I caught up with longtime DETECTIVE COMICS and BATMAN artist Dustin Nguyen at WonderCon to find out about the L’IL GOTHAM phenomenon, a regular series that started as digital only from DC in October 2012 (having formerly appeared in annuals in 2009), casting the heroes and villains of Gotham City in a stylized mode with an all-ages slant. The digital series focused on holiday themes, and tested the waters for fan interest, but the series attracted more attention than easily predicted and became a runaway success. With that level of fan-base, it was time for the series to take the plunge as an ongoing digital offering with a print component. The first issue of the print run debuted April 10th, bring Nguyen’s stunning watercolor artwork, and the comic’s wide-ranging appeal in storyline, to readers on a global scale.
The characters in LI’L GOTHAM may appear to be tykes, but there’s a remarkable verisimilitude to everything that makes Gotham City and its denizens fascinating subject matter. It may be a little less “dark” in order to meet the approval of younger readers, but the series’ success thus far has been built upon its evocative approach to a mythology we all know so well. Nguyen not only draws and paints LI’L GOTHAM, but he co-writes the series with Derek Fridolfs, drawing on a wide range of influence from the pop culture miasma that surrounds the Caped Crusader. Nguyen’s personal enthusiasm for the series was obvious during our discussion, and made it clear that he couldn’t be more at home giving new form to his favorite characters than working on LI’L GOTHAM.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Obviously, you’ve worked on BATMAN a lot. What is it about Gotham City and Batman that speaks to you as an artist?
Dustin Ngyuen: You know, it’s just something I grew up on. Everybody grew up on something. I grew up on robots and Batman. Gotham City is just the most interesting thing. I like comics, but sometimes I like to be a little more grounded, and Gotham gives you that. None of the characters are crazy and outrageous, even though they do look crazy and outrageous.
HM-S: So they’ve got more of a human element behind them?
DN: They do. They’ve got more of a human element. There are more family ties in the books. When you speak of Gotham, you speak of the Gotham “family”.
HM-S: Batman’s known for being a character in a universe that’s so psychological. There are all these themes of psychoanalysis and Arkham in everything.
DN: There is! Yeah, even Arkham itself is the place where they explore psychology.
HM-S: You mentioned growing up with Batman. You mentioned the comics, but have you been influenced by other things in the Batman universe, not just the comics?
DN: You know, the thing is, I didn’t start reading the Batman comics until, probably the first time I read them was THE KILLING JOKE. Before that, you grow up on Batman in pop culture, t-shirts, stuff like that. That was the first time. The first time I came to the country, my mom gave me a Batman action figure. It’s a huge thing, and from then on, you’re like, “Who’s this guy?” and you get intrigued by it, and you start looking for him. You walk into a store, and you think, “What else can I get to complement my Batman collection?”. Comics was something that came, probably, later on.
HM-S: I grew up with the cartoons too, before I had ever really seen the comics much. That was the natural Batman environment, and then I saw the films when I was a little bit older.
DN: Which cartoons did you watch?
HM-S: The first major Animated Series.
DN: Yes, the animated series. That’s my canon right there.
HM-S: That’s something you draw into continuity in your work?
DN: Yeah. To me, that’s my go-to for it, but you find a lot of things. I also pull a lot of things from comics. I never really tie anything into one solid continuity. Sometimes I’ll mix and match it. And I work with Derek Fridolfs. Because we have the same influences, it helps make things go a lot smoother. It’s like, “How about this? This didn’t happen in the cartoon but it’ll happen in a comic, or it can happen, and it’ll make sense”.
HM-S: Regarding LI’L GOTHAM, am I right in understanding that it’s going to continue to be digital only, or is it now going to be print?
DN: No, actually. It came out in digital only form in October, but starting the 10th of April, it’s coming out in print. That will collect the first two issues. I’m excited because I love digital, since everyone can get it, and they can get it fast. The first day it came out, it was number one in Japan, and I was thinking, “How did they get it?”. But it’s great, they can get it in Mexico, in Europe, but now we’re going to print, which is even better for people to get their hands on it. And kids without iPads, younger kids.
HM-S: From what I see, that’s the point, right? That LI’L GOTHAM can be all ages.
DN: Yeah! We want people to be able to pick it up and read it. We’re banking on the idea that everyone knows who Batman is, so we don’t spend too much time explaining. We don’t have that shot where he’s carrying his dead parents in the alley. We don’t need that every time. He’s a household name now. He’s like Superman. You know who Superman is. We’re relying, like I said, on t-shirts and lunch boxes to advertise who he is. So, it has to be approachable and readable for everyone. I read it to my kids, so it makes it easy if you have a book, where you can actually sit down with kids. And it’s not too dumbed down. It’s not lecturing the kids, and it’s not dumbed down where you can’t understand it. It’s not like you’re reading and thinking, “This makes no sense, but the kids like it, so ok”. It works for both the reader and the person you’re reading to.
HM-S: It’s kind of like really intelligent animated films in that way.
DN: Yeah. Originally, when we pitched it, it was supposed to be at the level of the animated series. But after reading it, writing it, and going through it, we didn’t want it to be too dark. Because the original animated series, you know, it was pretty dark. It could get pretty dark. There was one episode, “Growing Pains”, with Clayface, and Little Annie. Robin’s girlfriend turned out to be Clayface, part of Clayface. It was a very dark episode, and as much as I loved it, I thought, “You know, that might be a little too dark”. You know, that’s what makes Gotham interesting, because it can be dark, but it can be fun. And it’s not just always rainbows.
HM-S: It seems like fans discovered that early on. If you look at fan art online. A long time ago, they started playing with those characters and manipulating the styles in which they were represented.
DN: It’s because Gotham City, it’s “goth”. It’s basically dark. If you’re into that, and obviously you can tell that many fans are into what we’re into, it’s there for you to play with.
HM-S: Regarding Batman being a household name, and not having to retell those origin stories, does that make this a really good time to do a series like this? Earlier, it might not have been quite as well grounded in pop culture.
DN: It’s probably the best time to be a Batman fan. You’ve got how many different Batman games? You’ve got Batman: Arkham City, Batman Lego. It’s a great time to be a fan of Batman.
HM-S: You seem to have predicted something I was going to ask you, which was my “crazy question”. Will there ever be a LI’L GOTHAM video game?
DN: You know what? I would love to. I don’t handle that. We just write and draw the books and don’t handle that kind of stuff, but we have stuff that is always in the works like LI’L GOTHAM toys and statues. We have the clothing, the apparel, that came out last San Diego Con. It was exclusive through Junkfood. It’s up to DC what they want to do with it, but I’m here to provide a vision of what is it.
HM-S: With Lego Batman, younger kids can play that game, but a LI’L GOTHAM game might be even easier for them to play and connect with.
DN: I love Lego Batman. I can’t play it, though, because I get motion sick.
HM-S: Let me ask you about your art style on LI’L GOTHAM. It’s watercolor, right?
DN: Yeah, it’s simple watercolors, not too crazy, or complicated. Very simple. But it doesn’t take away from the energy. I wanted to keep it energetic. Even the lines, sometimes I’ll use a line that’s not necessarily a clean line. I’ll make it look sketchy on purpose, just to give it that energy that’s there when you’re having fun. You’re sketching, not taking it too seriously.
HM-S: Is it difficult to convey emotion and motion with such small figures, since you’re used to working with so much larger ones?
DN: It’s actually a lot easier. Because some of the greatest artists, like Alex Toth, they convey emotion with the simplest lines. Less is more for them, and with this, that’s the whole idea. It’s so simple that I can make a really happy face or a really crazy face without having to make it too serious. And it’s understandable.
HM-S: So the kids can identify with the expressions?
DN: They do. And with the cartoons we have going on today, everything is pretty simple. It’s not complicated like the 80’s cartoons I grew up with. Everything nowadays is very stylized and very casual.
HM-S: Like Adventure Time?
DN: Yeah, exactly!
HM-S: Thanks for your time, Dustin! I hope you keep moving forward with this great series.
It seems like it only takes a glimpse of a panel or two of LI’L GOTHAM to raise interest in readers, and Nguyen hits that sweet spot between all ages appeal and adult readership with remarkable grace. It’s a series to look out for, with many of the qualities that contribute to a cult following, and reminds you that just when you think you’ve seen everything that a Batman comic can possibly do, you haven’t by a long shot. Big thanks to Dustin for taking the time to talk with The Beat. I’m stilling holding out for that LI’L GOTHAM video game. It could happen, right?
Photo Credits: The photos in this article were taken during the interview by pop culture photographer Michele Brittany. You can learn more about her work here.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.