THIS WEEK: DC Comics released a limited number of new monthly comics this week, but we got caught up instead with Gotham High, which is part of the publisher’s growing line for YA readers.
Are you 18 or older? Than DC’s Gotham High is not meant for you.
That’s not to say teens are the only readers who can enjoy the latest YA offering from DC’s impressively robust line of graphic novels for young readers. I’ve been out of high school for just over a decade myself, and had a great time with Melissa De La Cruz and Thomas Pitilli’s vision of a high school AU for Batman and his rogues. But let’s be real: I’m a straight guy in his late 20s. Batman comics have catered primarily to my demographic since at least the mid-80s. Gotham High, meanwhile, is written and drawn with teenage girls in mind, and that’s part of what makes it work.
Gotham High is centered around 16-year-old Selina Kyle, who serves as narrator. Following the loss of her mother, she’s struggling to figure out how to pay for her Alzheimer’s-stricken father’s medical treatment, as her trust fund won’t kick in until she turns 21. But the juicier conflict is her love triangle with Jack Napier, a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Bruce Wayne, a brooding, wealthy loner who just arrived after getting expelled from boarding school.
This being a teen drama, every member of the love triangle (like almost every single other character in the book) is gorgeous and impeccably dressed at all times. Thomas Pitilli, much like Kris Anka and Jen Bartel, is a remarkable talent who almost seems incapable of drawing non-beautiful people, regardless of gender. I would have liked to see more body diversity, but for better or worse, Gotham High is “cast” much in the same way as CW teen dramas like Riverdale.
Obviously, it’s a departure from the kind of stores we’re used to from Gotham City. Many changes are made, quite reasonably, to accommodate the (relatively) grounded high school setting. Young Jack Napier has little in common with the Joker (that name originated in the 1989 Batman film starring Jack Nicholson’s Joker, as the character’s true name and origins are traditionally ambiguous), and he’s not even framed as a villain. Bruce never mentions a friend in Smallvlle who can run faster than a speeding bullet. Teenage Harvey Dent has just one(1) face. If you picked this book up and somehow had never heard of Batman, you’d have little reason to suspect these characters originated from the same comic book universe as Wonder Woman and Detective Chimp.
Other changes have less to do with establishing a realistic-fiction version of Gotham City, instead carving out its own story unique from traditional Batman lore. Selina Kyle’s heritage isn’t clear, but she has darker skin than we usually see from Catwoman. Gotham High’s Bruce Wayne is Chinese on his late-mother’s side, and Alfred, his uncle, is his mother’s brother. Alfred also happens to be married to a little-seen man named “John Pennyworth” who more closely the Alfred Pennyworth longtime fans would recognize, at least aesthetically.
Many of these changes add compelling new wrinkles for DC fans looking for something different, and even at their most arbitrary, these changes are harmless. It’s all good fun, although I wish it learned harder into Gotham’s colorful history. If you’re going to show a kid getting hassled by bullies, why not have some fun with it by casting the bullies as Tweedledee and Tweedledum? If Bruce Wayne is going to have a guidance counselor, why not Leslie Tompkins? And where’s principal Jim Gordon?
Overall, I think I was hoping for something a little more tongue-in-cheek, but again, I’m a nearly-30-year-old man who somehow made “knowing a lot about Batman” a somewhat marketable professional skill. I’m sure teenage readers, including those who don’t know the first thing about the DC universe, would appreciate an earnest tale of high school angst, romance, and mystery in a similar vein as Gossip Girl and… I don’t know, Euphoria? Is that the teen drama du jour on TV these days?
Speaking of which, I should also note that Gotham High is more risque than you may expect from a high school AU about Batman’s supporting cast. There’s nothing you couldn’t see or hear in a PG-13 film, but its depictions of teens drinking, gambling, doing drugs, and even having sex (nothng is explctly shown, but it is discussed) are rather frank, and presented non-judgementally. Some of the language includes a few words like “asshole” and “shit” that aren’t even allowed in the monthly Batman comic. None of this is particularly unique in the world of YA fiction, but DC’s publicity suggests Gotham High for ages “13-17,” so parents of younger kids may want to exercise caution if this stuff concerns them.
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