As much as one can enjoy seeing queer characters in both mainstream and indie fantasy fiction, the problems of the real world should always take precedence. Sometimes in a ham-fisted way, and sometimes in a moving, heartfelt way that shows the sincerity and skills of the creators involved. Fortunately, it is the latter that happens with Zan Christensen and Mark Brill’s The Power Within, a comic about LGBT teen bullying.
Christensen, publisher of Northwest Press (Teleny and Camille, Glamazonia, Rainy Day Recess), has written a story which manages to make good points while avoiding any sugarcoating of the issue: Shannon is a teenager who attracts the worse behavior of some of his school’s students; even his friend Katie can’t shield him all the time, and the adults around him consider that he’s the problem. A classic case, you might say. But there are some things that make this comic well written, such as Shannon’s feelings of powerlessness which lead to daydreams of being a superhero capable of beating up his persecutors. After all, superheroes work most obviously as wish fulfillment on the part of a teenage reader (yes, I know what I’m talking about) and here, that’s all they are, nothing more, nothing that can solve Shannon’s real-life problems, which he’ll have to face one way or another.
There are a number of other artists, including Dan Parent (who’s recently created gay character Kevin Keller for Archie comics) and Phil Jimenez (one of the few openly gay artists working for Marvel or DC), who’ve contributed illustrations or short stories on the same theme. Whether straight allies or openly queer, these artists hopefully show the intended audience that there are adults everywhere who don’t agree with the hatemongers of the world.
Mark Brill, who’s already collaborated with the writer on the erotic fantasy Mark of Aeacus, does a wonderful job portraying both the real world and Shannon’s flights of fancy. His teenagers are believable, not children anymore, not adults yet. The line art is assured but never too ornate, with a style that’s both realistic and slightly cartoony and a simple, efficient storytelling, giving it an openness that should enable any reader, even the ones who never read comics, to get into the reading.
Because of course, this is the goal of this comic: in the spirit of the It Gets Better campaign, The Power Within is designed to reach both the concerned teenagers and the larger world, and to be used in discussions about teen bullying. The 32-page comic is sold in comic shops, but it is also free to free to youth organizations and to teachers who might wish to use it in schools.
The Power Within goes well beyond what’s expected of a project done with the best intentions. It’s a moving depiction of what’s unfortunately the real life of some teenagers in our society, and the creators involved can only hope it will contribute, in its own ways, to the improvement of that situation.