Review: Gotham Academy Vol. 2: Calamity trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 13, 2017

With a series of connected but mostly standalone one-and-two issue stories, Becky Cloonan and Brendan Fletcher's Gotham Academy Vol. 2: Calamity likely better reflects this series's actual status quo than the first volume's six-issue cast- and scene-setting. Calamity is entertaining as Gotham Academy goes, and likely more subtly complex than most other books on the stands.

At the same time -- though I grant I may not be Gotham Academy's wholly intended audience -- I thought the "monster of the week" format gave too much license for stories that were silly rather than mysterious or scary, and there's an occasional leap of logic here (mostly by dint of events in other books) that took me out of the story. Equally, however, there's a darn good Bat-family cameo late in this volume, and it's hard to argue with Gotham Academy being pulled closer in to the Batman titles' orbit.

[Review contains spoilers]

A Nerdist review recognizes Gotham Academy's dual roots in both Harry Potter and CW television, and Calamity was strongest for me when it skewed into the CW territory. I find Academy's breakout character Maps Mizoguchi less amusing than interesting, and I'm sooner invested in the CW-style rivalry between tennis champ Kyle Mizoguchi and brooding teen Man-Bat Tristan Grey (because of course that's his name) over the heart of Olive Silverlock. This extends to Olive's struggle to understand her mother's super-villainous nature, though at the point in which the reader understands pretty clearly that it is not Olive's mother haunting the characters, neither in person nor as an apparition, I felt the story dragged a bit while we waited for the characters to catch up. The end of the book is buffeted however by a Red Robin appearance (drawn well by Karl Kerschl and written nicely without his trademark New 52 snobbishness) and Kyle's truly surprising kidnapping, lending excitement to the finale.

Indeed Calamity waxed and waned for me. I don't turn up my nose at a single issue with guest art spotlighting Maps and with a team up with Damian "Robin" Wayne, but that the characters are forced to hold hands because of a magic quill pen came off too cutesy for my tastes. Similarly the "DC You" preview at the front of the book spoils that oddball student Katherine Karlo is Clayface, so I felt impatient there too for the characters to catch up. There's good inter-character drama in the werewolf story, but obviously the werewolf is the too-angry coach; it's for these reasons that the genuine surprises in the book's end are so much more welcome.

As well, I had trouble at times getting in to the story because I wasn't sure what we were supposed to understand as true, false, or undetermined. Calamity launches from the apparent death of Olive's mother, complete with funeral and casket, though we last saw Sybil "Calamity" Silverlock venturing out into the cold, alive, at the end of Arkham Manor. It's feasible Sybil died then, but we're never given any details (the funeral sequence is from Maps and Kyle's perspective), and frankly at the end of Gotham Academy Vol. 1 it didn't seem Olive knew all that much about her mother at all herself, so the amount that's transpired behind the scenes is jarring.

Also at some point a newspaper report suggests Calamity has caused a fire in downtown Gotham, but we never see such fire, and later we understand that Hugo Strange has been trying to influence Olive, so I'm not sure if the report was factual or set up by Strange. The Gotham Academy stories take place in a bubble, with information filtered through certain characters' perceptions and few if any cut scenes taking place off campus grounds; it makes for unique, subtly claustrophobic storytelling, but also confuses things around the edges. Between the pages, too, apparently Professor Milo has been shunted from the school for experimenting on students, something handled oddly sanguinely in Gotham Academy perhaps because it mainly took place (with different details) over in Batman Eternal.

I do find Maps a tad cloying, I'm sorry to say, but she's admittedly the best constructed character of Cloonan and Fletcher's story. In the first chapter Maps is considering the addition of a fellow student to her imagined monster-hunting team; the narrative isn't overt, but we understand that the student has no idea the give and take going on in Maps's head, and that indeed whole worlds rise and fall in Maps's imagination without anyone else being the wiser.

It's coincidence, perhaps even unfortunate, that Maps exists in a world where the unreal tends to arrive at her doorstep, up to and including two different Robins; a variety of instances show that Maps can't realistically discern her own place in her world. For one, Maps often interjects herself into "grown up" situations; her parents tell older brother Kyle that he'll have to look after Olive after her mother's death, and Maps insists she has the same responsibility even as she doesn't fully understand the implications. As well, Maps seems to grieve when Kyle is kidnapped, but it's a ploy such to go to his rescue; even within the tropes of superhero comics, it's clear Maps lacks a sense of danger and self-preservation that the characters around her possess.

Clearly the writers fashion Maps with roots in certain manga tropes that contextualize her behavior somewhat, but I'm not convinced Cloonan and Fletcher aren't setting the character up for an awakening later on. Maps professes herself to be Olive's best friend and Olive goes along with it, but in the case of Olive's mother's death, for instance, Maps is not the one Olive turns to, and I think there's an aspect of just being nice here. I hardly wish such sincere characters ill, but it would be interesting to see what happens were Maps confronted with the truth of her own youth and immaturity.

Gotham Academy Vol. 2: Calamity seems to me to double-down on the Gotham Academy-ness of the first volume, which is its right. I continue to be an advocate for Gotham Academy because it is surely different than standard Bat-family fare and because there's certainly a deserving target audience for Gotham Academy, though I acknowledge again that might not always be me. I'll be joining Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl again for the third volume and the "Robin War" tie-in, and I'll be curious to see whether that volume works out better or worse for me (your results may vary).

[Includes original and variant covers]
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5 comments:

  1. I have a qustion, I bought the first volume and enjoyed it but then saw that with DC Rebirth they started again at Volume 1. Is it a new start? Like introducing the characters again or do they build on what they had already established?

    Also wanted to thank you for the reviews, I enjoy reading them.

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    1. Vol 3: Yearbook is kind of a filler series - lots of vignettes about various characters from different art teams. The new Vol 1: Second Semester is the continuation of the series w/more mysteries about the school, etc. It's not a relaunch or anything (or Rebirth)

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    2. I have not read Second Semester yet but I'm pretty sure it builds on what came before; it may be a "jumping on" point and they might re-introduce the characters for you, but I think everything that came before still happened. The Rebirth books as a whole tend to continue on what came before; it's not starting from scratch like the New 52.

      Thanks for the compliment -- glad you enjoy the site!

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    3. Actually, the Second Semester series did a horrendous job of re-introducing the characters and setting for new readers. I am behind on the series in trades and decided to dive back in with it monthly, as I did with many other Rebirth books, but it was completely impenetrable. So I decided to just go back to reading the trades and get caught up that way. It really is a wonderful comic, but it builds on itself in a way that rewards long-time readers and alienates new readers.

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    4. Well, that's unfortunate, but at least I am intending to get there linearly.

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