Today, Spencer and Suzanne are discussing Gotham Academy 4, originally released January 28th, 2015.
Spencer: Every property handles the supernatural a little differently. Some reject supernatural elements entirely while others use them as their primary concept; shows like Scooby Doo or Doctor Who regularly tease the supernatural before inevitably revealing them to be hoaxes or extraterrestrial in nature, while at DC Comics the supernatural is a well-known, accepted part of the universe, but one that rarely takes center stage. This is particularly true in Gotham City, so I always kinda assumed that the supernatural elements in Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl’s Gotham Academy would turn out to be hoaxes; two different reveals in issue four prove me right, but what I appreciate about these reveals is how they both help to expand and develop the world of Gotham Academy in drastically different, but equally effective ways.
The first reveal comes courtesy of a “ghost” floating right outside Olive’s window — turns out the ghost of Millie Jane Cobblepot is actually a dummy decoy rigged up by Heathcliff. It sounds like a plot straight out of Scooby Doo, but unlike your typical Old Man Jenkins, Heathcliff isn’t trying to scare anyone; he’s trying to help Pomeline, who’s been obsessively attempting to summon Millie Jane’s ghost for a while now. This reveal is probably the more anticlimactic of the two, but I love it anyway for how it helps to build the relationships between the students of Gotham Academy. Olive’s discovery of the ghost involves a bout of fearlessness (or perhaps just plain ol’ teenage impulsiveness; she shatters her dorm room window with no thought of the consequences) that’s refreshingly uncharacteristic of the often moody and tentative Olive Silverlocke. This also gives Olive a chance to interact more with Heathcliff, whose plan is surprisingly sweet and thoughtful, albeit shortsighted in a typical teenage fashion — even his previous flakiness can now be chalked up to him running off to operate his ghost dummy.
This development even humanizes Pomeline a bit. Olive has started to feel sympathy for her, adding some interesting new wrinkles to their adversarial relationship (their frenemy-ship?), and a glimpse into Pomeline’s room paints what could have once been considered a frightening propensity towards the occult as more of a typically teenage search for life’s answers.
I’ve used the phrase “typically teenage” a lot in this article, but I absolutely mean that as a compliment — Cloonan and Fletcher use the intensity of teenagers in a way that any reader who’s actually been a teenager should be able to relate to, and it’s that emotionally charged perspective that gives even the slightest of Gotham Academy‘s mysteries some genuine stakes. Cloonan and Fletcher grant the same importance to the mystery of Heathcliff’s fake ghost or Olive’s mystery student (Tristan Grey) as they do the mystery that actually involves criminal activity (we’ll get to that in a bit), and it keeps the title feeling urgent even as it takes its time finding answers. In fact, Olive’s relatively mundane run-in with Tristan is probably the most dynamic moment in the entire issue.
It’s a moment straight out of a romantic comedy — the girl trips and falls into the guy’s arms, it’s awkward, and from there fate takes over — and Cloonan and Fletcher even vaguely hint at some romance between Olive and Tristan (in fact, they may even be setting up a love triangle between them and Kyle), but for the most part the moment isn’t played as sweet or quirky or romantic. Karl Kerschl slants the panels, adding a sense of urgency to their conversation that helps build up Olive’s confusion considerably, and colorists Msassyk and Serge LaPointe opt to drop the backgrounds entirely, instead filling the panels with action oriented colors and designs. The creative team makes a smart choice to play this as more of an action beat than a romance beat, keeping the mystery behind Tristan feeling urgent but leaving plenty of blanks for the readers to fill in with their own interpretations of the scene.
As always, the artistic team is just as strong throughout the rest of the issue, with Kerschl continuing his tradition of creative, intuitive stair-based layouts (twice in one issue!), and even finding room to add some broad physical comedy to Olive’s trip down the stairs in a book that rarely gets that cartoony. Still, I’m most impressed by Msassyk and LaPointe’s coloring, especially their use of lighting and contrast. The students are rendered in lush, bright colors, but often bathed in the shadows of the eerie Gotham Academy, effectively showing the contrast between the young, energetic students and their mysterious, possibly dangerous school. The coloring is also just flat-out gorgeous, and issue four’s most memorable moment combines all that into one breathtaking image:
Oh hi, Killer Croc! There’s the other reveal; Croc has been living in the wall of the girls’ dorm and is specifically spying on Olive, as he seems to have known her mother back in Arkham. Unlike the other reveal, which emphasized the mundanity of the students and their lives, this one embraces the more fantastic aspects of Gotham City while still keeping the focus squarely on the kids of Gotham Academy, even allowing Olive to show more initiative as she looks to Croc for answers about her mother (and Croc’s become a surprisingly sympathetic character as of late, so I’m looking forward to seeing how he interacts with Olive).
The fact that both of these reveals can coexist in the same title without either one feeling jarring is a testament to the world Cloonan, Fletcher and Kerschl have created, a world that embraces the continuity of the DC Universe while still allowing the more minor dramas to hit with the same kind of intensity. Suzanne, how do you feel about these reveals? Are you happy with the handling of Gotham Academy‘s supernatural elements, or were you hoping for some real ghosts? What do you think the significance of Heathcliff’s “Ashes on Sunday” pin is? It seems important but I can’t quite place my finger on why yet.
Suzanne: Patrick: Ashes on Sunday is Heathcliff’s favorite band — remember he was listening to a bootleg recording of the gig in Burnside when they tried out a new singer in the previous issue? I’m not sure the pin itself has any real meaning beyond that: he’s a fan of their music. But one of the things I like so much about this series is that it exposes the reader to the various icons and symbols that are important to these young characters and mixes them up with symbols that might have a greater significance. The most obvious example of a symbol we’re supposed to take seriously is that triangly thing Maps and Olive spend most of the issue hunting down the origin of. What’s it mean? Still sorta unclear, right? (I see an M and a W – Martha Wayne?) We don’t know what it is, but it is or was important to someone.
We get a lot of reinforcement of this idea from Maps, whose affinity for Dungeons and Dragons never fails to amuse me. She gets in some adorably geeky one-liners (like her observation about Eric’s painting looking like the cover on a D&D Quest Book), but the most telling bit of iconography comes from her own art project.
That’s a Beholder she’s painting, one of the more iconically D&D monsters out there. In fact, the monster is so synonymous with the brand that Wizards of the Coast has claimed that the Beholder is a legally significant part of their product’s identity. How much do we need to know about the Beholder before his significance to Maps makes sense? Not all that much — in fact, Maps’ general enthusiasm for everything she’s interested in sells it almost immediately.
Which is all just to say that the series does an excellent job of promising that all the little things that feel like they should mean something will mean something. This issue teases a few little mysteries that have yet to be really explored. For instance, what’s up with Bruce Wayne’s cameo appearance in the first couple pages. He seems awfully chummy with MacPherson, doesn’t he? Perhaps even more chummy than she’d like him to be?
First of all, I love how we’re kept outside of this room, firmly planted in Olive’s interloping perspective. Actually, that’s something that this series is very strict about: we never see Gotham Academy from any perspective other than Olive’s. We discover information as she does. This isn’t the only point in the issue where Olive’s perspective is literally our own – how about when she and Maps are using binoculars to spy on the theatre kids? Or the whole thing with spying on her classmates from the secret passageway in the walls? My favorite moment of absolutely embracing Olive’s perspective is right after Croc’s fearsome introduction (which Spencer posted above).
I’m such a sucker for this sort of thing, but look how cool it is! A wordless panel of Olive taking in information, followed by three images, also presented without commentary. She sees his chains, she sees the Arkham jumpsuit, she sees a solemn face, and suddenly, he’s not nearly the monster he was on the previous page. So, not only is the audience learning information as Olive takes in it in, but we’re feeling her emotions in the same way. After all, what’s empathy but a form of emotional information gathering?
Oh and to answer your other question: ghost stories with kids in them are always better if the ghosts aren’t real. Kids don’t need to believe in ghosts, they need to understand the physical world around them. Adults, on the other hand, need to be able to believe in something outside of their experience, which is why so many grown-up ghost stories end up being about actual ghosts (or God, or mysterious lights in the heart of the island). Gotham Academy understands this: it’s a story about kids who believe a little to easily and a little too much.
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?