With eighty years of history behind them, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Batman, Catwoman, the Joker and all the other heroes and villains of Gotham were teenagers once. They went to school, struggled with homework, had high school crushes and went to parties like most other teens. And like those of us who have gone on to become adults, their lives as high schoolers likely looked entirely different than their lives do now. Sure, some key personality traits and qualities may have been with them all their lives, but the things that define Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle and Jack Napier as adults—namely their colorful alter egos—didn’t develop until later.

Gotham High, DC’s new young adult graphic novel by New York Times bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz and acclaimed illustrator Thomas Pitilli, is set in this much earlier period of our heroes’ and villains’ lives. Taking place within and around the halls of the titular school, the out-of-continuity Gotham High envisions a world where a young Bruce, Selina and Jack are all high school friends…and in some cases, maybe a lot more. It’s a mystery rich with thrills, backstabs and soapy romance, and offers a relationship between the three characters that’s both complicated and compelling in an entirely new way. While the book is light on costumes and crimefighting, it’s full of moments and insights about its characters that will make you see the world of Gotham in an entirely new way.

With the graphic novel now available in stores and digitally, the moment seemed perfect to talk to de la Cruz about this uniquely different DC graphic novel. Over the course of our chat, we discovered how some elements of Gotham High are personal to the author, whether Selina truly loves Bruce or Jack, and which of her three main character de la Cruz would most likely have been friends with back in high school.

Gotham High features Bruce Wayne, Jack Napier and Selina Kyle, but it’s really Selina’s story. Was that always the plan from the start?

Not really! This was supposed to be Bruce’s book, but Selina has a way of making it all about her. (LOL) As the story developed, she became a lot more important to the plot. And for me, it just felt natural. I’m a YA writer—my bread and butter is strong female protagonists. J

We get touches of Batman, Joker and Catwoman in Gotham High’s Bruce, Jack and Selina. How did you balance giving us a taste of the characters we know while also keeping things fresh?

I love origin stories. I loved writing Disney’s Descendants novels, especially when I figured out how to tie all the old Disney lore to the new movie. That first prologue took months to figure out and perfect—because it was a bridge from the old to the new. So I was excited to be able to explore iconic characters in a different way. But this is my universe. My Batman doesn’t grow up to be Christian Bale’s Batman, for instance. (I think Christian Bale is my favorite Batman.) And my Jack Napier doesn’t grow up to be Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Or any of the Batmans or Jokers in the various comic books over the years.

With retellings, you want to gesture to the template of the character—for instance, my first idea of Bruce was that he was almost like a Great Gatsby type. But in conversations with my DC editors, I realized, no, of course not. Bruce still has to be Bruce—brooding and isolated and broken. That’s the essence of Bruce Wayne, you can’t change that. And once we figured it out, everything fell into place.

Gotham High also doesn’t shy away from some pretty serious themes, notably with Selina’s father’s Alzheimer’s. Were those moments challenging to write?

It’s interesting what comes out of one’s subconscious because I just realized that when I was writing this book, I was thinking of my best friend and how her dad had Alzheimer’s for years and they were moving him into a home so that he could be taken care of better. He had full-time round-the-clock care in his Park Avenue apartment, but his nurses told my friend it would be better for him to go to a facility. So I was emotionally supporting someone going through what Selina was going through at the moment—and I didn’t even realize that until now.

I think writers draw from what’s around them for sure, and it wasn’t hard to imagine it, and I think Selina has some of my friend’s grit and anguish. But the experience is not uncommon, so I didn’t even think of my friend specifically. My siblings and mom and I also went through hospice care for my dad before he passed of cancer, so I was drawing from that experience as well. Death is part of life, so it felt natural to have a storyline that deals with stuff like that.

At the heart of Gotham High is a love triangle between Selina, Bruce and Jack. Do you think Selina truly does have feelings for both of them? I had a hard time deciding who to root for (though I think I’m Team Jack).

Ha! Love it. I love Jack too. I think Selina cares more about her dad than any boys right now, and she’s maybe not in a place where she can really understand her feelings. I think she has a little more growing up to do, but I do think she has deep feelings for both of them. Definitely.

There’s a lot of poker in Gotham High. Do you play? Could you hold your own with Jack and Bruce?

One of my favorite memories of Christmas is my dad taking all my friends down in a poker game during college and after. Friends would be emptying their wallets and Pop would win all their money. Then Pop would gift them a bottle of wine at the end of the evening as a peace offering. When we lived in Manila, he used to have a standing game with friends and they were all bankers and the betting would get wild—they would put Mercedes keys on the pile of chips, even gamble vacation homes. My dad wasn’t a gambler, but he had a lot of fun with his friends. He taught my siblings and I how to play when I was about eight years old. I like to think I’m a good poker player, but I haven’t played in a while. After my dad died it felt too sad. But my brother says we need to get the Christmas tradition going again.

How was it working with Thomas Pitilli? Was it hard settling on the looks of the characters?

Thomas is literally the best! He brought these characters to life and was so fun to work with. Bruce and Selina got nailed down easily, Jack was a little harder—we couldn’t figure out his “look.” And then Thomas gave him his own haircut—which I only found out when we started doing interviews. It fit Jack so well!

The book focuses on its three main characters, but there are also plenty of appearances from other familiar Gothamites. Was there anyone you would have liked to work into the story, but wasn’t able to?

I would have liked to have Dick Grayson/Robin in a lot more.

Finally, which of these three characters would you have most wanted to hang with when you were in high school?

Oh, Bruce is too cool for me. My high school friends were the burnouts and the alt cool kids, so Jack and I would have been friends for sure. Barbie Gordon too because I was friends with a lot of teacher kids and nerds. I’d hope Selina would say hi to me, but she probably doesn’t hang out with yearbook editors. lol

Gotham High by Melissa de la Cruz and Thomas Pitilli is now available through comic shops, bookstores, libraries and as a digital graphic novel. 

Tim Beedle may work and live on Earth, but he prefers to spend his free time in the worlds created by Philip Pullman, Garth Nix and Philip Reeve. His favorite superhero is Batman, which he knows is everyone else’s favorite too, so he’s really trying hard to get into a slightly less popular one. Keep tabs on how it's going by following him on Twitter at @Tim_Beedle.