Gotham Academy Vs. Arkham Manor: The Verdict

We make choices in what we buy at the comic shop and in how we spend our time, and if you are like me, you don't have a limitless supply of cash or time to say the least.

So, a little behind schedule to read Gotham Academy, and right on time to read Arkham Manor, I picked up both at my local comic shop this week. Maybe watching Gotham on TV (which I was incredibly skeptical about, but watching the world-weary Jim Gordon in action seems to have lulled me into continuing to follow it now) got me in a Gotham-world mood, or maybe it's the autumn weather, which always makes me think of Batman anyway.

So, reading the two comics, I decided to weigh them. Which will I continue to buy? Which will I attempt to borrow from friends later, or maybe pick up in trade, or not?

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I started off with Gotham Academy, which I'd heard good things about (here on Bleeding Cool) and I knew enough about the creative team of Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl, to know it was going to be a quality comic, but even so, I didn't know if it would be the book for me. I'm a tough shopper these days with so many comics to choose from out there. I expected Gotham Academy to be adorable, certainly visually appealing, and to have some unusual students. What I found most surprising about the book, after it had met all above expectations easily, was the emphasis on architecture, the role of the school as a "character", and the really quite emotionally strong presence of Olive, who we watch in her second year at the Academy, looking after her soon to be ex-boyfriend's (so she says) younger sister.

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Olive Silverlock struggles with some kind of trauma that's induced personal change, giving her a tougher exterior than she wants. Her internal monologue is not laced with the sappiness that makes you aware of an invisible narrator's ironic spin on characters. Her internal monologue is pared down, sharp even, and a little brutal. It kind of reminds you, if you are no longer a teen, that things weren't really as silly then as we now like to paint them in retrospect. In fact, life has always been dramatic and somewhat overwhelming—certainly no fairytale for most people at any stage of existence, Olive included.

Gotham Academy surprised me with its seriousness, its realistic discomfort, and its solid character building.

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Next up, I read Arkham Manor, by Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal. Like Gotham Academy, I was hoping for some gothic flair, and since I've always been a big fan of Arkham Asylum books since the first big Morrison/McKean storyline, the idea, thematically, of Arkham's inmates invading Bruce Wayne's home tickled my dark humor. I mean, the question always has been whether Bruce belongs in Arkham, right? Well, now the asylum has come to him. Only it wasn't funny, really, to see the Manor being turned into the Asylum, when the inmates have no safe lockdown location (the "real" asylum having been destroyed). I think I probably felt more upset than Bruce by seeing this transition happen, as a reader. Because you realize then that these "zones" are kind of sacred within Batman mythology and this is an invasion of privacy of the Nth degree.

Bruce takes it well because it's what his father would have allowed, and also because he's considered destroying the place himself very recently, which suggests he's reached a point of zero in his feelings about the place. But there's a difference between making a kind of funeral pyre of the past for your family home and allowing it to be desecrated, its sacred memories included, as Bruce realizes rather suddenly when the first body drops at Arkham Manor. It would be way too spoilery to mention the developments that happen toward the end of the first issue, but they put a whole new spin on the old Arkham/Batman similarity and connection. The little details in this comic are very fully represented, and that is an admirable quality.

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What I actually found quite similar between Gotham Academy and Arkham Manor was the intense use of architecture as a character/presence, and I probably should have seen that coming. But this is something that runs deep in Batman mythology, and in the idea of Gotham city as a personality too. Could this be traced back to Eisner's The Spirit? Or maybe further. We might want to credit that feel to someone like Edgar Allen Poe.

Also, I'd say I had a similar moment of sudden emotional connection with the two comics that came on unexpectedly and probably would play out differently depending on the reader. For Gotham Academy, I think it was when Olive admits that Maps is the sister of her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend to the reader and we witness the discomfort of not wanting to let an innocent kid down by rejecting her. It felt almost like a divorce situation with children involved. For Arkham Manor, it was probably seeing workmen chisel the "W" down on Wayne Manor's archway. It just had this detailed, visceral quality of identity being stripped away.

But I promised I'd compare the two comics and make a decision between them based on my money/time budget and my findings have surprised me. I go with Gotham Academy. I liked Olive by the end of the first issue—she's a character full of pain and difficult issues to sort out. Doesn't that sound like I'm talking about Batman? And yet I'm not. As for Arkham Manor, the idea behind it is incredibly clever and striking, and it's going for those emotional notes, but something just didn't click for me in the depiction of Wayne/Batman. Maybe it's the fact that he's presented as  incredibly rugged and muscle-bound in this series, a kind of hyper-masculinity gone wild that I don't usually associate with Batman despite his physical dominance of his foes and obsession with violence. A comic that is supposed to make you question whether Batman is the kind of monster who should be in Arkham Manor (newly minted) could perhaps do with a little more subtlety in presenting him as fairly monstrous, physically.

Not all of our decisions can be fully rational in life, and when shopping I bet they rarely are. You can have everything beautifully drawn and paced in a comic, but without that lynchpin of character connection, you may respect a comic, but you probably move on.

Congratulations to Gotham Academy for being both beautiful and managing to make that emotional connection with readers, since I've heard many people reporting a similar feeling of character-depth in this new series.

Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter

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About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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