By Molly Jane Kremer. I used to define myself as a DC Comics fan (inasmuch as we nerds tend to classify ourselves by these things we love and obsess over). Which certainly isn’t to say I hate everything DC currently publishes. It simply became very clear to me in late-2011 that, despite what had previously been many years of my readership and patronage (not to mention my ringing endorsement and hyperbole to anyone who would listen), I was NOT the company’s target demographic (you can probably guess which universe-spanning reboot might have triggered my change of heart). My interests didn’t matter a whit compared to that charming group of 18-34 year-old caucasian males, and maybe they never did.
Since then, I’ve found myself drifting over to Image and Marvel, where I’ve felt a little more welcome thanks to the diversity of both creators and material, not to mention the general increased quality of the books. But lo! There has been a ray of shining light at DC Comics of late, found ironically enough in the dark alleyways of the Bat-books, in the form of editor Mark Doyle. Hailing from DC’s Vertigo imprint, where he worked on American Vampire, 100 Bullets, DMZ, The Wake, and Northlanders (to name only a few), he came over to the Bat-office in February and began the slow process of forging new ideas with stellar creators, on comics that are just beginning to see fruition. And these are diverse, all-ages-friendly – and yes, even FUN – projects that have this disillusioned fan actually feeling…what could that be, is it… hope for my beloved DC comics…?
Gotham Academy is the first of these new Bat-books that Doyle has helmed as editor, and it doesn’t feel like anything else DC Comics is publishing right now. (This is such a good thing.) It’s co-written by Brendan Fletcher and multiple-Eisner Award winner Becky Cloonan, with art by Karl Kerschl. And his art is beautiful, so exquisitely colored by Romain Gaschet that the panels look like animation stills. A few pages at the beginning are framed by a rain storm, and you can practically smell the ozone and feel the rumble of lightning and thunder. (Unfortunately, the coloring in the comic’s print version is a bit muddier than that in the preview-PDFs that had been released; hopefully future issues will better balance such things.)
The architecture of Gotham Academy has at every point been gorgeously rendered – and there’s noticeable attention paid to ensuring an old-world European appearance – but it’s not just the look of the buildings that speaks of the ages. In keeping with this, our lead and narrator, Olive Silverlock, opens the issue with, “this place has an impenetrable history. These old walls are built with even older stones. Every stone has a story…” Both the visual and the narrative allude to a deep past to be uncovered, hopefully building further on the lore of Old Gotham and its first families that Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins so artfully introduced in their Gates Of Gotham miniseries. Later on, Olive’s Professor Macpherson seems to be lecturing on exactly this in her History of Gotham City class. I absolutely adore the depth of a well-constructed fictional history, and I can’t wait to find out more about Gotham City.
Much has been made of what seems to be a very Hogwarts-esque flourish, and, both visually and thematically, the comparison might be an apt one. (Even the instantly-recognizable Dickensian quirkiness of characters’ names is similar – Pomeline Fritch, for one). However, I don’t see why such shallow similarities should be distressing in any way. It’s simply prep-school drama, and thousands of stories in every genre have had them. But, of all the “nerds” I know, I know more people who are into Harry Potter than anything else, and if a superficial similarity to that massively popular series brings in even one new comics reader – especially a young reader – I say it’s worth irritating those few internet trolls who don’t want a fun, kid-friendly comic running around with their Batman books.
The two main protagonists so far are Olive Silverlock and Maps Mizoguchi. Olive is a second-year student, and it appears something mysterious happened to her over the summer. This seems to concern the disappearance of her mother, and Olive has subsequently become withdrawn and melancholy. Maps is a new first-year student, bright-eyed, goofy and gregarious, who is immediately paired with Olive (who, funnily enough, is Maps’ older brother’s girlfriend) to be shown the proverbial ropes by her older fellow student. Through the two of them – one experienced with the Academy but seemingly disillusioned with everyone in it, and one in an unfamiliar school but excited as hell to be starting a new adventure – we’re brought into the world of the Academy, the two girls’ varied viewpoints showing us both the good and the bad (not to mention the mysterious) of their alma mater.
Absolutely integral to the teenage aspect of this comic is the expressiveness of the faces Karl Kerschl draws. It’s always little things, but you notice them immediately: Maps’ secret little smile when Olive says they should skip the assembly and explore “the creepy parts of the old chapel”; Olive’s bashful behind-the-ear-hair-tuck when she catches the eye of her ex(?) Kyle. That attention to detail is necessary in a story revolving around teenagers brimming with all the feelings, and surrounded constantly by everything causing them.
And Kerschl’s tiny facial details are contained within spectacular layouts that are just as equally stunning. In the first double page spread, he shows the whole school, panels popping out from different spots on campus highlighting certain characters we’ll be meeting soon, showing what they’re all up to at that moment, while simultaneously diagramming Olive and Maps’ hurried journey across the campus through a (gorgeously drawn and colored) downpour. It’s two pages that merit a good two minutes (at least) of study. Later on in the issue, Olive and Maps explore the more dilapidated areas of the school, and a page showing them climbing the belfry stairs has panels winding about and around the page, positioned like going up a crooked rickety staircase, with some panels angled directly downwards to emphasize the tower’s extreme elevation. It makes for an arresting visual, and still moves the flow of dialogue around the page wonderfully.
This school aspect of Gotham Academy is one of the things I love about it. I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good ol’ teen-drama, and I’m firmly of the opinion that mixing high-school angst in with my Batman makes for a pleasant combo indeed. The high school drama in Gotham Academy is pitch perfect: the angst of not fitting in, the little worries that feel at the time world-shattering, the delicate balance of precarious relationships… The allegories for real life are limitless, and I can’t wait to watch all of them unfold in these pages.
So far the kid-angst hasn’t been too overwhelming – just a taste of it here and there in Olive’s lovingly-rendered moping – and I very much like that this comic has adventure and mystery and melodrama, and is doing it without the ridiculously overused device of going DARK. (And VIOLENT.) The idea that comics can actually be fun is one that I cling to with all my heart, and while there’s certainly a place in comics for the darker, more adult-oriented stories, there’s now actually an in-continuity, Gotham-set, teen-friendly DC comic book that I can recommend to the young-lady set at the comic shop I work at (and there’s soon to be a second, with Batgirl #35 releasing later this month), whereas before there were none. And the best part about it? I feel like my formerly cherished and adored DC Comics could actually be showing its face again – and that as a company, they just might have started to give a shit about me as a reader.
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher.
Art by Karl Kerschl.
Colors by Romain Gaschet (aka Geyser) and Dave McCaig.
9.5 out of 10