Is Batman: Li'l Gotham the Best Comic In the DCU Right Now? Yes.
You may wonder why, as an adult, you should care about an all-ages digital first title called Batman: L’il Gotham. Here’s why: it is quite simply the best book DC publishes right now.
The world of DC's "New 52" is an incredibly grim and gritty one, almost without exception. That means that the entire line (all 52-ish books) reflect, for good or ill, that frequently joyless world. Your mileage, of course, may vary on whether you like that or not. For me, as you might have guessed, it doesn't work. What does get my money, every time it's released (and more on that in a bit) is Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs' Batman: Li'l Gotham. Nguyen and Fridolfs have managed to create a shining beacon of hope, happiness, and wall-to-wall fun in their digital first comic series which, oddly enough, takes place in one of the darkest corners of comics: the world of Batman.
Before you blow this book off as being "for kids," I urge you to remember all the great cartoons and comics that have come through your life that were appropriate for all ages — everything from The Simpsons to Cartoon Network's Adventure Time. Frequently adorable and hilarious, these properties, much like Li'l Gotham, are done so well it doesn't matter they are aimed at kids. They are deceptively complex, and there is a depth and creativity that makes them rewarding for adults.
I promise you this book is at once beautiful and bold, smart and funny, innovative and endlessly creative, and sweet but never cloying. In short, it's kinda revolutionary.
For starters, because Li'l Gotham is "out of continuity" it doesn't have to follow ALL the rules. Characters can grow and change and find themselves in awesome one story team-ups with a fluidity that well serves the book. This, however, doesn't mean the book has no internal structure. Quite the contrary, Nguyen and Fridolfs know and love their characters and the world they inhabit, and are respectful of it. They understand where and when they can break the rules for the sake of the tone and direction of the book, without contradicting the spirit of the larger world. It's a delicate balance to achieve, but these two make it look effortless.
The first 12 releases (#1 debuted last October) have all been presented as "holiday issues," which is a great approach. I don't know if that's how the creators intend to continue (and part of me is afraid to ask, because what if we're only getting a year of these???) but for now I'm content to soak them all up and pray for more.
For fans of the older DCU, Batman: Li'l Gotham offers an awesome sanctuary to see characters we love as we've come to know them over the last dozen or so years. With some notable absences >cough<Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown>cough< (whose lack of appearance are likely well beyond Nguyen and Fridolfs' control) this version of Batman is a more classic take. Barbara Gordon is allowed to be the genius hacker Oracle. Talia is a complicated woman that nevertheless loves her son, Damian Wayne. Jason Todd has a checkered past that gets referenced, but he's still part of the family. Damian is still alive and grouchy and adopting "Bat-pets" in record number. And villains are complicated but fascinating — like Harley Quinn, the nutty but lovable version we all fell for before she wore a bizarre bustier and thigh highs; and Mister Freeze, a lonely, misunderstood old guy that doesn't pontificate wildly while wielding a freeze-ray (though he does have a freeze ray, I mean, don't be ridiculous). I miss these things. But now I don't have to, because HERE THEY ARE!
Both Nguyen and Fridolfs are insanely talented creators, with good credits to their name. They're the kind of creators you would be excited to have on any new comic you were reading. But what's great about them being on Batman: Li'l Gotham is you can feel that they freaking love it. You can tell that they are SO HAPPY to be doing it. Their absolute passion is evident on every page. Their affection for the characters and world is palpable, and they know they're doing great work.
For his part, Fridolfs has a gift with character voice and comedy, and Nugyen (who co-writes and illustrates the book) has that plus the most stunning visuals around — a loose watercolor style that feels part comic, part animation, and part fine art, and looks better than 90% of all other comics I read. His vibrant style is absolutely brimming with energy and is kinetic on the page (or screen), and yet he never sacrifices storytelling for beauty. It's a delicate balance that Nguyen nails and he does it everytime.
You'll notice I loaded this post to the brim with images...I think it's pretty obvious why. I mean, what better endorsement?
I already said adorable, right? Who cares, it deserves its own bullet point. In a world where it's perfectly acceptable for dudes to be Bronies (which I fully support) and cat videos are like currency, I see nothing wrong with a few all-ages comics being OFF THE WALL cute. Heck, I know a certain LitReactor Editor that can't get enough of a certain keyboard cat. So look at this panel — Mr. Freeze has made the cutest unicorn ice sculpture of all time TO GIVE TO A SICK CHILD. Die from the cuteness, die!
FUN FUN FUN
As mentioned above, because it's continuity free, there's a lot of freedom to cut loose. The result is something refreshingly fun. Li'l Gotham is full of good jokes and eye rolling puns (that end up being funny anyway, the kind of things you smile at and go "aw, jeez"). This bit, from issue #7, which has the various villains of Gotham discovering that the Batmobile has a backseat is priceless. Check out the relevant panels:
What's not to love???
THE SPIRIT OF BATMAN
While Batman and his Gotham-based world is frequently considered a very dark and horrifying universe — and I like that about it, many of us do — there's also an over-the-top aspect to both characters and tone that lends itself really nicely to this more humorous approach. A crazily pitched exterior with a sweet center about people ultimately trying to do good. The much acclaimed (and beloved) Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990's found a lovely way to balance the dark with some of the more cartoonish elements. Li'l Gotham doesn't strive for that balance — it just goes balls-out toward the cartoonish elements, but since the current Batman world of comics (and movies) goes balls-out toward the oppressively dark aspects, this is a nice bit of balance in what's available to readers. It's a great thing.
CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP
Something I suspect what gives Batman: Li'l Gotham such flexibility is the fact that the digital issues are insanely cheap. Despite being 20 (or so, sometimes you get a bit more) pages of full color comics, digital issues are only 99 cents each. Most DC Comics digital editions are typically $2.99 for the same amount of content (the same price as their print counterparts) and many comics from Marvel are $3.99, so it's kind of an amazing thing. I didn't want to even talk about it, because it almost feels like we are getting away with something and if I draw too much attention to it the jig will be up.
So what I'm saying is that right now, you can go to Comixology (or Amazon Kindle) and instantly download pages upon pages (between 120 and 240) of adorable, hilarious, gorgeously illustrated Batman comics (that you can also share with kids) for under $12.00. I know, it seems like we're stealing something, right?
Because the book is naturally (and smartly) formatted to be read digitally, what reads as 20+ pages digitally reads as 10+ pages in print (hence the "between 120 and 240 pages" note above). But it does exist in print, which is important in case you just can't stand to read digitally. The print versions are released a few months behind, collected two to an issue and priced at $2.99. According to a quick look on Amazon, print trades will follow as well. But enough with the technical details...on to the revolution!
NOW THE REVOLUTION PART
Like the price, I am legitimately hesitant to talk about this for fear of jinxing things. But it's almost as if Nguyen and Fridolfs are working (mostly) in some secret corner of the DC Universe where they get away with a lot of wonderful stuff that wouldn't go over so well at regular old DC. This may be due in part to their location, as "DC Digital" is a somewhat different animal than "DC" proper. The digital branch is run out of the West Coast Office, while flagship DC publishing remains in primarily in NYC. For whatever reason, what's coming out of the West Coast office generally feels a little more innovative. Thanks to whatever it is that drives this feeling of less editorial interference and more innovation, Nguyen and Fridolfs are getting away with some stories that I feel like we would never see in the current DCU. Want a story featuring three villainous ladies of DC doing crime for "good reasons" without a peep from Batman or anyone else? DONE (read issue #4). Want a heartfelt (in perhaps the most adorable issue yet) tale about Mr. Freeze and his attempts to bring happiness to orphans by kidnapping them and giving them ice-cream? DONE (read issue #3). Still want to read stories about Damian Wayne even though he was killed in the regular DCU? DONE (almost all the issues!). Sure, there are some really annoying examples of Nguyen and Fridolfs getting censored — like their attempt to give a nod to Stephanie Brown. But frustrating as that stuff is, it shouldn't overshadow what Nguyen and Fridolfs HAVE been able to do, and seem to be continuing to do, which is to create great comics that LOVE characters, that love everything about comics and superheroes and are thus a joy to read.
There's just not enough love to give a book like this, especially during a very dark age in the DCU and considering how joyless the new Superman movie is.
New issues launch a bit irregularly, but always on Sundays, so think of Batman: Li'l Gotham as your slightly irregular Sunday paper reading. Your life will be better for it.
I leave you with an image of Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Haley Quinn, committing crimes...say it with me now..."FOR THE CHILDREN!"
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