Li'l Gotham 5

Though I’ve been excited about the concept for a long time and other readers have had the pleasure of reading online, over the past five months I’ve had the distinct pleasure of getting to know the denizens of Dustin Nguyen’s Li’l Gotham. Readers still mourning the loss of the post-crisis DCU have a haven here, not only in name but in tone. Gorgeous art and adorable writing make Li’l Gotham a standout among DC’s offerings, but success comes with its own perils.

Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs have already proven that they can write an excellent Mr. Freeze story in the December installment of the series, but they return to that familiar icy territory this week. I was blown away by how enjoyable the first few pages of this comic were. Calendar Man’s check in on Arkham’s residents is great fun, and Victor is written wonderfully, if simply, in the first pages of the book.

Unfortunately the execution falls short and we’re left with one of the first stories in this series that leaves me cold (I may have just surrendered my ability to throw stones). It seems that the plot was written backwards, in service of a single gag. I appreciate the attempt to tie the issue into the old rhyme, but even with all of the effort, it still feels forced and it tragically cuts down a quality Mr. Freeze story that had the potential to be a more kid-friendly answer to Meltdown.

Harsh as that sounds, it’s still a fun little story, but one that can’t stand up against its brothers and sisters.

The next tale centers around a Cinco de Mayo drag race. Nguyen puts together a dream team of young heroes comprised of Damian Wayne, Tim Drake, Abuse, and Katana under Nightwing’s supervision as the Bat-family plans a sting on Bane’s operation.

The story features nearly every member of the bat-family in some capacity (though I’m sure that it won’t go unnoticed that Cass Cain and Steph Brown are missing) and the relationships between them pop in a way that many of DC’s offerings have desperately needed of late. The addition of Abuse is particularly noteworthy as he hasn’t been seen since Streets of Gotham, but, while the character only had a few chances to shine, it’s clear that his friendship with Damian could have been a unique and interesting one.

Likewise, Bane is written with surprising levels of respect and understanding. Though it’s certainly a kid-friendly incarnation, Li’l Gotham’s Bane is one of the few I’ve seen that balances the tactical brilliance, impressive power, and strange code of honor that has endeared the character to so many. It’s a little odd to see the South American Bane celebrating a Mexican day of independence but it’s nice to see the villain’s Latino heritage acknowledged in some form.

We even get some of the sweetest and most realistic romance since the reboot.

I can’t deny that the tale gets more than a little silly, but things remain engaging enough that it isn’t a serious detriment.

As for the art, well, what hasn’t already been said about Dustin Nguyen’s gorgeous watercolor artwork? The coloring is particularly strong this month, whether it be the clashing red and black of Batman and blue and white of Mr. Freeze in April or the wonderful warm tones in the backgrounds of May. Nguyen’s art continues to be adorable, clear, detailed, and expressive. Some of the Mr. Freeze pages are jaw-droppingly lovely and, honestly, how often do you get to see a tweed-clad Victor Fries interacting with a Chihuahua?

There’s really nothing bad to say about the artwork here. Half the panels in this issue could probably do brisk business as posters and the world of Li’l Gotham is full of clever shout outs and charming characters that I wish would make the jump to mainline continuity (seriously, can Bane’s kickass butler be a thing?).

While April’s tale feels a little weak, part of what’s frustrating about it is that it shows such potential, and, in fact, the entire issue and entire series do too. I’m not sure if Nguyen and Fridolfs know how amazing the jr. Bat-family concept is, but I’d buy a series starring them in a heartbeat, especially with Dustin Nguyen’s art.

That’s the real problem of Li’l Gotham, it doesn’t seem to know just how amazing it is. The past two months in particular have featured stories that easily could have been expanded into excellent issues of Streets of Gotham or Batman: Gotham Knights. With the print collections catching up to the digital releases and the one-year mark approaching, it’s my hope that Li’l Gotham will expand to the 20 page stories that the creative team is clearly capable of turning out.

Previous issues have proven that this series can find a balance between the needs of younger readers and the desires of older fans and, while Bane’s “illegal wares” are pretty silly (read: awesome), it wouldn’t take much for DC to capture the magic of Batman/Superman #50 by giving Li’l Gotham its own universe and the possibility of spin-offs. Of course that would be up to Nguyen and Fridolfs, who obviously have plenty of work to do already, but every time you hear complaints on tumblr about the New 52, just know that a slightly reworked Li’l DCU would answer half of those concerns.

All-Ages comics are an essential part of the industry that are frequently overlooked, but Li’l Gotham continues to knock it out of the park month after month, regardless of the age of the reader. Unfortunately, for all its greatness, it’s becoming clear that the series is too big for its pond. Let’s hope that it finds the room to grow that it needs.

Li’l Gotham #5 adds another win to the series’ quickly growing list of triumphs. While April’s installment is a minor misstep, both stories prove that we need more of this comic and comics like it.

Horchata break?