The Mystery Of The Meanest Teacher is exactly what you would expect from Ryan North and Derek Charm, a funny and quick-witted book for middle grade readers with bright, kinetic art. North and Charm worked together previously on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and this new Johnny Constantine graphic novel is going to scratch a lot of the same itch for readers. The book stars a young Johnny “Kid” Constantine. While the book begins in his native England, Kid is quickly shipped off to a boarding school in America by his clueless parents, giving him an opportunity to flee from an angry mob of ghosts who ride phantom dinosaurs. The first act of the book is delightful slapstick, and a great introduction to a new version of a well-known character, which can be the hardest part of adapting decades of canon for a young audience. Unfortunately, a few creative missteps hamper what is otherwise a very strong book.
At his new school, Kid meets Anna, and they start to navigate the traps and dangers of a new school and teenage friendship together. The Mystery Of The Meanest Teacher falls into a long and beloved tradition of wacky middle grade books like Goosebumps and Sideways Stories From Wayside School—stories of evil teachers and outsized bullies. It does a good job of introducing young readers to some of DC’s most prominent magic users in a funny and age-appropriate setting. Charm’s character designs, especially for Kid Constantine and the titular teacher, Ms. Kayla, are particularly great: Kid wears a T-shirt printed to look like the adult Constantine’s trademark black suit and red tie, and Ms Kayla’s angular outfit is the perfect combination of Cruella de Vil and Miranda Priestly. And in the last third of the book, it’s a gleeful surprise when another beloved DC character arrives to help Kid and Anna defeat Ms. Kayla.
There’s a couple of things that undermine this book, and they’re surprising, both from these creators and from this collection. The DC middle grade and YA books have been consistently good, and The Meanest Teacher does suffer a little bit in comparison to the others. As is expected for North, it’s absolutely packed with text, so any reluctant or unconfident middle grade readers might find it intimidating. The sheer quantity of text makes it read more like a chapter book with a lot of pictures. There’s also a moment that uses Kid’s embarrassment about a gender-specific sex-ed class as a punchline, which wouldn’t have been remarkable even ten years ago, but now feels stale and shortsighted. Taken in combination with the fact that Anna—a.k.a. longtime Constantine associate Zatanna—doesn’t wield her own trademark backwards speaking spells at all, the dynamics feel a little off. (Not to mention a very weird and misplaced rant about cryptids and European colonizers from Ms. Kayla.)
What’s more troubling than that are the choices made around the only two characters of color in the book. Kid has a flashback to telling his first friend about his magic abilities. The young boy, who appears to be black, freaks out and Kid casts a spell of obedience to make him forget everything he saw. That’s troubling enough, but the issue is compounded by the fact that Ms. Kayla, the main antagonist and meanest teacher from which the book takes its name, also appears to be black. There is a late attempt to subvert that, by revealing that Ms. Kayla has actually been possessed, but it completely unbalances the strengths offered by the book.
There is a larger question here, about whether Constantine is even an appropriate protagonist for a kids’ book. He is unequivocally a bad person as an adult; readers may feel sympathy for him, and in the best runs (like the most recent Hellblazer) there’s even room for empathy. But graft that bad behavior onto a 13-year-old boy and it is alarming, not charming. There are some attempts to balance his worst faults, but an argumentative and self-important teenage boy with a habit of being mean to people who care about him is never going to feel good. In contrast to the care and intention in books like Superman Smashes The Klan and Shadow Of The Batgirl, the choices made feel careless at best. Some kids may not notice any of that at all, but that’s part of the problem: Perhaps some judicious editing could have not only cut down the amount of text on the pages, but helped to steer an otherwise fun book away from its own worst choices.