Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a book called Gotham City Monsters is as blunt as it is, but after an impressive and unique opening issue, it’s disappointing to see writer Steve Orlando retreat into a standard and rather shoehorned “gather the team” story structure. While the first issue was a mournful call of empathy to outsiders who struggle to find a home, Gotham City Monsters #2 finds itself embroiled in an ever expanding multiverse oriented plot that seeks to implode much of the goodwill built up in its opening issue.

Credit: Amancay Nahuelpan, Trish Mulvihill, Tom Napolitano

Things start out well enough in the book’s opening fight sequence. We have a few of our lead characters quickly in contact with the lead villain, Melmoth, which is refreshing. Frankenstein and Andrew Bennett, who quickly heals himself from being chopped in half by Frankenstein, team up and fight Melmoth and his army of Martian Mandrills. Artist Amancay Nahuelpan delivers the goods once again with dynamic character poses and a sense of movement that matches the fantastic paneling. Frankenstein and Bennett’s entrance is bombastic in great comic fashion as they crash through the ceiling with a spiral of lights surrounding them. I’m normally not a fan of oblique paneling in fight scenes, but Nahuelpan’s figure work matches the off-kilter layouts and creates a great sense of movement. While the first issue featured a fair amount of gore, Nahuelpan seems to have dialed it back a bit here, which mostly works but the grit of the first issue is somewhat missed here. The movement is good, but the impact of the action suffers a little.

Credit: Amancay Nahuelpan, Trish Mulvihill, Tom Napolitano

But the most notable aspect of this opening is the introduction of a new character, the Red Phantom, as he smashes himself free from a mirror that Melmoth trapped him in. It’s a very cool intro as we see the human version of the Red Phantom, whose name is Michael Drown, transform into his demon form as he breaks free of his mirror prison. While Drown’s presence is a little sudden, his introduction is appropriately grandiose as he bursts forth into action in a great panel that shows him join the fight, shattered glass flying through the air with him.

Orlando and Nahuelpan have created an intriguing new addition to the history of Gotham. Drown was a performer in a vaudeville show (before Batman was around) that took place in the theater that Melmoth used for his resurrection. Drown was killed in the theater and he has been bound to the theater ever since as its protector, ensuring that no crime has been committed within its walls. It’s a little odd that our prospective new hero has had such a small area of influence, but it’s a fun Phantom of the Opera riff and hopefully the story seeks to further expand his importance in Gotham beyond the theater’s walls. The Red Phantom’s design is a little generic, but I like that he’s more slender than someone like Etrigan the Demon.

Credit: Amancay Nahuelpan, Trish Mulvihill, Tom Napolitano

There’s a lot of moving pieces in the first third of the book and Orlando manages to keep the book engaging until Melmoth eventually escapes the theater using some type of magic smoke bomb. Orlando and Nahuelpan effectively stage a fight and introduce a new character and his abilities, and establish the stakes of the series as a whole. Unfortunately, things go a little south once the book shifts gears into rounding up the remaining members of the team. Of the last members to join the team, Lady Clay is the best developed as she sends various copies of herself to explore the world and gain new experiences. One of her copies was present in the theater and died along with the other audience members, thereby giving her a reason to join the team. Lady Clay’s more existential reasons for joining the team is better developed than our remaining members: Grace Balin, otherwise known as Orca, and Killer Croc.

Credit: Amancay Nahuelpan, Trish Mulvihill, Tom Napolitano

Frankenstein recruits both Orca and Killer Croc citing that he knows Orca’s nephew, Jonah, and Croc’s friend Tusk are among the dead. It’s seems like a cheap way for our last two heroes to be recruited to the team and we never see Frankenstein do the leg work and make the connections to Orca and Killer Croc. He just shows up and easily recruits them after the rudimentary dialogue about how they’re all monsters with no connection to the outside world. Balin’s motivation is somewhat clear as all she wanted was to be closer to her nephew, Jonah, but we never saw her take meaningful action to foster that relationship. Additionally, Killer Croc’s primary concern has been finding a job but his motivation to join the team is simply revenge for his friend Tusk. There was never really a point in developing Killer Croc’s difficulty in adjusting to the outside world if revenge was always the endgame to get him to join the team. It’s shoddy work here in the middle of the book and feels like it’s going through the motions to get the team together. Meanwhile, the most interesting character, the Red Phantom, is nowhere to be found after his introduction. More thoughts on series villain, Melmoth, are in the spoiler section but long story short; he needs improvement.

Credit: Amancay Nahuelpan, Trish Mulvihill, Tom Napolitano
Spoiler
The last few pages of the book ramp up the action once again when Bennett attacks Melmoth alone and quickly finds himself both defeated and under Melmoth’s control as he drank his tainted blood in the first issue. Melmoth himself hasn’t really grabbed my interest as a villain yet for a number of reasons. The main reason is that his motivation deals with the source wall and the ever ambiguous multiverse that I find best left alone by most writers other than Grant Morrison. This book would benefit more from keeping the stakes more grounded and gothic and the source wall’s sci-fi flair doesn’t fully fit the aesthetic of the book. It’s stated by Frankenstein that Melmoth is truly dangerous since he truly believes he’s right in his mission, but we don’t get a sense of Melmoth being a misguided villain. A greater degree of Melmoth’s motivations conflicting with his actions would result in a more interesting villain. As it stands now, he joins the ranks of yet another over the top evil villain with only lip service paid to the fact that he sees himself as a hero.

Despite shortcomings in how the team comes together to fight Melmoth, Gotham City Monsters #2 gets by on its appropriately gothic aesthetic captured beautifully by Nahuelpan’s great pencils and Trish Mulvihill’s effective colors that manage to bring warmth and texture to the book’s otherwise gloomy locations without losing its horror aesthetic. With the team fully established, hopefully Orlando can focus on bringing back his effective character work to the forefront without losing himself further to the ever increasing scope of the book’s narrative.

Recommended if…

  • Frankenstein is a favorite character of yours.
  • A band of misfit characters working together is a trope you enjoy.
  • The first appearance of The Red Phantom interests you.

Overall

Gotham City Monsters #2 takes a slight step back from its surprisingly effective debut issue as it finds itself shackled to a rushed “gather the team” structure. While the Red Phantom’s first appearance gives the book a temporary boost of freshness, most of the well written character work from the first issue is pushed aside in favor of a few slapdash recruitment scenes. Orlando and Nahuelpan have built up enough goodwill from the first issue to keep my interest, but if the book continues to find itself restricted by its fast pace at the expense of developing its ensemble, I worry Gotham City Monsters can lose sight of its strengths in its unique setting and theme of outsiders feeling lost in a world not built for them.

Score: 7/10


Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.