ST. CLOUD — Mike Dando's face always lights up when he talks about comics.
Thumbing through the pages of a new superhero comic he helped create, the St. Cloud State University English professor points out intricate battle scenes between good and evil and specific design details reminiscent of the old-school comic style.
A self-described comic geek "since always," Dando is working to teach students grades 5-12 literacy skills, critical thinking and self reflection this summer through an often overlooked medium.
Exploring concepts like Afrofuturism and the African diaspora, students can imagine new worlds by reading and analyzing the story of the first Black superhero, Lion Man.
Reviving Lion Man
In 2018 after the highly successful "Black Panther" movie debuted, Dando worked with a group of artists and professors around the world to revisit Lion Man, the first Black superhero comic written in 1947 by Black Philadelphia journalist Orrin Cromwell Evans.
While working for an all-white news publication, Evans wanted to write about Black experiences and topics like racial inequality. He founded All-Negro Comics Inc. with two former editors and they published "All-Negro Comics #1" that year, a 48-page book with an anthology of stories featuring a wide range of characters, including Lion Man.
The original story follows Lion Man, a scientist turned superhero tasked by the United Nation to watch over a magical mountain full of uranium in Africa to prevent war. When All-Negro Comics Inc.'s paper supplier refused to help the company produce another book because its founders were Black, only one Lion Man issue was ever published.
Dando's new Lion Man comic book is much longer and follows Lion Man's journey of self-discovery and heroism as he works to save a group of other heroes trapped in monstrous bodies. Written by John Jennings and illustrated by David Brame, Dando served as editor and project manager for the book. Two more Lion Man issues are in the works.
At the Met and around the Cloud
Thanks to a grant from St. Cloud State, the team was able to make copies of this comic book — one of which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — and Dando will work with a variety of after-school clubs this summer to talk about the narrative structure and themes of the book, as well as teach students how to make their own comics. Another grant from United Way is supporting the summer classes.
"We'll be working with three different after-school programs across our communities … so that young people will be able to use speculative fiction based on the anchor text that John Jennings created, to imagine and to think about the community challenges that they perceive, and place themselves within the future [and find] that solution with the skills and superpowers of making that idea a reality," said Clarinda Solberg, director of 21st Century Community Learning Centers at United Way Partner for Student Success. "So it's really cool because it empowers young people to kind of manifest their own future that they dream up."
The sessions also tie into important equity goals United Way Partner for Student Success has for students in St. Cloud, especially multilingual learners and Black, indigenous or students of color, Solberg said.
"[Students are] overwhelmingly wanting to see representation in their characters. And then really desiring comic books. So this actually weaves in very strongly what our young people have told us that they want in their literacy materials and they're just not seeing and not getting access to," she said. "It really is cool because it gives young people the skills to really think about a problem and craft their own solution."
Afrofuturism and its impact
Afrofuturism explores the intersection of the African diaspora with science and technology. The African diaspora is defined as the voluntary and involuntary movement of African people and their descendants to various parts of the world over time.
Brame, a scholar and the book's illustrator, said Black and brown people have historically been excluded from science fiction and fantasy. Afrofuturism for him is about how Black people and others in the diaspora have something to contribute to the growth and development of culture and society in general, he said.
"It's just about these positive affirmations that things will get better and there will be more equity and equality in the future," Brame said. "We're looking at speculative fiction sort of along the lines of Afrofuturism, they kind of go hand in hand."
Part of this project is connecting students "to this idea that there's a history of creativity that has already existed," of Black stories and stories suited around African and Black ideology despite the suppression of those stories over time, he said.
"People don't think that hard about elves, or anything that happens in Middle Earth or Tolkien, you know, that kind of stuff. It just is. It's just part of regular media and regular storytelling," Brame said. "So we're kind of, I guess in a way, kickstarting the normalcy about storytelling through the lens of African and Black lives."
Jennings, the book's writer, who is also a Hugo Award winner and New York Times bestselling author, said comic books are like cultural artifacts, reflecting what's happening in our world.
Symbolic annihilation is a theory that suggests when you don't show images of people who are in society, you erase and destroy them, Jennings said.
"When someone who is marginalized doesn't see themselves in the public space it demoralizes them and it undercuts their self esteem, and it's basically saying that you are not worthy or you're not part of the society because we're not even showing images of you. So it's a type of erasure," he said. "And so when kids see themselves, it's extremely powerful. It can change their lives. All you need is one representation to validate how you feel. And I think that people who are marginalized just don't get that a lot. It's getting better."
Encouraging students to embrace their own superpowers
Asking kids to think about their own lives, cultures and backgrounds and then inviting them to imagine what stories they could tell with the talents they have helps students think about solutions in their communities through the medium of art, Dando said.
"We're finding them talking [about] things such as environmental challenges, for example. We're seeing them talking about food security, housing security. Fairness is very much on the front of mind for young people, and for everybody, really. But what [is] fair? What is truth? What is justice? And what does it look like to me?" he said.
This summer students can work to create characters or one or two page stories using technology like Procreate and other digital art tools, Dando said.
On Aug. 25 at 5:30 p.m. students' work will be showcased as part of a travelling exhibit at the Stearns History Museum which explores how Afrofuturist themes shape contemporary Black comics.
"We often think of [community] engagement as like, 'Go vote,' but kids can't vote. But they can participate. So what does that mean to advocate for yourself? What does that mean to say, 'OK, here's the thing I feel passionately about. And here's what things I want to do about it,'" Dando said. "The idea is with great power must also come great responsibility, as Spider-Man teaches us. But I don't have superpowers, except — your intellect is your superpower. So you're developing that, you're reading. Writing is a form of self advocacy, telling your story, being able to say, 'This is who I am. And this is what I'm about.' That is your superpower. And that's kind of what we're working with kids to build."
Where to sign up for the Lion Man Literacy Program
The Southside Boys and Girls Club comic program runs from May 16-20 from 4:30-6 p.m. Participants should be registered with the Boys and Girls Club.
Too Much Talent's program will run Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday in June, and those interested can reach out directly to Too Much Talent for registration details.
One more site will host the program as well, with more details to be announced soon.
You can read an online version of the new Lion Man comic at https://issuu.com/notoriousmbd/docs/lionman-thetowerproof.
Becca Most is a cities reporter with the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-241-8213 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @becca_most.
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This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: St. Cloud project brings back 'Lion Man' superhero to lift literacy