School Spirit by VanderWerff & Quinney, reviewed by Matt Summers
It takes a special kind of person to be a teacher in today's world. With the horrors and plain out-and-out nuisances you hear about constantly on the news (including low pay, angry parents, belligerent students, etc), one wonders what kind of person would willingly embark on this career path. Now take that brave person and have him also able to see the world from the viewpoint of the children he's instructing; able to see things through the eyes of innocence, without the burden of maturity and worldliness tainting the rose-colored glasses they're wearing.
Add a goodly amount of intelligence and wit to the mix and you have Daniel VanderWerff, the co-creator and current writer and artist for School Spirit. A schoolteacher himself, he readily admits that quite a bit of his non-plot related comics come from the general environment he's mired in on a daily basis.
The setting for School Spirit is simple: a primary school in Australia, where the most intriguing thing that happens on a daily basis is whether the bus driver, Mavis, is going to drive the bus off of a cliff or not. The main characters are all children themselves, for the most part; Casper, the new kid on the block and the series' main character; and Cody, the rambunctious lad that befriends Cody immediately and gets them both into more trouble than he can get them out of. Together, these two immediately remind the reader of his or her own youth, full of vim and vigor and adventure.
Another of the main characters, however, is most definitely not something any of us are likely to remember from our own primary years. Wendy is the ghost of a twelve year old girl that the boys encountered during a trip into the local cemetery to retrieve a lost hat. Wendy is the catalyst to begin the change in this comic, bringing Casper and Cody deeper into longer and longer adventures (most recently the solving of the mystery of the Murderer's Hut).
The beauty of this comic revolves around these three main characters. Daniel has managed to bring the reader into the world he sees on an everyday basis, complete with all the normal drama, action, adventure and trouble that twelve year olds can really get into. The kids read as authentic; it's rather difficult to hold Cody's interest in most things, no matter how Casper tries. Just like an average twelve year old; if he can't touch it, or jump on it, or play with it, it's not likely to hold his attention long. Daniel has crafted a view into the school that we all attended as a kid.
If there is any one point that might distract the casual reader from enjoying School Spirit, it's the simple fact that all the characters speak Australian. No, not English, Australian. Just like someone from the south here in the U.S. has difficulty understanding someone from Boston and vice versa, the kids use euphemisms and phrasing unique to Australia. Occasionally this involves a quick Google search to see what in the world they're talking about. But Daniel has graciously provided a glossary under the heading "Strine" that defines the majority of the terms he uses in the comic.
The artwork fits the feel of the comic very well indeed. The characters are expressive and easily identifiable… though there is some debate as to whether Australians have mated with their Koala bears due to the sheer size of some of the characters' ears. This has, of course, not gone unnoticed with the strip's fans, and some of the fan art has addressed this question with humorous results.
Though the strip started out in black and white with occasional color pages, Daniel soon switched to full color strips after a few months. The color is well done, and the color combinations are pleasing to the eye and fit the mood and theme of the particular comic. Additionally, the website itself is a very calming coloration, and the title bar is (appropriately enough) a wooden ruler that's been etched with the comic name.
Knowing that people would be curious to know how he came up with this concept, Daniel has added quite a few sections to his website, detailing the buildup to the comic, details about each of the characters, and even the musical that he created around these characters. You can also find some of the songs from the musical available for downloading, though they are only midi files of the musical arrangements – no singing… the lyrics are available just above the download link for those so inclined.
Overall, School Spirit was a fun afternoon of reading. If you're not used to the Australian language, it can make you pause occasionally, but this is not usually enough to detract from the comic itself. It will be interesting to see how this comic evolves and to see how much trouble Cody and Casper will get into under Wendy's ghostly influence.