It’s only taken the best part of two years, but now we’re finally back in a world where people younger than 14 can pick up a Batman book, in the form of Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolf’s Li’l Gotham. And wouldn’t you know, it also turns out to be the best of all the Batman books, too! Strange, crazy coincidences.
And I say that as a massive fan of Batman & Robin, which has been utterly fantastic since the relaunch. And in fact, the whole Batman line has been fairly strong recently, with the writers taking risks, experimenting, and generally enjoying themselves. But anyway! To Li’l Gotham, which seems to have a misplaced apostrophe. Focusing on Batman and Damian Wayne as Robin, the series tells a series of short stories, each based on a different holiday. Issue #1 here starts with Halloween and then moves on to Thanksgiving, with themed villains popping up as per Gotham’s wont. Penguin tries to causes a turkey uprising in the second half of this issue, for example. A simple premise, but an effective one – because it plays straight into Damian Wayne’s character.
Damian, Batman’s son, has always been disconnected from a sense of family. He was brought up by a master assassin and her master assassin father, and so missed out on all these holidays. As a result, Damian can act as audience surrogate, with Batman explaining the myths and traditions to his son without the exposition feeling random or forced. It also gives the issue the feel of an educational TV show, like you’d find on BBC2 at 11am back in the good old days, with Nguyen and Fridolf’s take on Batman owing a lot to Adam West’s fact-spouting whizzpot.
This would feel a lot more stifling if it weren’t for the loose approach to story and joke-telling employed by the two writers. The short stories here – each half the length of the issue – owe everything to their final joke, and everything beforehand is setting the stage for it. Rather than finding a cliffhanger or shock, the stories here end everything with a gag. And throughout each page are a number of sight-gags, pratfalls, puns, ironies and one-liners, vying for attention before the final gag hits home. And for at least this first issue, both the final gags land.
Dustin Nguyen, you’ll be shocked to hear, offers utterly wonderful, distinct, dreamlike work. His colours are striking, making heavy use of all the colours you’d never expect to see in a Batman book – pinks, purples, oranges – which offers a striking sense of the unreal to proceedings. And, with this being a book which features the now-deceased Damian as one of the stars, that does give the book as a whole a very strange sense of tone. It feels displaced from everything else. In fact, the art plays a massively important role in the way it makes the readers feel like they’re reading a fantasy sequence. Odd moments in the story feel more at home because they’re rendered by Nguyen in lush, quirky colours and tone.
The characters are vibrant and distinguished, with only the odd moment of tricky sequencing. Nguyen knows how to create identity in the characters, and his talents lend themselves well to an all-ages title like this. Featuring inventive writing and lovely artwork, Li’l Gotham #1 proves itself to be a distinguished addition to DC’s Batman line. Long may it reign!
This review was written prior to Hannah’s excellent interview with Dustin Nguyen. Go read!