Sunday, 3 May 2015

Gotham Academy, Volume 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy Review (Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher)

When the New 52 launched three and a bit years ago, one of the biggest complaints was the lack of variety in the lineup - it seemed like DC was catering solely for thirtysomething white males who only wanted to see violence and women dressed in as little clothing as possible. And of course lots and lots of Batman! 

It’s taken them a while but DC have gotten the message! Gotham Academy joins the new Batgirl series as a title very deliberately marketed at the tween girl demo. This is definitely a good thing. In the same breath, I strongly disliked the comic because I’m not a tween girl and am in the older white male category! That’s not to say I want Gotham Academy to fit itself around my interests - I think there should be titles in DC’s catalogue that aren’t for me - but there’s a conflict of tastes here in why I didn’t like the comic. 

With that out the way, I still say this is a poor comic for reasons beyond me not being in the target audience. I don’t know how a tween girl thinks, never will and have no interest in finding out, but I’m going to guess that they look for the same things most people who read for pleasure look for: good story and characters. And Gotham Academy has neither. 

The title: Gotham Academy. What springs to mind? A school in Gotham. Great, boring. How to turn that into something worth reading about? Hmm… well, tie in Batman of course, and he does make a couple cameos, along with one of his lesser rogues towards the end. But really Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher have no clue what to do either so we get an assortment of strange odds and ends, none of which are particularly interesting. 

A number of students are convinced a ghost is haunting the grounds and they decide to investigate: Scooby-Doo! Our protagonist is Olive, a cute girl who broke up with a cute boy over the summer and is shyly courting another cute boy: Dawson’s Creek! And let’s crowbar in an extremely kid-friendly Batman subplot too! So what’s the story of Gotham Academy? Er… stuff happens? 

Then we have our protagonist, Olive Silverlock (who fortuitously has locks of silver hair!). She becomes chaperone to freshman “Maps” Mizoguchi (who’s also the kid sister of Olive’s next cute potential boyfriend - her nickname comes from enjoying D&D maps). I can understand why Cloonan/Fletcher have put these two together in a Batman-themed comic: they’re the tween girl equivalent of classic Batman and Robin. Olive is quiet but clever, headstrong, and resourceful (Bruce Wayne/Batman) while Maps is the bubbly talkative sidekick who helps draw out Olive from stewing in her own head (Dick Grayson/Robin). They’re both amateur sleuths and Olive saves Maps and others when trouble arises. Ok.

Except there’s very little to connect the reader to Olive. She’s very distant and unknowable for the most part. Bruce Wayne was like that but he made up for it by being Batman - that’s why we kept reading, to see that transformation and the ensuing adventure. Olive is Olive and she’s basically a boring girl. She does her homework, she has crushes, she’s awkward, etc. Nothing really stands out though (that’s not entirely true, there is one scene and a flashback that hints at more going on with her but I’m keeping this review spoiler-free and I felt it was too little too late anyway). 

It doesn’t help that she keeps talking about the past summer where something happened that changed her life and we never find out what. But that about sums up her character: the reader is kept at arm’s length the whole time so it’s that much harder to give a damn about what happens to her. 

Karl Kerschl’s art gives this comic the look of a Saturday morning kid’s TV show, which fits in with the overall tone of the book, so it’s appropriate. It’s set in Gotham so it’s very gothic but more so in a Harry Potter sense than in any scary, imposing way. I didn’t hate it but I felt it was quite bland especially in how that particular Batman’s rogue was sanitised to look less terrifying. The headmaster’s design made me smile though, taking his aesthetic cue from the performance artist supervillain look that’s so prevalent in Gotham! 

I do think this is the right direction DC need to be moving in: diversifying and appealing to a growing comics audience that is filling up with more and more female readers who’re looking for comics for them. But I also think that same audience would want less cliched stories and more engaging, imaginative ones with protagonists who are less cold and distant and more personable like Marvel’s Kamala Khan. 

Clearly Gotham Academy wasn’t aimed at a reader like me but even with lowered standards and trying to look at this from a kid’s point of view, this was pretty damn weak. Keep plugging away guys but aim to make a more powerful impression - give Gotham Academy, Olive and co. a stronger identity with the storylines and don’t be afraid to move away from Batman!

Gotham Academy, Volume 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy

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