Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice: A Conversation with Derek Fridolfs

StudyHallJusticeIn Study Hall of Justice, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince are new students enrolled at an exclusive prep school. Ducard Academy may be “the best learning institute in Gotham City,” but the superhero moppets are on edge. Something strange is going on at Ducard and they’re determined to get to the bottom of it. “This school is weird!” says Bruce.

Brainiac is openly recruiting students to join his evil extracurricular club, Talia al Ghul is pounding Diana in dodgeball, and Vandal Savage is teaching history class. What a mess! It’s pretty clear that all the teachers and students at Ducard Academy are supervillains. Unfortunately, Bruce and his “Criminal Investigation Unit” (i.e. Clark and Diana) don’t have a clue what to do about it. “What I won’t do is panic or quit,” writes Bruce in his journal. “Now more than ever, I need to become the greatest investigator … the greatest detective I can be.”

Study Hall of Justice contains a jumble of narrative and graphic tricks. And it all works wonderfully. Not only does the book feature comics, but it also includes computer screenshots, text messages, checklists, yearbook photos, diary entries, blueprints, newspaper clippings, report cards, party invitations, pop quizzes, concert programs, Valentine’s Day cards, postcards, syllabuses, scribbles, and nurse incident reports. Creators Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen obviously have a good working relationship, because everything fits together without a hitch. Take it from us; projects like this can go off the rails pretty quickly if you’re not careful.

As a result, we contacted author Fridolfs to get more insight into his creative process. How did Study Hall of Justice come about and what were the challenges involved? Our interview below.

SuperheroNovels: We’re always curious to know how projects like this get off the ground. Did Scholastic (or DC) approach you and Dustin with the idea of a pint-sized superhero detective club? Or did you two pitch the idea yourselves fully formed? And what kind of editorial guidance (if any) did you encounter during the process?

Derek Fridolfs: I think it came about two ways. It was an idea the folks at Scholastic were toying with, having Bruce, Clark, and Diana in school aimed at a younger audience. And then looking for someone that could fit that look and add story ideas to that, they approached Dustin and myself after the success we had on Batman: Li’l Gotham. Projects like these can be a lengthy endeavor as you brainstorm ideas and things get added and tossed out as you go and get approvals. But creatively it’s very fun, energizing, and any notes or guidance help to shape the project to reach the finish line.

SN: There are a lot of narrative and graphic elements in this book (comics, report cards, Valentine’s Day cards, etc.). What kind of collaborative partnership do you and artist Dustin have? In other words, how do you two work it all out?

DF: For the most part, it’s a pretty even divide. I handle the writing and Dustin handles the art. Sometimes I’m very descriptive for him. And other times I’m a little more loose, so he can interpret and stage the art the way he likes it, especially when it comes to action scenes. There’s a part of the book with Valentine’s Day cards, and I think I came up with a few and he came up with some messages to write on them too. And other times he’ll surprise me with adding things in. So yeah, there’s a little bit of give and take involved. We know what each of us can bring to it and are pretty accommodating. This is all built up on working together for many years before this project even happened.

SN: Which of the three main characters works best as a middle-school character? And which one struggles with being a pre-teen? Also, were there any supplemental characters in particular (such as the class clowns or Brainiac) that you especially enjoyed writing?

DF: I think all three have different facets that work out well in that setting. Clark’s wide-eyed optimism and naiveté is relatable to any child that feels like a freshman or new to class at school. I remember many foreign exchange students that were in school with me, so Diana has a bit of that excitement at traveling to someplace foreign (and also frustration controlling her anger in situations that I’m sure all of us have at one time or another). And Bruce is your serious introverted loner who probably feels out of place or not wanting to be in school for all sorts of reasons. He definitely taps into feelings I had where I’d probably spend more time by myself in the library or keeping to myself to draw than being around others in a group. I think we’re lucky that most kids can probably relate to one if not all of them, and that’s what you want as a writer when you present this material.

The villains are always fun to write (and fun to see Dustin draw). The antagonizing ones always get the best scenes like Lex and Joker. But it was a lot of fun trying to portray Brainiac as this cold emotionless rolling computer, spouting out lines that would seem out of place. Looking back, I would like to have done more with Grundy.

SN: When we saw the words “Case Closed” in Bruce’s final journal entry (page 174), we had to laugh. While reading Study Hall of Justice we kept thinking about the manga series Case Closed (Detective Conan in Japan). Young Bruce Wayne reminded us a lot of Jimmy Kudo, the young detective in Gosho Aoyama’s ongoing series. We have to wonder: are you familiar with the manga? And if so, was the journal entry a tip o’ the hat to the diminutive Japanese sleuth?

DF: I’m actually not familiar with that one, so it was definitely just a coincidence. I don’t follow much manga to be honest. And that’s not a knock against it, but just due to time constraints and whatever catches my eye in my free time. Currently I’ve been enjoying the Last Man series (by Bastien Vivès, Michaël Sanlaville, and Balak) being translated from French to English by First Second. In a way, that’s kind of like a European manga in look and style.

SN: Can you talk about any planned sequels? What would you like to do in future volumes?

DF: It’s a little too early to say at this point, other than there will be more. And while we’ll continue to focus on our core three characters, we’ll be bringing in a lot of other familiar DC characters as well so that each book grows in character and location. It’s a nice balance of having stuff in the books for the casual younger fan as well as a lot of Easter eggs for the older DC reader.

[DC Comics: Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice / By Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen / First Printing: January 2016 / ISBN: 9780545825016]

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