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For decades, the comics industry struggled with the perception that comics were just for kids, yet most people buying comics were men aged 20 and up. This led to a variety of failed attempts to get comics to readers aged 12 and below. Publishers of all types released comics targeted at kids, with lowered prices, simplified art and stories, and cartoon tie-ins, but they were still losing ground to other distractions.
If kids read comics, they probably preferred full-sized manga graphic novels, and not single issues sold in comic shops. But it wasn’t until 2010, when Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Sisters, Ghosts) began her work for Scholastic Press’ Graphix imprint that a positive trend developed. Several years later, Scholastic and DC Comics would eventually team up for the Study Hall of Justice series by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen and realized this was the way in, paving the way for DC's new Zoom imprint.
Aimed at readers ages 8-12 (Grades 3-7), Zoom specializes in graphic novels created by veterans in youth literature, that feature younger characters stripped of heavy continuity. They're even printed in digest size to better fit the hands of the target audience. Out tomorrow in comic shops and in book stores Apr. 2, the first Zoom book drops, Super Sons: The Polarshield Project by New York Times bestselling author Ridley Pearson and artist Ile Gonzalez. It stars the sons of Superman and Batman, Jonathan Kent and Ian Wayne, and introduces a new mysterious character, Candace, who has her own secrets and impressive lineage. Can they trust each other to help save the planet from a global threat?
Pearson spoke to SYFY WIRE about Super Sons: The Polarshield Project, as we reveal 11 pages of exclusive art from the book.
Pearson was given the green light to reimagine the Super Sons with new settings and new names, and had the time to explore their relationships with their paternal figures Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne.
“Both of them, like all males, have father issues,” Pearson told SYFY WIRE. “I like to put in character issues that are unresolved and continually being worked on, to find out if they’re making progress, or if they regress.
"When I was a senior in high school, I came to my dad, who was a terrific guy and told him I wanted to be James Taylor and go out and play music for a bunch of years. He said, 'Great, and I’m never going to send you a nickel, so good luck.' Off I went, and we're closer for that, but for years he would criticize me for waiting to go to college. So there was still bitterness in him and it rankled me every time he mentioned it.”
Pearson says that Jon has that resentment in him with Superman, because he’ll never be the Man of Steel. He’s got Superman and Lois’ blood in him. “He might be able to jump well, but he’s not going to fly; he might have good hearing and vision but he’s not going to have laser vision,” explained Pearson. “He’s never going to see himself as his father. All sons want to please their father, and I think he’s afraid because he’s limited in his scope, and right now I don’t think he understands the intelligence and the investigative qualities he’s gotten from Lois, but those are to come.”
For Ian Wayne, formerly Damian, the feelings are more internalized. “Ian, feels more displaced, and maybe unloved, which is an amazing thing that I think many, many middle graders — who are just trying to figure out who they are — often feel," said Pearson. "I’m hoping that some of these things resonate with readers, and that they can go, 'Yeah, I can do better here, this is going to work. I got this figured out.'"
Because Pearson could develop longview ideas, each character took more shape the longer he spent with them. “Ian has a real chip on his shoulder. He’s very confident as many kids in school are, even if they’re scared inside. They project this outward confidence, but are frustrated and trying too hard.
“Jon is coming to understand his strengths better, he represents that Eagle Scout, the guy who wants to do good, to do better. He is less likely to stand up for himself. Now, that starts to change, even in this first book, but like Ian, they both share that they keep family secrets. So much of fiction revolves around secret-keeping. I love that as a common ground. They also both come from a similar childhood of knowing they are special but not being able to talk about it. By the time they discover that, it makes them a really good team. "
But Ian comes to a realization timed with the arrival of the mysterious Candace, who provides a relatable voice, but is shaped by family.
"Ian realizes that he isn’t the independent superhero (like his father). At one point it’s very obvious he wants to be a part of this team. He’s tired of being alone. He needs Jon, he needs Candace,” said Pearson.
“I come from a large extended family, where I’m one of 17 grandchildren. I discovered this ancestry of Candace goes back 3,000 years in Africa. There’s an army of mostly women, led by a Candace, that defeated the Romans — that’s my gal. She has to carry that mantle of being a 12th generation Candace, and that’s a lot to live up to. All three characters have something to live up to.”
The crisis in the story concerns the melting polar caps. The rise in sea level threatens coastal cities around the world, including Metropolis and Gotham City, displaces their citizens inland and creates a refugee situation. An elaborate plan has been drawn up, but requires some of the World's Finest to leave Earth and the Super Sons meet at Wyndemere Middle School, where they, amongst other refugees are referred to as "flood runners" by some of the locals.
“There’s so much of that at the middle school level," Pearson says of the name calling. "Everybody finds a name for someone instead of treating them like a person, which sneaks in bullying." There are issues presented, subtly so, but rather than the threats be tied to super-villains bent on destroying the world, the confluence of Jon, Ian, and Candace are tied to matters and situations that could be relatable to young readers.
Pearson has made a career out of writing both adult suspense (like the Walt Fleming and Risk Agent novels) and children's books (such as Kingdom Keepers), but this is his first foray into graphic novels. The Polarshield Project is the first of three Super Sons graphic novels for DC Zoom; despite an abundance of enthusiasm and interest, there was some apprehension because of his lack of DC Comics history.
Pearson says that Michele Wells, vice president and the executive editor of DC Books for Young Readers told him, "That’s why we want you. We want to maintain the integrity of our characters, but we are constantly rebooting our characters into new lives and new worlds, this is a great opportunity because we’re opening it up to new readers.”
Younger readers too.
“We have a collaborative effort to let me be true to DC and let me world build, which I love to do, and if that leads into chapter book reading, great," said Pearson. "If that leads into reading comics, then they will quickly absorb the canon of DC, and distinguish between the Zoom graphic novels and the main DC Universe.”Like many newcomers though, Pearson had to learn of the collaborative experience of working with an artist, especially one as dynamic as Gonzalez, who first broke onto the scene as the artist (as Ile Wolf) of middle-grade graphic novels The Heroes Club for Madefire.
“Early on, I put in way too much text, but I’d been reading a bunch of graphic novels and among of them was Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet, which taught me what the 'graphic' part of a graphic novel means," said Pearson. “It was hugely instructive because I saw that if I do a better job of describing the panels, then the task is to push this onto Ile’s plate with as little text as possible. What Amulet taught me was to put all my text in my description for Ile, and use as little conversation and inner thought because that’s a true graphic novel.”
But nothing prepared Pearson for when he would see the final, colored art for the first time.
“I just melt and I’m putting these finished pages next to my words and seeing how she interprets them — graphically — and I celebrate every time they come in. I just got another batch today, and she takes my crazy words and makes them something that shines and tells the story so well!”
I was curious to see if the book could captivate the intended audience, so I gave it to my third grade son. He read The Polarshield Project and could not be bothered by the need to eat until he finished it in one sitting. Then he gave unprovoked praise about the fun story, the art, and how the characters worked together despite their differences and being strangers.
Pearson's children's books have a similar effect on kids. “The most exciting thing I get are the letters from parents who say that ‘Johnny was 11 years old and not interest in reading and we picked up the Kingdom Keepers and we started reading it with him at night and suddenly, we couldn’t keep him out of the library. That is just the best thing for your heart, ever. Graphic novels have proven time and time again, that they are another gateway to chapter books. The offer to participate in that world proved too much, I had to do it!”
Check out our full exclusive 11-page preview of Super Sons: The Polarshield Project below, and look for it in comic shops tomorrow and in book stores Apr. 2. Future Zoom titles debuting this year include DC Super Hero Girls: Spaced Out by Shea Fontana and Agnes Garbowska, Dear Justice League by Michael Northrop, and more titles to be announced.