Review: Gotham City Monsters trade paperback (DC Comics)


Frankenstein (the agent of SHADE) has been a favorite of mine since Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers and the New 52 Jeff Lemire series, a concept that by definition stretched DC’s usual superheroics toward something more zany. That Frankenstein has continued to appear in titles from Justice League Dark to Batman & Robin has been wonderful to see.

To that end, I’m very pleased for Steve Orlando’s Gotham City Monsters to exist, a book that not only stars Frankenstein but also Andrew Bennett, the titular I, Vampire of DC lore and Joshua Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino’s also-great New 52 series. Every time these characters are brought out of limbo increases the chances of them being brought out of limbo again, and it seems clear to me within the book that Orlando has the same kind of affection for these characters that I do.

That said, Gotham City Monsters is unfortunately not the masterpiece that Orlando’s recent Martian Manhunter: Identity was. Granted Orlando’s page count is less here, but also, by editorial fiat or Orlando’s own tendency to lean heavily on the works of others, Orlando ends up juggling a bunch of other DC Universe plotlines that lessen the opportunity for his own voice to come out. As well, while Amancay Nahuelpan’s art is perfectly serviceable for this book, it lacks the real distinction of Rossmo Riley’s on Identity such to raise Monsters above and beyond itself (see also ACO on Orlando’s Midnighter).

Still I’d be happy to see a sequel, even perhaps something a little less safe. DC seems to be finding its horror voice with books like DCeased and the upcoming DC vs. Vampires, not apparently holding back in neither drama nor gore; a Gotham City Monster book that loosed the superhero team aesthetic for something truly monstrous might be just the ticket.

[Review contains spoilers]

I grant there’s a reliance on others' work in Orlando’s titles that sometimes feels problematic, though I often find myself ambivalent between enjoying the callbacks and wondering how much borrowing is too much. However, this one bit, at least, Orlando comes by honestly, that he sets Gotham City Monsters in “Monstertown,” the area of Gotham created in the Orlando-led Batman: Night of the Monster Men crossover that’s been largely ignored ever since. Not unlike Ray Fawkes' short-lived Gotham by Midnight series, Monstertown seems to be the place in Gotham where the nightmarish and the supernatural converge with an extra helping of Gotham grit, and I’m eager for another visit. (See, for instance, the inspired idea that the beastly Tusk, a rarely used Peter Tomasi creation, runs a creature-friendly flophouse in Monstertown where Killer Croc bunks.)

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

But steel yourself for the full “stack,” as it were, that Gotham City Monsters rests upon. Not only does this book take place at the convergence of Batman: City of Bane, Event Leviathan, and the lead-up to Dark Nights: Death Metal in Scott Snyder’s Justice League, it’s also referencing plot points from no less than Seven Soldiers of Victory, 52, Suicide Squad, and even Mike W. Barr’s 1980s Outsiders. On one hand, I love it — Frankenstein during “City of Bane,” having been affected by Event Leviathan and fighting a villain who’s himself trying to prevent the coming of Justice League’s Perpetua — but dizzyingly at times one struggles to find an original idea here (even the most out-there elements, from Razorjane to the Martian mandrills to the Monster League of Evil, all have roots elsewhere in the DCU).

Again, even as I’m the right audience for this kind of history-weaving, I can’t help but feel the book loses something under the weight of all of it. Frankenstein and Bennett butt heads from the beginning, and there’s never room for an acknowledgment that, had Frankenstein not been so dismissive of Bennett to start with, any number of deaths might have been prevented. Frankenstein’s enemy Melmoth actually has the right intentions here (stopping Perpetua), if the wrong way of going about it (sacrificing innocents) but the “Monsters” never quite seem to grasp the fullness of the situation. For a book whose moral centers around not being judged by your appearance, there’s not a great amount of nuance here overall.

About the only time Orlando slows down is for his new character Red Phantom, who strikes up a friendship with Lady Clayface. The Phantom is a fine character — the Monsters' dedicated ghost, a spirit who haunts the physical structures of Gotham’s Magus Theater, and whose closeted existence when he was alive is the basis for his encouraging Clayface not to hide herself away. But, given again the confines of space, all we learn about the Phantom, his death and his heartbreak, comes from what he tells us himself, the epitome of telling and not showing. While his story is affecting, I wonder if it could have been all the more so if Orlando had put us in the Phantom’s spectral shoes.

Amancay Nahuelpan draws exceptionally nicely in DC’s house style. In close-ups, and especially as pertains to Red Phantom, there’s a broadness but depth of detail that arrives somewhere between Viktor Bogdanovic and Jim Lee; it’s only in the action sequences and team shots that things crumble a little bit (that Orca is often leaping through the air and posing, for instance). Nahuelpan’s one-panel homage to JH Williams' Batwoman did bring a smile to my face, however. A bunch of the covers are by Howard Porter, who brings a bunch of dynamism to Frankenstein and the rest; if ever there were another, I wouldn’t be disappointed to see Porter drawing the whole series alongside Orlando (or Rossmo and Orlando, to be sure).



I can’t in all honesty say Gotham City Monsters makes a strong case for earning itself a sequel, but I hope it does. A one-off is just a curiosity, that time that Batwoman teamed up with Frankenstein resigned to top ten listicles and comics trivia. Another miniseries, or even a meet-up with the Justice League Dark or the Suicide Squad or that new Swamp Thing, means the Gotham City Monsters are still out there, still battling the weird in Monstertown. I’ll keep believing it until someone tells me otherwise.

[Includes original covers and a variant, character design, and page pencils]

Comments ( 2 )

  1. I had no idea what was in this. Based on the title I would never have assumed Frankenstein and Andrew Bennett! Sometimes leaning heavily into the Batman angle is not as good a selling point as DC likes to assume.

    1. Exactly. They could play up the Batwoman angle, too.


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