out for this reason.
In any case, Jim was back as Commissioner. He remained a loyal ally to Batman for the next several years. Nothing much changed for him until his son, James Jr., suddenly appeared in Gotham again. Readers were finally shown why we hadn’t heard about James Jr. since 1987. James Jr. was a psychopath, one who had hurt several people in his youth. He’d been locked up for years but was finally free.
James Jr.’s return unsettled both Jim and Babs. Jim wanted the best for his son and tried to believe that a combination of therapy and drugs had cured James Jr. of his problems. Sadly, it turned out he was wrong and that his son was as dangerous as ever. Babs never trusted her step brother, something he would make her pay heavily for. If you haven’t read Batman: The Black Mirror, you’re missing out on one of the best Batman stories in years.
In the New 52, James Gordon is still there. Now a much younger man than before, it appears that his only marriage was to Barbara. His marriage to Sarah never happened, so it’s unclear just who, if anyone, was killed at the end of No Man’s Land. Maybe that never happened now either. Who knows?
It has been implied in several stories, including the Black Mirror and No Man’s Land tales, that Jim either knows or heavily suspects that Bruce Wayne is Batman but refuses to actually say so. Actively saying those words out loud would fundamentally shift the relationship between the two friends and Jim liked where they stood with each other. He felt no need to change what wasn’t broken.
That’s the story of James Gordon. While his story hasn’t quite had all the wild shifts that Batman’s story has had over the last 70+ years, he’s still had his share of ups and downs. He’s every bit the hero that Gotham needs and deserves. Perhaps even more than Batman.
Jeff Reid really loves the Batman family of characters. Find out about other things he loves on Twitter.