Gotham Academy was solicited under this premise:
GOTHAM ACADEMY is a new, monthly teen drama set in the shadow of Batman and the craziness of Gotham City, with new characters and old plus a secret tie to Gotham's past…
I was skeptical to say the least. The creative team was great. Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher are sharing writing duties and Karl Kerschl is drawing the series. Yet teen dramas often don’t work for me. Whether its adults failing to write convincing dialogue for young people or warping teen angst into simpering melodrama, teen dramas often go awry very quickly. It’s not that a teen drama can’t be done, it’s just that they tend to be difficult to do well. After reading Gotham Academy #1 today, I had a very simple response...
Seriously, Gotham Academy #1 is fantastic. This is an all ages comic on par with Lumberjanes or Ms. Marvel. It’s a comic that is not only accessible to almost anyone, but that should excite new and old comics readers alike. In addition to presenting a thrilling introductory story with likable, well realized characters, Gotham Academy plays with pages and form to tell that story in an interesting way.
The issue starts by focusing on the relationship between two students, Olive and Maps. Olive has been assigned to freshman Maps as her “nanny”. She also happens to be dating Maps’ older brother Kevin. It’s the sort of arrangement that is rife with potential for drama and plenty of awkward moments. Yet what really makes this scenario work is the personalities of these two characters.
Olive is introverted, bordering upon being painfully shy. Although there are only hints made in this issue, it’s clear that she’s endured some trauma and that has affected her relationships and social life. Meanwhile, Maps is an extroverted and excited young student. Her enthusiasm runs over the gutters of each page to infect the reader. They contrast one another in interesting ways that help to flesh out who they are and encourage one another to grow. This is all possible because they are both fully realized human beings. When commentators and critics discuss a need for strong female characters in comics, this is what they mean. Olive and Maps are complete people with personalities, histories, desires, and more. They are, simply put, strong characters.
Kerschl’s artwork plays a large role in creating these characters and evoking their personalities. He emphasizes certain details of each individual in a style that leans towards being minimalist, but he then provides lush backgrounds and complex settings around these simplified individuals. His focus on specific details allows for a great deal of subtlety within the work. Emotions that are concealed or barely made visible can be easily read by readers. There is an excellent four panel sequence where Olive offers to skip an assembly and take Maps to parts of a building that are supposed to be off limits. It’s a big gesture offered as if it were not a big deal, and one that excites Maps although she doesn’t want to show it. There’s a lot of subtlety to the interaction and it all comes across in Kerschl’s expressions. Small changes to their mouths and eyes are all that is needed. In a few panels, he manages to not only characterize both women as individuals, but the nature of their relationship as well.
Kerschl’s art works on a larger scale as well. His compositions in Gotham Academy #1 go far beyond simply functioning and manage to be inventive and consistently engaging. Anyone who read the preview DC put out earlier this week took notice of the two page spread showing off the campus of Gotham Academy. Olive and Maps are shown running through the area, while certain places and people are magnified. It’s a scene that works on two levels, both continuing the current story, while providing detail and character to the setting. It introduces the series on a macro level, including many characters and places that have yet to be addressed.
The most exciting composition comes much closer to the end though. Five panels are set against a larger initial panel. These five look like the interior of a cube that has been broken open. The vertically ascending panels appear quite steep in comparison to the horizontal ones below, which then careen off to the bottom-right of the page. This creates a sense of vertigo. Everything seems to be precariously balanced and the act of reading creates a downward momentum. As the women ascend the staircase, Kerschl creates a sense of peril about the heights they are reaching.
Throughout the issue, Kerschl establishes the place Olive and Maps call home. He places the reader within the old brick walls of Gotham Academy. It is a place that seems to have more in common with Hogwarts than Arkham Asylum. Although Batman is certainly a presence within these pages (Bruce Wayne helps to fund the school and the Bat Signal hangs over all of Gotham), he does not define the premise or setting. The aged structures of the school provide a gothic atmosphere, one that provokes thoughts of the supernatural. Rumors of a haunting, forbidden halls, and things lurking within the walls create a seriously spooky setting that is perfect for October. Cloonan and Fletcher are clearly interested in telling a wide range of stories and have established a foundation that is capable of being many things at once. Batman may appear, but this is not a comic about Batman.
Gotham Academy isn’t set in the superhero genre. It’s affected by it, but contains greater influences in horror and high school dramas. That isn’t to say it lacks in heroism though. A lot of things sold me on this comic (the characters, the setting, the art, the compositions), but there was one specific sequence that brought the entire issue together. The sequence captures your stomach, drawing it up to your throat and holding it there, while watching what happens to the people you’ve come to care about over the course of this issue. It is a frightening moment of uncertainty that allows for a heroic turn. With no superpowers and two characters with no value to Warner Brothers as intellectual property, everything feels uncertain and tense. That allows for a genuine, human sense of heroism to shine through. It’s more exhilarating than anything in Batman or Superman.
Gotham Academy #1 springs off the page, loaded with energy and adventure. It balances the joys and sorrows of youth without stumbling into cliches or melodrama. Upon finishing it for the first time, I wanted to read it again instead of moving onto the rest of my Wednesday pulls. I don’t think anyone expected a comic about a Gotham prep school to be very good; I certainly didn’t. I was so very wrong though. This comic is incredible.
There is something really, truly, genuinely exciting about Gotham Academy and I cannot wait to read more.