Review: The Not-So Secret Society

Matthew and Arlene Daley’s Not-So Secret Society promises an adventure appropriate of all ages, crafted by its creators’ background as parents and educators. In my initial review of the preview material I expressed tentative optimism toward the work, an engaging and original story about five friends and a machine that can bring candy to life; my only hesitation was born not from the comic itself but from the promises made by others like it. Educator-made comics, I noted then, often sacrifice quality for instructional relevance.

Having had the chance to read the full volume, I’m relieved to say that The Not-So Secret Society is not guilty of the crimes of its peers. The Daleys have crafted a story that integrates a healthy enthusiasm for the principles and curricula of S.T.E.M. (that’s fancy teacherspeak for “science, technology, engineering, and math”) while keeping true to the core of the world they’ve crafted.

In talking about what The Not-So Secret Society does right as an educator’s comic, it’s ironically most important to discuss the parts of the comic that don’t explicitly deal with educational material. We first meet Ava, Aiden, Madison, Dylan, and Emma – the titular “Not-So Secret Society – as they attempt to crack open a doorway to a mystical world in a subway station. From the outset, it becomes clear that this is a work that is not so overly concerned with its educational aims that it will forgo making a little mischief along the way. What’s more, the fleeting glimpse of something closing the mystical portal from the other side suggests what the Society might find itself exploring next, or it might be a clever sight gag: either way, it’s a promise that this story is not so enamored with the hard sciences that it forgets the crucial role that imagination plays in any kind of learning.

As I read on, it became clear that the Daleys were driving toward that exact point with their story. The Society’s involvement in a city-wide science fair, a rivalry with fellow scientist team The 5Zs, and the revelation that their “living candy” experiment all quickly swerves the work toward science fiction rather than science fact, and left me wondering about the classroom application of the work as a whole – that is, until I stopped reading the work as a testament to the joys of hard science and started to appreciate it for what it was: an extremely well-crafted work about the importance of ethics and morality in the S.T.E.M. fields.  While there is a little light science mixed in here and there, the bulk of the narrative seems far more interested in the why and how rather than the what – a unique angle that’s both far more essential and much more engaging.

When the results of the Society’s science fair endeavors come to light, so do questions about why science-minded kids like them might go into the field to begin with. Is it for fame and adoration, as seems to be the case with their rivals in the 5Zs, or is it, as Aiden puts it, to invent things for themselves? It is after all when the Society stops focusing on trying to upstage their peers that their work gets the most traction: though they miss out on the big prize, their work gains them the respect of a visiting scientist and an open invitation to visit her at a neighboring museum.  The message is one of collaboration over commercialism, functionality over publicity, ethics over ego. It’s a monumentally timely message for students leaning toward the fast-paced and results-focused field of applied science.

Taken as a comic book, The Not-So Secret Society does a great deal to make itself visually as well as conceptually appealing. Wook Jin Clark’s art style is reminiscent of the Saturday morning cartoons I grew up on with a bit of a manga flare thrown in for good measure (note the exaggerated “shock” lines when a character is taken by surprise, or the phantom limbs that mark where arms and legs were when a character makes a quick gesture). The paneling that makes up most pages is clean and easy to follow, frequently broken up by splash pages that do a wonderful job of setting the tone and scope of the Society’s world while making exceptional use of Elonora Bruni’s immensely varied color palette. The world of the Society looks expansive, vibrant, and alive, the perfect mix for the enthusiasm that the Society (and the Daleys) bring to the story.

Following the main work are a dozen-plus short comics using the central Society characters and showcasing their further exploits in school, around town, and elsewhere. Each is put together by a slightly different creative team and all do a nice job fleshing out the main characters – which, if I’m being fair, is the one area that the main story fell a little flat.  The backup stories do a nice job of expanding on the Society members’ personal quirks, something the central did in passing whenever it could but never had the time to which to devote a great deal of exposition. Also of note is a series of reading guide questions following the story, which I will go into in more detail in an upcoming review.

Suffice to say that The Not-So Secret Society avoids all of pratfalls of other educator-comics by being original enough to be a work all its own. NS3 is a comic that is not concerned with educational content but educational practice, and thereby becomes something of a uniqueness amid the myriad of S.T.E.M. works already on the market. From an educator’s standpoint, The Not-So Secret Society certainly has a place in elementary- and middle-grade classrooms, both as a way to introduce an interest in the potential for the future of hard sciences and to act as a sort of ethical calibrator.  The Daley’s work serves to expose students to not only what they can do with a background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but why and how they ought to do it.