We Definitely Have A Master Plan: Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl talk ‘Gotham Academy’ [Interview]
Earlier this month, DC released the first paperback collection of Gotham Academy, Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl's fan-favorite series about Olive Silverlock, Maps Mizoguchi, and their fellow students at Gotham City's most prestigious prep school. We recently got the chance to chat with the entire creative team, and what ensued was a fast-paced and giggle-filled conversation, evidencing the same careful planning and casual camaraderie that has made the series itself such an immediate hit --- audiences tend to sense when creators enjoy working on a project, and and it's clear that with Gotham Academy, this trio are having the time of their lives.
ComicsAlliance: Let's start off by talking a little about how this series came to be, and how this creative team came together. Was this something that one of you pitched and then brought in the others, was it something that DC brought to you, or was it something else entirely?
Brenden Fletcher: Oh, this is a Becky Cloonan story…
Karl Kerschl: The team was actually together before any of this happened!
Becky Cloonan: Yeah, really, this is something where all the ingredients were there, it just took one phone call from Mark Doyle. A little over a year ago, Mark called me up, and he had just become the new Batman group editor. I'd worked with him at Vertigo before, and we had a good relationship, and he just asked me to pitch something, some kind of Batman book --- and Gotham Academy was the first thing that I thought of, because there weren't really any YA books in the DC lineup and I felt like that was a hole that needed to be filled.
Brenden and Karl were actually in the same room as I took the call, and when Mark was asking me who would draw it, I was looking over at Karl and said, "Karl Kerschl can do it" and Karl looked up a little confused, not sure what I was talking about. And then I looked over at Brenden and said, "and Brenden's gonna help me write it, he'll co-write it with me" and Brenden looked up, and seemed a little concerned...
KK: Fear in his eyes, not sure what Rebecca Cloonan was dragging him into. [laughs]
BC: And then we got off the phone and sat down, we went out for coffee, and the whole thing came together really organically. From the get-go, we had almost all the elements in place.
BF: Well, we had all the elements, except for Batman...
BC: They were actually really upset about that. [laughs]
KK: We begged Becky, we were like: "Why do we have to do this book about kids, Becky? Let us do a book about Batman!" And she just wagged her finger at us like a teacher and said, "no, no, you guys are going to do a book about kids in Gotham," and we just kinda sighed and said okay.
CA: So she signed you up, then told you what you'd be doing…
BF: Oh, she was telling us what to do before that! [laughs]
CA: So now, how far in advance do you have things planned out? Is there a detailed master plan, do you have a basic sketch in mind of where you're headed and you're filling it in as you go along?
BC: Oh, I'd say we definitely have a master plan, and it's been there from the very beginning. When we first started thinking about Gotham Academy, we knew Olive Silverlock would be the main character and all the other characters were kinda built around her as foils, to help her out and lead her on the journey. I mean, I wouldn't exactly say this book writes itself --- sometimes it can be a little difficult – but it's a lot of fun to work on.
BF: The main challenge of writing Gotham Academy, and correct me if I'm wrong, Becky and Karl, is just maintaining a balance. Because it's a delicate balance of elements: mystery, suspense, YA romance, superhero stuff…we have to drip in enough of each of these to feel like we're juggling it correctly. But in terms of what the overarching plot is, what Olive's story is and how that ties into the Batman mythos and Gotham City as a whole, we talked about this since day one. The three of us were jamming on ideas about who Olive is and what it means for her to be at this school, and the history of the school, and Becky and I did up a document early on that we used to pitch to the Bat-office, and that's been sort of our bible. And that was very Olive-centric.
Everything else, when we kinda jam as we go, it's like all these little fun pieces. For example, in the first arc, there's a semiformal dance. And that's something we hadn't planned from the beginning, it was an idea that Becky had almost right before we hit that issue. She just said, "I think it should be at a school dance," and I was like, "I don't think we have room for a school dance," and she said, "nonononono, we don't have to write a story about a dance, we'll just have a dance in there, and it'll inform how the scenes play out." And it worked perfectly! That's the kind of thing we do as we go, that we don't really prepare for --- but so far as larger plot points, that stuff is kinda carved in stone, and we know where we're going.
CA: How does this collaboration break down between you guys?
BF: Becky tells me what to do, and I do it!
KK: And sometimes that involves just getting the coffee. [laughs]
BF: Coffee and cookies and pizza. That's the order of things.
KK: There's nothing strict or precise about it --- there's this sort of hive mind mentality, and I think we've really blurred the lines between what everybody's job is, and what people's responsibilities are. It might actually be harder for editorial, because we tend to work as a little unit, and we kind of create and then self-edit. It goes through so many rounds of self-editing between the three of us that by the time we send anything away, it's been pretty well polished.
But the way it's generally worked is, we sat around and talk about the characters and the story, primarily the characters and where they're going to end up, and then Becky and Brenden wrote up synopses and basically broke it down into issue beats, what we wanted to happen for the first six to twelve issues, how they would feel, and what was going to happen.
And then, as we went along and the characters became more robust and real, things changed a little bit. And issue by issue, we start with rough issue breakdowns and then I kinda read it over and I talk with them about what I think works or doesn't, and then we all try to figure out how to make each other happy. And it usually works out pretty well, right down to the scripting process! I mean, Becky helps out with art sometimes, and I think our best issues come out when we all sit down together in the same place and go through the script and make each other laugh, or cry.
BF: Yeah, it's really neat to go through the issue and see where… I mean, there are pages that have these extremely elaborate backgrounds that are drawn by Becky, and then other panels that are now these classic Gotham Academy panels that have dialogue written by Karl. And it's really a great collaborative effort between all three of us. I think the lines have definitely been blurred.
BC: I think this book would be totally different if we lived in different places. The three of us have really good chemistry, and I now can't even imagine working with someone who doesn't live close by, because actually being able to go out with Karl and Brenden, I think we come up with better ideas. It's definitely informed a lot of this book.
BF: I think you can get a look into some of our creative process in the back of the new trade paperback. There's design work, there's Becky's very first drawing of Olive, there are script pages, and there's a lot of commentary from Karl and I in particular on how these things were shaking out as we were putting the book together. There's just so much to say about how this thing congealed to become this six-issue story in this book that you have in your hands.
CA: In the Gotham Academy: Endgame special, and now again with issue #7, you've welcomed some other creators into the fold. How did you go about choosing which people you wanted to work with?
KK: Well, for this latest issue, Helen Chen was just…
BF: We're huge fans of Helen's.
KK: I'd seen her superhero redesigns on Project: Rooftop, I think that's where I first saw her stuff, and then I just started following her online and looking at all her work.
BF: And she's also an artist for Paramount Animation. Anyhow, we were super fans, and when we started to talk about who we could get in as a guest artist, I think we all just loved her work. And what happened is, she'd done a piece of Gotham Academy art for one of the Sketch Dailies things…
KK: Right at the beginning, when the book launched, she did a piece of fanart of Olive and Maps.
BF: And so when she agreed to do this issue, we were all kinda blown away.
CA: Did that change the way you put together the issue? Did you already have this story in mind, or was it something you came up with to cater to her strengths?
BF: It was something that we jammed on a little bit, and it's certainly written in a different style because this is the first issue where Olive is not the lead…in fact, Olive doesn't appear in the issue at all. So this issue is from the point-of-view of Maps, so of course it's got to feel like the narrative is coming from a very different place. I think a part of what we did with the approach to the visuals for Helen was with her particular style in mind, and the other part of it was knowing that it was coming from the POV of a character who was the polar opposite of our usual protagonist.
CA: Over the first story arc, now collected in the first trade, you walked a really delicate line in the chapter-by-chapter storytelling. It's episodic without being impenetrable; it builds to a larger story, but it still works and pulls you in if you missed the first issue or two and joined in later. Then, after that first story, there's the Endgame special and a stand-alone single issue. Are you planning out the structure in the same careful way you're building the plot itself, or just waiting to see what sort of space each story demands?
BF: I think that right off the bat, we had a pretty strong feeling on how we were going to work out the first year, structurally, to the point where I knew that we had to make a pitch for the use of one particular character for very specific issues that are coming up. And then we pitched for the use of a character that we're going to have in issue #10. So, while we have found that we're a little looser in the way we attack some of the plot points and where they ended up, we had a pretty specific idea of how we wanted the first year to play out, and where we want it to end up.
When it comes to feeling out the particular beats of an issue, I think that was something we let our guts speak to as we put them together, knowing that this twenty pages may be somebody's only twenty pages --- we would feel that out as we were writing it, and make sure that it came across as a nice little package unto itself.
BC: We're always thinking about how the book reads month-to-month, but then you have to also factor in that the trade paperback is going to be the final form of the story. So you have to worry about how it reads as periodicals, and also as a whole book, and that can sometimes be a little tricky.
BF: I think the reason it doesn't feel impenetrable, as you put it, is that even though we can layer mystery upon mystery, in the plot, in the school, we're really aware of what's going on with those characters emotionally. Those characters go through specific emotional arcs from the beginning of each issue to the end of each issue, and as long as that stuff feels true, and the reader feels like they're in good hands, then I think each issue will feel satisfying. And I think you just kinda trust that the peripheral stuff will unfold as it should.