“Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth.”
— J.K. Rowing
Marvel knows that it can’t solely focus on Spider-Man, the X-Men and Iron Man, just like DC knows that it has to be more than just Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It’s when these companies create titles outside the zeitgeist of their most recognizable heroes that writers and artists are able take risks that can lead to some of the most innovative and original comic books available.
Gotham Academy is one of these titles. Writers Brendan Fletcher and Becky Cloonan utilize many interesting storytelling techniques, like their proclivity to leave each of the issues on provocative cliffhangers. While this is not necessarily a groundbreaking mode of writing, what they do differently is that the following issue always picks up some time later, with the explanation of what happened woven throughout the entire next issue. They’e also created an incredibly diverse and compelling cast of characters. The racially ambiguous protagonist Olive Silverlock, whose memory of the past summer has completely vanished and continues to be one of the series most intriguing mysteries. The brooding and semi-antagonist Promline Fritch, who is seemingly obsessed with conjuring the ghost of Mille Jane Cobblepot—yes, relative to the notorious Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot. And the Robin to Olive’s Batman, Maps Mizoguchi, who is the heart and soul of the series. She is scrappy, dorky, and adventurous 14 year-old who jumps at any chance to investigate the numerous mysteries of Gotham Academy.
As for its genre, I would posit that this book is first and foremost a mystery series. This issues picks up after Olive, Maps, and bad-boy Colton Rivera broke into the reportedly haunted North Hall, finding the reoccurring mysterious symbol, and something monstrous in a pit that grabs Olive’s arm. After the last two issues spent time introducing us to peripheral characters within the world of Gotham Academy, here Fletcher and Cloonan return to the focusing on the dynamic duo of Olive and Maps. After the North Hall incident the two girls are determined to get to the bottom of why this symbol keeps turning up everywhere they look. After interrogating an incredibly anxious and shy art student they learn that the symbol has a connection to Millie Jane’s diary and that it is located in many places around the school, including the girl’s dormitory. After foiling a fake ghost sighting by Pomline’s boyfriend, Olive begins searching some of the inner most parts of the school. She eventually comes across a secret passageway, marked by the same symbol, which leads to corridors behind the school dormitories. Going it alone she discovers that a creature wearing an Arkham jumpsuit has been living behind her room and has collected pictures of her and her mysterious mother. Leaving us on another captivating cliffhanger.
The series’ art, by Karl Kerschl, is another one of its high points. The look and feel of the book is appears to be heavily influenced by Japanese mange, with certain character’s wide eyes and the way anxiety is depicted. This could be seen as a hindrance to an American audience, but fits in perfectly with the fun but eerie tone of the book. The characters are drawn beautifully as well, Olive with her stark white hair and red eyes, and Pomline’s dark, harsh, and yet sympathetic features. It seems like a lot of times in comics a character’s race can get lost somewhere in the artistic process, but here we see Maps and Kyle Mizoguchi are clearly depicted as Asian-American bother and sister. It is also nice to see Bruce Wayne somewhat objectified in his v-neck and blazer during his brief appearances.
Gotham Academy works because it knows exactly what it is. It knows that it’s drawing from YA books like the Harry Potter series, with its massive old school filled with mysteries, classroom lessons that pertain to the book’s universe—like Gotham History 201—and down to the Hogwarts like uniforms they wear. It also takes a nice sampling from Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. These are kids who, as far as we know, don’t have any kind of mystical powers, they strictly rely on their gumption and intellect to solve mysteries and get them out of tight scrapes. What it does not do is simply rely on its thematic predecessors. It embraces these stories, but also forges its own, while also maintaining its presence in the world of Gotham, without leaning on established characters (the v-neck wearing Bruce Wayne cameo aside). This balancing act is not only tricky, but near flawlessly executed.