Batman Tales: Once Upon a Crime reunites writer Derek Fridolfs and illustrator Dustin Nguyen, the creative team of the beloved Batman: Li’l Gotham, to tell four Batman-infused renditions of classic fairytales. The results are pretty wonderful.
The first of these stories, “Waynocchio,” is the one that feels like it sticks closest to the original story that inspired it. However, that works in the tale’s favor. By framing it as Damian having a dream inspired by Bruce’s favorite childhood fairy tale, we get an extra layer of emotional investment.
As for the story itself, I was delighted by the ways in which many of Damian’s fellow crimefighters and enemies were incorporated into the classic Pinocchio framework. The specific use of Talia in the story was also rather poignant, giving us a bit of an insight into the family dynamic that Damian wishes he had.
Besides all that, the story is just plain funny. A lot of the jokes fall in the “gentle humor” side of things. There are plenty of puns and cutesy little references to past Batman stories and the weirdness inherent in a canon that gets rebooted every few years or so. “Waynocchio” is easily one of the best in the collection, so it’s plain to see why this one was placed up front in the book.
The second tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” doesn’t work quite as smoothly. The jokes come in rapid-fire succession in this story, which is appreciated. Unfortunately, they don’t all quite land as well as in the preceding tale. Many of the deep-cut references (like Baby Dahl’s fascination with crocodiles) feel somewhat distracting, like they’re there to have a laugh at the expense of the conversation flowing smoothly.
Likewise, the Rashomon-esque style in which the story is told is an intriguing premise, but the results feel slightly disjointed. The dialogue doesn’t feel quite as natural, seemingly contorted just enough to fit the framework of the classic “Princess and the Pea” story, as well as a few other classic fairy tales. The second half of the story, particularly Catwoman’s portion and the very ending, feel like they carry a little more weight to them, but the majority of the story just didn’t quite gel for me. Still, it’s a fun and inventive effort, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing in some spots.
Luckily, the next tale, “Alfred in Wonderland,” makes up for that in spades! Chock-full of dad jokes, silly puns, and great visual gags, this is my second favorite story in the bunch. The Gotham analogues for the various Wonderland characters are truly clever and the use of Alfred as a leading character is a great choice. There’s just something about his dry sense of humor that really carried this one for me. The story also features a hilariously dark final panel that I’m still chuckling about.
The final story in the collection is the haunting “The Snow Queen.” Though the story’s twist can probably be surmised by most Batman fans, it doesn’t stop this from being a beautifully moving tale. The artwork is particularly stunning in this one, with a wonderful use of negative space, especially during the snowier sequences.
The choice to eschew the normal speech balloons and narration boxes in lieu of prose is also a lovely choice. This one feels like it could easily be its own standalone storybook. “The Snow Queen” was easily my favorite story in the collection and worth the price of the graphic novel all on its own.
As to be expected with Dustin Nguyen’s previous work, the artwork is gorgeous across the board. Nguyen has a wonderful eye for sight gags, putting some lovely little touches in the backgrounds of almost every page. In addition, his watercolors being the perfect choice to bring life to a fairy tale-themed superhero book. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of this kind of collection. Li’l Gotham has been greatly missed and it would be a pleasure to see Nguyen and Fridolfs take on even more characters in the DC Universe through a storybook lens.