Welcome to Split Seven-Inch, a new feature of Loser City wherein we examine two pieces of media that are not necessarily closely related with each other yet still have something interesting in common. For the first installment, we’ve got Batgirl #35 on the A-side and Gotham Academy #1 on the B-side.
SIDE A: Batgirl #35
If you’ve been able to avoid the hype around this issue, I’m not quite sure how you manage to make it to Loser City, but we’re glad to have you here and I should likely give this issue a bit of background. After the post-Flashpoint reboot, Batgirl was relaunched by Gail Simone, and the mantle of the titular heroine went back to Barbara Gordon for the first time in decades.
During Simone’s three-year tenure on the title, the scattered issues of Batgirl I read felt like a struggle to maintain the poisonously nostalgic status quo DC had adopted across much of their post-reboot lineup. The announcement of a new creative team of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr, and Maris Wicks complete with a redesigned costume and a new attitude for how to approach Barbara Gordon felt like a breath of fresh air. And the internet exploded in response to the initial sketch:
This might not seem like a big deal if you aren’t too familiar with the world of superhero comics, but the fact is that the costume redesign focused on practicality over eye candy, which is about as far from the norm as the superhero genre gets. Then there’s Tarr’s artistic style, which reminds me a bit of a more realistic Bryan Lee O’Malley and serves as a pretty heavy shift away from the DC house style permeating most of their ongoing titles.
Up until the release day of Batgirl #35, the creative team was nothing if not honest about the direction they wanted to take Barbara Gordon; they wanted her to be a believable twenty-something woman in addition to a superhero.
As someone who managed to cut all DC comics ongoing titles from his life about a year ago, it was this kind of drastic about-face that had me curious enough to read the new Batgirl.
I think it would be impossible for any piece of media to live up to the hype Batgirl #35 had behind it, and while the book was not without its faults, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. Stewart and Fletcher’s dialog felt like they were writing mostly believable young adults. Barbara’s conversations with her roommates, Black Canary, and even the awkward morning after talk with a dude she forgot making out with all felt genuine. That a fair number of important conversations occurred over text or email helps show how solid of an understanding the Batgirl team has of their characters’ generation.
The only exception I found among their characterization and dialog was their villainous club-scene DJ, Riot Black. Black felt like a caricature taken to the extreme, and I was mostly okay with that until Stewart admitted that his hashtag-littered dialog wasn’t supposed to see print, that the hashtags were just an in-joke for the team, not to play up his obnoxious attitude to the readers. I don’t really frequent the club scene that seems to have inspired Black, but I noticed that there were folks who were saying his portrayal was about as stereotypical as you could get, which is disappointing.
But I’m happy to see believable dialog that isn’t afraid of characters coming off as “too smart,” a common criticism levied at many young adult novels, but the writing is just one part of a comic like this. On the art front, although I was initially impressed by Tarr’s pencils and Wicks’ colors, I didn’t really think the team was firing on all cylinders until Barbara was sent chasing after a thief. It’s here that we see Stewart’s breakdowns merge with Tarr and Wicks’s talents to combine action and inner monologue into just a few images.
It’s the first glimpse we get into our protagonist’s thought process, but it won’t be the last. The first double page spread is a beautiful depiction of Barbara’s memory from the night before interspersed with panels of her roommates helping her fill in the blanks of a night of overindulgence to help figure out who could have stolen her laptop. Despite over a dozen characters on the page, they all look unique, each with their own sense of fashion and personality. And again we get Wicks’ colors differentiating the memories. The layout has us follow Barbara’s memory around the room full of blue to the bright red dude who simply doesn’t fit with anyone else. It’s a neat visual trick that reminds me a bit of some of David Mazzucchelli’s techniques in Asterios Polyp.
If dipping into Barbara’s memory palace is a regular occurrence, I could see getting sick of it pretty quickly, but I think it gives us a good insight into the way she thinks that could be used to great effect if done sparingly later on. One other thing I really feel the need to give props for: Stewart, Fletcher, Tarr, and Wicks did one of the first montages I can remember seeing in a comic. Right before Barbara goes out to do her Batgirl thing, we get a full page of her developing her new costume, complete with our background music as she’s stitching and painting her redesigned Batgirl duds.
Now, these kind of scenes have certainly happened in comics before; using panel breaks to indicate varying passages of time is what comics do. But looking at it had my mind assembling all of the panels and actually filling in the steps, which I’ve never really had happen when reading a comic. It also felt really reminiscent to tossing on your favorite mix as you’re getting ready to go out for the night—which I suppose is exactly what Barbara’s doing.
I haven’t really said much about plot at this point, and there’s a reason for that: plot is probably the furthest thing from my mind on a comic like this. This is about giving readers a Batgirl that feels real and looks as different from mainstream DC as the comic feels. So the fact that Stewart and Fletcher look to be doing the industry standard when it comes to setting up a story arc doesn’t really bother me, but I do hope Batgirl finds itself with shorter arcs and single issues rather than the six-issue plots that seem to be the norm in so many superhero comics.
That said, Batgirl is the kind of comic that could make waves in the industry, and I really hope it delivers its A-game in the future, especially considering how many folks tend to judge a comic’s worth based almost exclusively on its plot.
Side B: Gotham Academy #1
Remember how I said I wasn’t reading ongoing DC comics for a while? I thought Batgirl would be the only exception to that rule until I heard about Gotham Academy. Penned by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher with art from Karl Kerschl (colored by Geyser and Dave McCaig), Gotham Academy has been promoted as Hogwarts meets Batman, focusing on a cast of teenage students of Gotham Academy with two fresh new characters at the center of it all: Olive Silverlock and Maps Mizoguchi.
I’m a pretty big fan of high school dramas of all sorts—I like Glee more than I probably should, read a fair amount of young adult fiction, and one of my favorite superhero comics is Spider-man Loves Mary Jane—so I was excited to pick up Gotham Academy #1 for many of the same reasons I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Batgirl #35. It felt like something new coming into DC comics when most of the last three years have felt like stale retreads with boring art. And Kerschl’s art! While it’s exciting to see a new take on a classic character like Batgirl, seeing Kerschl’s style inform new additions to the Batman mythos gave me hope that perhaps change was coming to DC, albeit slowly.
While I enjoyed Gotham Academy and will continue picking it up for the first arc hoping it improves, the initial issue fell pretty short of my expectations. Cloonan and Fletcher’s dialog feels believable, but not in the sense that Batgirl did. Instead it feels like what people expect teens to act like, how they expect teens to speak rather than actual teen dialog (though there were a few extraneous “likes” that make me think they were trying). Remember how I mentioned that many young adult novels are criticized for their characters sounding “too smart?” Cloonan and Fletcher could learn a thing or two from those novelists. That Fletcher’s credited for writing on both books makes me think it was likely Stewart who was responsible for the dialog in Batgirl and Cloonan handling the dialog in Gotham Academy.
The lack of believable dialog is the least of my complaints on the writing front, though. Olive’s narration/inner monologue is done in script in dialog boxes that look like torn paper, the headmaster writes with a quill and carries a candle, and there is not a cell phone or a computer in sight. My first thought was that maybe this is just a story that takes place in Gotham’s past, but Maps has a shirt with a D20 on it that reads “CRIT PLZ” and Bruce Wayne (and his costumed alter ego) show up in the last few pages, planting this firmly in modern times.
Hogwarts was able to get away with an embargo on technology for a few reasons: Harry Potter took place in the past, with the final battle occurring in 1997-98 and it was a magical school where muggle things were typically discouraged. I praised Batgirl for its inclusion of technology because so many conversations occur over textual formats these days, and the fact that there isn’t even a trace of technology in Gotham Academy is bothersome. The fact that there look to be polaroids tucked into the frame of Olive’s bedroom mirror is almost laughable in how it actually does fit the current generation of teens, as instant cameras have recently come back in vogue.
The broad strokes of Gotham Academy—an unlikely duo of teen girls, some eventual conflicts with the cliques that appear to be popular, the mystery of Olive’s past with Maps’ brother Kyle—they’re all in place and setting the stage for something potentially interesting, but the details—the dialog, the actual lives of these characters—they’re sorely lacking. If it’s unintentional for the comic to be lacking in significant elements of the modern teenager’s life, it’s lazy, and I don’t know how it could be intentional and actually make for good writing. But I hope I’m proven wrong.
After all this talk about writing and my earlier praise of Kerschl’s style, you would think I could only have good things to say about the art, right? Well, I’ll say this: the pencils are surely beautiful. The costumes are creative and help give personality to currently bit characters who will likely grow in importance later, though the proliferation of hoodies and a set of boots that look like they came from Hot Topic give me more anachronistic fashion bits that don’t jive with whenever this is supposed to take place.
Kerschl also does a similar double page spread to the one I loved in Batgirl, and I’m kind of glad to see these kind of shots coming back into popularity after a long break from common usage. I could describe it for you, but it’s better if you just take a look at it.
Overall, the pencils are pretty solid, but the coloring is disastrous. Geyser and McCaig have introduced an eyesore on every page that features a Gotham Academy skirt. While Kerschl drew pleats in the skirts, each skirt is filled with a plaid pattern. A plaid pattern that moves unbroken across the pleats. I can’t know whose decision this was—it could very well be that Kerschl didn’t want to sketch out the lines on every skirt—but it’s an eyesore. It’s the very definition of lazy art, and I’m amazed that anyone thought it was a good idea. Even so, I like the coloring choices for the characters; they have an almost flat coloring that reminds me a bit of what Brandon Graham does when he colors, though with a dull sheen that’s more befitting of Gotham City. Can you tell that there’s a “but” coming?
The backgrounds, buildings, and inanimate object of Gotham Academy are colored with a depth that is almost jarring when juxtaposed with the characters; it’s like someone took colorforms of the cast and placed them on semi-realistic backgrounds. Like with the writing, the broad strokes are here for the art, but the details fall as flat as those plaid skirt fills.
And the thing is, I hate having written this about Gotham Academy, because books like this have the potential to shift the boys’ club that is DC comics toward titles that aren’t just the stereotypical superhero comics. But in order for these titles to take on the monolith that is the New 52 house style and succeed, they need to be delivering their A-game, and this comic just isn’t doing it yet.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.