Gotham Academy #7
Writers – Becky Cloonan & Brenden Fletcher
Art – Mingjue Helen Chen
Letters – Steve Wands
Publisher – DC Comics
To say that Gotham Academy #7 feels a little disappointing would be completely unfair. That would imply that its quality is somehow deficient, and that is patently not the case. Just like the preceding issues of this series, it’s capital T.N. Top Notch. But the fact that it is so Top Notch leaves the fleeting aspects of the story — say like the presence of a certain major Bat-family character — feeling like they’re gone too soon. Basically, Gotham Academy #7 is like being given a slice of a magnificently delicious pie and having the rest taken away from you. It’s satisfying on its own, but you still have to wonder why it is you can’t have another.
Yes, after the tantalizing teaser at the end of issue #6, Damian Wayne enrolls at Gotham Academy, but after solving just one case with Maps, he may not be sticking around. If true, that seems like a big waste of the one pre-existing Bat-character whose place as a regular in the series would seem, if not necessary, at least natural and logical.
With Olive absent this issue, the ever-effervescent Maps takes center stage. Initially focused on recruiting one boy from class for the detective club, Maps’s attention shifts when a number of strange events begin revolving around the quill pen she stole from the headmaster’s office, and another boy, a mysterious new student, proves himself more than capable of holding his own (and a little of Maps’s own, as well) while they solve the mystery. That new boy’s name? Damian Wayne, of course. In full Gotham Academy style, this issue brings in plenty of the Gothic and the spooky, with numerous references to Poe’s “The Raven,” as well as another blood-curdling little tale courtesy of Professor MacPherson, who is really too good at these things.
There’s a certain brilliance to having Damian’s team-up be with Maps. While Olive may be the character we follow and root for, Maps is something a little more special. Maps, you see, is us. She’s every Gotham Academy reader that remembers the conflicting feelings of fear and wonderment as they matured out of the innocence of childhood into a world that was often scary and hard to make sense of. She’s the embodiment of why so many of us read superhero comics: we know there is bad out there, but we also know it is more fun to be good, and we believe the world is a good place and want to do our best to keep it that way, even if it means creating adventure for ourselves rather than waiting for it to find us. (It also doesn’t hurt that she’s just such an awesome character in her own right. There are several moments that use stereotypical “romance” imagery like little hearts floating above her head and a fantasy wedding [where she’s dressed as the groom!] to illustrate her feelings — not about Damian, of course, but about the wonderful Bat-toys he gets to play with.)
Damian, on the other hand, has only ever learned to look at the world in terms of violence and power — first being trained by his mother to be a world-class criminal, and then by his father as a world-class crime fighter. There is no whimsy or optimism about Damian — it’s all about duking it out until the bitter end. He’s stony, he’s cocky, he’s insufferable, and, most importantly, he’s experienced. Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher understand this better than pretty much any writer since Grant Morrison, and their characterization of Damian is a standout — all the more reason why his pairing with Maps is so perfect, and why he’d make such a great member of the cast in an ongoing capacity. The fact that he is already such a mystery-solving pro would make him the perfect foil for Olive and company — something to strive against, something to rise above to prove their mettle (especially since Damian was introduced in the pages of GA at a cross-purpose to Olive by stealing Millie Jane Cobblepot’s diary). Combine that with the need to keep his status as Robin a secret, as well as Olive’s complicated relationship with Batman, and there’s plenty of possibilities for great stories. While there are understandable, respectable reasons why these stories might never come to be — the Bat-editors may not want to spread Damian across titles this way, or Cloonan and Fletcher may feel the presence of an established, prominent Bat-character like Damian would stifle their own stories and characters — it still feels like a shame that there wasn’t at least a trade’s worth of material around this concept.
As usual, the artwork brings a measure of excellence to the table equal to the script. While the idea of Karl Kerschl stepping away for even a single issue seems sacrilegious given how important his work has been to establishing the themes and style of the series, Mingjue Helen Chen makes a very worthy replacement. While her work is definitely more old-school Disney to Kerschl’s Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic (appropriate since she’s apparently Art Director at Paramount Animation), she still creates a very youthful, energetic world with just the right amount of danger.
The weaknesses come in with matters of sequential storytelling. The gutter often doesn’t do its job of connecting panels together, certain characters are sometimes hard to differentiate, and there are several moments where the emotion the art should be expressing is not actually what it is expressing. All this can occasionally necessitate re-reading sections in order to take in their full meaning. That being said, Chen’s work does have it’s strengths. The composition of individual panels is roundly spectacular, even if they sometimes don’t cohere together, and she’s especially deft at utilizing shadow, and including blurriness to create the illusion of a camera lens’ focal length. This ends up delivering images that pop off the page and really come alive in ways little seen in the medium.
It’s a shame that Gotham Academy #7 seems to be a one-off because there is so much potential for Damian as a regular member of the cast. If you’re looking to get into Gotham Academy, this probably isn’t the place. The impetus for the story and the emotional beats rely on a familiarity with the characters that isn’t established here. You should go pick up the first six issues (and the excellent Endgame tie-in), and then race your way back. Because it’s well worth it.