Today, Ryan M. and Spencer are discussing Gotham Academy 17, originally released April 13th, 2016.
Ryan M.: I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this. It’s a black mark on whatever music-listening cred I have, but this is a safe forum, right? Here is my dark secret: I really like “best of” albums. It’s a single place to hear the breadth of a band’s sound. My first Violent Femmes album is Add it Up and the only full Talking Heads album I own is a two-disc compilation. Greatest hits or Best Of compilations function like those Best American anthologies that flood Barnes and Noble every Christmas. While I don’t like the idea of having someone else curate my experience, it is great to know that you are going to get the best of what a band has to offer. It’s like a one-band mix-tape (another thing I love, though I am a few degrees less-embarrassed to admit it). Gotham Academy’s “Yearbook” storyline on has used an anthology format to offer a taste of the varied elements that make the series so great.
Gotham Academy as a series is situated in the center of a strange Venn-diagram. It’s at once gothic horror, teen drama, and an opportunity for cameos from established characters in the Bat-area of the DCU. In Gotham Academy 17, each of those stories is told from within the larger narrative. The first is a story about a relationship, more particularly how the prickly Pomeline deals with Heathcliff. Second is an adventure story with Maps and Olive trying to stop a Demon cat from retrieving her master’s spellbook. The third is a straight-up ghost story, a tale of a horror RPG game resulting in actual horror. As they have been throughout this arc, each story comes from a different creative team and each one offers something particular to their sub-genre.
We are introduced to the first story by Maps referencing the one time Pomeline “had an emotion” and is scared about the consequences of that story getting out. It’s a cute character moment showing Maps’ penchant for the dramatic, but it also misses the mark a little bit. Pomeline displays emotions through her usual irritation, contempt, and occasional boredom punctuated by anger. What’s different for Pomeline the night Heathcliff returns to campus is that she is vulnerable. Setting aside how Maps would know enough about this evening to write about it, writer Brendan Fletcher and artist Annie Wu do an excellent job capturing the awkwardness and hurt in the scene.
We see Pom covered up, curled in on herself and hiding her face in a book. Heathcliff’s body language is the opposite; he faces out toward the panel, his arms open. Even as Pom speaks, we don’t see much more of her face. It isn’t until we get a look at her eyes in the center panel that we see that Pom is affected by this interaction. It’s a not a complex image, but Wu is able to imbue it with such sadness and pain that it re-frames their interaction in an interesting way. I love snarky characters with secret wells of pain, so I’m glad we got this kind of story. The story itself is fairly bittersweet. It doesn’t end with a reunion kiss or even Pom verbalizing her forgiveness. In the end she is alone in her room, quietly savoring Heathcliff’s expression of affection, without daring to accept it to his face.
All of the stories, though varied in content, have the same kind of downer ending for the students of Gotham Academy. The most upsetting to me was the third story, “What became of the Gilkey Warlocks?” which was written and drawn by David Peterson.
Peterson’s art includes characters who immediately feel a bit more “real” than the current students of Gotham Academy. They look like a crew you could find at a table in any high school, it’s all the more upsetting to see them murdered by shadow monsters for no reason. There are few things more safe in the world than playing a table top RPG and to watch these children slowly realize the hidden stakes is done effectively. They are lined up in a sequence of images giving the reader several beats to recognize the danger. Outside of the continuity of this issue, this story would function as a ghost story. Something to be told to underclassmen and repeated with varying levels of gory detail. The art lends itself to that idea, too. The dusty colors and grotesque and human details make it feel like a urban legend. But Robin steals the copy of Serpents and Spells from that table where it’s sat for decades. Or maybe it hasn’t and I’m just as gullible as those hypothetical underclassmen.
Spencer, what did you think of the issue? Did you think the stories worked well together? I didn’t really talk much about Klarion and Teekl. Were you as pleased as I was to see a demon cat?
Spencer: Oh Ryan, I’m always up for an appearance from Teekl and her master, Klarion…bum bum bum…the witch boy! He’s just a fun character, and would make a great villain for Gotham Academy if the creative team ever felt like giving him a larger role. What tickles me about Klarion’s role in this issue is that his grand plot (which plays out off-screen) is rooted in childish wish-fulfillment, the kind of which our protagonists might themselves indulge in if given the chance.
Klarion just wants to be a Robin! Doesn’t that seem like something Maps might do? Heck, I think it’s something Maps has done. It’s a moment that’s based on goofy charm and speaks to the power of Robin as a concept, but also touches upon some of Gotham Academy‘s deeper themes. There’s always been a bit of an implication that the Detective Club kids could easily become villains under the wrong circumstances (and that’s not just based on Olive’s lineage — Maps, Colton, and Pomeline all have little regard for rules or the law if they’re in the way of their goals), so it’s a bit eerie to see so much of Maps’ goals and interests reflected in a villainous character, no matter how much fun he may be.
Michael Dialynas writes and illustrates this tale, and the lighter tone of Olive and Maps’ antics brings out a more elastic, expressive side of Dialynas’ work than we typically see in The Woods. It looks like Dialynas is having a blast here, and that sense of joy and energy comes through loud and clear in his finished art.
Dialynas seems just as excited about getting to play in the Gotham sandbox. Not only does Dialynas fill his interpretation of Gotham Academy with fun Easter Eggs (there’s a Riddler “?” sticker on a statue at one point, a fun callback to Killer Croc’s most famous moment, and Teekl’s leap out the window is likely a homage to that iconic Dark Knight Returns cover), but he also taps into the power of Gotham’s history, another prominent theme of this series. Gotham Academy has connections to many of Gotham’s most famous (and infamous) figures and has plenty of spooky lore all its own (much of it true!); the fact that Klarion’s first spell book wound up at the Academy in the first place is yet another fun bit of Gotham Academy mythology. Who knows how it got there, but I’d love to hear the story around a campfire sometime.
The adventurous, humorous tone of “A Familiar Story” is a far cry from the horror of “What Became of the Gilkey Warlocks…?,” but both tones are generally able to coexist within the parameters of Gotham Academy. Throughout this “Yearbook” storyline I generally haven’t been the biggest fan of the stories not featuring the main cast, but “Gilkey Warlocks” worked rather well for me anyway. Part of that is its brevity (only three pages!), but I also appreciate that, despite featuring unfamiliar characters, it still taps into similar themes and experiences as the “regular” stories.
I’m specifically thinking of the idea of secret passages. To the kids in the Detective Club, they’re a call to adventure, an avenue of escape, and a way of finding answers — exactly what these kids need, or at least what they want. The secret room provides the Gilkey Warlocks exactly what they want as well: a place where they can get away from rules and harassment and just be themselves. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s certainly a concept I can connect with; in second grade I had constant fantasies of a similar secret passage hidden in the corner of my classroom, so I can understand exactly how the Warlocks feel.
So what does it mean that they all end up dying at the hand of the very monsters they “summon?” It could easily just be one of the school’s urban myths, or perhaps — as with many of Gotham Academy‘s mysteries — the real story is far more grounded in reality than the Detective Club believes. If not, though, perhaps it means that the Detective Club needs to watch their backs, lest something similar happen to them? Uh-oh…
Last but not least is “This One’s For You.” Ryan already did an excellent job covering the emotional beats of this story, so I won’t waste everyone’s time rehashing that, but I do just want to mention that I’m thankful this story exists at all. Pomeline and Heathcliff’s relationship was a fairly prominent aspect of Gotham Academy‘s first arc that was completely dropped after Convergence; while Black Canary readers should have been able to figure out Heathcliff’s story fairly easily, the fallout of his departure with Pomeline had been left unexplored until now, so I appreciate Fletcher finally picking that dropped plot back up. It gives me hope that, with Black Canary coming to an end with DC Rebirth, perhaps we’ll see Heathcliff try to pick back up where he left off in Gotham Academy: Second Semester.
In the meantime, “This One’s For You” provides a not-so-stealth crossover with Fletcher’s Black Canary, and the most exciting part of that is easily the opportunity it provides for the Canary art team of Annie Wu and Serge LaPointe to put their own spin on the cast and settings of Gotham Academy. Wu brings a remarkable amount of energy and expression to each character, but the stand-out, at least to me, has to be Colton, who Wu draws in the same exact same pose — leaning against a tree, cool as a cucumber — in four different panels.
What a fun, subtle, in-character gag!
Wu and LaPointe’s take on the Academy itself is intriguing as well. Although LaPointe’s colors over Karl Kerschl’s art earlier in the series were always more subdued, LaPointe illuminates Wu’s work, making the inside of the school hallway as bright as one of Black Canary’s shows. Surprisingly, it works.
Maybe Wu’s architecture is just imposing enough to make up for the bright color, or maybe LaPointe has just managed to find a shade of yellow that can pass for intimidating. Either way, it’s a unique take on the school that doesn’t lose sight of what’s made previous takes work in the first place, and that’s always worth praising.
To answer Ryan’s other question: I don’t know if these stories fit together all that naturally, but if they don’t, it’s never to the issue’s detriment. While I look forward to seeing Damian’s plan revealed next month, overall, “Yearbook” is a storyline about just having fun with the very concept of Gotham Academy, and this month, all three stories succeed in that regard.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?