DC Comics Pitches 1: Arkham High

Back in 2016, I got a call from the person who was my literary agent at the time. They told me that their agency had been contacted by DC comics because they were in search of YA authors for a line of YA graphic novels. They wanted a big-name kidlit author that the agency represented (I won’t name names, but Don’t Let the Penguin Drive the Bus would have been a good DC Comics property for this person to write.).

But that author wasn’t interested, so my agent asked if I’d like to pitch a project. I went to New York during Comic Con and met with a DC editor and had a great conversation. I pitched a Superman story. She liked my idea, so I wrote up the pitch and had my agent send it off.

Apparently some editors loved my pitch and other hated it. The haters won out, so I got to work on another one. I used a bunch of the ideas I’d pitched to DC in my high school noir I SEE RED, which is forthcoming from…me. But said editor had also informed me that someone in the company came up with a Gotham-based idea called Arkham High. So I pressed Kaitlynne from Shelter in Place into service and wrote a pitch for it. It follows below!

Arkham High

Dramatis Personae

Kaitlynne—A petite 15-year-old drug dealer who cares for her 12-year-old sister. Light-brown skinned of indeterminate ethnicity.

Nicki—Kaitlynne’s little sister. Honors student.

Stacks—Large, dumb, male crime boss at Arkham High.

Mary B.—Stacks’ rival crime boss at Arkham High. She funnels talent to the Cobblepot organization.

Mr. Pina—Young male African-American math teacher

Jasmine—15-year-old African-American Arkham High student.

Oswald Cobblepot—A ruthless Gotham Crime Boss.

Batman—a masked vigilante.

Part One: Rainy Days and Mondays

Kaitlynne—a petite, light-brown skinned fifteen-year-old girl in a short skirt, short haircut, and big black boots, sits at a table in a conference room at Gotham Family Court with a large arched window and the original early 20th Century wood paneling. Across from her is her attorney, a slightly disheveled white guy with an ill-fitting suit and a combover.

“So since it’s your first offense,” the attorney says, “even with the nature of what you were selling, the judge is willing to give you probation.”

“Great!” Kaitlynne replies.

“As long as you attend Arkham High.”

Kaitlynne’s face falls. “I can’t do that. That place is…”

“Better than jail, which is your other option. The DA has the option to try you as an adult at 15.”

Kaitlynne puts her head in her hands.

Back in the Crown Point housing projects, a brutalist structure reminiscent of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, Kaitlynne’s little sister, Nicki, is doing homework at their ancient, scarred kitchen table. The walls are gray concrete, the windows are cracked, and the apartment is immaculate and decorated with bright colors that pop against the gray concrete walls. Nicki looks up expectantly as Kaitlynne enters.

“Probation,” Kaitlynne says, and Nicki runs to her, hugging her tight.

“I was so worried,” Nicki says.

After dinner, Kaitlynne is washing pots and pans while Nicki dries. “Mom’s never coming back, is she?” Nicki says.

“Let’s hope not,” Kaitlynne says. “And if she does,” Kaitlynne lifts a large iron bar into place, blocking the apartment’s front door, “she’ll have to sleep in the hall.” Nicki smiles, relieved.

Kaitlynne stands in the pouring rain in front of the doors to Arkham High. It’s an early 20th Century brick structure with a stone foundation and big, impressive columns. Kind of like this. The doors are scarred metal with small windows of filthy glass with wire mesh embedded in it. She takes out her court-issued ID and slaps it on a panel next to the door. The door clicks, and Kaitlynne takes a deep breath and says, “well, how bad could it be?”

She opens the door and enters, rain dripping off of her, onto a splash page of violence and chaos. In the cavernous, 2-story Arkham High atrium, at least 2 beatings are in progress, as are a dice game, a card game, and a game of mumbledy-peg with a clearly unwilling participant. Metal shutters cover the school office windows, and they are covered in illegible graffiti tags. Toilet paper streamers hang from the flickering fluorescent lights. “Welcome to Arkham High,” Kaitlynne says.

Threading her way through the chaos, Kaitlynne makes her way to the office. She rings a bell and is buzzed in. In the office, a white-haired woman with glasses sits behind the desk and a security guard levels a shotgun at Kaitlynne. “Whoa, whoa,” she says, hands in the air. “I’m just here for my schedule.”

The secretary gives Kaitlynne her schedule, and Kaitlynne walks through the halls, which are just as chaotic as the foyer. In History class, the teacher, an old, tired-looking white guy, addresses a class that isn’t listening to him. “Okay, everybody, US history,” he says. “300 dollars for an A. 350 for a B. 400 for a C, and 500 for a D. Submit your orders by the end of class tomorrow.”

Kaitlynne turns to the girl next to her, a white girl with braided hair and a neck tattoo. “Why are D’s so expensive?” Kaitlynne asks. The girl rolls her eyes. “I’m not the welcoming committee.”

Turning to her other side, Kaitlynne finds a bespectacled Black girl, Jasmine. “So can you tell me why D’s are the most expensive?”

Jasmine sighs. “An A or B means you’re meat. Even a C means you’re kind of a tryhard. Get an F and you violate your court order and get locked up. So D is the sweet spot.”

“That what you’re going for?”

“I can only afford a B. It’s gonna be an interesting semester.”

“What are you in for?” Kaitlynne asks.

“Smacked a cop,” Jasmine says. “After he shot my brother. I would have killed him if I could.”

Kaitlynne reaches out her hand. “Kaitlynne. Dealing hard drugs.”

Jasmine smiles. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Kaitlynne travels through colorful, disturbing hallway chaos to another class where the teacher, a middle-aged white woman, has written, “name your grade and leave me alone” on the board. She stares at her laptop and Kaitlynne, seated in the front row, says, “what are you doing?”

“Trying to monetize my mommy blog so I can get the hell out of here,” she says. “Now please don’t talk to me again.”

Kaitlynne and Jasmine also have math class together. The teacher, a young Black man with a big afro stands at the board. He writes: “Mr. Pina: cooking the books.”

“Go to sleep and take the D if you want. But if you want to stay awake, I’ll teach you something valuable. Question: how many bookkeepers have suffered serious injury at the hands or feet of bat-related vigilantes? None. How many bookkeepers have turned state’s evidence and are now living somewhere else at government expense? Five. That we know of. So listen up. Or don’t. Your choice.”

Near the end of the day, we look up at Kaitlynne, at her locker when two large, hideous boys suddenly flank her. “New meat,” one says, placing a paw on Kaitlynne’s shoulder. “tasty.”

“Do you know about the…initiation ritual?” the other one says, grabbing his crotch.

“Yes. I do. All too well,” Kaitlynne answers. She kicks one in the knee with her steel-toed boot and swings the padlock from her locker into the other one’s nose, which breaks, geysering blood. She kicks each one in the crotch, and, while they’re down, she loops the padlock around her finger and punches each one in the face. Hard.

Looking down, we see a petite Kaitlynne standing in a puddle of blood while the two giants lay supine on the floor, groaning. “Nice to meet you,” Kaitlynne says.

PART TWO: We’ve Only Just Begun

The next day, Kaitlynne stands at her locker. This time, two girls flank her. They do not look like people to mess with. “Stacks wants to see you,” they say.

“I don’t know anybody named Stacks,” she says.

One girl answers, “When Stacks wants to see you, you get seen. You can walk with us or get carried in by them—” she gestures over her shoulder at another 4 students—3 girls and a boy.

“Great,” Kaitlynne says. “Let’s go see Stacks then.”

She is marched into a nearby classroom. Stacks, a large, mean-looking white boy, sits behind a desk that probably should belong to a teacher.

“You can do Arkham High one of three ways,” Stacks says. “You can be my friend. You can be my enemy. Or you can be meat. Fortunately or unfortunately for you, the meat option expired when you beat two of my guys yesterday. So. You can be my friend, in which case, welcome aboard, we can always use somebody tough and ruthless. Or you can be my enemy, in which case both you and your little sister—”

Kaitlynne looks shocked, and Stacks continues. “—yeah, we followed you home last night. Anyway, if you’re my enemy, then you and your little sister should probably watch your backs. Or leave town. Either way.”

“Well. I guess I’m your friend then.”

“Good choice,” Stacks says. “I’ll be in touch.”

Later, on her way to class, Kaitlynne is approached by four different girls. “Mary B wants to see you.”

“Let me guess,” Kaitlynne says. “I can walk with you or get carried to her later.”

One of the girls smiles. “You’re getting Arkham High already.”

She is brought to a science lab. In the lab, Mary B stands in a lab coat and protective goggles heating something in a test tube. She is brown-skinned and wears a Gotham Knights baseball cap. “So,” she says, “I heard you taught a couple of guys a lesson yesterday.”

“They seemed rapey.”

Mary B tuts. “See, that type of thing doesn’t happen in my organization. Stacks is all testosterone, no brain. His isn’t the kind of organization that smart young women like ourselves should join. Plus, his graduates go on to try to sign on to any organization that will have them. They wind up as bat bait. Whereas my alumni are guaranteed a probationary tryout with the Cobblepot organization. Not working for Killer Croc or the Joker. A professional, rational organization backed by generational wealth. So you can either be with me, or against me, or you can be meat. I’m sure your sister doesn’t want you to be making enemies. Enemies that could be dangerous to her as well as you.”

Kaitlynne is enraged but holds it in. We see her fist, nails digging into her palm with drops of blood forming. “So, if I’m your friend, you can protect me from Stacks? I hear he’s upset about the lesson I taught.”

Mary B. laughs. “There’s no truce in effect here. We lose low-level soldiers all the time. But you do your job well, move up in the organization? Then you get untouchable.”

Kaitlynne extends her non-bloody hand. “Great. I guess we’re friends, then.”

At lunch, Kaitlynne and Jasmine huddle at a table, surrounded by flying food and occasional sharp objects. Kaitlynne whispers to Jasmine, “What do I do? They both recruited me, and they both said they’d hurt Nicki if I went with the other one.”

Jasmine says, “Leave town?”

Kaitlynne sighs. “Even if we had money to go anywhere, there’s nowhere to go. At least here we have a roof over our heads.”

Jasmine says, “Well. I guess you join ‘em both and hope they never find out.”

“What about you?” Kaitlynne says. “Who did you join?”

Jasmine laughs. “You don’t get it, do you? Most people don’t get the option to join. I’m like most of the kids here: meat.”

Back at home, Kaitlynne finds Nicki on the computer. “Whatcha doing?” she asks.

“Joined the chess club,” Nicki says. “It looks good on college applications.”

Kaitlynne laughs. “You’re in 8th grade.”

“Never too early to start planning,” Nicki says.

“So how is it?”

“It’s hard. There are openings you can memorize, but then you have to always be looking at the whole board and looking for whatever advantage you can find. You’ve got to go after their weaknesses, but not so obviously that they know you’re doing it, because then they’ll put their guard up. So, like, how do you set up a strategy without looking like you’re doing it?” Nicki says. “I lose a lot.”

Kaitlynne studies the board on the computer. It’s a 3D rendering of a Batman vs Joker chess set. “The little ones—”

“Pawns,” Nicki says. They are anonymous mooks on the Joker side, Bat Mite on the Batman side.

“There’s a lot more of them.”

“Yeah,”Nicki says. “But they’re not very powerful.”

“Not on their own, maybe,” Kaitlynne says.

The next day, Kaitlynne grabs Jasmine in the atrium and heads for a stall in the bathroom. “I have a plan,” Kaitlynne says. “But I’m going to need help. Can you get…do you know anybody else you can trust?”

Jasmine laughs. “I don’t even trust you.”

Kaitlynne allows that this is fair and offers Jasmine a pack of razor blades. “This is a pro wrestling trick. Hide this, and if somebody comes at you, try to cut your forehead with it.”

“You want me to cut myself?”

“Head wounds bleed like crazy. Once they see the blood, they’ll figure they did their job. It’s a quick cut to save you from broken ribs or worse.”

Kaitlynne passes out razor blades to kids she is supposed to be beating up. She whispers in their ears that their debts are covered. We see her at home digging through a bulk pack of tampons to the one empty box where she keeps her savings from drug dealing. She pulls out a wad of bills and looks at the remainder. “I gotta wrap this up in a couple weeks,” she says. Back at school, she hands over wads of cash to both Mary B. and Stacks separately.

Part Three: Hurting Each Other

After school, Kaitlynne heads into Mr. Pina’s room and finds him actually correcting papers. “So, Mr. P.,” she says. “Why do you do it? Actually teach, I mean. You seem to be the only one who does.”

He smiles. “You got two options in a place like this. You can keep your head down and stay out of trouble, or you can try to make it a little better.”

“Well, I’m trying to make it better. And I need your help.”

Next to a bank of lockers in an apparently endless hallway, Kaitlynne is pretending to beat a kid, saying, “This’ll teach you to pay Stacks on time,” when she sees one of Mary B.’s people coming towards her. She ducks into the bathroom, not sure if she’s been seen. She hides in the stall, looking and feeling like a cornered animal. Someone walks into the bathroom, and Kaitlynne sweats, perched on the toilet and ready to fight for her life. The other person pees and departs. “They really should wash their hands,” Kaitlynne says, then vomits into the toilet from the stress.

Coming out of the bathroom, Kaitlynne is informed by two girls that Mary B wants to see her. She goes toward the lab, sweating and looking furtively around for Stacks’ people. When the coast is clear, she ducks into the lab.

Mary B. tells Kaitlynne “you wanted to move up, you got it. Collections are up 25% since you started. You’re really out there terrorizing the meat.”

“Yeah,” Kaitlynne says. “But I’m worried.”

Mary B. looks at her for a long time, and finally says, “tell me why.”

“Well, you know Mr. Pina?”

“Did he touch you? Because he’s not one of the ones who pays for that privilege.”

Kaitlynne tries to keep a poker face as she digests this information. We flash to an image of a younger Kaitlynne hiding under her covers in the room she shares with Nicki as her door opens a sliver and a large man says, “Where the hell’s the bathroom, anyway?” Kaitlynne brings herself back to the present with some difficulty.

“No no—he’s just. He’s teaching. You know. Offering people an alternative. And not just the meat—he’s giving people an option to do, like math stuff. Be bookkepers. Not have to move up through the ranks.”

“So?” Mary B. asks.

“So now instead of coming to you to move into an organization, they can go through Pina. That means we’re losing talent. He’s poaching people from you. It’s your business, but I wouldn’t like the way that made me look. Might give Stacks ideas.”

“So what do you propose?”

“Let me take care of him.”

Kaitlynne walks out of Mr. Pina’s classroom, checking the hall for Stacks’ people: we can see that the classroom has been wrecked, and there is blood everywhere.

Back at home, Kaitlynne makes dinner while Nicki does homework. “So,” Kaitlynne says. “I don’t want you to worry, but I’m in the middle of something kind of dangerous right now. I need you to bar the door when you get home, and don’t open it for anyone but me.”

“You don’t want me to worry?” Nicki says.

“I’m gonna get you some company to walk to school. Ebony’s grandmom still waking her to school?”

“And back,” Nicki says.

Kaitlynne goes down the hall and knocks on a door. The door opens the width of a security chain, and a shotgun peeks out through the gap. “You and your poison are not welcome in my home,” a voice says.

“Please,” Kaitlynne says. “I’m not…it’s about Nicki. It’s not about me.”

The door opens, and we see Ebony’s grandmom—white haired and holding the shotgun under one arm and leaning on a cane with another.

“I need… I’m trying to make a better life for Nicki and me. I’m not selling anymore. And some bad people may be mad at me. I can’t take Nicki to school every day, and I’m wondering if she can walk with you.”

Ebony’s grandmom deftly pulls the sword from her cane and points it at Kaitlynne’s throat. “Nicki is a nice girl. I would be happy to put anyone in the ground who messes with her. But you sell that poison around this building again and I am coming for you and I will raise that girl myself. Are we clear?”

“Yes Ma’am,” Kaitlynne says.

The next day, Kaitlynne goes to see Stacks. “Mary B. is making moves,” she says. “She took out Mr. Pina.”

Stacks wonders why he should care—Pina doesn’t pay him any protection money.

Kaitlynne explains—Mary B. is showing her power. Stacks can’t let this slide—it makes him look weak. He needs to go after one of Mary’s alumni.

“But Cobblepot—” Stacks begins.

“Isn’t going to care about some low-level mook. But Mary B. will get the message to get back in her lane.”

Stacks says no way. He’s dumb, but not that dumb.

Kaitlynne gets Jasmine to help her call a bunch of the “meat” together, but only the ones she trusts. “I told you,” Jasmine says, “I don’t trust anybody.”

“Well then,” Kaitlynne says, “the ones who have suffered the most under Stacks and Mary B.”

Kaitlynne meets a bunch of kids in a trash-strewn alley and tells them she needs their help. It’s going to be dangerous, but probably less dangerous than a day at Arkham High. They agree.

Part Four: Top of the World

Kaitlynne and her crew hide outside the Cobblepot compound (perhaps an homage to the Corleone compound?) A car pulls up. The Penguin gets out and heads into his mansion. One of the bodyguards stays outside the gates to have a smoke. Kaitlynne wanders over. “Hey,” she says. “Did you go to Arkam High?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“Cool,” she says. “you worked for Mary B, right?”

“Yeah,” he says. He’s young and definitely enjoying the attention.

“That’s awesome. I work for Stacks. He sent me to send a message to you.”

The kids swarm the bodyguard, and in seconds, he’s a bloody mess on the ground.

The kids scatter in all directions, and, after running several blocks, Kaitlynne and Jasmine stand, hands on knees, panting in an alley.

“Okay,” Kaitlynne says. “We’re at war now.”

The next day, The Penguin arrives at Arkham High with 3 cars worth of thugs. They head straight for Stacks’ classroom, and Kaitlynne, in the hall outside the room, hears Stacks screaming. We pull in tight on her smile.

Another of Mary B.’s people tells Kaitlynne there is an all-staff meeting in the gym.

In the Gym, the Mary B. Organization packs the bleachers while the Penguin stands at a microphone with a nervous Mary B. next to him. It’s like a criminal pep rally.

“I have corrected a serious problem,” he says. “But I need to know how this happened. I pay you, Mary, to be my eyes and ears at Arkham High, but you apparently went temporarily deaf and blind in this case. I need to understand why. Tell me who in your organization was responsible for gathering intelligence.”

Before Mary B. can speak, Kaitlynne, a tiny figure in the crowd on the bleachers, stands and spontaneously “confesses.” “I’m sorry! I didn’t know who he was! I’m sorry Mary, but I’m not getting on his bad side for you. She told me to do it. All she said was that she was ready to move up, and this was going to clear a place for her! I did it—I followed the orders! You can ask!”

“Very well,” The Penguin says. “Come down here.” Kaitlynne slowly makes her way down the bleachers and across the gym floor, her boots on the bleachers and floor the only sound in the place. She looks abjectly terrified and trembles.

His injured associate hobbles out on crutches and looks at Kaitlynne. “That’s her,” he says.

The Penguin turns to Kaitlynne. “How long have you been at Arkham High?”

“2 weeks,” Kaitlynne says.

“She’s lying!” Mary B. screams. “It was her! It was all her!”

The Penguin looks at Mary and shakes his head. He gestures at Kaitlynne. “Look at this little girl. She’s quaking in her boots. You expect me to believe she planned and executed an attack on my people without your knowledge or approval? After only 2 weeks at Arkham High?”

Mary, still screaming her denials, is carried away by Cobblepot’s enforcers. The guy Kaitlynne beat up is still there. He puts one crutch aside and punches Kaitlynne in the gut, hard. She goes down, coughing. “Orders or not, I owed you that. I better never see you again,” he says, and hobbles out.

Later, Kaitlynne walks into the cafeteria. Tensions between the two crews are very high. The meat are trembling in their seats, and everyone else is ready to spring into action.

Kaitlynne stands on a table. “She’s the one who snitched on Mary B.!” one of her crew says. “But she worked with us!” a Stacks crew member says. The crowd is restive and dangerous. Kaitlynne seizes the moment, climbing atop a table.

“That’s right,” Kaitlynne says. “I came in here and the first thing both of those people did was to threaten my little sister. I protect my own. So they had to go So—you guys want to come for me? You want to get me and then keep fighting each other? You know that’s what Gotham wants, right? That’s why they make us all come here! So we fight each other so we’re less dangerous to them.

“Well, I say the hell with that. I say we all work together. Nobody’s meat anymore except for the people out there who get in our way. We have actual classes for people who want them, (She gestures to Mr. Pina, who smiles and waves) and this building isn’t a war zone anymore: it’s a safe haven. Where we protect our own. And where everybody is our own.”

The meat rise up as one, cheering. The crew members, seeing which way the wind is blowing, join in.

Later, a triumphant Kaitlynne walks home with a grocery bag in her hand, and, as she gets to the Crown Point projects, Batman materializes out of the shadows.

“Cool trick,” Kaitlynne says.

“I understand you cleaned up Arkham High,” he says. “Good work.”

“Thanks,” she says.

“I’m hoping you’ll be willing to be my eyes and ears—” Batman begins.

“You know what’s funny? That’s exactly what the Penguin wanted in Arkham High. To use us. He’s done with us, and now you want me to work for you. Why the hell would I do that? Where were you when people were getting beaten up every day? When my sister was getting threatened? When I was puking every night from the stress of working for both crews and trying to keep it secret? Did you help me then?”

“I can’t be everywhere at once,” Batman says. “That’s why I need eyes and ears in a lot of places.”

“Yeah, well, I made a promise to look out for those kids. I owe them something. I don’t owe you anything. Go fight Calendar Man or Polka Dot Man or somebody. The kids are alright.”

Kaitlynne turns and goes into her building. Inside her apartment, we see Kaitlynne put the grocery bag down in front of Nicki. “We’re celebrating tonight,” she says.

Outside, Batman, silhouetted against the moon, swings away.