First, a disclaimer: I know Neal Simon, the mastermind behind AA Comics. I think he’s awesome, I think his kids are awesome, and his brilliant wife is one of my closest friends. It doesn’t hurt that my own kid, a.k.a. “Noel the Mole,” has been rendered in black and white glory within the pages of this comic book. I believe this was a wonderful project for a lawyer-by-day, creative-type-by-night to do with his kids, and I hope it inspires more of us to do the same. So I am a bit biased. I make no apologies for this fact.
Fourth Grade Confidential is one of those perfect family-friendly entertainment mixes – fun for kids, yet smart enough for adults. It features great, silly, cheesy one-liners that kids will appreciate, and references that they won’t. As a writer, I always tend to notice dialogue first, and here it’s both enlightened and funny – in the dry, Simon-esque way I’ve come to know. Some examples: “My words fell harder than a kid on a defective Slip ‘n Slide.” “I’d accuse him of Napoleonic complex, if he could understand it or I could spell it.”
Or this exchange between Adin and Noel the Mole: Adin says, “I’ll tell the other kids you like ‘My Little Pony.'” Noel’s response is, “It’s 2015. Gender stereotypes are lame. Plus, these days it’s socially acceptable to be a brony.” Basically, the author takes a bunch of noir cliches and pop culture references and makes fun of them in a way that’s totally acceptable for everyone in the family.
The black-and-white quality of the art lends it drama, as with real noir, and Simon’s bold, often stylistically simple drawings fit the style well. I can confirm that his characters, based on real people, are fairly accurate representations. Many of the settings are real too, and it’s fun for me as a resident of the northern Chicago suburbs to see how he’s transformed them into comic art.
The story is fairly straightforward: Ayla, Adin’s little sister, loses her stuffed bunny. Adin, being the good big brother he is, takes on the case. He consults informants, who send him along the path towards solving the crime. He encounters kids who are clearly bad news. He even gets help from some new allies – a friend and cousin show up late in the story to help (this part feels the most obligatory, but I get it – these awesome girls had to be included). The story is well-told and understandable, though there’s nothing new or especially polished about the plot’s actual execution. The strength of this mystery is in the humor and personality that permeates throughout.
The comic book also includes parody ads, geeky references, and additional art clearly inspired and spearheaded by the kids involved. It’s obvious this project was a labor of love, and I look forward to the proposed (as in, I proposed it, just now, are you listening, Neal?) sequel, “Sixth Grade Confidential,” which hopefully will feature a new member of the Simon family and the return of its sassy-yet-sweet cast of young characters – including Noel the Mole (hint, hint).