I came to the world of comic books fairly late in my adolescence. It was actually a love of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer that first drove me to enter what was, at the age of sixteen, the forbidding comic shop in my town. Several years, over five ComicCons (the local Emerald City ComicCon is my con of choice), and a collection of well over a thousand comic books later, I am a devoted comic fan – I read from every major publisher, most of the independents, and some publishers I hadn’t even heard of until a few months ago. For a cinephile and book lover, the form of the graphic novel represent the best of both worlds; striking, beautiful, memorable images paired together with well-chosen words create what are, for me, some of the most unusual, imaginative, and important stories I have ever read.
It’s impossible to talk about my transformation into a comic junkie without mentioning one creator in particular: the comic book artist and writer Dustin Nguyen. The first year I went to the Emerald City ComicCon, back when I thought this whole comic thing was just a cool new hobby I was exploring and not a way of life, Dustin was one of the few comic book creators I went to meet. I’ve made sure to visit his booth every year since and have never been disappointed in the selection of art and stories he has for sale or in his open, friendly demeanor. I can’t lie; Dustin Nguyen is one of my favorite people working in comics right now if only because he’s just such a nice guy. Simple as that.
It helps that his work, both art and writing wise, are mind-blowing. Pick up anything with his name on it, and I guarantee you that you’re in for a wonderful time. But there’s one series in particular of his that I want to focus on in this post. Starting in 2012, Dustin Nguyen, partnering with his friend and frequent collaborator Derek Fridolfs, began releasing a series called Li’l Gotham. At first the issues were available via download only, but soon the series became so popular, DC agreed to release print issues of the stories.
Li’l Gotham is a fun, kid-appropriate comic series, themed around the various holidays which come every year. Each issue was released on or around a holiday, averaging about one a month. The stories revolve around various holiday themed escapades, such as the Joker unwittingly dousing himself in a Pamela Isley distilled love pheromone on Valentine’s Day or Barbara Gordon taking her father, Commissioner Gordon, out for a Father’s Day dinner, and being forced to make nice with Ra’s and Talia al Ghul. Nguyen flexes his more ‘cartoonish’ drawing style in these books, a style fans of his have been familiar with for some time. In fact, one year at ECCC, Dustin was kind enough to sketch me a Harley Quinn (one of my favorite Batman characters) in this style.
Compared to the other Batman titles that have come out since Nguyen and Fridolfs began their series, Li’l Gotham seems, well, a bit silly. In a period which brought comic book readers so much angst and tragedy from the Bat Family, including the death of a major character, the Saturday morning antics of that same family in Li’l Gotham offers a strange contrast. But, strange or not, I believe that Li’l Gotham is one of the best Batman series to come out since the New 52 began in 2011. I believe Li’l Gotham is so good because it’s a little silly.
Like the great cartoons of bygone times, “Li’l Gotham” masks some pretty touching and important messages under all that hilarity. Nguyen’s drawings are beautiful, his grasp of expression and setting breathtaking. It’s a relief to see the Bat Family actually acting like a family – from messing up Thanksgiving Dinner to enjoying Halloween mischief, Bruce, Damian, Alfred, Dick, Barbara, Tim, and everyone else stand as great examples of how to be a supportive family. Even the villains tend to do things for sympathetic and understandable reasons, reasons that are important to acknowledge and talk about – loneliness, loss, and, yes, boredom.
It’s clear from page one of Li’l Gotham that there was no half-effort expended in making this ‘side project’ the best it could be. There’s nothing ‘little’ about the feelings behind each story, each beautifully drawn panel, and each vibrant splash of color. Many artists, from all fields, have projects separate from what they consider their main work – but Dustin Nguyen and his work on Li’l Gotham serve as a great reminder that when you put your heart into something, no matter how small, it can turn into a wonderful piece of art; all you have to do is try and never let yourself be afraid of sweating the small stuff.
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