Heading into the final month stretch before the cinematic debut of Wonder Woman (also I think two other guys fight in it or something), this is the perfect time for DC Comics to put out fun, engaging books for kids. While we don’t know exactly what the upcoming Rebirth not-reboot will bring, we know that the excellent Gotham Academy is continuing, DC Super Hero Girls is putting out its own book along with their animated shorts, special, and merchandise, and another Lois Lane novel is coming in May!
And we also have Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice #1, the new graphic novel from Scholastic.
A young Bruce Wayne finds himself enrolled in a prestigious school for the gifted after jumping around boarding schools and being homeschooled by Alfred for a while. Alfred thinks he needs to meet kids his own age and make friends, but an already reluctant Bruce quickly realizes that nearly everyone at his new school (from the bad behavior encouraging teachers to the bullying students) are evil jerks. In fact, the only other non-jerks at the school are a polite farm boy with glasses and a girl exchange student from an island Bruce has never heard of. While both of them seem to be harboring secrets of their own, Bruce ultimately decides they should pool their resources to figure out just what is going on with this weird school!
Writer Derek Fridolfs and artist Dustin Nguyen were absolutely the pull for me with this book. Nguyen has been busy for the past year with Image’s Descender, but I know the team best for creating Li’l Gotham, a kid-friendly monthly series where Damian Wayne and various Bat Family/Gotham characters celebrated month-appropriate holidays. An absolutely delightful book, Li’l Gotham is still one of my favorite series since I started reading comics a few years ago and was one of the first comics I was consistently reading as soon as it came out. (For the sake of disclosure, I became social media buddies with Nguyen before I started reviewing comics and he ended up drawing me into a Li’l Gotham issue along with other fans. I was in a panel with Batman and it was kind of amazing.) If there was any creative team I wanted doing a book like Study Hall of Justice, it was Fridolfs and Nguyen.
The fun of a reimagining like this is seeing how they adapt comic characters to this setting, and boy are there a lot of them here! The entire school is made up of the Trinity’s villain roster, split between being either teachers or students but fitting in where you might expect them to in a school setting. The Joker leads a gang of pranksters at the school, Bane is the big bully, Hugo Strange is the guidance counselor, Vandal Savage teaches history, Brainiac is the librarian, Lex runs for student president, etc. None of these are coincidences in story, and the real cusp of the book is Bruce, Diana, and Clark solving the mystery of why they were chosen to go there if the schools seems to teaching how to be evil.
But the real joy of reading this book is the friendship between Diana, Clark, and Bruce themselves. Young Bruce is more than a little like Damian in Li’l Gotham — headstrong, serious, confused by his more cheerful friends. Diana is bright, friendly, and not afraid to rib Bruce a little when he gets too grumpy. Meanwhile, Clark is the definition of a boy scout, from joining the newspaper to running for school president on a platform of fairness (while Lex just bribes everyone). The back and forths between him and the other two make for great scenes, and there are fun moments where Clark and Diana have to fib about their super powers — Clark in particular is not very good at keeping his secret identity. Another bright moment was during Halloween when all the kids end up dressing up in their future personas; getting to see Clark and Diana’s reaction to Bruce’s bat theme for the first time is just so funny.
The structure of the book works quite well — while most pages are set up as panels like your standard comics, there are also pages devoted to newspaper clippings, the trio’s group chat to each other, Bruce’s journal entries, and more compiled in-story media. Not only does this allow for world building, but it also lets exposition come out in more ways than just two characters talking face to face. The story flows better as a result.
I’m partial to Nguyen’s art style, so having a whole graphic novel of his version of the young Trinity is a delight. The black and white (with gray shading) is reminiscent of manga more than the Western comics style that DC has been so integral in shaping. My one criticism of the art is that some of the characters — particularly the female characters — are hard to distinguish from one another due to the lack of color. It’s not a deal breaker and some of that is helped by context clues in the dialogue, but I could see how some newer (or younger) DC fans might not catch those clues.
Secret Hero Society #1: Study Hall of Justice (the numbering of which I hope means we’ll be getting sequels soon) works for a number of different readers. For adult DC fans who enjoy the kid-friendly books (like me), this is another great one up there with Tiny Titans and Li’l Gotham. For parents who want to read more DC series with their kids, this might just end up being a new favorite. And of course there’s the main demographic. Study Hall of Justice might just be a perfect first graphic novel for kids who don’t know comics can be for them. And that’s pretty cool.