From the second it was announced, the one thing everyone could say about Gotham Academy for sure is that it’s unlike anything else DC Comics is publishing, or has published for quite a while. Written by Becky Cloonan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales, East Coast Rising) and Brenden Fletcher (Assassin’s Creed: Brahmin, Wednesday Comics: The Flash) and drawn by Karl Kerschl (Abominable Charles Christopher, Assassin’s Creed, Teen Titans: Year One), it certainly doesn’t fit into any house style, and—much like the rest of editor Mark Doyle’s recent stealth reboot of the Bat-line—contains its own idiosyncratic take on the environment of Gotham City. In terms of reference points, it’s less informed by recent Batman comics and more by the rest of the surrounding pop culture landscape, which makes it a very refreshing breath of fresh air. New Bat-titles have always tended to fill existing niches—the teen drama sidekick book, the dark detective book, the street-level crime book—but Gotham Academy carves its own, giving us the all-ages romance-adventure title we didn’t really know we needed.
The book stars Olive Silverlock, whose mother is an inmate at Arkham
Asylum Manor dealing with clear post-traumatic stress after certain as-yet-unrevealed events of the summer. She’s there on a Wayne Foundation scholarship, because Bruce Wayne is the kind of dude who makes sure the kids of people he beats up don’t get sucked into the same cycle of violence as their parents.
Gotham Academy itself is a big ol’ Hogwarts-style boarding school with dorms and roommates and social circles and student-run flaccid secret societies and also actual secrets, which provide the impetus for Olive’s misadventures. Her main partner in crime is Maps Mizoguchi, the charmingly (to a point, intentionally) overenthusiastic and adventure-prone D&D nerd with whom she’s been placed in a “big sister” role by the headmaster. However, she’s also the little sister of (gasp!!) her ex-boyfriend, Kyle, who stares at and treats Olive with the kind of smoldering good-guy-jock honesty that launches a thousand chaste fanfictions (and probably a million dirty ones, but you can’t stop the Internet).
It’s important to mention that this is, so far, romance without lust, which really helps make the all-ages appellation seem accurate. For a book with a bunch of teenagers living together in a scary dorm, it smartly eschews the cheap, easy thrills of becoming MTV Undressed: Gotham in favor of embracing the more complex emotional battlegrounds of love and adventure. It’s a take on young love that’s about feelings rather than hormones, which is refreshing and welcome in the year of our lord two thousand and fifteen, with youthful impulsivity and poor decision-making relegated to the realms of adventure and friendship rather than boning and pill doses.
This is by no means saying that Gotham Academy is immature or simple, though. The term “all-ages” gets thrown around a lot, and inaccurately, as a descriptor for narratives for children or, at best, narratives for children with “subtle” dick jokes so that the adults aren’t completely bored out of their mind. Gotham Academy, on the other hand (and much like the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, from which it clearly draws a great deal of inspiration), appeals to both children and adults on the same level, which is a far more difficult trick to pull off.
The book cleverly surrounds itself in Bat-lore without being overwhelmed by it; you’ll find Professor Milo (science teacher), Aunt Harriet (dorm watchwoman), and even the Bookworm (librarian, duh) within its pages, but while these are enjoyable nods for those of us terrible nerds who get those references, the archetypes they embody and the roles they play in the school’s social system allow them to function as characters in the story first and references second. The ongoing mystery of the book involves the mysterious ghost of Millie Jane Cobblepot (ancient relative of the Penguin), a teenage girl who feels out of place with her lineage and situation, and the mysteries her diary presents for numerous members of the school populace. This includies Olive’s snobby nemesis (and attempted ghost-summoning witch) Pomeline Fritch, junior breaking-and-entering artist/nineties slacker archetype Colton Rivera, and more.
The narrative is far from the book’s only charm, though. Karl Kerschl’s been one of my favorite artists for a considerable while now, ever since I discovered his work on the second half of Greg Rucka’s Adventures of Superman run. He was a clever, gifted storyteller there, but has grown by leaps and bounds since, honing his storytelling in his webcomics work on Abominable Charles Christopher, and his rendering in projects like Teen Titans: Year One, until he’s arrived at this impressive animation-like style he’s currently employing. It looks like a LucasArts game from the late nineties fucked the collective works of Rumiko Takahashi and this got dropped off at the orphanage nine months later, and this is by no means a bad thing. “Manga-esque” is an unfair oversimplification of the style of Kerschl and his collaborators; while the influence is unquestionably palpable, it’s a synthesis of that with classic animation and the kineticism of American superhero comics.
The revolving door of colorists is definitely noticeable (especially with regards to Pomeline Fritch’s skin tone), but enough visual continuity is maintained that it’s a worthwhile sacrifice for the level of detail and care evident in every panel. Gotham Academy, in all, both reads and looks like a comic by people who Give A Shit, who want to bring their A-game to a crazy experiment that just might work, a twenty-page monthly superhero comic that wants to push the envelope by increasing its relatability rather than its scope.
In its own way, in this time of cosmic landlords and multiversal game theory, it’s one of the most ambitious comics on the stands. It’s not interested in cheap thrills, easy answers, filling a simple niche, or catering to a specific demographic. It takes the kinds of chances that the Big Two are often accused of squandering while remaining true to both itself and the property it branches off of. I’d like to read more Gotham Academy. I’d like to read more comics like it, not in that they’re clones of its narrative or artistic approach, but that they clone its fearlessness to take chances and, within the confines of the genre and form, innovate.
Gotham Academy #4 hits Comixology and comic shops tomorrow.