In only four issues, “Gotham Academy” continues to be one of the most interesting, most fun books DC is publishing right now. With a blend of adventure, action, humour, horror and mystery all wrapped up in the very real, very human experiences of a bunch of kids in high school, Brenden Fletcher, Becky Cloonan and Karl Kerschl have created a book that delights and intrigues with every page.
Read on for our review of the fourth issue of DC’s sleeper hit to find out why you should not be sleeping on this book.
Written by Brenden Fletcher & Becky Cloonan
Illustrated by Karl Kerschl
The hunt for the Ghost of Gotham Academy begins!
A lot has been made of the New 52’s creative direction to be one that emphasises darker, more mature, more violent and more serious storylines (hell, they included an entire line of books called the Dark line that included mostly Vertigo characters), but the books that got hit the most with that were the Bat books.
For a while, Batman and the books associated with him have only ever seemed to exist in the wave of darker and darker stories since the popularisation of those stories in The Dark Knight except for maybe that one glorious exception in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “Batman & Robin”. However, that’s changed recently thanks to the one-two punch of “Gotham Academy” and “Batgirl” opting to change things up a little bit. While “Batgirl” kept to the superhero roots of the character while reimagining her for a more modern, younger audience, “Gotham Academy” did something entirely different.
The easiest way to describe “Gotham Academy” is probably ‘What if “Gotham Central” was set in a high school’, but that doesn’t quite get to why it’s such a fun read. A lot of the charm of the book actually comes from Karl Kerschl, whose artwork blends a feeling of almost reading the storyboards of an animated films with its soft lighting, bright and vibrant colours and the way the background is filled with lush, painted detail while the characters seem to exist on a different, more cartoon-y plane. Like how, in old Disney cartoons, you could see the difference between the handpainted backgrounds and the animation cell, but not quite as pronounced.
The effect works here because it gives the characters an almost ethereal quality as Kerschel opts not to use a harsh black outline on the characters instead outlining the character with softer, coloured lines that matches their. This works well with the almost Miyazaki-style character design he uses as it gives the characters a larger than life feel which, when we’re talking about a book that’s set in Gotham under the shadow of a character like Batman, helps them fit into that world naturally. This means Fletcher, Cloonan and Kerschel don’t have to shoehorn in references or characters and allows things like that to happen naturally like in this issue where two major Batman characters appear and it works naturally with the story instead of having them show up outside of the story to remind readers that the school is in Gotham.
While the characters are infused with this bright, larger than life quality, the backgrounds of each scene are rendered with an unbelievable level of detail which keeps all of the possibly mystical and intriguing goings on happening in the school grounded in a level of reality. This combination in the art of larger than life characters thanks to the almost animation-like style and fantastically detailed backgrounds allows the book to really go anywhere not just within the Bat mythos, but within the lore of the DC universe and have it fit right into the book’s setting without feeling out of place. Kerschel was, without a doubt, the perfect artist for this book.
It also helps that many of the characters, especially Maps, are drawn so unbelievably cute that it’s hard not to be charmed by the art style.
As the art combines a level of reality and unreality that helps the series fit right into the DC Universe, writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher combine a number of genres in order to keep the story flowing while feeling fresh and new with every twist. While a clear inspiration from stories like Harry Potter and The Secret History, or really any story involving a mysterious boarding school, worn clearly on the series’ sleeves, Cloonan and Fletcher infuse each issue with a different genre theme. Last issue was much more horror focused while this issue focuses on the mystery as Olive and Maps search the school for the origin of the mysterious symbol that has popped up over the previous issues. What that leads to is an almost Hardy Boys style interrogation gauntlet that takes them through a tour of characters and settings within the school that we haven’t seen before, creating an added depth to their surroundings as they delve deep into the mystery.Continued below
This is topped off by the reveal of a much deeper conspiracy surrounding the school and the appearance of a rather unexpected character that all ties into the personal mystery surrounding Olive and what happened to her last summer. Fletcher and Cloonan are spinning a surprising number of plates very early on with this title, but the way they make sure each one ties back personally to the series’ cast of characters ensures that every mystery feels important. This is then backed up by character writing that makes each of the cast’s members feel distinct and memorable, something that can’t always be said for stories like this where the cast is so large. Often times characters fade into the background while all the characterisation is poured onto the writer’s favourites (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter), but this isn’t a factor with “Gotham Academy”. Every character, from student to staff, feels unique and distinct and, most importantly, memorable as without memorable characters to care about, Cloonan and Fletcher’s intricate writing of the series’ mysteries would be for naught.
Honestly, this series only gets better with each issue. While the first issue was charming in its writing and art and promised a lot of things to come, what we’re seeing here, four issues in, is that “Gotham Academy” is delivering on it’s promises. The art style is something unlike anything you’re going to see in a DC comic book right now, built on charm and style, but backed up with an intricate eye for storytelling and use of panel structure to emphasise small, character building moments. The writing uses a blend of genres to build dense mysteries that flesh out the history and intrigue surrounding the setting while populating that setting with interesting, engaging characters the likes of which are rarely seen in Batman comics. This is genuinely DC’s best, most underrated comic and there is no reason for anyone to not be reading “Gotham Academy”.
Final Verdict: 8.9 – “Gotham Adacemy” is enjoyable, charming and fun. Adjectives not usually associated with Batman comics in recent years, but perhaps that’s why it feels like such a breath of fresh air.