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Interview: School’s Out for ‘Gotham Academy’

Gotham Academy Second Semester 12 header

Gotham Academy is one of the few truly young adult comics published by DC; a boarding-school story set in the Batman universe, it revolves around a group of teenagers who were unique to this series, especially Olive Silverlock, who comes into her second year with a dark secret and an unsolved mystery, and her younger friend Maps, whose enthusiasms include exploring, role-playing games, and solving mysteries. It’s a great setup for a comic series, and we had a lively roundtable discussion when the first volume came out.

Now Gotham Academy is coming to an end—sort of. The monthly comic series will end with Gotham Academy: Second Semester #12, due out tomorrow, but the graphic novels live on, with a new edition of volume 1 available via Scholastic this fall, and the final collected edition, Gotham Academy: Second Semester, vol. 2 due out in November. And after that? Nobody had any specifics, but the creators and their editors clearly have a lot of affection for these characters, and the door has been left open for more.

We talked to the three original creators of the series, Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl, and we’re starting with something very special: A set of visual bookends, double-page spreads from the first and last issues that show the characters at the beginning and the end of the series. The first one, by Karl Kerschl, occurs early in the first issue, showing Olive and Maps walking across the Gotham Academy campus and the other characters, who haven’t been introduced yet, going about their business. (Click image to enlarge.)

Gotham Academy spread 1

The second, by Adam Archer, Sandra Hope, and Michelle Assarasakorn (MSASSYK), appears in the final issue as the school year comes to an end—and be warned, the careful reader might notice some spoilers:

Gotham Academy Second Semester Spread

“We have always wanted to do a really thorough denouement, or epilogue, and check in with all the kids,” said Fletcher, “but unfortunately in monthly comics we don’t have the extra space. So we went back to the device from issue 1, which is when we first got to see a lot of the characters of Gotham Academy, and we used that device to check in with all those characters to see where they are after the fact, after the grand finale. So we get to see Gotham Academy in a new light after we’ve been telling the story for a few years, after the story has taken place for a school year, and see what’s happened with the school, see what’s happened with the characters, and we see it all in this beautiful double-page spread that is based on Karl’s original art, but it’s been reworked—and instead of looking all dour and dark and rainy, it’s now sunny and hopeful. The school might be a little worse for wear, but everything is looking up, and the kids are all in new places, and it feels like a nice bookend to three years’ worth of work.”

Here’s more of our conversation with the Gotham Academy creators.

Gotham Academy 1What do you think were the best moments in the story?

Fletcher: Anything emotional between Maps and Olive—those moments where it feels like either a friendship is tested or someone is in trouble and doesn’t know how to find a solution, and the other person is there and steps up for them.

This series walks a line between a Batman comic and a young adult novel: It includes things that regular Batman readers would enjoy, but at the same time it’s very accessible to new readers who don’t have that background. How did you find a good balance?

Fletcher: I think it’s just keeping the focus on the kids. The more violent, adult world of Batman is still taking place outside the walls of Gotham Academy, and part of the story that we’re telling is how this adult world creeps in and affects the kids, but really it’s a story about these kids and how they persevere in this dark, adult world through their tenacity and through their friendships.

Karl, did you change or temper your art style in any way to make it more accessible to readers who are new to comics?

Kerschl: Not at all. If anything it was completely untempered. It’s storytelling devices and stylistic techniques that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time that really lent themselves well to this type of story. I don’t think we ever talked down to anyone or treated it like a book for children. We just tried to make the characters and archetypes and settings as simple as possible so they were accessible to everyone.

How did you balance the storytelling demands of a monthly comic with the need to produce something that will read well in graphic novel form?

Cloonan: First I would always think of the full six-issue story arc and then break it down and try to make each issue fulfilling.

Fletcher: We are writing for the whole, but we also know that we only have 20 pages a month, and the end of that 20-page sequence should provide the feeling of a cliffhanger. It should be the feeling that you want to come back next month, so we have to give you a tantalizing something to bring you back.

Cloonan: And if we had a cliffhanger from the issue before, we had to wrap that one up in this issue, build a new confrontation and tension, and then cliffhang that one. It’s this weird cycle every month, and I don’t think there was an issue that went by where I felt like we had enough pages.

Gotham Academy vol 2Why did you set the story in a boarding school?

Cloonan: I think it went back to when I was first talking to [Marvel editor] Mark Doyle about pitching a book, and it just came out—it was just like “What about Gotham Academy?” and he said, “What’s that,” and I said, “What if Hogwarts was in Gotham?” There’s no way that couldn’t be amazing. You just set up a whole story with that one kernel of an idea, and it just explodes. There’s so many different ways it can go. I wish I could go back in time and go to this school, with the history there, and the secret passages—I guess they are tropes, but they are still things that spark my imagination as an adult.

It’s that idea of having a place you would want to escape to outside of your life, but also [with] characters that are completely relatable. I really felt like these characters took on a life of their own outside the page. We are hoping the readers have that also, to try to build a place that’s bigger than what we’ve made it, so when you close the book, you still feel like it’s a real place and the stories are still swimming around in your head. I like the idea of stories that will stick with me afterwards and I will think about.

Kerschl: All credit goes to Becky. The boarding school setting was hers, that’s her jam to begin with, and on top of that, most importantly, our instincts would have been to stick a bunch of preexisting Batman characters and Batman stuff into that school and Becky said “No, no, no it’s all new kids.” And then we went with that, and she was right.

How do you, as adults, write teens authentically?

Fletcher: None of us have really grown up!

Cloonan: For me personally, when I approach these characters I try not to approach them in a way that I would try to be a teenager now, or try to talk on their level or talk down to them. It was always coming from a very honest place of these characters are not just teenagers, they are people, and just because they are going through a certain time period in their life doesn’t mean I should treat them differently as characters. And a lot of it too was based on real feelings that I had. Olive and Maps, their dynamic reminds me of my best friend when I was growing up. It’s a bittersweet kind of story, and a lot of that is still fresh in my head when I go back to it and remember it. So I try to imbue these characters with those kinds of feelings that are still very real to me.

Gotham Academy Second Semester 12Did you know in the beginning how the story was going to end?

Fletcher: We had a different ending at the very beginning. The double page spread is kind of a spoiler in that it implies that it ends happily, that everyone is there and everyone is friendly with one another, and that is not the original intention.

Cloonan: We had a little bit of a sadder ending planned, but in the end we covered all the ground we had planned on covering and we got to the same point; it’s just we chose the happier ending. But it surprises me how close we were able to stick to our original road map for this series.

When you look back and see this as a body of work, how do you feel about it, and do you feel it’s different from the other things you have done in your careers?

Kerschl: It’s a lot of different feelings. Foremost for me, I look at these volumes of work and I think about at just being blessed to do this work with my friends. We got to create something together, and there’s proof of it in front of us. I get very emotional. Putting the last strokes on that last cover was really difficult. I’m proud of the work. I love those characters. I’m just glad they exist.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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