Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy (DC)
Written by Becky Cloonan & Brenden Fletcher, drawn by Karl Kerschel with Mingjue Helen Chen
Collects Gotham Academy #1-6
A week or so ago I went on another library requesting spree. I wound up with something like eight New 52 trades that I was curious about. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much to like about three of them and skipped a few others. Not feeling like ragging on anyone in particular, I was glad to find that I enjoyed the first volumes of Gotham Academy and the new Batgirl.
These books work well together not just because they’re both set in Gotham and were launched around the same time, but also deal with far different tones than you might see in Scott Snyder’s Batman (a book I love). There are also a lot of little connections between the two, like the mention of the band Ashes On Sunday in GA that winds up playing a big part in Batgirl and the eventual Black Canary series (which is written by Fletcher).
But, the real draw for me when it comes to Gotham Academy is the mystery/horror vibe going on. It’s very Gothic (yup, I took a Gothic lit class in college) when you think about the fact that main character Olive Silverlock is wandering around a big, spooky school that might be haunted, has a complicated romantic relationship, a crazy mother and a big event last summer she can’t remember. To temporally temper all these old school elements you’ve got the wildly enthusiastic sidekick Maps, the super nice and understanding boyfriend, the mean girl at school who wants to find ghosts, her boyfriend and a few teachers and administrators who are delightful nods to the 1960s Batman TV show (‘sup Bookworm!). The main mystery of the book revolves around these characters trying to figure out if the school is haunted, but there’s so much more going on that the variety of mysteries kept me flipping pages as quickly as I could.
I have to take a moment here and talk about how much I love the character of Maps. She reminds me a lot of Adam Goldberg, the main character on The Goldbergs (which you should definitely watch). The beauty of both of these characters is that they are super passionate about the things they are geeky about and truly don’t care what other people think about that. She also makes me think she would fit in perfectly in the Scott Pilgrim universe. Her personality is brought to the page perfectly by Kerschl who positions her in every panel to convey both her intense energy and her excitement. He does the same with the other characters, who ooze various emotions even when they’re trying to hide them (insecurity, self-possession, wonder, fear, boredom, power, etc.). He also kills the action scenes and, with the coloring team, does a great job of making this book bounce back and forth between the fear that comes in the dark of night and the clarity that comes in the light of day.
Batgirl Vol. 1: The Batgirl of Burnside (DC)
Written by Cameron Stewart & Brenden Fletcher, drawn by Stewart & Babs Tarr with Irene Koh
Collects Batgirl #35-40, Secret Origins #10
And then there’s Batgirl, a reboot that seems more lighthearted (especially more so than the previous run on the book) but also continues to deal with Batgirl’s terrible past. If you didn’t know, she was still shot by the Joker in the New 52, but was healed thanks to some bleeding edge tech that allows for internal communication between her brain and body. All of this is is wrapped up in a hip bow between the new costume, the Williamsburg-esque setting of Burnside and the multitude of references to Anime, social media, freelancers and tech startups. The heart of the story, though is that, just as Barbara Gordon is getting her life together (new research focus, new roommates, new friends, potential new boyfriend, new fame) someone swoops in in an attempt to seemingly steal her life.
I must admit, I wasn’t so big on this book going in. Not because I’m against the diversification of the cast or the “bold new direction” for the character, but because I was pretty confused by the first issue when I read it upon release several months back. I thought it did a great job of setting up Barbara’s life, but didn’t do the same to explain who Batgirl is or why she runs around fighting crime. You get that information as this trade progresses, but it does take a little time to get there, which I think was a bit of a misstep considering the huge heat this book had going in and the (I assume) legions of new readers it pulled in. Also, the SPOILER lack of Batman throughout any of these issues felt odd to me, especially considering the high profile Batgirl started creating for herself, but maybe that’s addressed later (I also have no idea what Batman is up to in the modern Gotham as I’m still reading Zero Year).
However, once I had the trade in hand, I was along for the ride. I still have trouble bouncing my knowledge of old school DCU characters off of what’s happening in the New 52, but I try to put that aside. And, frankly, of all the characters in the New 52, Babs retains a good deal of her old story elements, which I appreciate as a nerd. Speaking of which, I love how nerdy this book gets in regards to Anime and tech. I don’t understand half of this stuff (and I don’t need to), but I’m always a fan of seeing passionate people talk passionately about things they love and this book is full of that. Hey, there’s another connection between BG and GA.
You know who must be passionate about their work? Babs Tarr. Holy wowzers, this is a fun book to look at thanks to Stewart’s layouts and her finishes. Between the social media alerts and text messages popping up all over the place, you might things would get confusing, but these densely packed pages perfectly convey what’s happening at all times in ways that look exactly like they should given the setting. There are also some fascinating panels and pages that recreate Barbara’s genius brain like when she tries to remember the party in the first issue that are just amazing to pour over.
Before diving into both of these books I happened upon an article by Juliet Kahn over on Comics Alliance called “Smart, Nice and Sassy: ‘Good Girl’ Role Models Make Boring Heroes.” The idea is that the creators of books like Batgirl and Hawkeye try to create female characters who are good role models for kids at the expense of having them be more real, ugly and prone to mistakes like many male characters. I didn’t personally find that to be the case in Batgirl. She screws up a lot. Trying to harness her own social media presence as a hero in line with Batman? Bad call. Accidentally blowing up Black Canary’s apartment? No good. Thinking she’d gotten past all the trauma in her life because she moved into a hip neighborhood? Clearly a problem.
I appreciate what Kahn says about wanting female characters in line with the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of the world, but that’s not what this book is. This book is about a 20-something kid trying to put her life back together and make sense of things that sometimes don’t make sense. Even if you’re not a fan of the ultra-hip-at-times aspects of the story, I think you can relate to those aspects of just trying to muscle through life and make it work for you even when you’re paying for it on the other end.