SECRET CODERS is a bit of a strange project, a short graphic novel that attempts to establish and teach the basics of programming while telling the story of a young girl named Hopper moving to a new town and trying to make friends. What results is a cute story and what feels like the start of something much, much larger than this volume gets into. And while that's a good thing for the series, it means that most of this volume is just laying groundwork that will pay off later, which makes it something of a mixed bag as far as being a satisfying read on its own.
The character work is rather impressive given the brevity of SECRET CODERS, though. Hopper's plight of being in a new place, dealing with her parents splitting up and not really understanding her place in the universe is tangible. She's a girl who values action, wants to play basketball and doesn't really act like she's supposed to. She's loud and awkward with a short attention span and a sense of humor that's a bit…off. But all those things only make her relatable and real. She shines on the page, and despite of herself makes a friend in Eni, a boy who's good at basketball and coding.
The story does a nice job exploring different family models and different challenges kids can face both at home and at school.
SECRET CODERS also does a great job building up a setting and planting seeds for a mystery that promises to be filled with surprises. Hopper and Eni only just begin to notice the strangeness of the Stately Academy, a setting ripe with interesting (and kind of creepy) touches, from birds with four eyes to a little robot groundskeeper that has to be programmed to move. Hopper and Eni explore and are drawn deeper into the mystery, into the world of coding and into the complex lives of the main characters. From Eni's abundance of sisters to Hopper's parents, the story does a nice job exploring different family models and different challenges kids can face both at home and at school. It also works as a sort of beginners textbook on programming, introducing some basic concepts and commands that readers can play along with.
SECRET CODERS falls a bit short, though, in providing an experience that feels complete. Had this been the first issue in a comic book series, I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. Cliffhangers are common enough, and it's not poorly done, but this book feels…light. There are the beginnings of some interesting long-form work and exploration of the setting, but really nothing is answered in this volume. It's all questions, and while I'm sure they are addressed in later volumes, it makes for a somewhat frustratingly abrupt ending. I was left wanting more, and not necessarily in a great way.
In the end, I think that SECRET CODERS shows a lot of promise as a series, but I feel the story would have been better served by including at least the next volume and this one in a single book. At the same time, I understand that as a project hoping to get kids into programming, ending where it did lets kids work out the answer to the final puzzle without being able to just look it up on the next page. It's a fine line to walk, and one that I think this graphic novel does with mixed success. Perhaps there will be an omnibus edition? As is, it's both ambitious and a bit lacking.
Reviewed by Charles Payseur on September 29, 2015