I first reviewed The Secret Science Alliance on 12/16/09 when I was just delving into the world of graphic novels. In the years since, I have read and loved many graphic novels (mostly for kids) but Davis' book remains at the top of my list for story, art and complexity. A must read!
The Secret Science Alliance, by Geisel Award winner (for her excellent beginning reader comic book, Stinky) Eleanor Davis is beyond amazing. The plot easily could have taken up a couple of hundred pages of a traditional (illustrationless) young adult novel. The depth of the personalities of the three main characters, as well as a few secondary characters is also equal to any good young adult novel I have read. The incredible thing is that Davis conveys this with a mere fraction of the number of words used in a traditional novel! Davis's illustrations, charts, maps, grids and guides (some of which overlap each other as if they are fighting for prominence) tell the story and give life to the characters through images more than with words. It definitely takes a shift in perception to take in this wonderful book in all its glory, but any extra effort is well worth the exertion!
I have to admit, I didn't read comics as a kid, and I have a degree in Literature so, when I read a chapter book with lots and lots of pictures, I feel like I am somehow cheating. I feel like I am indulging in a guilty pleasure - reading a little chick lit in between Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. However, when I turned the last page of The Secret Science Alliance, which I was not able to read in one sitting, I felt like I had read a traditional novel and my ideas about comic books and their value began to expand and explode. Because there are so many aspects to the plot and character details, I know I will not be able to do justice to the amazing story and illustrations that make up The Secret Science Alliance. I hope you will read my interview with Eleanor Davis to get a better feel for everything that goes in to creating a graphic novel. I was so enchanted and entranced by her books and her remarkable skill at weaving plot into the illustrations of her graphic novels (which I learned are also referred to Sequential Art, which I think the the perfect name for them) that I had to pick her brain and, especially, discuss my feelings of "cheating" when I read comics and how I can develop a deeper appreciation for this amazing art form that is relatively new to me. Here is Eleanor's response, which I found extremely enlightening and helpful:
"Well, every artwork needs to be judged on its own merits. But there are really good comics out that are excellent works of art. Most people think of film as being a fine art form, and most movies take under two hours to watch. A great piece of music can be only a couple minutes long. A timeless painting, or a lovely haiku, can be taken in even more quickly. Every art form is unique, with it's own benefits and limitations.
Likewise, when I first saw The Seven Samurai I felt weird - it was supposed to be a great film, but it was so fun to watch! The idea that anything good has to be hard work is pernicious for sure, and has resulted in a lot of bad art whose creators think they just have to be really boring and oblique.
Additionally, people new to comics often read them too quickly because they aren't used to really looking at the pictures - they just skip from word balloon to word balloon. It can take some time to learn to read comics slowly, looking at every image and letting it speak for itself.
Like any work of art, I judge a comic by the emotions it makes me feel, whether it stays with me and I find myself thinking about it after I'm done, and whether I find myself revisiting it again and again."
While I know that I am definitely guilty of reading graphic novels too fast, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to read The Secret Science Alliance too fast. There is so much going on in every page and every panel. I absolutely love maps and The Secret Science Alliance doesn't disappoint. Even where there isn't an actual map on a page, the layout and overlap of the illustrations sometimes feels map-like. As the review at the great kid's book site 100 Scope Notes astutely notes,
"Every element of The Secret Science Alliance, down to the use of word bubbles and panels, has been carefully considered and fully realized. The amount of detail makes the mind reel. Cut-aways and diagrams are liberally used, encouraging readers to pore over pages at close range. Not a spread goes by without some sort of unique way of moving the story ahead. Panels that are the shape of arrows, pointing you in the right direction. Panels in the form of clouds when Julian is daydreaming. Panels waived altogether, allowing objects to lay on the page as if they were sitting on a table. It’s a joy to see what comes next."
The plot follows Julian Calendar, Ultra Nerd (diagram of ultra nerdiness can be found on page 4) as he starts out as the new guy at Mosburg Junior High. Convinced he needs to hide his super smarts and love of all things science so that he can make friends, Julian fails miserably. But, he does attract the notice of Greta Hughes, notorious rebel, and Ben Garza, über-jock with a secret passion for invention. A note written in polyalphabetic cypher brings Julian, Greta and Ben together and The Secret Science Alliance is born! Ben and Greta have built a secret hide-out/laboratory where they think and create and Julian fits right in. When a run-in with a cranky, local scientist results in the theft of their Invention Notebook, the SSA springs into action. There are daring break-ins, break-outs and a thwarted theft. There is also a climactic fight atop a life-size model of a wooly mammoth and a clever trap that involves a secret solvent (vinegar, orange soda and laundry detergent) for the release of the bad guy. Every aspect of this book, from the inventions that Great, Ben and Julian make to the exhibits in the Mosburg History Museum where Greta's dad, Dr Hughes, is the curator and the character of Andro Kablovsky, a scientist and inventor who, if not for his anxieties, could have been more famous than Thomas Edison if he had only made it to the Grand Inventourament of 1897, is rich with detail and information. You will be stunned. Your kids will read it over and over again, discovering something new each time.
And, speaking of detail, I would also like to note that Davis's book has the most integrated cast of characters I have seen in a work of fiction for young adults. The main characters alone would be considered more than representative, but Davis includes secondary characters who are in wheel chairs, different styles of dress and hairstyle as well as a few pranks on the adults in the story, but I'll let the kids find those on their own!
For more information on Eleanor Davis and her husband, Drew Weing, also an artist and creator of graphic novels, check out Little House Comics. And, again, I urge you to read my interview with Eleanor to learn what goes through her head and what she's working on next!