I’m a big fan of all things horror and macabre so I was cautiously excited when I first saw Gotham City Monsters announced, but I really had no clue what the book was going to be. It’s immediately apparent that writer Steve Orlando has worked hard to make this book feel integrated into the DC Universe as a whole, which helps the book immensely with hooking readers who may be unfamiliar or disinterested in what amounts to a relatively low tier cast of characters. With appropriately ghoulish art and quite a lot of blood courtesy of artist Amancay Nahuelpan and a solid script by Orlando, Gotham City Monsters finds itself placing a stake in the ground and demanding attention from readers.
The book takes place in Monstertown, a segment of Gotham created in the aftermath of the Night of the Monster Men crossover that took place a few years ago. Nahuelpan and colorist Trish Mulvihill establish the mood of the book with ruined churches, flashy old school theatres, and gargoyles filling the opening page. The color palette here is immediately striking as it makes the darkness of the city stand in contrast to the brighter yellows and oranges of its smoggy sky and neon lights. We’re then immediately treated to an in medias res action sequence with I, Vampire himself, Andrew Bennett, taking on a large group of vampires (led by Mad Monk) with only his fists. Orlando’s dialogue here is efficient, setting up Bennett’s purpose in the sewers with just the right amount of old style vernacular. Nahuelpan gets to show off his action chops here, and while his compositions are solid, the amount of detail in his work is his greatest strength. Something as simple as Bennett ripping off a vampire’s cloth mask carries a lot of texture as each piece of clothing, from Bennett’s leather jacket to the vampires’ cloaks, have enough wrinkles and folds to make you feel like you can touch them. Mulvihill’s colors add even more dimension to Nahuelpan’s impressive line work.
The panel layouts in this opening are interesting as well, with the action taking place in small panels that are scattered atop a background composed of snarling vampires. It’s an interesting experiment, but the background feels more like a wallpaper rather than a true place setting. The next page uses a very similar panel layout that’s atop a plain black background that I think works better despite there being less work put into it. It’s an impressive opening, the action is clear, the facial work and movement is impressive, and there’s just the right amount of gore to lend a sense of grit to the violence without overloading the senses. Bennett is on search for a new vampire king and vows to kill him next.
Orlando uses the normal approach of jumping from character to character and establishing what they’re up to in Monstertown from here. It’s a tried and true approach to a team book like this, but not every introduction is as good as Bennett’s. Next is Killer Croc, now discharged from the Suicide Squad, and trying to find a job in Monstertown. While the character and environment designs are as strong as ever here, the Croc sequence doesn’t really introduce anything of value and some of the plot maneuvers here are obvious. Croc’s hotel receptionist, Tusk, offers him free tickets to the opera which he swiftly declines. The offer stands out like a sore thumb and Orlando plays his hand too early that something is up at the opera or else it would never have been mentioned, but the attempt to create a sense of place is valuable.
The book follows this pattern for the next few characters. We meet Frankenstein in a bar carrying out one last mission for S.H.A.D.E. after its destruction by Leviathan. It feels as though Orlando likes to write Frankenstein the most as his scene is the longest of all the character introductions. The effort is worth it as the fight between Frankenstein and his last target is a lot of fun and ends on a great splash page with Frankenstein setting his target on fire. At this point, it’s also noteworthy how Orlando has integrated this book with recent events in the DC Universe. Frankenstein is adrift due to the events of Event Leviathan, Killer Croc is free after issue #50 of Suicide Squad, Monstertown was created due to Night of the Monster Men, and Gotham is off limits due to Bane taking it over in Batman. I didn’t expect a six issue mini series to weave itself so deeply into continuity, but it works brilliantly.
The last two character introductions are the weakest of the bunch, unfortunately, as we meet Grace Balin, aka Orca, taking down one of Bane’s shipments into Gotham. Balin’s motivation is a little vague at this point as all we get is some narration about how she has chosen to make herself a myth of the sea but also wants to be someone her nephew wouldn’t be afraid of. It doesn’t quite add up. Lastly we meet Sondra Fuller, or Lady Clayface, adrift due to Kobra’s destruction by Leviathan. Her motivation is more existential than the others as she constantly changes her appearance to live every possible experience possible. The common theme connecting all these characters is their lack of belonging to a group now that everything they once knew has been taken away. They’re outsiders, even in a town full of monsters, and that’s an endearing theme for Orlando to play with. It’s not fully hinted at, but I can’t help feel Orlando is tapping into some real world anxieties in this book as some of its world’s prevalent institutions have been wiped away by an even greater threat.
Despite having to do a lot of leg work to introduce every character, Orlando does a good job of keeping the book moving from scene to scene. It’s a thankless task to introduce a setting, a cast of characters, and a whole lot of exposition in an issue, but I never felt like the book was totally adrift despite not knowing what exactly would tie all these pieces together.
Thankfully, Orlando returns to what essentially is the lead of the book, Frankenstein, as he fights a Mandrill and is able to gain information about the villain of the series, Melmoth. The art is fantastic here as Frankenstein throws the Mandrill through a subway station, smashing tiles and pillars. The backgrounds are detailed and the colors bring out all the dirt and grime. If anything falters, the lettered sound effects are a little flat and plain in comparison. Frankenstein essentially brutalizes his way through the plot, but the bluntness of the plotting is acceptable as it gets us to our final destination: the opera at the Magnus Theatre.
While most team books, especially a six issue miniseries, would bring all our characters together quicker, Orlando and Nahuelpan do a great job of establishing a tone and setting in this first issue. A strong theme and sense of place is just as important as the plotting, particularly in a more horror themed book like this, and Orlando can very easily accelerate the plot now that the players are all at the table. Gotham City Monsters surprised me. The pacing is a little backloaded due to the first two thirds of character introductions, but Nahuelpan’s art made looking at each page a joy. Orlando has turned in some of his best work here and I hope the interesting setting he has established is not lost as the plot continues to grow in urgency and scope.
- You are a fan of horror themed books.
- You like when books integrate themselves into continuity.
- The art is up your alley.
I didn’t know what to expect from Gotham City Monsters, but I found myself taken in by Orlando and Nahuelpan’s Monstertown and its inhabitants. I thought a six-issue miniseries like this wouldn’t find much time to reference current events in the DC Universe, but its inclusion of Leviathan and City of Bane helps add to the overall theme of characters being adrift and unsure of their role in society. There’s an edge in this book, not just because of the violence, but with each character finding themselves lacking a clear purpose due to the destruction of the groups they belonged to. Gotham City Monsters is a book about outsiders regaining their sense of worth in a world uprooted by chaos. I only hope Orlando digs deep into those themes and doesn’t lose himself in upping the stakes of Melmoth’s plot too much.