By: Dustin Nguyen (story & art), Derek Fridolfs (story)
The Story: Huh—they’re actually a lot smaller when you see them in person.
The Review: Nguyen’s chibi versions of Batman and his world were a sensation from the moment they appeared, and continued to delight every time they had a chance to return—which wasn’t often, unfortunately. How often does a Batman title reach the ludicrous circumstances that would allow the characters to show up as tiny, baby-faced figures? The fact DC waited this long to devote a whole series to Nguyen’s creations is a crime, but better late than never, I say.
It’s just fun taking these usually grim, heavy-handed characters and turning them into objects of cuteness or humor. Ridiculous, yes—but also very, very fun. Ame-Comi Girls writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti ought to pay attention to what Fridolfs-Nguyen do here, because this is actually the anime style at work: a silly puns, a near-abandon of logic, and most of all, the strange, funny, interstitial bits, like Batman wearing rimless glasses and a sweater-vest over his full vigilante gear as he explains the history of Halloween to Damian, who naps, drooling, over his student desk.
Of course, it’s always smart to ease people into such a radical conception of the Bat-family, which perhaps explains why the first series of Li’l Gotham stories revolve around the holidays. Damian experiencing his first Halloween would be funny in any context, but only here would he go so far as to actually try trick-or-treating (which he finds grossly inefficient compared to simply breaking open a gumball machine or punking another kid’s jack o’ lantern basket).
While li’l Damian is only somewhat an exaggeration of regular Damian, li’l Bruce is a new character altogether, someone who cares that Damian have his dinner first before eating his hard-earned candy for “dessert”; someone who’s merciful enough to let his entire rogues gallery enjoy themselves at an Italian restaurant for a moment, on the one night of the year they can mingle with their fellow citizens without being noticed as freaks, before sending in the entire GCPD after them; someone who will even compliment their “costumes,” pay their meal, and wish them a happy Halloween. Ridiculous, but in the same delightful way that the live-action Batman show was ridiculous.*
Equally sweet but even smarter is a Thanksgiving story spotlighting Penguin, who shudders at this “homicidal holiday,” a “vile day of oppression” upon his feathered brethren (or, as I like to say, “feathren”). If nothing else exemplifies the Li’l Gotham spirit, it’s Penguin leading a “March of the Turkeys” (which is exactly as it sounds) through the streets of the city, ruining the Thanksgiving Day parade and screaming, “Feel our turkey wrath!” While the humor has its highs (Poison Ivy refusing to eat salad and nomming instead on a platter of spaghetti with meatballs) and lows (“That’s fowl play, Batman!” Penguin shouts), overall Fridolfs-Nguyen have the tone down pat; it’s only a matter of elevating the material with each issue.
What’s really great about Nguyen’s style on this series is he can bring the cuteness without turning the whole thing into a parody. As a result, Li’l Gotham feels less like a satirical spin-off and more of an Elseworld, with its own set of logic and rules for how the Bat-family should act, no matter how adorable the characters look. And we’re not even talking about how Nguyen draws the animals in this issue. Penguins in jail, wearing orange jumpsuits (one of them pulling a nail file out of a cake while another plays the harmonica)—that’s all I’ll say. And how lovely is it to see the Bat-family actually acting like a family, with everyone, even Jason Todd and Catwoman, gathered around the Thanksgiving table?* Nguyen’s watercolors give the whole thing a light, sprightly feel that’s also sophisticated and classy, which is exactly right for this title.
Conclusion: Honestly, an issue full of Nguyen’s miniature figures is worth the price of admission alone, but with some fun storytelling and decent jokes, it’s really as good as you can hope for.
– Minhquan Nguyen
Some Musings: * Speaking of which, how excited am I about the upcoming Batman ’66? Pretty dang excited, that’s for sure.
* Plus another red-headed kid I don’t recognize, the one hanging by Damian at the table.