Hey, check it out! Real books with lots of words and no pictures and stuff! What a concept!
I’m not sure if I can call Jake Bell a friend. He’s a swell guy, and we get along perfectly fine, but I don’t know him all that well, so I guess “acquaintance” would be a better word. I see him every once in a while and we shoot the shit, and I know he’s been working on these books for a few years, and now they’re out, and I’m happy for him. Maybe now he can relax!
Bell (like Alan Moore, I will use his last name even though I probably could use his first name) originally wanted to call the first book in this series “I Think My Teacher Is A Superhero,” which might have been a bit spot-on. Somewhere along the line, the title changed to Secret Identity Crisis, but the core remains the same – Nate Banks, the star of this series, begins to believe his teacher is a superhero. The first book is all about his attempts to prove it and what he does when he realizes he’s right. The second book, Freezer Burned, continues Nate’s adventures. Both books are published by Scholastic, Inc., and they’re aimed at a tween audience. Nate is a sixth-grader, and I imagine sixth-graders would enjoy this book quite a bit. At least I hope so!
The stories themselves are relatively simple – not surprising, given the audience – but they’re exciting and adventurous and are full of interesting characters. Nate and his two best friends, Teddy and Fiona, are typical young nerds – they read comics, in other words – who live fairly normal lives in the town of Kanigher Falls (all the towns in the books are named after comic book creators). The town doesn’t have its own superhero, but they’re fairly common in other places. One day a new hero arrives in town – a woman called Ultraviolet. Nate is terrifically excited, and when his science teacher gives him an extra credit assignment that involves figuring out as much as he can about her, he’s even more jazzed. But then he begins to think that his history teacher, Ms. Matthews, is really Ultraviolet herself. We assume he’s right, but Bell throws some curves at us to keep us guessing. And, of course, a supervillain shows up. Isn’t that always the way? Bell doesn’t break any new ground with the villain, but he does give us a nice progression to how he reaches the point where he appears.
In the second book, with Ultraviolet firmly established as Kanigher Falls’ hero, Bell introduces Coldsnap, who has some schemes about how to deal with Ultraviolet. It’s another clever tale that doesn’t take too many twists, but the ones it does have are thought out well. Nate has become a bit famous because people think he’s Ultraviolet’s “sidekick,” and he draws the attention of a Paris Hilton parody who wants to meet Ultraviolet and tries to use Nate to get to that point. Bell’s parody is a bit broad, but again, we have to consider the audience. It’s not very mean-spirited, though, and it is rather funny.
Bell’s characterization is the best parts of the books. Nate is a good character, and his friendships with Teddy and Fiona are handled well. Their banter is well done and fits their ages. His adults are good, too – they’re slightly condescending to the kids in the way that adults are, but they also take them seriously when they need to. Ms. Matthews is a good character because Bell makes her unsure how to deal with being a superhero, and while the self-doubt isn’t obnoxious, it’s brought in well and doesn’t become too angsty. Bell gives each character plenty of non-stereotypical traits – even the Paris Hilton character doesn’t completely act like a dim bulb all the time. He works hard on making the superheroes interesting people, even if deconstruction of those characters has been done. Captain Zombie is a nifty character who plays cribbage, Doctor Nocturne is a brooding person with some interesting secrets, and the Phantom Ranger is a cool elder statesman whom all the other heroes respect. Bell also makes sure that the book is very exciting without being scary – Nate is definitely in danger, but it’s much more adventurous than anything else. It’s a fine balance, and he pulls it off.
As this is a book published by Scholastic and is aimed at kids, there’s some sneaky education in these books. Bell puts some stuff in there about comics teaching kids stuff that they’re too bored to learn in school, as Nate knows all about the Fourth Amendment because it’s come up in a comic book. Coldsnap uses salty water to make snow, so we learn why it doesn’t stick together as well as pure water, something the science teacher brought up in class but which the kids ignored. Just as comics can teach us neat things, so can these books. Be careful, kids – you might learn something if you read these!
These books are $5.99 each, which is a nice price considering they’re about 160 pages and each comes with an 8-page comic drawn by Chris Giarrusso (which are tangentially related to the stories and add some nice background to the characters). They’re very good for children, and they’re rather enjoyable for adults too. Amazon has them in stock, and I believe that they’ll be in actual book stores next Tuesday (I could be wrong; I haven’t spoken to Jake face-to-face in a few months). Give them a look! There’s a third book coming down the pipeline, if you’re interested in more!
Tomorrow: DIY comics RULE!!!!