Franchise Lost: Eleanor Davis’ The Secret Science Alliance
- If Chris Ware were to do a book aimed at preteens, it might look a little like The Secret Science Alliance. As a long-time fan of Eleanor Davis (I still vividly remember the micro-mini-comics vending machine she brought to SPX), I was stunned to see her completely reinvent aspects of her visual approach for this book. Davis is best known for a wispy line and drawings that have an earthy, grimy quality to them. She lets the page unfold in order for the reader to take in the way her characters struggle against the power of their environments. Here, Davis leads the reader around with Ware-style arrows, charts and diagrams. It’s an incredibly ambitious layout for a teen book, but her skill in leading the eye around the page makes each one a pure joy to navigate.
- One thing that changed the surface aspects of her drawings was that her husband, the massively talented Drew Weing, did the inking. Weing’s line has always been as thick as Davis’ has been thin, reflecting their different storytelling priorities. Weing’s stories have usually been about exaggeration and extremes, and that beefy line was there to amplify that quality. Davis has always been more about mystery and restraint. Even the color palette chosen for this book (and executed by Joey Weiser & Michelle Chidester) was brighter and bolder than her usual choices.
- Beyond the plastic qualities of the book, Davis created three remarkably sturdy characters, both in terms of personality and design. The lanky jock Ben Garza has impossibly bushy eyebrows and a long nose, but is insecure about his intelligence despite his design genius. Stumpy, red-headed and cranky ultra-nerd Julian Calendar drives the plot as the new kid in town who initially tried to hide his nerdiness. The real revelation of the book was Greta Hughes, the school’s biggest delinquent who also happens to be its biggest genius. With her comically unkempt, kinky hair billowing out from under her omnipresent bicycle helmet (worn at all times to protect her brain), she’s the sort of fractious character who perfectly balances out the laid back Ben and the puckish Julian.
- While all three characters have their own emotional & dramatic issues to deal with, those issues are more to add a bit of depth than dominate the book. Indeed, The Secret Science Alliance at its core, is about the sheer joy of sharing friendship and creativity. All three characters are inventors, a nice metaphor for the ways in which people at that age share secrets and discoveries about life. In a very literal sense, Davis shares her own enthusiasm for the principles of science, giving us details on how and why certain things work or how a polyalphabetic cypher can be cracked. It’s a book that celebrates learning and discovery for its own sake. While there’s a realistic understanding of how this affects social caste, the friendship the three characters share supersedes the ‘nerd vs. other’ battle, a dynamic that fades into the background as we delve deeper into the book.
- The plot in the latter half of the book is entirely predictable and is really an excuse to see every invention introduced to the reader on paper in action. This is not a bad thing, especially given the skill employed during the climactic fight scene. Indeed, the whole book has a clear, propulsive quality to it that contrasts well with the diagrams that invite the reader’s eye to linger for a long time.
- Davis has successfully authored comics for 4-6 year olds (Stinky), pre-teens (Secret Science Alliance); and, a great run of strips for the anthology Mome. Fans of her comics should certainly seek out her all-ages work as well. The level of craft, care and ingenuity is all at the same high level.
This bullet-point review was originally written in 2010. There was unfortunately only one volume in this series. As a side-note this is my nine-year-old daughter’s favorite book. —Rob Clough
Eleanor Davis on Wow Cool