Review: Batman: Li'l Gotham Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Hard to believe, but for the past year there's still been a place where Robin Damian Wayne lives, Nightwing and Oracle -- yes, Oracle -- go out on dates, and Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn still pal around on crime sprees. On occasion, I've seen fans call for a digital-first series still set in DC Comics's pre-Flashpoint continuity. I wonder if they know that book was already out there, and it was Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs's Batman: Li'l Gotham.

[Review contains spoilers (though not Spoiler)]

The first thing to know about Li'l Gotham, whose first digital-to-print collection DC recently released, is that it's essentially an all-ages continuation of the Streets of Gotham series that Nguyen drew with Paul Dini. The stories are more comical and kid-friendly, but they include characters straight from Streets, including Mr. Zzz, the Carpenter, and most notably Colin, aka "Abuse." Nguyen and Fridolfs don't even introduce Colin, but rather take for granted that readers will know who this (rather obscure) character is, and refer directly back to events in Streets. The unspoken assumption being that Li'l Gotham readers will be Streets readers (or young readers will be reading the book with a Streets reader).

Given DC's interest in a full re-branding of their line to emphasize the New 52 versions of their characters, the existence of this series at all is rather astounding. Second-most surprising is that Li'l Gotham uses Barbara Gordon, and not just Barbara but Barbara-as-Oracle, called upon by Batman for information and even holding her own against ninja assassins. Her date with Nightwing is insufferably sweet; obviously this is not the continuity of yore as it was, but as we might have wanted it to be (Li'l Gotham is in many ways a "wish fulfillment" comic), and 'shippers probably won't want to miss this.

The book, with Nguyen's cartoony big head and little bodies, is ultimately meant for children. There's some heroes versus villains crimefighting here, but just as often there's not, as in the Valentine's Day episode where the Joker is sprayed with love potion and must avoid Gotham's amorous ladies. I liked the jokes here a little better than Tiny Titans, which was sometimes almost absurdist in its dry humor; Streets is more sarcastic, largely through Damian's interactions (as when he fixates on the "butt" in "butler"), which appealed to the fifth grader in me rather than the toddler (those children that came of age on Tiny Titans might be ready for Li'l Gotham now). Nguyen and Fridolfs's have some winners here, as when Damian and Colin consider old Robin costumes and wonder why Dick Grayson wore "Aquaman's underwear."

At the same time, the creators don't ignore the adults that might be checking this one out. There's plenty of gags for grown-ups to enjoy, too, including a call-out to Dark Knight Returns and a bit of Batusi. Catwoman refers to Poison Ivy as "Che" as she plots a faux revolution, a joke that obviously kids won't get; in one notably dark moment, Batman remarks to Mr. Freeze that "every kid deserves parents," the irony of which will go over some kids' heads.

Did I mention the Superman: The Animated Series/Justice League Unlimited version of Lobo shows up sometimes, entirely at random?

Another of the book's seemingly innocuous, yet actually pointed, moments comes toward the end. Damian tries to help the orphaned Colin find his mother, before Damian is whisked to the Justice League Watchtower for an impromptu Mother's Day celebration with Batman and Talia al Ghul, who've put aside their differences for one day to be with Damian as a family. "Through all the arguments we've had over the years," Batman says, "it's easy to lose sight of ... what is truly important," and Talia agrees.

For those of us who just saw Damian shot with a flight of arrows and then stabbed through the heart by Talia's Leviathan creature, this is a scene straight out of Bizarro World, sweet and welcome but also a strangely discomfiting look at a story with the same basis that ends up quite different than Batman, Inc. This book is akin to Jeffrey Brown's Vader and Son and such -- a cute take on what had been a violent conflict, where some of the hesitant humor comes from the discordance between what "really" happened and what's on the cartoon page.

I rather enjoyed the bloody, violent tales that Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason had been telling in Batman and Robin, but one wonders if the DC Universe might need a book like Li'l Gotham in its line, called Batman and Robin. Most (though not all) of the stories here are told from Damian's perspective, a kind of Calvin and Hobbes-eye view of what vigilantism in Gotham is like. Chuck Dixon and company's Robin series told stories of Gotham teens, but there's never been a true "Gotham Junior"-type series; I think if I had to pitch a Batman and Robin book from scratch (or Robin and Batman, even), Li'l Gotham is the kind of book I'd want to see under that title.

It is a mite bit strange, given how much pre-Flashpoint continuity enters into Li'l Gotham (Huntress and Red Hood Jason Todd both in their old costumes, for instance), that Stephanie Brown doesn't make an appearance. Conspiracy theorists can make much of this, and there was that controversy where a character was meant to be drawn as the then-new Batgirl and later wasn't, but given all the other pre-Flashpoint material here, plus Oracle and, in the first Halloween chapter, characters dressed as Jay Garrick and Young Justice's Miss Martian and Arrowette, it's hard to believe adherence to brand was the reason. My guess is that Li'l Gotham faced an overabundance of concern in its early days that loosened by the end, and Batgirl was a victim of that concern. Here's hoping she finally makes the scene in Volume 2.

Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs's Batman: Li'l Gotham Vol. 1 will be a quick read for an adult audience, but it offers a fond look at the old DC continuity -- we can imagine, perhaps, that in that universe, this is how things actually did turn out, a kind of "Whatever Happened to Batman and Robin?" for kids. Young readers should definitely find this a riot -- Damian's not about to teach your kids good manners, but his antics should garner some laughs.
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1 comment:

  1. Really glad to see the good press this book's been getting, as much as I have enjoyed the older, grittier stuff, kids need to get into comics too. More importantly they need a comic that doesn't talk down to them. It sounds like Lil' Gotham does this fairly well.

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