In the previews for Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl’s “Gotham Academy” #9, the werewolf on school grounds is billed as the main focus of the issue, but Olive’s preoccupation with her mother and the visit to Tristan feel like they have more long-term significance.
It’s too bad, because the ensemble cast moments are the strongest.
The combination of Maps, Pomeline, Colton and Kyle is the most winning and most distinctive feature of “Gotham Academy.” The team dynamics are a thing of joy and the dialogue is snappy, sharp and funny during the team scenes. In particular, Colton’s back-and-forth with Maps about his “hidden lair” is hilarious, from his calling her “cream puff” to her outsized enthusiasm for undercover shenanigans. Another highlight of the issue is Maps’ “Wolf Trap” plan, complete with illustrations of her friends. Kerschl’s artwork on these pages has wonderful detail and emotional power, and LaPointe and Msassyk’s lush colors enhance both setting and tone.
The humorous, snappy dialogue of the scenes with Olive’s friends are a counterpoint to the dark, brooding atmosphere of the mystery of Olive’s mother and Tristan’s “I’m a monster” angst. Unfortunately, the happy and sad notes compete with each other for attention instead supporting each other.
It’s not that a darker, more poignant edge is unwelcome. The brooding melancholy of Olive’s past links “Gotham Academy” to the wider Bat-verse in atmosphere and content. Unfortunately, these stronger emotions don’t have the same freshness as the scenes with Olive’s friends. Olive’s mother’s tragedy isn’t original and doesn’t feel new, although Kerschl’s skill with facial expressions and body language gives Olive’s emotions force. In “Gotham Academy” #9, Olive finally finds out what the reader has known all along about her mother. This should be a big deal but, since the reader has been clued in for so much longer than Olive, revelation does nothing for the plot tension. Functionally, Olive’s mother is plot fuel without deeper pathos. She’s only there to provide a barrier between Olive and her friends and to be the key to activating Olive’s anger. She provides a constant source of suspense about whether Olive will “go bad.” The problem is, Olive’s potential villainy has been hinted at so heavily that the edge is already blunted on that twist of the knife. There’s only so long Olive can withhold information from those who care about her, especially her friends, without the reader getting frustrated with her. The drip-drip-drip of suspense about Olive’s past from issue to issue is getting old nine issues in.
Besides the friction between light and dark, the plotting also feels mechanical and overly reliant on coincidences when Colton, Pomeline and Kyle just happen to be in the right place at the right time when the werewolf finally shows his furry self.
Olive and Tristan’s budding attraction fares better in the plot but still strikes derivative notes. When Olive shot Tristan with a crossbow in “Gotham Academy” #5, the choice of weapon might have been an intentional reference to Cupid’s Arrow. That encounter was their “meet cute.” When Olive finally visits him, Tristan is half-naked in a hospital bed, leading the reader to wonder why this school clinic or hospital doesn’t have gowns for the patients. Kerschl’s facial expressions and body language convey the attraction beautifully. Tristan’s face shifts from happily flirtatious to attractively tortured in one page, matching up with the dialogue perfectly.
Tristan is shaping up nicely as a classic romantic hero of the self-loathing Beast (of “Beauty and the Beast”) variety. This archetype has appeal, especially in how the Man-Bat mythology has been revived a new character, but the lovers’ roles and the emerging love triangle are predictable. Expressive Tristan, with a dark side neatly packaged in Langstrom’s disease, is an easy foil to dark-haired, low-key and sensible Kyle. Despite how old these mechanics are, the creative team knows how to use these tropes to some good effect. The same can’t be said for the dialogue, though, which descends into cliche when Olive says, “No. I’m not leaving you.”
While there’s lots of action and the characters are always a joy, the larger story has its weak spots, and the light and dark in the plot don’t mix well in “Gotham Academy” #9.