It's back to school again in "Oddly Normal" #4, as Oddly discovers that bullies aren't unique to the mortal world. With its cool kids, evil teachers and friendly outcasts, Otis Frampton's all-ages adventure undeniably gets generic in this issue, but it's still an easy, enjoyable read.
In this issue, Frampton introduces Oddly's teachers and classmates in Menagerie Middle School. Unsurprisingly, Oddly's hopes for an accepting, super-fun school environment are dashed, as the inhabitants of Fignation prove just as small-minded as those in the mortal world. Everyone fits a broad, generic archetype, from the sneeringly vicious cool kids to the overeager nerd, from the boisterous gym teacher to the oily, erudite English teacher. Frampton's character designs give them their only real originality (more on that later), and while their dialogue never feels phoned-in or stale, it is a bit disappointing to see such an original premise tied to such a tired plot. There's even a lunchtime confrontation in the cafeteria.
Still, Oddly's world feels likeable and explorable. The character designs are playful, particularly for the teachers, and Frampton has fun with scale and bulk. (The crab looms on scrawny, scuttling legs; the burly warthog is tiny with fairy wings.) Oddly's classmates are based on stories ranging from Mother Goose to Mary Shelley, and I enjoyed seeing what Frampton did with his allusions. Fignation's mechanics still aren't fully explained, though there seems to be some science/fiction tension going on, but I'm enjoying the rule-less amalgam for now.
The colors are also bright and easy, with purple-peach skies and monsters in a dozen different colors. They're also clearly shaded so that the simpler linework still feels full and moving. The lettering is similarly storybook-ready, with a clean, rounded type for dialogue and a great helter-skelter font for the resident zombie. Despite Oddly's struggles to fit in, this world feels harmless and malleable.
Frampton may not innovate much with his characters' personalities, but he starts off the issue with a busy dual structure that helps the reader to feel how overwhelmed Oddly is. He divvies each page into eight panels, with the teachers' monologues taking up the right four, and Oddly's conversations with her classmates taking up the left four. It creates a bustling, first-day-of-school feel, as information is slung at the reader (literally) left-and-right, and Oddly tries to answer everyone's questions while still paying attention. As with the previous three issues, "Oddly Normal" takes much of its strength from the empathy it creates for the protagonist.
One last note: Frampton maintains an all-ages tone, but the vocabulary in this issue might challenge some readers on the younger end. Words like "repast", "replete" and "malapropism" show up pretty frequently. (Not that that's a bad thing, but I know it's relevant to some readers' purchasing decisions.)
"Oddly Normal" is turning out a bit more "normal" than expected, but it's well-executed, easy to like and energetically paced. In future issues, I'd love for Frampton to take the implications of his world and really see where they go, but for now, "Oddly Normal" is quite pleasant.