It's the first day of term for Mia 'Maps' Mizoguchi and second-year scholarship student Olive Silverlock is assigned to show her around posh boarding school Gotham Academy. Olive has been dating Maps' big brother and fellow pupil Kyle and is trying to break up with him; something happened over the summer, apparently involving her mother, and it's changed Olive. She's becoming a darker person, and she doesn't like it.
Maps is fascinated by talk of a ghost in the North Hall, which headmaster Hammer deems off limits due to an 'incident'. So of course, she can't wait to go there. Olive isn't stupid enough to ignore a direct warning of danger but, apparently needing a distraction from her gloomy thoughts, she offers to take Maps - so nicknamed because she likes to know the lay of the land - to check out 'the creepy parts of the old chapel'.
Up in the chapel loft, Maps can see across to the North Hall. She thinks she spots something spooky. Soon the girls are climbing up to the belfry and ... may I refer you to that superb cover, above?
There's been a buzz about this new series since it was announced a few months ago - Hogwarts meets Nancy Drew in Batman's backyard with the involvement of fan favourites Becky Cloonan and Karl Kerschl. Well, it's here and it's fun. Lots of fun.
Cloonan and co-writer Brenden Fletcher are smart to focus on just two of the cast members this time, the space allowing them to quickly make Maps and Olive people we can care about. We see enough of the other students - tennis god Kyle, Heathers wannabe Pomeline, bad-ish boy Colton, nervous Lucy - to intrigue, and I look forward to getting to know them. Then there are the teachers - principal 'Hammerhead', history teacher Prof Macpherson, walking Easter egg Ms (Aunt) Harriet ... who likely come with their own mysteries. And is that longtime Bat-baddie Professor Milo in the lab? Former pupil and benefactor Bruce Wayne shows up to make a speech, bringing with him a hint that Olive's been traumatised by some Batman-related incident.
The fast-paced script does a sterling job of setting a tone for the series, with only the teen dialogue grating ... but that's not a negative criticism, I'm a grown man in the UK, not a teenager in the US. It's likely authentic as all get out, and if it helps the book connect with a younger audience, brilliant.
Because this series could be a fine entry point to the DC universe for younger readers - it seems to me accessible, it's smart, and funny ... the belfry scene, for instance, is wonderfully dramatic, while remaining organic to the characters and setting. Sure, Maps and Olive are in danger, but what young reader wouldn't love to dive right into these pages and join them?
And it's all beautifully illustrated by Kerschl and colour artists Geyser and Dave McCaig. From the looming walls of the academy to the superb 'character acting' of the kids - the super-expressive Maps is a standout - via the dynamic design of the action sequence, this is a beautiful book. A cutaway spread during the girls' tour of the grounds gives us a glimpse of the setting and the students who, happily, aren't sexualised. And as the backgrounds are packed with detail, this is a book that rewards multiple reads - longtime Bat-fans, for example, will get a kick out of the Basil Karlo poster on Lucy's wall which, to newbies, is simply fun set-dressing.
And there are subtleties that may be missed on first reading, such as the implication of the carry-over of Olive's narrative box onto an image of rival Pomeline.
There's an immediate synergy to story and art which makes me want to explore Gotham Academy. I don't know what DC's marketing plan is for the series, but they have something great here and need to find ways to get it in front of younger readers. A free download with whatever the teen equivalent of Entertainment Weekly is? A mini-comic given away with some Warners teen TV DVD? I dunno, but there are a lot of kids out there reading other things who might enjoy this sideways take on the world of Batman. And adults too.