By: Dustin Nguyen (story & art), Derek Fridolfs (story)

The Story: Christmas in May.  Who am I, Laura Ingalls Wilder in The Long Winter?

The Review: Of course, I’m all for complex storytelling with deep, meaningful themes, but I think the world can also use more stories that are just purely for fun, without having to rely on vulgarity or meanness to get there.  Having just read an issue from another Batman title that for some reason felt that it couldn’t deliver laughs without being offensive, I have to say that just plain silliness is a rare and wonderful virtue in humor.

Which is why I’m very glad to see Li’l Gotham as part of DC’s main publishing line, rather than a kiddie imprint.  I like the statement it makes, that everyone, grown-ups and kids, can appreciate a little more innocence in their comics.  The idea of Gotham as a city doomed to perpetual fear and chaos is admittedly thought-provoking—but it’s also an incredibly grim outlook on things.  At some point, don’t you secretly hope that Gotham can finally see a brighter day?

It looks like only li’l Gotham will get that pleasure.  Perhaps the most important difference between it and its regular-sized counterpart is that the villains here are mischievous and misguided, but also sort of well-intentioned.  There’s not a speck of evil in their hearts or their actions, which explains why li’l Batman can afford to show such compassion and good humor to them.  In this world, Batman is more a responsible babysitter than vigilante, kindly and firmly shutting down the troubles caused by his rambunctious charges.

Batman and Nightwing’s confrontation with Mr. Freeze is the perfect example.  In his desire to protect a group of orphans from the harshness of the city, Freeze becomes their “captor” (a term best used loosely in this case, since he basically keeps the children in a snow-globe full of icy toys and playthings, plenty of popcorn, and a backdoor slide).  Though our heroes are obliged to take him in, they actually join with the orphans in singing carols up to Freeze’s cell.  It may be the first time ever that Mr. Freeze gets a happy ending.

Even where li’l Gotham’s villains engage in some out-and-out crime, their motivations are so elementary that it’s impossible to hold it against them.  As Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn consider their next move on their New Year’s Eve on the town, Ivy suggests, with a crazed grin: “I saw we break into the downtown Gotham Atrium, take out all the guards, force our way past the caretakers and maintenance personnel…and then…we water all the plants!

Besides the environment, our sirens justify their mischief for the sake of toyless children, sad-eyed animals, love (Harley, explaining whom they’re robbing: “That stoopid ruined my cupid.  Wrecked my Valentine’s date with my puddin’.”), and candy (Ivy, drooling in the bakery they’re about to burgle: “I love their gluten-free triple vanilla fudge cupcakes!”).  Ultimately, it defeats Catwoman’s resolution to turn over a new leaf, but it gives her a pretty dang fun night, one that makes li’l villainy seem very attractive.

Speaking of attractive, the biggest selling point of this series is, of course, Nguyen’s art.  It’s not just adorable, which it absolutely, definitely, totally is (the sirens dancing on the back of a pink elephant that’s walking cheerfully across a tightrope—how can you hate that?).  It’s also functional and full of individual personality for all the characters.  Even though they all operate on the same sweetly innocent framework, their body language and expressions show that even here, they’re all very different people.

Conclusion: More story-driven than ever, this series is starting to find the right balance between cute and consequential.  Even if it weren’t, the silly gags and Nguyen’s irresistibly charming art is worth the price of admission alone.

Grade: A-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Of all of Nightwing’s proposed occupations for Mr. Freeze, I like Zamboni driver the best—mostly because of how fun it is just to say, “Zamboni.”  Polar bear wrangler and ice-cream truck man are pretty close seconds, though.

– I have no idea what a deer couple and a family of bunnies are doing outside of Arkham Asylum, but I’m glad they’re there anyway.