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Roundtable: Gotham Academy

gothamacademy01It’s an exciting time for superhero comics. DC and Marvel have both begun paying attention to the diversity of their fans and are starting to publish comics with wider audiences in mind. DC in particular has always had something for younger kids (though not nearly enough), but in October 2014 they initiated a significant push towards reaching teen readers and girls in particular. Batgirl #35 changed the focus of that series towards a younger crowd, and DC introduced Gotham Academy the same month.

Billed as “a new, monthly teen drama set in the shadow of Batman and the craziness of Gotham City,” Gotham Academy promised a combination of new and old characters as well as ghosts, romance, and secrets about Gotham City’s past. We read the first six issues – written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher, drawn by Karl Kerschl, and collected as Gotham Academy, Volume 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy – and sat down to talk about what we thought. Some minor spoilers are discussed, but nothing that will reveal the overall plot or central mystery of the book.

Just to set the table for our discussion, what’s your history with Batman and his world? How did your previous experience with Gotham affect your expectations or hopes for Gotham Academy?

Esther: I have a pretty rudimentary knowledge of Batman. I’ve read a few comics, caught a movie or two, and have read about Batman and his world. So coming into this comic, it was refreshing that I didn’t feel like I was missing a whole lot, because I didn’t know anything about it. My basic knowledge was just enough to appreciate the Batman stuff that was in it.

Robin: I mainly knew Batman from the 1989-onward movies, the animated series, and then comics, including titles like Batman: The Killing Joke and the whole “Bruce Wayne, Murderer?” arc. I dabble in reading Batman when the mood strikes – I’ve always enjoyed the characters who are superheroes through smarts and skill (and, of course, in Batman’s case, money), and so I tend to prefer Batman to Superman and his ilk. As for Gotham Academy, it felt most to me in premise like Gotham Central (a series I adore) in that it was set in Gotham, but I knew Batman would likely be a cameo at most.

Mike: I’m a pretty die-hard Batman fan. I’ve been reading the comics since the mid-1980s, right around the time Dark Knight Returns came out and Batman: Year One debuted in the actual comics.

Lori: I know Batman mostly from TV and movies: the 1960s TV show, all the live action movies, and some of the cartoons such as Batman: The Animated Series. I was never interested enough to pick up the comics. I didn’t really have any expectations for Gotham Academy. Word of mouth was that it was a well-written title, so my hope was that what people were saying was true.

Scott: I’ve read Batman comics, comics that feature Batman; I’ve watched movies, cartoons, TV shows—I think I have a pretty decent working knowledge of the character and his world to be ready for Gotham Academy. Even with a working knowledge, I wanted to go into this series with no preconceived ideas and look at it with fresh eyes.

Michael: I grew up with the Adam West TV show and Super Friends, then eventually got familiar with the comics in the ‘90s. Been a big fan of most of the movies and animated shows, too, so I feel like I have a great handle on the world of Gotham, even though I’m not totally up on current events. Like Robin, I assumed that this would be like Gotham Central though: set in Gotham, but not dependent on other comics set there.

gothamacademy02Who’s your favorite character in the series and why?

Esther: The truth is, I liked the plot and story a lot, but none of the characters really connected with me all that much. But if you’re going to pin me to a wall, I’ll pick Maps. There was something endearing about her eagerness and she seemed all innocent, but then you realized there was more under the top layer.

Robin: I’d have to go with Maps, too, for her enthusiasm, but I think I probably relate a bit more to Olive in her reserve and her tendency to be an observer much of the time. I really enjoy her curiosity tempered by caution.

Lori: I liked all of the characters, but I have to go with Esther and Robin. Maps was a great character. I loved all of her geekiness, especially her roleplaying/D&D obsession, and putting everything they were finding in a gaming perspective.

Scott: I was most interested in Olive mainly because of all the intrigue surrounding her—who is her mother, what happened to her that summer and what will become of her now that her powers have been revealed? But the other characters are certainly distinct, especially in their design.

Michael: Maps sure is endearing, but Olive is my favorite. I’m gonna echo Robin again and say that I very much relate to Olive’s reserve. And like Scott, I love the mystery around Olive, too. I was hoping for a different family connection than the one that’s revealed, but the volume suggests that Olive could have other connections to Batman’s world than what we’ve seen so far. All has not been revealed, and I like that a lot.

gothamacademy03There’s a bit of a Harry Potter/Hogwarts vibe, though not in any kind of annoying, mimicking way. Is that an appropriate comparison? How do you think fans of Harry Potter would respond to Gotham Academy?

Esther: Well, I’m a huge Harry Potter Fan, though I have not re-read the books in a long time, and until you made the comparison it didn’t occur to me. Probably because I was in the “super-hero world” mode, not in a fantasy mode.

Robin: I immediately saw the Hogwarts connection—and I’ve been pitching the book to my interested teens as “Batman meets Hogwarts” for shorthand. I think the only thing that might annoy Harry Potter fans is that they’ll have to wait quite a while for a broadening and deepening of the Gotham Academy world. With the Harry Potter novels, you got hundreds of pages and plot, whereas, as rich as comics can be, they just can’t provide the same in-depth story quite as immediately. Still, I think a lot of the adventure fantasy fans out there will be happy to pick this series up.

Lori: I didn’t really make the Harry Potter/Hogwarts connection, though I can see it now that it was brought up. I was thinking more of Scooby-Doo, with the ghost busting that Olive was determined to do. I think it’s a very appropriate comparison though, and the series is a good substitute until an actual Harry Potter comic/graphic novel is available.

Scott: There’s certainly a similar “look ‘n feel” going on between Gotham Academy and Hogwarts. As well, the kind of off-the-wall-type teachers gives a bit of a nod to the teachers in Harry’s world. I think there’s enough of a difference to not be seen as a blatant rip-off. However, I think any young-readers series set in a school will automatically have comparisons to Hogwarts and that’s OK.

Michael: I think it was the school setting coupled with the lightly spooky tone that brought that to mind for me. I like Lori’s Scooby-Doo comparison too, especially the recent Mystery, Inc. show that explored the school and relationships of the Scooby-Doo gang in greater detail. It’s certainly true, like Robin says, that Gotham Academy isn’t as detailed yet as Hogwarts immediately is. And I’m not sure that that’s what it’s even going for.

gothamacademy04Do you like the ghost story approach? Was that handled as well as you’d like?

Esther: Did I predict the outcome? Yes. But I’m never sure if I predicted it because I’m an adult reading a book meant for a young teen, or if it was just that predictable. But teens like scary ghosts, and this certainly gave a real spooky feel to it.

Robin: I enjoyed the way the creators were playing around with a trope common in both boarding school tales and traditional ghost stories. I think it works even if you can predict what’s coming, and it will still surprise the younger teen readers who may not have run across the familiar twists yet.

Lori: I did like the use of the ghost story. It gave the series a nice supernatural flair while also providing backstory for the world and the Academy. It is a fairly predictable trope, but it was handled well and didn’t feel like one.

Scott: I’ve always enjoyed Batman stories where a bit of the supernatural is added in, so I enjoyed the ghost story approach as well. I hope they continue with it.

Michael: I’m always a huge fan of ghost stories and this is a good one. I don’t think my brain was even trying to solve it, I was just so thrilled with the setting and characters. And my curiosity was pretty engaged with Olive’s past, so that was another distraction from trying to figure out the ghost. The end result was that I was totally along for the ride with the plot, which is a rare and welcome thing.

gothamacademy05What do you think of the art, especially in terms of its contribution to character and mood?

Esther: The art was tight. It really rounded out the story by giving it an eerie tone. It spooked me out. It engrossed me.

Robin: I thought it was great—distinct from your typical Batman style and really engaging for teens who are used to a wide range of styles and colors from animation and anime. Karl Kerschl balances well the background detail and attention to atmosphere with a clean character design that suits the girls perfectly.

Lori: I loved the art. The characters are really distinct and the color was subdued, perfect for the atmosphere. There was a lot of great detail too, and things really start to pop out on later reads.

Scott: I also thought the art was absolutely gorgeous, and it was consistent throughout the six chapters. I think that’s a huge feat for a monthly comic book series. That said, there were a few places where I found the panel layouts to be a bit confusing. I understand the importance of being inventive with layouts, but it should never sacrifice story flow and clarity.

Michael: I’m already a big fan of Kerschl from his webcomic The Abominable Charles Christopher and loved seeing his approach to the kids of Gotham Academy. They’re so expressive, which made a huge impact on my feelings about them. And special shout out to the various colorists for a wonderfully moody but still colorful palette. That sets exactly the right tone for the book.

gothamacademy06The kids befriend Batman villain Croc in the story. In traditional Batman comics, that character is a homicidal criminal called Killer Croc, but Gotham Academy ignores that in favor of making him a sympathetic lost soul. What are your thoughts on how Croc is used?

Esther: So here is my basic knowledge rearing its ugly head: I didn’t know this was a Batman character.

Robin: It struck me a bit as a Frankenstein sort of nod—that monsters are not always monsters and are often driven to be monsters by other forces. So, he may be or become a villain, but that doesn’t mean he’s a raging maniac 24/7.

Lori: I didn’t have a problem with how Croc was used. Like Robin said, he may be a villain, he doesn’t have to be all the time. It was established that Croc was helping Olive as a way to repay Olive’s mother for her kindness, and even homicidal criminals can repay debts. I don’t think anything was ignored, but it was more that he was given more dimensions than just the killer criminal he was in the comics.

Scott: I think this is something that happens often in comic book series based in large superhero universes—writers will change characters to suit their story needs—and I think that’s what’s been done here. I’m sure there are uber fans out there that will not be happy with this, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. The writers here needed a Frankenstein’s Monster type character and Croc fit the bill. Either that or Solomon Grundy was off limits.

Michael: I agree with you guys. This certainly isn’t the first time that the character’s been toned down for younger readers. The other times I’m thinking of have been in series like Batman Adventures or Tiny Titans that are set in their own continuities, but I love your comments about people being multi-faceted and that the circumstances in Gotham Academy could reasonably motivate Croc to be more gentle. Whatever the reason, I’m glad of it. Kids love human-animal hybrid characters and Croc is a cool-looking one.

gothamacademy07What do you think of Batman’s role in the story? How is it similar to or different from the way he’s traditionally used?

Esther: Batman is used subtly, which makes sense. Ultimately, I think, the comic is meant to be about the Academy and hopefully he will make more cameo appearances, but if he had been around more, it would have detracted from the school setting.

Robin: I think his influence can be everywhere, but I’d prefer him to remain offscreen most of the time.

Lori: I liked his cameos as Bruce Wayne, which made sense as a sponsor for the school as well as Olive’s scholarship. But the more Batman is kept offscreen, or in the small cameos, the better.

Scott: The writers were smart to have him appear here but without overdoing it. It’s a springboard to DC’s Batman comics for readers who prefer to read comics with him as a main character. His appearances both as Bruce Wayne and Batman definitely enrich the backstory of Gotham Academy.

Michael: Olive’s reaction to him is really interesting. Before she knows her own backstory, she instinctively distrusts Batman. The reason I think that’s so cool is that Batman is sort of the ultimate authority figure. Even more so than the teachers, who can be sneaked around if the kids are clever enough. There’s no sneaking around Batman. If he shuts the kids down, they’re down. That makes him a huge obstacle, so I also hope that he’s used very sparingly. I don’t know what the writers have in mind, but using him this way in the first volume could be a great explanation for why we won’t be seeing much of him in the future.

gothamacademy08Going forward, would you like to see Batman and his supporting cast used more or less than they were in this volume?

Robin: I’m fine with referencing other Bat-family characters as we go—otherwise what’s the point of setting it in Gotham?—but I hope the creators can keep it focused on the girls’ storyline and work in connections that make sense, plot-wise. I wouldn’t want a parade of celebrity cameos, but I do like a nod to where they are and who they might encounter as long as it suits the story.

Scott: I’m a big fan of Easter Eggs and I enjoyed recognizing a bunch of them in this series. Like Robin said, the book is set in Gotham, so use the mythology and characters that are associated with the city. Batman has over 75 years of publication history to draw upon.

Michael: I agree. I don’t want to see Batman coming in often to spoil the kids’ fun, but having Robin or Batgirl or some villains pop up would be a lot of fun. I totally want to see this gang outsmart the Joker, for instance.

gothamacademy09What other thoughts do you have about the first volume?

Esther: Ultimately, it felt like a set up for the series. It sort of brought everyone together as a team, and potentially we’ll see more and learn about more of the characters.

Robin: I like it as a different path into the Gotham/DC universe, and I think it manages to sidestep the problem of relying too heavily on referencing Batman. New readers can dig right in without worrying that they’re missing major clues. It feels appropriate that the central story is a mystery, which is what Batman is often tangling with in his tales. We have a new generation of investigators entering the field and I like that they’re not sidekicks or superheroes (at least not yet).

Lori: It was just a lot of fun. New readers can get in without having to know every little detail about Batman, but more seasoned fans will enjoy the references that are in there. I loved the Mystery Inc. vibe, and thought the kids made a great team.

Scott: There’s a lot of potential in this series, and I hope it will be a model for DC (and possibly Marvel) to go out on a limb and try publishing more books that are a bit different and are actually written for middle grade or teen readers.

gothamacademy10What other hopes do you have for where the series goes from here?

Esther: I’m not sure. I’d like to see Robin or other characters from the universe. How about Batgirl as the school librarian? But ultimately, I’d like to see what else the teens can uncover.

Robin: I believe this started as a limited series, but I think it has potential to be a long-lasting series with all kinds of points of view, and nooks and crannies in the Academy to explore. I hope it might spin out in a variety of ways over time, and I appreciate how it adds a solid cast of young, not-necessarily-superhero characters to the Gotham landscape.

Lori: I just want the series to keep going. It’s so easy for good titles to still get the axe. I want to see these kids continue to develop as well as uncover the mysteries at Gotham Academy. This is the first DC series in decades that I’ve been excited to read and really want it stay that way.

Scott: I’m curious to see Olive develop as a character and have more of her backstory revealed. I’m also curious to see if any of the other major characters will have connections to Batman’s world.

Michael: I’d love to find out that the other characters have connections to people in the DCU at large. But it’s funny: I have no desire to see any of this cast put on a costume to fight crime outside of the school. I want it to stay self-contained and special, rather than feed DC’s larger superhero universe. I love that DC is experimenting with other genres outside of superheroes and I hope it’s very successful so that they’ll keep doing it.

Michael May About Michael May

Michael May has been writing about comics for a little over a decade. He started as a reviewer for Comic World News and soon became editor-in-chief of the site. Leaving editorial duties to focus on writing, he joined The Great Curve, the comics blog that eventually became Blog@Newsarama and finally Comic Book Resources' Robot 6. In addition to loving comics, he loves his son and enjoys nothing more than finding (and writing about) awesome comics for the boy to read.

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