“I am blind.” That was the first phrase I ever read. It’s plastered all over the cover and the interior of Batman #204 from 1968. My interest in comics was first kindled by the 1966-1969 Batman TV show. I used to watch it with my dad when I was a toddler. According to my baby book, two of my first words were “Batman” and “Robin.” After that, I received a steady supply of Batman and Justice League comics, which at the time, often featured Batman on the cover. Comic books inspired me to learn to read.
When my parents divorced when I was seven, my stepfather was not a pleasant person. He burned all of my comics right in front of me. He actually cited Frederic Wertham (without knowing his name) as the reason, claiming that they would give us “bad dreams.” Although things were bad in my home life, comics became part of my sanctuary. When my younger brother and I would visit our father or our grandparents, there would always be new comics, and they were kept safe for us there. Since the only time we really got to see our relatives for any extended period was in the summer or over the Christmas holidays, that meant two things: the annual Justice League/Justice Society crossover, and especially at Christmas, there were treasuries! If you don’t remember, those were the oversized comics published in the 1970s that sold for the princely sum of $1.00. My brother and I would read them aloud together, trace the drawings onto typing paper, and even lift the pictures with Silly Putty, to be contorted into funny shapes. It was an escape from a pretty brutal childhood, so you can imagine that they stayed important to me in my developing years. Superheroes became my role models, my mentors, my inspirations. If they could overcome great tragedy and go on to help people in need, then so could I.
Since I wasn’t rocketed to Earth from a dying planet and didn’t have access to millions of dollars so I could train myself to be a crimefighter, I became a teacher. Superheroes adorned my classroom. Graphic novels filled my bookshelves. Bored easily with endless worksheets and activities with generic characters and names, I decided one day to spruce up my activities. About 10 years ago, I made an activity that led students to get to know their textbooks. On it, I put an image of Cyborg from the Teen Titans cartoon (popular at the time) to explain with a word balloon how students getting to know their textbook was like his getting to know his robotic body. Kids loved it. When I had to drill them on math facts (yes, we still do that occasionally), I used a 1982 DC Style Guide image of the Flash running across the top of the paper, calling the activities Flash Time. They loved that too. It made a generic activity more palatable! So, I started incorporating superheroes into all my activities. Instead of graphing butterflies on the coordinate plane, we graphed Superman’s pentagonal insignia while listening to recordings of his old-time radio show.
When I had created dozens of such activities, I thought to myself it might be a pretty cool idea to make them into a book that teachers and substitutes could use. Since I never thought in a million years that DC or Marvel would let me use their characters for such a book, I decided to make my own characters. I had been making my own comic book characters for years, since I was a child. As a young adult, I had participated in superhero role-playing games, and had paid dozens of professionals to draw my RPG characters for me, establishing contacts that would become very valuable later on. I drew for myself as well, but I was never as good as I wanted to be, and I was good enough to know my own limitations. My crude drawings were good enough to get me started in making my own characters. My first was Absolutia. Absolutia can raise and lower temperature. When she raises the temperature, it serves as a model for adding positive integers. When she lowers temperature, we’re adding negative integers. The effort required to change the temperature in either direction is a great model for absolute value—hence, her code name.
La Calculadora was a deliberate choice in trying to reach some of my students of Mexican ancestry. I teach in a community that has a large immigrant population, so I had learned enough rudimentary Spanish to get through some math lessons from our ESL teacher, and one of the first words I learned was la calculadora, or the calculator. I remembered The Calculator as a lame character from my childhood, but the Spanish twist on the word suggested a female character named Dora, and well, there you go. This character wouldn’t just be a weirdo in a suit. She would have a perfect memory and the ability to absorb and store knowledge at amazing rates. You see now how my brain works. From there, I replaced established DC and Marvel characters with my own.
Needing a name for my team, I found all the inspiration I needed in the pre-algebra course I was teaching.. One of the key ideas in the class was finding solutions to equations, and Solution Squad provided the appropriate comic book alliteration. I started brainstorming different characters, some of which made it to the final product, and some of which are still awaiting the light of day.
One of the big ideas for which there was no comic book parallel was a set of twins code-named Abscissa and Ordinate, which are mathematical terms for the x-coordinate and y-coordinate, respectively, of an ordered pair. I knew they were going to be twins, but I hadn’t decided on ethnicity or gender yet. At this same time, my wife and I were preparing to adopt a baby girl from China. I had to prepare to be absent from school for three weeks, and as I started to put together character ideas for Solution Squad, we received our referral with the name and picture of our soon-to-be daughter. The name given to her by the orphanage was Xiao Sheng. Her name began with X! It was an omen! She would become Abscissa, and so I made up an imaginary brother for her and based their story on one I had heard during the adoption process. They would be siblings separated very young and adopted by separate American families only to be reunited later. She was born first, and he was born second. She had running speed and an independent personality, and he could fly and would always follow her lead. Together, they are The Ordered Pair!
The other characters began to fall into place, one by one. Equality is the granddaughter of an African-American civil rights pioneer. She has symmetrical features, and her names and those of her family are all palindromes. She has the ability to duplicate exactly anyone else’s ability. She is the only one of the team who actually has the build of a muscular superhero. She was a star athlete even before she got powers and she looks it. The rest of the characters have realistic body styles and differences.
Radical is my Shaggy character, my comic relief. He is a slacker and sometimes a fool. He’s also a time traveler with the most complex powers. He can generate electromagnetic prisms with bases formed around right triangles. He can then telekinetically move things along the hypotenuse side of the prism. If he pushes his power too hard, he disappears and reappears in another time. There’s no good mathematical reason for that. I had just read The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I thought it would be cool to have a character who would have an excuse for using slang. I dislike it when modern teen comic characters talk like it’s 10 or even 15 years ago. Radical has an excuse. He may have just been to the period where it was groovy to say something rad.
It was hard to figure out what Solution Squad was. It started as a sourcebook of activities. Then it started expanding to include complete lesson plans. But then I picked up a copy of The Manga Guide to Calculus, and I knew exactly what it had to be. It had to be the superhero comic that I always wanted to make, but with a math lesson embedded within! For the first story, I wanted something cool and fun, not something that every math teacher already knows. So, I built a deathtrap that could be escaped only by decoding a message written with a prime number code. My high school Algebra I teacher, Charles Shimek, taught me how to construct the Sieve of Eratosthenes when I was a freshman in high school. I was actually surprised to find out that some math teachers have never heard of it. Additionally, I use prime numbers and subsequently prime factorization to reduce fractions similar to the way algebraic fractions are reduced. It reinforces old skills, introduces alternate methods, and prepares students for future skills simultaneously.
As I plotted out the story, intending to draw it myself, I designed the characters, did layouts, wrote dialogue, and then started to plant seeds within the story. They would fly in the Coordinate Plane. I would give them a robotic assistant made up of billions of networked nanorobots–3.92 X 109 robots, in fact. I planted percent-change problems, distance-rate-time problems, Pythagorean Theorem problems, anything I could think of for which I already had activities. Any math teachers worth their salt can get math problems out of virtually anything. Solution Squad is like a 32-page Easter egg hunt.
When I was not satisfied with my attempt at drawing the book myself, I was incredibly discouraged. But then, serendipitously, I saw some of my niece’s artwork from college appearing online. The amazing Rose McClain had a style that was suited much better than mine to representing young characters. I asked her what her plans were, and she said she wanted to get into comics. So, I hired her. Now I can’t imagine the characters any other way than the way she draws them.
We started out with a webcomic, ran a Kickstarter that unfortunately failed, and I went ahead and financed the whole thing myself by working on after-school clubs and homebound instruction so that my family wouldn’t have to go without anything while I pursued this. The book went to print just over a year ago, and it is everything I thought it could be. I have gotten wonderful feedback from teachers, comics education organizations, and was awarded the Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowship in March, 2014. I was given $10,000 to pursue my dream of taking an entire summer to work on Solution Squad full time. I’m going to make something special. Watch for it.
In the meantime, my website, www.solutionsquad.net, will continue to be updated with lesson plans, activities, games, and reproducible activities for free. You can buy my comic there, or if you want a low-risk preview, you can buy a digital copy for $1.99 on comiXology. Just search for Solution Squad!