Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Batman: Li'l Gotham Review (Dustin Nguyen)

One of my biggest issues with DC’s New 52 is the total lack of humour in their titles. They’re almost all “dark and gritty” comics that are unpleasant and not fun to read most of the time. Thankfully DC’s digital side has done a lot to alleviate that this year, publishing the excellent Batman ’66, Scooby-Doo Team-Up with Batman and Robin, The Adventures of Superman, and Batman: Li’l Gotham. Following the popular trend of chibi (meaning small/cute) versions of characters, DC have miniaturised Batman and his world and hired writer/artist Dustin Nguyen to create a series of excellent all-ages comics. 

Batman is wearing his pre-New 52 outfit, Damian is still alive, and Barbara is back in the chair as Oracle so Li’l Gotham is set a few years ago, definitely pre-New 52. The stories are based around public holidays and are very gentle, as you would expect from an all-ages book. So in the Joker story here, set on Valentine’s Day, rather than face-hanging-off Joker from Death of the Family, you’ve got classic face painted Joker, running away from a lovelorn Harley, accidentally tipping a potent pheromone from Ivy’s lab on himself, and becoming irresistible to all of Gotham’s women – it’s like that Lynx ad! 

Nguyen has packed the book full of feel-good Batman moments that fans will love. Damian learns about trick or treating and makes a new animal friend – Jerry the Turkey – whom he saves from becoming a Thanksgiving dinner (no such luck for the many others though!). Nightwing and Oracle go on a date on Cinqo de Mayo and have a dinner of roasted habaneros – damn, Barbara looks cute in this book! – while Alfred reminisces about the early days of Batman pre-Robins when he was a Kato-like chauffeur to Bruce(!). Catwoman tries making some positive New Year’s Resolutions but is led astray by the other Gotham City Sirens, Harley and Ivy, and Katana turns out to be an expert taco chef!

The most moving scenes are in the Mother’s and Father’s Day stories. If you read Paul Dini’s Streets of Gotham series you’ll remember a character called Colin the orphan who could turn himself into a giant, powerful man and, dressing in trenchcoat and hat, called himself Abuse. A terrible name for a superhero, but Colin befriended Damian and in this story Damian tries to help his buddy and track down Colin’s birth mother. I won’t tell you how that plays out but it’s stories like this that made readers love Damian so much. It’s so damn sweet and bless Dustin Nguyen for giving Damian fans a story like this – if you want to read more Damian stories, ignore the current Damian Son of Batman series by Andy Kubert which is total rubbish, read Li’l Gotham instead. 

The Father’s Day story might be the best if only for the final scene. Barbara takes her old dad out for a meal only to find the restaurant overbooked and has to share a table with Talia and Ra’s Al-Ghul – awkward dinner conversation ensues! Meanwhile Bruce and the four Robins are trying to make dinner for Alfred, and making a mess of it. The story ends with the five of them sat on the floor eating Chinese takeout and then hugging Alfred. Not all the stories in the book hit home but I can overlook a lot when I read stories like this. 

Obviously Li’l Gotham is firmly outside continuity but Nguyen knows what Batman fans want and delivers, even if he has to make the characters look like munchkins to do it! I think his painted style is really lovely and the bright colours – rare in Batman books – further accentuate its accessibility to younger readers while his facial expressions are really emotive and sharp. Nguyen’s doing a fine job drawing the backups on Batman Zero Year and Superman Unchained but Li’l Gotham shows that he’s also an enormously gifted writer too. Li’l Gotham may be aimed generally at kids but I think a lot of adult DC readers will enjoy it too, especially if you’re looking for something a lot less grim and melodramatic than DC’s current fare.

Batman Li'l Gotham Volume 1

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