Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Gotham Academy #15. Featuring short stories by Zac Gorman, Eduardo Medeiros, Rafael Albuquerque, Dave McCaig, and Mingjue Helen Chen with framing sequences by writer Brenden Fletcher, artist-colorist Adam Archer, and inker Sandra Hope, this issue is a delightful jam session that highlights the genre diversity, accessible storytelling, and wise editorial vision that elevate this title. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)
Last month, DC Comics co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee both tweeted cryptic images of a blue curtain with the word “REBIRTH” projected on it, fueling rumors that the company will be relaunching all its titles with new #1 issues later this year. These are still rumors at this point, but with this week’s announcements of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo ending their four-year Batman run and Van Jensen departing The Flash after two years, it’s beginning to look like DC’s current series are coming to an endpoint. Given DC’s obsession with the number 52, it makes sense to speculate that the New 52 era will end when the New 52 launch titles hit issue #52 in May, but if there is indeed a relaunch on the horizon at DC Comics, hopefully it won’t come at the cost of the stand-out titles currently in DC’s line-up.
Low-selling books like Doctor Fate and Midnighter were in danger before Rebirth rumors started flying, and while there’s still a chance for those books to see an uptick in sales once their first collected volumes hit stands (Midnighter: Out hits next week, Doctor Fate: The Blood Price next month), they would be the first titles on the chopping block if DC was planning on cleaning house. That’s especially unfortunate considering they are two titles helping to improve representation at the publisher both on and off the page: Midnighter has a gay lead and a bisexual writer (Steve Orlando), while Doctor Fate has a biracial Egyptian-American hero and a Malaysian co-plotter/artist (Sonny Liew).
Gotham Academy sells better than Doctor Fate and Midnighter, but its numbers are still pretty low. As a book targeted to younger readers, it was always going to perform better in collections, and the first collected volume of Gotham Academy was DC’s second best-selling trade paperback the month it was released. That number doesn’t include digital sales either, which are a complete mystery but likely play a part in Gotham Academy’s survival given the target audience. It’s a pity that Gotham Academy isn’t a bigger success, because on a creative level, it’s one of DC’s most captivating titles. The current “Gotham Academy Yearbook” storyline in particular provides an excellent template for DC editorial to follow if it’s planning on launching a bunch of new #1 issues, showing the value of using creators from outside of superhero comics to tell self-contained stories that incorporate superhero elements while exploring other genres.
Every issue of “Gotham Academy Yearbook” features a variety of short stories primarily by creators with minimal superhero comics experience, presented within the context of the main cast gathering stories to fill a scrapbook in framing sequences by regular series co-writer Brenden Fletcher, artist-colorist Adam Archer, and inker Sandra Hope. Last month’s Gotham Academy #14 had DC veterans Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen (creators of the wonderful Li’l Gotham series and the new DC Comics: Secret Hero Society illustrated novels from Scholastic) detailing the wacky antics of the academy’s “Prank Week,” along with the DC debuts of Katie Cook, who wrote and drew a story about apps turning students into zombies, and Hope Larson and Kris Mukai, who collaborated on an ’80s flashback starring Professor Isla MacPherson in her teen years. It was a fantastic start to the arc, and the yearbook just gets better in this week’s Gotham Academy #15.
Cartoonist Zac Gorman has exhibited remarkable versatility and a sharp sense of humor in his independent comics Magical Game Time and Costume Quest, as well as his work writing Oni Press’ Rick And Morty comic, and his short story “Staff Party” is a hilarious peek at how Gotham Academy’s faculty celebrates. Gorman’s style is far removed from the superhero norm, and his loose, expressive pencils and dense charcoal shading give the story a distinct visual atmosphere. He begins by spotlighting the gothic architecture of the setting, which lends some visual drama to a low-stakes story about how boring faculty functions are, and that contrast between the environment and the situation heightens the humor.
There are no overt superhero elements in Gorman’s story, but that’s part of the appeal. “Staff Party” feels like a slice-of-life comic about feeling alienated at a party, which makes it resonate on a more personal level. It’s also very funny, especially Gorman’s treatment of Professor Egghead, who brings only egg-based snacks to the party and speaks eggsclusively in egg puns. Not much happens, but that’s the point, and the story builds to a great punchline when it cuts to students Maps and Colton spying on the party from behind the wall. “Who’d have thought faculty parties would be so boring?!” Maps asks, to which Colton replies: “Everybody. Literally everybody but you, Maps.” The story is silly and relatively inconsequential, but also lots of fun and boldly rendered, resulting in a charming story that reflects Gorman’s unique point of view.
Eduardo Medeiros and Rafael Albuquerque’s “Serpents & Secrets” is the one story in this issue that really embraces superhero fantasy, but even then, the fantasy element is emphasized more than the superhero element. The Scarecrow compels Maps and Olive to steal a book from Headmaster Hammerhead by hijacking their dreams, sending them on a magical quest inspired by Maps’ favorite tabletop role-playing game, Serpents & Spells. Distinctions aren’t made between the creators’ contributions, but it’s clear that Medeiros draws the scenes in the Academy while Albuquerque handles those in the labyrinth, a wise decision that plays to their strengths.
Medeiros’ art has a simplified, highly exaggerated style that brings a lot of energy to the quieter scenes that bookend the sword and sorcery action, and his animated visuals share a lot in common with cartoonists like Bryan Lee O’Malley and Noelle Stevenson, whose work has proven incredibly popular with younger readers. Albuquerque has considerable experience with superhero comics, and his skills for evocative fantasy design and dynamic action staging are put to good use as Maps and Olive face off against giant spiders and the undead Lich within the labyrinth. Colorist Dave McCaig adjusts his rendering and palette to fit the significant changes in the art, using solid blocks of colors applied at intense angles for Medeiros’ geometric linework while bringing much more texture and gradation to his coloring of Albuquerque’s art. “Swords & Secrets” is a story that is more in line with superhero tradition than the others in this issue, but it pulls heavily from a different genre to give it a fresher perspective. That perspective is also inspired by Maps’ love of RPGs, giving the narrative a stronger tie to the character.
The final short story in this issue is by Mingjue Helen Chen, an art director who has worked on feature films like Frankenweenie, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6, and who is no stranger to Gotham Academy. Chen drew the Damian Wayne-centric issue #7 and has contributed some gorgeous covers for the series, consistently impressing with her lush settings, nuanced characterizations, and radiant coloring. Her contribution to this week’s issue, “Hammin’ Around,” showcases all those elements of Chen’s artwork as it outlines the morning routine of Professor MacPherson’s dog, Ham, offering a look of the Gotham Academy campus through the eyes of an adorable Doberman pinscher. The visuals and narrative content evoke Disney’s recent Academy Award-winning short, “Feast,” which also explored the world through a dog’s-eye-view, and while Chen’s story isn’t quite as emotional as that short, it’s a soft, pleasant note for the issue to end on. It also shows that any story can be engaging in the right hands, and even though the plot is simply a dog going to his secret resting spot, it’s a satisfying yarn thanks to the rich detail Chen brings to the environment and her canine lead.
Gotham Academy’s ties to the Batman family of titles make it a superhero comic by default, but it has benefited by telling stories that think outside the superhero box, incorporating elements of mystery, horror, romance, and fantasy to create a multi-dimensional series with broad appeal. The current arc’s focus on standalone short stories also makes each issue an easily accessible jumping-on point for new readers, and if they enjoy these stories, they’ll likely enjoy what has come before. Embracing more genre diversity and making comics more accessible to casual readers are two things DC should prioritize if it’s going to relaunch its line, and Gotham Academy is a sterling example of how to do that well.
The “Gotham Academy Yearbook” arc is also a spotlight for the book’s editor, Rebecca Taylor, who is responsible for picking these exciting talents. There’s a huge pool of independent creators who are being ignored by DC Comics, but they could be just what DC needs to revitalize its line creatively. There’s no way of knowing if that will translate to better sales, but putting out a better product is a solid strategy for long-term success. DC lost a lot of good will with fans after dropping the ball with a glut of lackluster New 52 titles, but there are plenty of writers and artists who could improve the publisher’s output given the opportunity.