Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy.
Taking into consideration DC Comics's three new "Young Gotham" books, I've still got it give it to Grayson Vol. 1, largely due to that phenomenal Futures End tie-in issue, but Gotham Academy is a close second, with Batgirl (a fine title, don't get me wrong) bringing up the rear (and art-wise, Batgirl and Grayson would switch places).
And should you say, "You said Batgirl wasn't superhero-y enough for you, so why favor Gotham Academy, which is barely superhero-y at all," my reply would be, "Exactly." With Batgirl, there's a certain book I want to read, and while I admire many aspects of the new team's new approach to Batgirl, it remains that the book did not have quite the vibe I wanted. Whereas with Gotham Academy, I had no expectations, or at least, the expectations of a story about a creepy, ghostly school with strange goings-on behind every door. Gotham Academy is lush, visually rich, with a fully-realized world, and a story that feels significantly more like a novel than a collection of issues. I was quite pleased with this one.
[Review contains spoilers]
Ostensibly Gotham Academy is supposed to skew "young adult," perhaps due not so much to protagonist Olive Silverlock as perhaps her sidekick "Maps" Mizoguchi, or the general resemblance of the entire school to something out of Harry Potter. But despite that artist Karl Kerschl's work has a "youthful" feel, I found aspects of Gotham Academy convincingly chilling -- not in the least Millie Jane Cobblepot's diary and the walk through the cemetery in the second chapter. And at no point did I think writers Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher were writing down to the reader; frankly, I was surprised by the extent to which the book started in medias res and I had to work to understand who Maps and Kyle were, and so on. I've no idea how the new-new Teen Titans is working out, but I'd be happy to see Cloonan, Fletcher, or Batgirl's Cameron Stewart writing that "teen" book, too.
There was for a while rumors of some sort of "Teen Gotham" series, with a young Bruce Wayne, a young Edward Nigma, etc. Whether this was just fan art or something more, I'm not sure, but admittedly I went into Gotham Academy expecting some sort of analogs; again, that this character tends to favor riddles, this character is kind of "two-faced," and the like. It's probably better that Gotham Academy didn't go for these sly nods, emerging as its own thing with its own characters, but indeed I spent much of my reading time looking for hints in the familiar to the secrets of Academy's central mysteries. And I know enough to know that there's significance to some of these characters -- Ms. Harriet, Professor Milo, Mr. Scarlett with his strange hat -- but not enough to know what they mean. This is some fairly inside Batman baseball, I gather (and hold the spoilers, please!).
Among my favorite characters in Gotham Academy was Tristan Gray (despite that his name sounds like he belongs in a bondage novel). At first seemingly vampiric, Tristan is instead infected with the Man-Bat virus (it's not stated explicitly but I'll imagine that happened during Detective Comics's "The 900"). Going along perhaps with my lookout for analogs, this seemed to me a fine distillation of a Batman villain into something that works in the "teen school" aesthetic of Gotham Academy. I therefore felt just a bit let down by the revelation, or lack thereof, of Olive and her mother's powers, in that there was no clear tie to established Batman villains (though maybe that's coming) and also that Olive's powers seemed a tad supernatural (when I'd rather the horror in a Batman story have a scientific basis, a la Man-Bat).
(Maps is not necessarily my favorite character, but I do applaud Cloonan and Fletcher for Maps's creative use of the word "crap" in any number of sentences; I'm pleasantly surprised DC actually allowed that to go through.)
My theory at the moment, by the way, based almost solely on Olive and Tristan, is that Gotham Academy is indeed some kind of "young Arkham," a place where Bruce Wayne and/or Batman stows children in whom he sees the potential to become his enemies. There's plenty that doesn't explain, however, including why Bruce needs the newly-resurrected Damian to pose as a student there or to steal Millie Cobblepot's diary.
I've been a fan of Karl Kerschl's art since his late 2000s Superman work, and I'm pleased to see the work that was good then has only grown and matured since. I would have identified Kerschl's work as animated and angular then; it's still animated now, but without the pronounced angles, and with significant manga influences that are just right for Gotham Academy. "Lush" is perhaps even too mild a word for how detailed and atmospheric Kerschl's work is here, and I noted a distinct lack of two-page spreads, making every single page something to behold on its own. I think we also can't fail to credit a long list of colorists that work on this book, that undoubtedly helped make it look as good as it does.
Of Grayson, Batgirl, and Gotham Academy, the latter would have been the one I'd have predicted would be the least my speed. But Gotham Academy Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy offers such a compelling mystery and such weird and also well-formed characters, and with a look that's perhaps even farther out of DC Comics's norm than Batgirl is. That Joker: Endgame book can't arrive soon enough; I'm curious to see the new Batgirl team's take on her conflict with the Joker, but I'm even more interested to see Gotham Academy's first forays into the larger Bat-verse. I'm in for the second volume of this one, for sure.
[Includes original and variant covers, sketches, concept art, maps, you name it.]