GOTHAC-Cv4-ds-ddeb5By Molly Jane Kremer. Gotham has always been a city that had its own personality, its own inexorable pull; a darkness ever on the edge of dawn. You can understand the level of devotion a man like Bruce Wayne could have towards it, a man ceaselessly trying to save it from itself.

With Gotham Academy, the creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Becky Cloonan, and artist Karl Kerschl have found a way to insert a tiny microcosm of fiction into a city already brimming with story – and they have sought to populate this compelling and gorgeously illustrated new locale with compellingly dark tales, full of endearing characters and their increasingly irresistible intrigues. (All age-appropriate, of course.)

Gotham Academy’s fourth issue brings us back to our core team of Olive Silverlock and Maps Mizoguchi, first introduced together at the beginning of the series. Olive’s sweet sadness and Maps’ bubbly dorkitude might be the perfect character combination, but the Delightful Duo haven’t been the focus for the last couple of issues: Olive was spending time with other students – not necessarily a bad thing, as it gave us more insight into the school itself, and into the way Olive’s schoolmates feel about her (and she about them). But having much of this issue revolve around Olive and Maps’ adventuring and detective work feels like a cozy and reassuring return to form. Writers Cloonan and Fletcher have mastered the pair’s convivial dialogue, and Kerschl’s emotive facial expressions give their exchanges added oomph, utilizing litte more than an exchanged glance, or a furrowed brow.

The art consistently retains its brilliance, aided by more sumptuous animation-esque coloring from Msassyk and Serge LaPointe. Kerschl’s imaginative layouts never cease to amaze, and he even manages to make the more “normal” pages pop with perfectly angled panels and applied backgrounds. A multi-page hidden-passageway sequence really gives him a chance to stretch his artistic muscles, and the layouts communicate the excitement, the awkwardness, and the slight claustrophobia that comes with creeping about tunnels.

GOTHAC-4-1-0281cOlive herself has become a much more entertaining lead among her new acquaintances. Her maudlin tendencies have ripened into a steadfast determination to figure out last summer’s occurrences (as yet unknown to her, or to the reader), and with her relationship status to Maps’ brother Kyle now clarified, a new (and kinda dreamy) possible love-interest has been thrown into the mix. This is the first issue where we find her alone, exploring, taking initiative all on her own to find out the truth about her mother, and in doing so she makes a massive discovery within the last couple pages that really makes the puzzle pieces of the series begin to fall into place.

Thankfully, we also get to see the other students (and teachers) we’ve gotten to know through Olive in the last two issues as well: Heathcliff, Ms. MacPherson, Kyle, and yes, even Pomeline Fritch (who the creators have managed to make fascinating, despite the repugnance of her “mean girl” introduction). Even the weird kid Olive spilled soda on in the second issue makes a repeat (and significant) appearance. While some of them could be considered minor characters, they (and all their interactions, off-panel or otherwise) are what makes the school feel dimensional and real. Cloonan, Fletcher and Kerschl have successfully created a tiny but intricate tapestry, populated by a myriad of unique characters, all of whom are necessary threads in the weave. That makes it okay if one of those threads happens to belong to Mr. Bruce Wayne, who checks in on Olive this issue, ever so interested in her well-being.

Besides the ever-present Mr. Wayne, we’ve seen old, not-exactly-canon Bat-villains cameoing throughout the series as Academy teachers, and in this issue we meet Simon Trent (also known as the Grey Ghost from the esteemed Batman: The Animated Series), now known as Mr. Trent, the Academy’s drama teacher, spouting Macbeth quotes towards our intrepid heroines. (You can just imagine hearing Adam West, who voiced the character, reciting those lines too.) Gotham Academy utilizes these villains/not-villains in a way that the Gotham TV series dearly wishes it could, but never comes close to approaching. (And, pardon the tangent, but if they decided to take Bruce out of that dreadful show and put him in a separate Gotham Academy series on, say, the CW, I think this reviewer might just die of happiness.)

GOTHAC-4-2-18b68Gotham Academy has really hit its stride with this fourth issue. The writers have a firm grasp of where our little crew is headed, as evidenced within these issues’ spooky adventures, its scattered hints of what’s to come, and in this issue’s tantalizingly big reveal. The great thing about this comic is it has no qualms about its subjects, or its intended audience, even though both are 180-degrees from most of its publisher’s output (and it’s also happily 180-degrees from its publisher’s high occurrence of mediocrity too). It’s prep school drama, all-ages action adventure, and high-school romance, all of which just happens to take place in Batman’s hometown.

It’s still a minor miracle that a book like this was published by a major comics company, and while it might have been a gamble for DC sales-wise (and possibly still is, as much as it hurts one’s brain to think a book this well-executed could be hurting for readers), the quality of Gotham Academy itself is a testament to the risks like this that ought to be taken in the comics industry, and more often. This is the Bat-book we deserve, and most certainly it’s the one we need right now.

DC Comics/$2.99

Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher.

Art by Karl Kerschl.

Colors by Msassyk and Serge LaPointe.

9 out of 10.