Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Gotham City Monsters #1 Review and Spoilers

My Blood Ran Cold

Written by: Steve Orlando

Art by: Amancay Nahuelpan
Colours by: Trish Mulvihill
Letters by: Tom Napolitano
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: September 11, 2019

A book featuring DC's woefully under-represented monsters set in Gotham City? That should be a no-brainer, right? A slam dunk, out of the park home run, touchdown in the last gasp moments of a Superbowl game kind of book, right? Sure there are a couple of minor characters like Orca and Lady Clay in the mix, but when you've got bigger monsters like Frankenstein (yeah, I know, he's the creator – humor me), Andrew 'I, Vampire' Bennett and Killer Croc leading the line, what could possibly go wrong?

Steve Orlando. That's what. I've said this before, but it's worth saying again. I don't hate the guy. In fact, I have a soft spot for him. He cares about DC's legacy in a way that a lot of current writers don't seem to, and his books, when they're good, have a lot of heart. Unfortunately, Gotham City Monsters showcases the worst of Orlando's writing foibles and the only heart we get is the one Andrew Bennett rips out of a vampire's chest on page 4.

The issue opens with an overview of Monstertown, a section of Gotham which, rather like Hong Kong in Pacific Rim, has the skeleton of one of Hugo Strange's Monstermen towering over it. Gotham currently belongs to Bane, but apparently, Monstertown is its own entity, a bolthole for the freakish and outcast that somehow manages to stay free of Bane's control. I don't know that I entirely buy any of that, but believe me when I say that, if the concept of Monstertown was the most problematic aspect of this issue, I would be ecstatically, deliriously happy.

"As the rest of the city was choked in the grip of Bane… Monstertown thrived and regrew. But there, slipped through the cracks… in the shadowed brick of Gotham… new horror yet lurked…"

Page 1 and we already have problems: the 'was' is unnecessary, makes the rest of the caption read awkwardly and diminishes its power; 'regrew' is a curiously unimaginative word and 'thrived' is banal; 'slipped' is horrible – just a completely inappropriate word and ultimately superfluous; 'shadowed' is, again, awkward; 'in' is a weird preposition to use, because it suggests that the 'new horror' is somehow within the physical fabric of Gotham. Am I being picky? Yes. Yes, I am. But these missteps are the difference between fluent prose and melodrama so hackneyed it pulls you out of the story. If you want to conjure the kind of atmosphere Orlando (and the really rather impressive art) is aiming for here, you have to be more precise and more thoughtful than this. And this is page 1.

Things get worse when people start speaking. I have mentioned this before – most notably with The Unexpected – but stories in which characters explain what the plot is, or go into considerable detail about what they're going to do to other characters and why they're going to do them are just… bad. There are numerous theories around about what makes good storytelling, but my preference is for believable characters and a story that unfolds in such a way that it encourages the reader to imagine how it may pan out. The former provides an emotional investment; the latter an intellectual one. I understand that there are all sorts of thematic, social and political concerns a reader might get excited for, too, but let's stick to the basics for now, because the basics are what Orlando's not quite getting right here.

Our first scene proper features the aforementioned Andrew Bennett as he takes down the Mad Monk and his acolytes who have been preying on soup kitchen volunteers in order to… well, sacrifice them or something. I'm not really sure, but it's probably pretty bad. This is not, in itself, a terrible plot idea, but its execution is appallingly flat. We do not see Bennett rescue the workers. In fact, we don't see them at all. What we do see is Bennett fighting red-robed figures in an in media res action scene which, without proper context, confuses rather than excites. Having passed up an opportunity to engage the reader emotionally by showing us the looming fate of the Mad Monk's victims, Orlando's only means of explaining the situation to the reader is through dialogue. This dialogue, to be precise:

"People are more than just fodder for your childish plans! Rounding up soup kitchen workers for sacrifice in your sick church?"

While 'fodder' and 'childish' are a bit questionable, this does do an effective job of conveying the necessary information, but it's ultimately 'telling' rather than 'showing' and opportunities for reader engagement are minimized as a result. Bennett defeats the Mad Monk (who, rather improbably, continues talking perfectly coherently even with his heart ripped out), but not before realizing that there's something new and unpleasant about his adversary's blood. Cue cryptic references to a "new king" "born on a red world". Do we have a mystery? Yes, yes we do.

Our next team member introduction is Killer Croc's and I must say that Orlando does rather better here. He does a good job of portraying Croc as a sympathetic character and his friendship with his landlord, Tusk, is well-defined. Nahuelpan's art really helps in this regard. Tusk's grizzled, monstrous face nevertheless radiates genuine warmth when he's talking to Croc. It's a very nice bit of characterization.

The next section features Frankenstein and is more problematic. It's a bar fight and, although it's well-drawn by Nahuelpan (Frankenstein's glowering face at the bar is excellent), once again the dialogue is ponderous. "You are unwilling host to a gestalt bovine disease desperate to leapfrog to humans through your hybrid flesh," he informs a hapless minotaur he's in the process of strangling. That said, Orlando does at least take the time to imbue his Frankenstein's monster with a surprisingly touching nihilistic world view, although his brutality does rather offset any sympathy the reader might feel for him. As with Andrew Bennett, Frankenstein discovers that the dead minotaur's blood is more lively than it should be. There's no time to explore the implications of that, though, before we're off to Gotham harbor for more introductions – Orca and, later, Lady Clay. This is all fine, but the story's getting bogged down in these mostly unconnected moments and that elusive sense of mystery that sparked into life earlier on has yet to take hold.

There's a nice section in which Frankenstein is followed by and then turns on a surprisingly talkative mandrill and bellows dialogue at him that might make sense next issue but doesn't offer anything but head-scratching bemusement in this. Similarly, when Frankenstein meets Andrew Bennett and then unexpectedly cuts him in two with his sword, explanations for his behavior are so thin as to be almost non-existent. The cliffhanger is a reveal that only makes sense if you've read Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory (and only, I suspect, if that made sense to you) and, if you did, is foreshadowed so heavily by events in this issue that I can't believe for a moment that it would genuinely surprise you. But, then, a cliffhanger that relies on a good working knowledge of a series from almost 15 years ago for its power, is typically Orlando-esque.

Summing up my reaction to this issue is actually quite difficult. It has a very The Unexpected feel to it. Its revisiting of obscure Morrison characters; its promise of multiversal melodrama; its reliance on grand-sounding dialogue that, deprived of emotional context, seems flat and hollow: these are all things we've seen before in The Unexpected and, to some extent, Justice League of America. A too loose plot which the writer thinks he can snap back into exciting tautness with some handy exposition is also familiar. That said, the art is good.  Nahuelpan is a relatively new artist to DC and he's doing some sterling work here – particularly in the bar scene with Frankenstein. The sense of narrative incoherence is strong, though. Of the team's five members (the cover promises six, but only five are introduced here), only Bennett and Frankenstein have actually met. (Others are present in the same place, admittedly, but that's not quite the same.) The threat is not entirely clear and the fact that Frankenstein knows who he is but isn't telling anyone else (including us) is just frustrating rather than mysterious. It's not utterly worthless, but it is disappointing. I was hoping for something more fun than this.

Bits and Pieces:

As introductory issues go, this is a decidedly mixed bag. Frankenstein is probably the best-written character, but the storytelling relies too much on spoken exposition and not enough on allowing the reader to follow the characters as they find stuff out for themselves. Nahuelpan's art is very good, but the issue as a whole is disappointingly flat and, despite an intriguing cast, lacks the impact and sense of fun I was hoping for.



  1. This comic seems to be about the most unnecessary thing I've heard of in a while. Was anybody asking for this? Thanks for the honest review!

  2. I was so disappointed with this. I was excited for Orca, as I do like the character and is actually a favourite of a family member of mine. As well, I was happy to see that Lady Clay was also back from limbo. I, pun not intended, take issue with DC at rarely if ever provide recap pages, dialogue, or editorial notes. Instead of pulling me in, so much made little sense to me that it took me right out of the book and regretting getting the series. I really enjoyed Orlando's Supergirl run, so, while I wasn't sure what to expect, I certainly didn't expect this. The reference to the "new king/ red world" made me stop and wonder if I had missed something. "Red World" made me wonder if it was referencing Mars - which made me wonder if I had missed some major event with Martian Manhunter (reading Justice League #31 certainly didn't help with this).

    Frankenstein's bar fight made things worse. For one, since it was taking the "DC Monsters," I thought he was fighting Ferdinand from Wonder Woman. I didn't know why he'd fight him. I didn't know if "Shade" referred to the villain/ hero, and then thinking it had something to do with his organization ... I didn't understand why Frank was quoting such prose or what the deal with the infected thing - a reference to The Infected created by The Batman Who Laughs. I questioned why there was a villainous Mandrill like Marvel's. I'm guessing he's just some monster that exists for some reason. Is there a connection to Kamandi. Reading this review and thinking about the blood made me wonder if the red world referenced meant The Red and how Mother Blood had tried to harness the multiverse for her evil ways.

    I really like the idea of this team, and has a Secret Six/ Suicide Squad/ Thunderbolts/ Legends of Tomorrow vibe. Reading that it references Morrison's event that went way over my head .... In addition, reading how DC's whole Rebirth and Doomsday Clock fiasco and reboot of the Legion ... *Sigh*.