Series finales are never easy. Given a limited number of pages, creators must choose which aspects deserve the most focus and which should be left behind. Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs have written more than five hundred pages of Li’l Gotham, thus far, and have only 22 more in which to conclude it. Li’l Gotham is a series not concerned with long-term plotlines or character arcs. Its focus has always been on the core essence of the long list of characters in the Batman mythos—providing them with small holiday vignettes. It’s fitting that in this final tale, they manage to balance their focus between the expansive Batman universe and the two characters at the heart of their series: Damian Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth.
Nguyen created some last-minute opportunities to play around with big ideas and classic characters in the beginning of this issue. Batman Beyond, the Secret Society of Super-Villains, and even Santa Claus and his arch-nemesis—Krampus—make early appearances. All of these panels display Nguyen’s thoughtfully simplistic approach to character design. They promote the most important details and provide a universally recognizable version of each figure. The art throughout the rest of the issue is as good as ongoing readers have come to expect.
The story leaps between the most important parts of Batman’s life for the first seventeen pages by using an interesting framing device. Damian and Alfred sit together at Wayne Manor, discussing what Batman may be up to and flipping through a photo album. This allows for Damian to narrate over-the-top escapades and Alfred to focus on the more heartfelt components of the series. While perusing the album, Alfred’s narrative provides a page or two of story for each of Batman’s family members. He reminisces about Dick Grayson growing up, Barbara’s recovery after being paralyzed, and the friendship of Commissioner Gordon. Some characters only get a single sentence or panel (like Jason Todd and Katana) but the less-is-more approach avoids any crowding that could have occurred. These photos provide a nice ending for each character. Nguyen left no plot threads to dangle so there is no need to end any stories, only to provide a last look at why each character mattered. It also allows the last four pages to provide a denouement for all of Li’l Gotham.
At the beginning of Li’l Gotham #24, Damian argues with Alfred about what his father may be doing on Christmas Day. Damian imagines epic battles with powerful villains and allies. His character has always had an enormous imagination and love for battle. Alfred balances his tales by telling him of the more mundane and inspiring deeds being committed by the Batman. Bruce is not beating up the Joker or fighting Christmas demons, he’s feeding the homeless, giving presents to children, and sharing a cup of coffee with Commissioner Gordon. It’s a style of heroism not typically seen in superhero comics, but in Li’l Gotham, it’s the truest form.
It’s this balancing act between Alfred and Damian that has remained the heart of the series. They are the characters best able to humanize Batman. Together they reveal that Batman is not defined by tragedy, but what he does in spite of it. When he leaves a couple roses behind in Crime Alley, it’s clear that he will not forget his parents. That being said, he’ss moved on and created a new family. It’s a beautiful statement about a character that has so rarely smiled in the last thirty years. The entire issue does a wonderful job of reinforcing the idea of a Batman whose bravery is defined by kindness and love.
There’s only one bad thing to be said about this issue: It’s the end.
It’s a great ending, yet it’s also leaving behind a hole in the ongoing stories of the Batman. The positivity, wit, and unrestrained enthusiasm found in this series are almost entirely unrepresented in current Batman titles (with the notable exception being Batman ’66). Li’l Gotham proved that Batman does not need to be a dark character; he can instead be an inspiration for good deeds and a representative for the value of the families we create. It would be truly tragic if those ideas were left behind.
Li’l Gotham #24 functions as a perfect capstone for the series, emphasizing the most important aspects of the series in a satisfying manner for both long-time readers and those who are new to the series. In the final panels, as Batman tucks both his son and surrogate father in to bed, Nguyen reveals Batman smiling. Despite his tragic origins, he has a family and the world is not such a dark place after all.