Becky Cloonan has had a peripatetic career. Her work in the comics industry has traversed self-publishing, indie comics, and mainstream comics, where she created the art for books from Vertigo, Image Comics, Dark Horse, and others. In 2012, Cloonan earned the notable distinction of becoming the first woman to draw Batman on the main title since the series debuted in 1939. And in 2013, she won an Eisner, the preeminent award for comics, for her self-published title The Mire.
Now she’s working on her most high-profile project yet: a YA graphic novel for DC Comics that places teenage girls at the center of the Batman universe. To be released in July, Gotham Academy, Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy (cowritten with Brenden Fletcher, with art by Karl Kerschl) tells a coming-of-age story whose elements of mystery and adventure summon Harry Potter, Scooby-Doo, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It features heroine Olive Silverlock, who struggles not only to fit in at Gotham Academy, her prestigious private school, but also to recover from a breakup—and the recent death of her mother. Olive befriends the exuberant young Maps and meets Pomeline, a new frenemy in Olive’s life. Their gang uncovers the secrets that lurk in the halls of Gotham Academy, the truth about Olive’s mother’s death, and a darker side of the Caped Crusader. A fast-paced tale with vibrant characters and a Gotham City backdrop, the book shows Cloonan at the top of her game as a writer and storyteller.
Cloonan, 35, recalls that her father prompted her interest in comics. “I remember so vividly the first comic I read, Silver Surfer Annual #1, from 1988,” she says, via Skype. “I read it until it fell apart.” She delighted in adventures about the cosmic sterling wanderer, and she regretted that her local stores in New Hampshire failed to carry every issue. She remembers reading one issue and then searching in vain for the next two in the series. “From a very young age, I was thinking about story, and some of it was because of reading these comics and always having to fill in the gaps [in the series].” Ever since then, she has experimented with storytelling in her drawings. “There was always a sequential element to the pictures I drew and the stories that I told.”
At 13, Cloonan realized that she wanted to create these kinds of visual narratives for a living. However, she also discovered that only a handful of American comics artists were women. Cloonan soon encountered manga, which shifted how she thought of women in the comics industry:“I finally understood that [in Japan] half, if not more, of the people making comics were women.” She fell in love with manga but, as college approached, she thought it might be wiser to focus on animation rather than comics.
Cloonan moved to New York City and attended the School of Visual Arts, which offered the kind of rigorous training that Cloonan had been searching for. She still felt drawn to comics, and she surrounded herself with classmates who also adored the medium. She and her friends decided to produce a comics anthology that they called Meathaus. The group of friends included artists Tomer and Asaf Hanuka, James Jean, Nate Powell, Brandon Graham, and several others. For its eclectic style, PW called it a “heavyweight art comics collection.” Thanks to her newfound community and its foray into self-publishing, Cloonan began to see how she could earn a viable living through making comics.
When Cloonan was still at SVA, her art caught the attention of writer Brian Wood. He was the creator of the comic Channel Zero, a politically provocative story with a high-tech, SF edge. He wanted to enlist Cloonan to do the art for a few projects he had in mind. The result was Channel Zero: Jennie One, Cloonan’s first commercially published comic book, which explores the genesis of heroine Jennifer Havel. “[Wood] left me alone to draw, and he gave me a lot of freedom,” she says. Right after Channel Zero: Jennie One, Cloonan and Wood worked together on the YA title Demo, with him as the writer and her as the artist. “He would write stories that my storytelling style and my art would really resonate with,” Cloonan notes. (Originally published as a series by AiT/Planet Lar and later by Vertigo, Demo was republished in a new trade paperback edition in April 2015 by Dark Horse.)
Both of those projects raised Cloonan’s profile and kicked off a series of successful collaborations with writers. She worked with Steven T. Seagle on American Virgin (2006), with Wood again on Pixu (2008) and Northlanders (2011), and with Gerard Way and Shaun Simon on The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2013), among others. “Every collaboration is different, of course,” she says. “It’s just about picking projects that you can emotionally invest yourself in as an artist.”
While Cloonan relished the opportunity to illustrate books for Vertigo, Image Comics, and Dark Horse, she also longed to create her own projects. However, because she had worked primarily as an artist rather than a writer, publishers weren’t always receptive to the books that she pitched. “I just wanted to prove to other people—and prove to myself—that this was something that I could actually do,” she says.
So in 2008, Cloonan created Wolves, a self-published comic about a lone hunter who retreats to the woods but can’t escape the heartbreak and violence of his past. The haunting and evocative 24-page minicomic scored with comics fans: “The first print run was 1,000, and I think it sold out in about a month.” She used the proceeds from her first printing to fund another run, and she estimates that she has printed around 7,000 copies of the book in total. Its continued success prompted her to create a new book in the series every year. “It’s actually become viable financially for me to self-publish.”
Then in 2013, Cloonan won the Eisner Award for best single issue or one-shot for The Mire. The striking, richly imagined self-published minicomic follows a squire’s perilous journey on the eve of battle. She had been nominated for the Eisner before, but winning was “overwhelming and humbling and exhilarating and this crazy mix of emotions.” She notes, “I think for a self-published book to win an Eisner Award is a big deal. It’s such a huge achievement for me [having won for a book published] on such a small scale, without a big company with big distribution.”
After her success in self-publishing, Cloonan returned to commercial publishing with Gotham Academy, her YA graphic novel series from DC Comics. Why explore the Batman universe from the perspective of teenagers? “The themes of duality, of good and evil, of order and chaos, they’re heavy themes—but not too heavy for a kid,” Cloonan says. The story retains both the darkness and the playfulness of Batman: The Animated Series but adds a Scooby-Doo-like mystery-gang element in a Hogwarts-style setting.
“Mark Doyle was our editor,” Cloonan says. “He was the one who came to me and said, ‘Maybe you should pitch something.’ ” She had the idea of creating a story about a young girl in Gotham City, and she approached Brendan Fletcher and Karl Kerschl to help further develop the narrative. They first shaped the brooding teenage girl character of Olive, whose story lies at the center of the series, and then built the rest of the cast to support their heroine. “Our three main characters are three women of color,” she adds, an idea that came from Kerschl. It’s not only a new angle for the Batman universe but also a refreshing departure for DC Comics.
Cloonan, Kerschl, and Fletcher’s process was highly collaborative. “We all live in Montreal, so when the three of us work together, we hang out and get coffee and bounce ideas off each other and talk about it face-to-face,” Cloonan says. In the Onion’s AV Club, she described the trio’s approach this way: “We almost share a hive mind.” Their chemistry created a page-turner with a manga-influenced look, which unfolds seamlessly.
Exciting, stunning, and downright addictive, Gotham Academy crystallizes the writing and storytelling skills that Cloonan has honed and applies them to one of the most iconic settings in comics history: the Batman universe. Her varied influences—mainstream comics, manga, German Expressionist films—have inspired her to create a rich portfolio of books, both as an artist and a writer. And though she doesn’t feel the need to limit herself to one type of comics publishing (mainstream, indie, or self-published) she does wish to focus on the kinds of character-driven books that fuel her imagination. “At this point in my career, I can be picky about the books that I work on,” she says. “So I am.”
Grace Bello is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to PW.