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

The Story: Who ever knew that the Joker could be so lovable—or smell like it?

The Review: Whenever superhero writers make changes to the characters as an attempt at greater “realism,” they never seem to appreciate there’s always a trade-off involved.  Take the relationship between Harley Quinn and Joker.  In the new 52, their coupling has grown more disturbing, which arguably befits such a decidedly crazy sort of pair, and yet this misses out on the unrequited romance aspect which made them sympathetic.

So as much as I enjoy Scott Snyder and Ales Kot’s respective elevations of Joker and Harley as villains, I think they did lose an important part of their original personalities in the process.  Which is to say that I enjoyed myself heartily seeing the two of them play cat-and-mouse with each other again.  Nguyen-Fridolfs could have chosen any of the famous Bat-couples for this story, but I can’t think of a better choice for a Valentine’s Day spotlight than Joker and Harley.

The premise for this holiday special is again a bit predictable and executes itself accordingly, but it’s also the perfect platform to generate the overload of textual and visual gags that Li’l Gotham is so gosh-darn good at.  The idea of Joker accidentally dousing himself with a perfume that makes him irresistible to all women, then having to spend the rest of the feature escaping the clutches of Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Talia al Ghul, Zatanna, Roxy Rocket, and, of course, Harley “Mistah J” Quinn herself—well, it makes it pretty hard to not enjoy yourself.

Much as you love the softening of Gotham’s villains, you shouldn’t overlook how Nguyen-Fridolfs humanize the heroes as well.  Too often, superheroes (and especially DC superheroes) carry the responsibility of their powers so heavily around them that it creates a distance between us.  So even though it has little (read: no) bearing on current continuity, it’s still almost a relief to see the men of the Justice League chat about the beauty of a low-key Valentine’s Day (Flash: “No flowers to pick up.”  Green Lantern: “No dinner reservations to make.”  Superman: “No last minute shopping.”  Batman: “No kidding.”).

The humor in this feature consist mainly of silly little quips, the kind of cheesy, punny thing you’d hear in a fifties movie,* but considering the fact that some of the best rom-coms came from that era, the jokes don’t feel out of place.  It’s a completely different matter when we get to the second feature, a Damian-centric story which doesn’t quite use any of its cast of characters very well.  Damian does little more than churn out a series of increasingly juvenile puns, while Katana does almost nothing at all.

This is a pity for the first Li’l Gotham feature which doesn’t revolve around a holiday, and it seems like a needlessly wasted opportunity.  Instead of exploring the fun and humor of Alfred playing Kato (complete with chauffer’s hat, domino mask, and sweet goatee) to Batman’s Green Hornet, Nguyen-Fridolfs discard it as a brief sight gag.  Even more problematically, the story suggests greater stakes than it actually delivers, what with the unexplained appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his claim that he’s helping out as a favor to a friend.

No matter what, this title can always fall back on the pure adorableness of Nguyen’s art.  By now, he’s become so free and experienced with his Li’l Gotham style that it hardly takes a hop to get over the hump of seeing a cute Batman.  Often, Nguyen’s visuals fill in the humor and substance missing from the script itself.  Seeing Harley’s hyenas tag along with her, bug out (with triple exclamation points!) when she leaves the wheel, then take over driving duties is just too precious for words.

Conclusion: Li’l Gotham doesn’t need to be anything more than sweet and amusing, but it has every capability to be those things and smart at the same time.  Unfortunately, if this issue is any indication, subsisting on its own ideas without the holiday gloss is not a promising move for the series.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Although some take a little bit more cultured understanding to appreciate: “Send out the clown! Send out the clown!”  Any Sondheim fans around here?