I imagine that Dustin Nguyen’s cute, chibi-style drawings of the Batman cast in Batman: Li’l Gotham will weed out the segment of comics readers who truly don’t care for that kind of art. For those who like the style, though – or those who, like me, don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about it – the first issue of Li’l Gotham kicks off what promises to be a great all-ages series.
There’s a scarcity of DC and Marvel comics that are appropriate for kids, so I’m all for whatever new thing those companies want to try. Nguyen’s character designs for Li’l Gotham are so adorable though that when I first saw them, I expected a super-sweet tone that I wasn’t sure I’d respond to. I want comics that kids can enjoy, but I don’t want them to be slight or to change the characters' personalities beyond all recognition. If Li’l Gotham was just going to be Batman’s Precious Moments, I wouldn’t be able to stay interested. But that’s not at all what it is.
Despite his shortened body and enlarged head, Li’l Gotham’s Batman is my Batman: overly serious and unswervingly dedicated to fighting crime. But his rogues gallery isn’t as homicidal or destructive as the current, canonized versions of those villains, so Batman's able to be a little more relaxed about how he takes them down. They’re still lawbreakers, just not especially deadly ones. For example, Nguyen and co-writer Derek Fridolfs are able to get them together at an Italian restaurant for Halloween without murdering each other.
One of the hooks of Li’l Gotham is that each story takes place during a holiday, so the first issue has a Halloween story and a story around the U.S. Thanksgiving. During Halloween, Batman has to explain the holiday to his not-at-all-dead son to humorous effect, but my favorite bit is when the two of them "accidentally" wander into the villains’ annual Halloween dinner.
Batman doesn’t leap into butt-kicking mode right away, but that's not too surprising. There's already been some confusion that evening over trick-or-treaters dressing like villains. Still, the idea of Batman and Robin's stopping for a couple of calzones while on patrol is pretty delightful. As is what Batman does next.
Notice that Robin's suspicious of the costumed diners, but when he points out to Batman that the restaurant's patrons aren't kids, Batman already knows. He just has another plan in mind.
This isn’t a smiling, devil-may-care Batman -- I still read his dialogue with Kevin Conroy’s voice in my head -- but I do love that his Gotham isn't so harsh and lethal. The idea that Batman can show compassion to his enemies before letting the police haul them in is heart-warming and refreshing. And it's not at all unreasonable in a universe where the Penguin’s big scheme is leading a turkey revolt at the Thanksgiving Day parade.
There’s still action in Li'l Gotham … Batman still has to take down the bad guys.
It’s just that watching him do it is a lot more fun than usual.