Li'l Gotham 1

In a week that sees the return of Carrie Kelley, an impossible suicide, and Bruce Wayne shooting Commissioner Gordon, it’s clear which is the most interesting Batbook to be released.

Believe it or not, it’s Li’l Gotham, the all-ages pet project of artist Dustin Nguyen. Li’l Gotham has actually been in print for a while now, but only online. This issue marks the series’ first physical publication. As a result, the book is somewhat less than timely. After all, I think even the most die-hard fans of Halloween and Thanksgiving have conceded that the time has passed for decorations.

It’s also worth noting that these stories seem to take place in a version of the old ‘Post Crisis” continuity. It’s certainly a bit weird to buy a comic all about Bruce Wayne spiraling into despair over the death of his son the same week that we get an adorable rendition of that same peculiar Robin.

In their first story, simply called Halloween, Nguyen and Fridolfs consider what the flood of copy-cat heroes and villains would do to a routine patrol for Batman and Robin. Most of the story deals with Robin struggling to come to terms with the strangeness of the holiday, but we do get a bit of crime-busting.

On the first front, the script definitely succeeds. Damian Wayne is a character who can fall apart under too much seriousness, but that’s not what this book is about, and the benefits greatly from Nguyen’s exaggerated interpretation. I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how the al Ghul’s celebrated their victory over a horde of psychotic zombies? Though I want to leave the surprises in place, looking through the issue, it becomes clear that each page has multiple gags and reasons to smile. Admittedly, these aren’t legends of comedy, but they’re cute and funny and, occasionally, quite witty.

Nguyen and Fridolfs also have a solid grasp on Batman and Robin’s voices. Some of you might turn up your nose at the thought that this book takes that much craft, even, or perhaps especially, after reading it, but it is true. Though we don’t get many of Damian’s best jabs until the Thanksgiving story, his personality is shown rather than told.

While those familiar with continuity will surely note that there are many reasons why this story wouldn’t happen, Damian’s complete inability to interact with the world in an age-appropriate manner is equally endearing  to readers of any age. Like-wise Batman is at his best in this half of the book, explaining Halloween,  hunting down crime, and generally being a dad.

Nguyen and Fridolfs give us iconic versions of these characters, ones that will likely feel more or less right regardless of developments in future comics. Though his straight-man characterization might make it hard to notice, I think that their Batman might be the best example of this. Somehow Li’l Gotham presents a Batman caught half way between Adam West and Paul Dini in character and Frank Miller and Jim Lee in appearance (though obviously filtered through Nguyen’s distinctive style). Fans of a more modern Dark Knight will recognize the man in the mask but he definitely shines with the brightness of days gone by.

As a result, Li’l Gotham has a fascinating, almost anthropological charm. What does it mean to be the quintessential version of a character who’s been in circulation for over a third of a century? How do you define a character like the Riddler or Jason Todd? And how can you create a version of Killer Croc that feels authentic to his myriad natures: mindless reptilian throw-back, man driven to crime by a tragic skin condition, idiot brawler of Arkham, brilliant mob-boss. To say that Li’l Gotham #1 answers those questions would give it far too much credit, but it does make you think and provide a few answers to such queries, at least Dustin Nguyen and Derick Fridolfs’ perspective on the matter. Let me know if there’s one interpretation, or even a series of interpretations, of a character that feel especially true to you  .

The Thanksgiving tale isn’t quite as engrossing, but it makes a fine companion piece. Where Halloween enjoyed physical gags and fish-out-of-water antics, Thanksgiving gives us some great lines and a more solid instance of Batman adventure. In my youth, I might have preferred this story to the other, however, as an alleged adult, I see that the need for Batman to engage his rogues in combat is kind of a drain on a medium so stretched for space, at least when the stakes are so low.

It is nice to see the Penguin being an out-and-out villain again, especially for such ludicrous reasons, and it’s a treat to see a Wayne family Thanksgiving. The best moment, however, is, by far, Damian’s reaction to the Penguin’s plot.

I think I’ve been perfectly honest about my strong pro-Dustin Nguyen bias on this blog (to the point where I believe I may have praised him in the review at least one comic that he didn’t work on). Nguyen’s style is simply gorgeous. The Halloween story, in particular, really gives him the chance to cut loose and draw all sorts of fun gags and cameos.

The stories are well told, with appropriate emphasis and sequentiality. Some might complain that it’s a bit on the decompressed side, but, compared to modern comics, it flies by at a brisk pace. You also won’t find pages filled to the brim with panels, but that’s alright; the younger readers will appreciate the fun of finishing a page and we all benefit from the space Nguyen gets to fill.

Part of me feels remise without finding something to criticize, however, this is a simply beautiful comic, and I use that adjective rather intentionally. This isn’t artwork that requires a lot of study or care to appreciate, it’s gorgeous at first glance the same as at the last. The layouts are kept simple, likely, in part, for the benefit of young readers. The only things that I can think of that might keep you from loving the look of this comic is a mysterious distaste for Nguyen’s style or an issue with chibification.

These are cute stories that I think are more than appropriate for even the youngest Batman fan. Though I’m a strong proponent trusting children to handle complex stories, there’s nothing wrong with some entertaining fluff, after all, every superhero story is, to some degree, just a mixture of fighting and characterization. The focus on Damian will make it easy for excited young crime-fighters to feel at home in the stories, and Batman makes for a lovely role model as he swoops around Gotham, dealing out bloodless justice and good-natured charity in equal measure.

As for the older reader, I think they’ll find plenty of reasons to smile. Nguyen’s art is lovely, but he also shows a real love for Gotham and the DCU in general. The first big panel in the Halloween story should make that clear. I can’t say that it’s dripping with hidden references or anything but there are enough to get a chuckle out of you here and there.

To be honest, the greatest impediment to Li’l Gotham’s success is probably not any element of the comic, but, rather its competition. For the older reader, there’s just so much else out there that spending $2.99 on an adorable but plotless collection of holiday tales (even one that puts this week’s other Gotham comics to shame) might feel like an excessive expense. For those of you who have no such qualms, I highly recommend checking this series out, whether online or in print.

I haven’t kept up with all-ages comics very well, but I know that there’s a real dearth of quality ones, especially now that Young Justice has been cancelled. This comic might lose action oriented children in the 8-13 range, but there’s really something for everyone here. It’s truly an all-ages comic, and that’s no small feat.