Strange Academy: Bright Side begins mid-crisis: at the end of last volume, POV character Emily Bright is on the brink of death, and Doyle Dormammu has sailed right on over. The faculty is in full magical-ER mode. Given that Emily and Doyle are the most distinctively developed of their classmates, however, issue #7 is the wrong place to do away with them, and they get better real quick.
In fact, one gets the feeling that until Strange Academy gets up and running at full speed, its extremely diverse cast of characters are all but bulletproof; when Toth is shattered near the end of the book, he needs only be reassembled.
The reason for these low stakes seems two-fold: one, no major central threat has been identified and made concerning, and secondly, none of our characters have been fully developed. It seems wasteful, then, to do away with characters of such potential, particularly when no big-bad reaps the dramatic benefits of being the one behind the death.
The latter problem, of course, can only be solved over a span of time, and the book is making big strides to get them where they need to be. Each issue in Bright Side looks to bring insight (or simply establish some small character detail) of the non-Emily & Doyle cast — Toth and Shaylee start dating, Asgardian bros Alvi and Iric’s mother is revealed to be Enchantress, and Calvin’s troubling foster home past is highlighted.
Which leads us to our primary problem: Calvin’s mysterious jacket reveals itself to be none other than Doc Strange baddie Mr. Misery; while this becomes the major confrontation of the book, he comes off as more monster-of-the-week. There’s an ongoing feeling that none of the dramatic action coheres. Plant cultists, Enchantress, a mysterious voice in Strange’s basement, and Mr. Misery all haunt the book, but none of these threats contribute to lasting narrative growth of the story or its characters. Like the faculty, these villains fill more like cameos and guest-stars, none of them giving our characters any larger mystery to solve or ongoing force to battle against.
And, oh, those guest-stars. Every issue features some character or another to bask in the spotlight, and while they sometimes bask alongside our primary cast, there is potential for them to steal the show, exasperating the troubles listed above. Loki is here, as are Rocket and Groot. One of Marvel’s greatest characters, Howard the Duck, is brought in to solve the mystery of Toth’s shattering, and while he doesn’t exactly do a lot, he certainly gets more narrative focus that Toth’s own supporting cast of family, girlfriend, and classmates.
All of these things might add up to an unsatisfying narrative experience, but the truth is Bright Side never stops being a fun and compelling read. No matter how slowly the characters are developed and narrative threads come together, the reader is still rushed along at a haphazard place, always to an interesting location, concept, or nugget of intrigue. Those guest stars often manage to deepen the mythology of Marvel magic, and while it doesn’t seem the students at the academy are learning much, the reader most certainly is.
No small part of the joy of the book is the work of Humberto Ramos, who has never drawn a static panel in his entire career. Something vibrant is always happening, and his hyper-kinetic pages lend themselves to deeply rewarding study. Each design, each facial expression, each Asgardian footrace blossoms with energy. His pairing with writer Skottie Young is storied, studied, and perfect.
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