Gladstone's School for World Conquerors #1

By Mark A. Smith, Armand Villavert, Carlos Carrasco, Fonografiks, Dan Hipp, Thomas Mauer

Gladstone's School for World Conquerors riffs on the "Superhero Academy" trope, so it's obvious from the title alone that this comic will be populated by young, wannabe villains and their adult mentors. It feels like a less censorious version of something the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon would put on the air. While the tone is far from gloomy, the cast naturally imbues the comic with a certain edge not traditionally found in the formula. It's an especially odd fit to see such cutely drawn students attempting to act like typical bad guys. At first, there's a certain awkward charm in watching them learning to be evil. But by the end of this first issue, a certain adult world-weariness unexpectedly enters the proceedings, which flips attention away from the shenanigans of the juvenile characters.

The comic starts with a prologue explaining the school's origins - the tragic story of a failed supervillain who attempts to find personal redemption in the creation of the school, only to be robbed of success at the very end. This sounds like a cautionary tale, yet it appears to be meant as inspirational to the student body. What then follows is an introduction to the cast, which are predictable enough for a story centered in a school setting: The arrogant, rich jerk and his loyal toady. The introverted girl who has a crush on the popular boy. The handsome teacher and his coterie of admirers. The kids being picked on because of their disgraced parents, and the kids who bully them. There's not a whole lot that's new there, but they're all trying so hard to be evil! They're just not there yet. Good and evil are still mostly abstract concepts to these uninformed minds. Their concrete efforts follow more along the lines of kids attempting to act "cool", or "badass", or whatever slang is being used nowadays to connote toughness and rebellion. And that's kind of the point of the comic. The highlight of this issue is an entertaining schoolyard rumble between two cliques were, despite its bloodlessness, the stakes seem a little bit higher than usual. That's because as is their wont, they like to bring out the edged weapons and guns.

But then a curveball is thrown in using a flashback scene, suggesting that the conflict between at least one hero and villain might be an elaborate kayfabe under the control of unseen parties. At this point it's difficult to judge the final outcome of this glimpse into the inner workings of this world. And it's unclear how this connects back to the drama surrounding the school. Those subplots are barely laid out before the comic ends rather abruptly. There's still a lot of material in this inaugural issue that has yet to coalesce into a larger story with a clearer direction.

"Gladstone's..." is an attractive looking work, drawn in streamlined animation-style by Armand Villavert and saturated in suitably bright colors by Carlos Carrasco, each scene given its own color scheme. The character designs are particularly distinctive, which is crucial for such a large, diverse, and colorfully-dressed cast. And the aforementioned fight scene is dynamic and clearly staged. Moving forward, I anticipate that much of the pleasure derived from this series will come from how this quite capable art team will handle whatever is demanded of them by the plot.