Friday, February 5, 2016

Recommended Reading for 2/5: Super Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice

The concept of younger versions of adult characters meeting and having adventures isn't anything new. I remember Muppet Babies when I was a kid, and to this day, once of my favorite movies of all time is Barry Levinson's vastly underrated Young Sherlock Holmes. I've written about Skottie Young's charming Little Marvels, Art and Franco's Tiny Titans and Itty Bitty Hellboy,and Yale Stewart's JL8. A couple of weeks back, a new entry into this genre was released, from creators familiar to The Matt Signal, I hope: creators of Li'l Gotham, Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen released Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice through Scholastic Books.

Study Hall of Justice isn't just Li'l Gotham in a new form; there are two very distinct differences. Firstly, the characters in Li'l Gotham were the regular adult versions of the characters, just drawn in Dustin Nguyen's most cartoony style. More importantly, the format is completely different. While there are comic pages, this book falls into the same journal mixed with comics style similar to the popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid, My Dumb Diaries, and Jeffrey Brown's Jedi Academy books. Told from Bruce Wayne's perspective, the book is the story of Bruce at his new school, Ducard Academy , which is filled with familiar faces, both heroic and villainous (although mostly villainous).

If the cover didn't completely give it away, while Bruce Wayne might be our narrator and lead, his friends are also recognizable stars of the DC trinity, Clark Kent and Diana Prince. Each of out leads are recognizable as who they will become, but are clearly still finding out who they are. Bruce is the detective, investigating and curious, and takes himself a bit too seriously. Clark is as earnest as you'd expect from a young Superman, but doesn't entirely have the mastery of his powers or of not occasionally mentioning he might be an alien. Diana is still finding the balance between the Amazon teachings of peace and war, and has a bit of a temper. Much of the book is the three of them, all kids who are different and don't have many friends, learning not only about the mysteries of Ducard Academy, but also about friendship.

The other students in the school are not quite as concerned with friendship and doing right as our three leads. One of the joys as a longtime fan of DC Comics in reading this book is seeing all the characters Nguyen crams into his illustrations. Some villains have prominent rolls, like Lex Luthor (class president), Circe, Poison Ivy, and Mister Freeze (the staff of the school paper), Bane (the school bully), Talia, Catwoman, and a gang of clowns led by Joker and Harley. But pretty much every student is a recognizable villain, and it's fun to play the game of, "I know that character!" The teaching staff, by the way, is of as dubious character as many of the students, including history teacher Vandal Savage, Mr. Jervis Tetch teaching English (just one book, Alice in Wonderland), a Brainiac robot as the librarian, and teaching Boy's Gym is Coach Zod.

The plot that drives the book and makes it more than just a cute bunch of in jokes for nerds like me and lessons about getting along is the mystery of what exactly is going on at Ducard Academy. Bruce is immediately suspicious when he sees ninjas hiding around the school, and the fact that bullying, cheating, and generally bad behavior seems encouraged, as well as the fact that the teachers aren't really teaching much, has his detective senses on high alert. Once he meets and becomes friends with Clark and Diana, they begin trying to find out the secret of the school, as well as its mysterious, never seen principal. If you've seen Batman Begins the school's name is a pretty good hint as to who is behind this whole school for villains.

The investigations leads the "Criminal Investigations Unit," as Bruce calls them (and don't call the Junior Detectives! That's for kids), to try to join sports teams, run for student office, write for the school paper, all to no avail. There's a lot of comedy in these attempts, and in the interactions between our leads. Bruce's too serious attitude alienates his friends at time, and  the ever optimistic Clark doesn't understand Bruce's brooding or Diana's anger. These are really well defined versions of the characters, even if they're different from the ones I read about each month, and I like how Fridolfs and Nguyen handle them. They're relatable to kids in a way that the grown up versions aren't, but the book never talks down to the younger readers who are the target audience.

As is the custom with this format, the book also has "artifact" pages, almost like scrapbook items, as part of it. Report cards, student evaluations, and pages from the school paper give readers a better idea of what's going on around school. Aside from the text of Bruce's journal and the comic pages, we also see "screen grabs" from various on-line chats between Bruce, Diana, and Clark. These pages can also be packed with Easter Eggs. The report Bruce gets from an outside, grownup detective about some of the clues at the school comes from Vic Sage, P.I., and a page that shows Bruce's locker has photos of Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and the Grey Ghost, as well as a copy of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs, and a can of shark repellent.

The art throughout is top notch, something I'd expect from an artist like Dustin Nguyen. His character designs are stellar, not drawing little adults but kids, aging the characters down but making them still recognizable. The highlight of the art are a few two-page spreads that really let Nguyen show off. The Halloween spread shows many of the kids in costumes that they will wear again as grown-ups, the Valentines Day spread is full of Easter Eggs as we see Valentines from various girls to Bruce, all of which have hints of what their identities will be as adults villains and heroes. and the Christmas spread shows the home lives of our three leads.

I've always enjoyed all ages comics and YA books, and like championing them to as wide an audience as I can. Super Hero Society is a perfect book to share with the kids in your life, or to read on your own: it's charming, well structured, well illustrated, and a blast to read. Every fan of DC Comics should give it a shot, and if you aren't? Read it anyway. You might become one.

Super Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is available at comic shops and book stores now.

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