Spencer: Back in the 1930s and 40s comic books had a lot of variety — the still-new superhero genre was published alongside horror, romance, western, and detective books, just to name a few. As the decades passed those other genres gradually faded away until superhero books became the predominant genre, and while I absolutely love superhero books with all my heart and soul, we’re no doubt worse off for the lack of diversity. Fortunately, Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl’s Gotham Academy 1 is all about diversity, not only amongst the cast, but simply in the kind of book it is. Gotham Academy is equal parts teenage drama, coming-of-age tale, and supernatural mystery, and we’re certainly better off with it on the shelves.
It’s only the first day of Olive Silverlock’s sophomore year at Gotham Academy and things are off to a rocky start. Traumatic events over the summer (possibly related to Batman) have left her feeling isolated and uncertain, and she’s broken up with her boyfriend Kyle (although Kyle may not know this yet). So, of course, Olive is assigned to mentor Kyle’s younger sister, “Maps,” during her first few weeks at the Academy. After nearly driving Maps away Olive is finally able to re-befriend her and eventually even saves her life! Oh, and also, there may be a ghost in the school. I get the feeling these two are going to have an interesting year.
There’s a lot that makes this book stand out from the rest of DC’s current roster, and top on that list is artist Karl Kerschl. Kerschl excels at depicting teenage characters who actually look like teenagers, which is always refreshing. There’s a brightness and an innocence to Olive and Maps that is in stark contrast not only to most of the adults (such as the heavily-wrinkled Headmaster Hammer) but to the oppressive and ancient architecture of Gotham Academy itself.
I think what I appreciate most about Kerschl’s work, though, is his layouts. There’s a truly remarkable spread early in the issue that sends Olive and Maps on a Family Circle inspired tour of the campus, but I was equally impressed by this page a little later on:
There’s just something so clever about the way Kerschl arranges the panels to imitate the spiral staircase Olive and Maps are climbing, but this isn’t just a clever layout for clever layout’s sake; these panels are also soundly laid out, with the shape of the design forming a path, leading the eye from one panel to the next and making what could have potentially been a confusing layout into one I don’t have to think twice about following.
Fortunately, Cloonan and Fletcher give Kerschl a lot of good material to work with. Most of this first issue revolves around Olive, who spends much of its first half brooding. She feels different from everyone around her (Olive attends Gotham Academy on a scholarship, so there are implications of class issues) and doesn’t understand the traumatic experiences she went through over the summer. I think a lot of readers will relate to Olive’s alienation, but throughout the issue I didn’t get much of a sense of why Olive feels so different. Back when we covered Ms. Marvel 1 I talked about how the specificity of Kamala’s character helped me relate to her, and I think I’m missing that with Olive. That said, I’m certain Cloonan and Fletcher aren’t going to leave Olive’s angst undefined for long.
It appears that whatever happened to Olive over the summer is related to Batman somehow. It’s a welcome revelation, not only because I like Batman, but because it means that there’s more to Olive’s story than we’ve seen so far, and it guarantees we’ll see more of her past and more of how she ended up in this emotional state, which is exactly what I want.
Maps feels more fully formed from the start, but that’s probably only because she’s a less complicated, more transparent character. Maps is endlessly (and endearingly) enthusiastic about the things and people she cares about, and I especially love the specificity of Maps’ interests. She’s into smart and geeky hobbies like cartography and role-playing games; the latter is usually portrayed as an almost solely male hobby, but if Maps has ever been bothered by that, she certainly doesn’t let on. Maps likes what she likes and that’s that, and I think that’s a wonderful lesson for Gotham Academy to be teaching young girls.
Actually, Olive’s an excellent role model as well. She’s absolutely fearless when she saves Maps’ life, but she’s just as aspirational in smaller moments, such as when she realizes she’s been a jerk to Maps and decides to do something about it.
Romance will likely become an important part of this title later, but for now I find it significant that Olive’s ex Kyle barely gets a line in this issue. This issue is all about friendship, specifically friendships between girls (be it Olive and Maps or Olive and her roommate), and again, the positive depictions of girls supporting girls is a welcome and vital message for Gotham Academy to be sending to its readers.
Gotham Academy is a beautiful, well-constructed book with powerful messages, but I think the most important thing about it is the way it approaches a superhero universe from a unique perspective and, in the process, targets readers outside DC’s typical target audience. As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this article, variety has been something sorely lacking in superhero comics over the years, and Gotham Academy is a welcome step in trying to rectify that.
Drew, we’ve done this dance before; you’ve always been a bit more cynical than me when it comes to both first issues and stories about teenagers. Is this the case with Gotham Academy too? Either way, do you find this book as important as I do? And hey, were you as surprised as I was when you realized Matt Murdock was attending Gotham Academy?
Drew: No wonder that kid was such a jerk! Actually, Olive’s little prank war with Colton was the one sour note for me in this issue. We never get a sense that she even cared about Colton annoying her in class, so to see her retaliate only feels petty. Olive acknowledges that it was totally out of character for her to react like that — it’s really just a catalyst to prompt some mysterious reflection about how much she’s changed — but without knowing who Olive used to be, this has to inform us a great deal about who she is.
Much of my problem with teen-focused series in the past is how they address agency — in order to raise the stakes of the story, writers often need to eliminate or ignore that a grown up would probably step in at some point — but I think this series navigates that quite well by cribbing from the most successful young adult novels in history: Harry Potter. It’s easy to think about magic as the most important component of those stories, but ultimately, they’re mysteries set at a boarding school. I love mysteries, but the real genius is the boarding school — it effectively lowers the adult-to-kid ratio, explaining why these kids can get into such hot water. This series has copied that format verbatim (heck, Gotham Academy’s gothic architecture even looks like Hogwarts), introducing an alienated protagonist, a core group of friends, and a few mysteries.
Actually, Cloonan and Fletcher’s sense of teen relationships may have a leg up on Rowling’s, which always felt stilted and weird. We never actually see Olive and Kyle interact in this issue, but that feels very much like the way a rising Sophomore might “break up” with her boyfriend. The only wrinkle is Maps, who is both very keen on hanging out with both of them, and totally oblivious to Olive’s total avoidance of Kyle. Olive and Maps are obviously going to be going on more adventures together, which will hopefully force Olive to address her issues with Kyle.
The other important piece this issue addresses is how this series fits into Gotham. Batman obviously looms large over every story set in his town, and Cloonan and Fletcher are smart to hang a lantern on that from the start. Importantly, Olive hates the constant reminders of Batman’s presence. That could be a bit of an admission on Cloonan and Fletcher’s part — perhaps they’d prefer to tell their story of teen adventure free of DC’s most profitable character — but it really works for this series. How is someone supposed to forget about Batman with his signal floating in the sky every damn night?
Which brings me to those mysteries. Spencer, I’m not so sure we’re going to be getting an immediate answer on Olive’s past with Batman. It’s obviously complicated, with Olive apparently receiving a full ride from the Wayne Foundation (and Bruce obviously recognizes Olive when she dramatically interrupts his speech), and may end up being central to the series. The more pressing mystery is that of the “ghost” in the North Hall. We hear several accounts of its glowing eyes, which we get a glimpse of ourselves as the issue closes.
Spencer, I’m totally with you on loving Kerschl’s art here. Combined with richly textured colors from Geyser and Dave McCraig, the art really has a kind of storybook quality, which I think helps it cash in on that Harry Potter nostalgia. This isn’t a kids book, but it somehow feels like a book you loved when you were a kid. Maybe I’m finally figuring out how to enjoy first issues, or maybe this issue is just that good, but I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?