First Look: World Citizen Comics aims to create super-powered activists
Superheroes save the world all the time, but maybe comic books themselves can help, too.
That’s the goal of a slate of new graphic novels from World Citizen Comics, which aim to excite and inform readers about how they can fight corruption in elections, blast fake news with truth-telling, and even battle would-be dictators both near and far through a better understanding of constitutions and the rule of law.
They are worthy goals, but a heavy lift. Mark Siegel, the creative and editorial director of First Second Books, says this imprint is up to the task.
“Why comics? It’s my medium, it’s where I live,” says Siegel, who is an author and illustrator himself.“It’s also where I see young people living and, increasingly, adults, too. We’re in a highly visual age, and the graphic novel blurs age categories, genres, and connects across all popular culture.”
“Comics are an active medium, and a creative reading experience,” he adds. “They have the power to influence actions in the world — from fan art, to cosplay, to shaping the world we live in. They do reach young people most effectively! And increasingly, the not-so-young, too.”
Seven titles are currently on the World Citizen Comics slate, the first being Unrig, out next March, followed by The Fault Lines in the Constitution, out in May 2020 — both of which EW has a first look at below.
“More than a set of messages, these books offer tools for change. Young readers don’t need preaching at, they need to be equipped to deal with the challenges of this world,” Siegel says.
Someone who agreed with him was the late Stan Lee, who used to field questions about the activism messages in Marvel Comics in his Stan’s Soap Box column. “A story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul,” Lee wrote in 1970.
In recent years, Congressman John Lewis, one of the young leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, detailed his history in the award-winning, best-selling graphic novel trilogy March. In that story, Lewis notes that as a boy he first became aware of and excited by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after reading about him … in a comic book.
“There’s actually a rich, long tradition of comics responding in some way to tyranny and evil,” Siegel says. He doesn’t pull any punches about where he sees the current threat.
“In the last two years, Democracy has taken a heavy blow. We are in a time of great testing for the American experiment, and for Democracy everywhere,” he tells EW. “At first I was filled with anger, to the point it wasn’t good for me. When leaders are brazenly dishonest, have no use for democracy, a free press, or the foundations of this nation, and there’s mounting evidence that criminals have taken over the Oval Office itself, it’s easy to feel helpless.”
He hopes World Citizen Comics will empower people to push back. To do that, they have to be fun.
“If it’s like a tasteless soup labeled ‘this is good for you,’ it doesn’t work,” Siegel says. “So yes, these books need to shine with great comics art [and] compelling stories … I see a great many young people who are hungry for quality, for understanding, and who want to set things right with this world they’ve inherited.”
Here’s a preview of the titles that will define World Citizen Comics’ origin story.
WHAT UNITES US — by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner, with art by Tim Foley
This will be a comic book adaptation of the veteran newsman’s 2017 book reflecting on patriotism, service, and the traditions and passions that all Americans share. Rather himself is a character in the book, guiding the reader with inspiring perspectives on civic values and looking out for one another.
“I saw an opportunity to bring it alive in a different medium, to great effect,” Siegel says. “[Illustrator] Tim Foley takes us back into Rather’s memories of growing up in Texas during the Great Depression, and of covering Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam War. The chapter on Nationalism vs. Patriotism alone deserves to be amplified in every way possible.”
CITIZEN JOURNALIST — by Seth Abramson
The barrier to publishing is non-existent now — for good and bad. This is the story of how everyday people armed with integrity, a keyboard, and access to social media can help combat fake news and also tell stories from their community that are going unheard.
Abramson, a college professor and former criminal defense attorney who has developed a following as an independent journalist, wrote this to inspire teachers and aspiring journalists of all ages about how to ethically write and report on their world.
“Seth Abramson is my main reason for having a Twitter account,” Siegel says. “Since 2016, his legal analysis and curatorial journalism has been an increasingly vital insight for so many of us, into the Trump-Russia story, and its global ramifications. … He has become a vital contributor to the national conversation.”
Zot! and The Sculptor artist and writer Scott McCloud will be consulting.
THE FAULT LINES IN THE CONSTITUTION — by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson, with art by Ally Shwed
This is another adaptation a 2017 non-fiction book, with the husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson exploring, as the subtitle states, “The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today.” The U.S. Constitution is not a perfect document — which the framers themselves recognized by allowing the ability to amend it. But what needs to change for today’s world? And how do we do that?
“I found the Levinsons’ guided tour of the U.S. Constitution totally enlightening — and a needed source of sanity when looking at where we are today,” Siegel says. “[Illustrator] Ally Shwed, whom many know from her comics in The Nib, brilliantly adapts it to the graphic medium, staging and dramatizing both the constant tussles of the Founding Fathers and our present-day history-in-the-making.”
He said he hopes the comic “will raise a million young constitutional experts.”
THE MEDIA ADVENTURER’S HANDBOOK — by Melissa Hart
Subtitled “Decoding Persuasion in Everyday News, Ads, Videos, and More,” this title is designed to be an antidote to fake news and falsehood-fueled propaganda. Some comics are about slaying monsters and dragons and zombies — this one is about slaying lies.
Siegel calls it “a fun, playful primer for young readers about everyday persuasion: How does it work? Why does it work? I wish I could send these vital tools for critical thinking back in time to my 10-year-old self. And to an entire generation of us.”
BREAKING (the) NEWS — by Jennifer L. Pozner, art by Shelli Paroline & Braden Lamb
This is for a slightly older audience, exploring the influence of media culture on how we vote, what we purchase, and what we believe.
“This more advanced approach deep-dives into today’s media culture, cracking open the narratives shaped by news and media makers,” Siegel says. “Jenn Pozner delivers an immunity-booster against the subtle and not-subtle bias that pervades the 21st-century news landscape.”
UNRIG: HOW TO FIX OUR BROKEN DEMOCRACY — by Dan Newman, with art by George O’Connor
Loose and murky campaign finance laws have allowed the wealthy to manipulate our political system. But what can ordinary citizens do about it? This is a guide from Dan Newman, the founder of Maplight.org, a non-profit, non-partisan group that tracks donations as well as voting behaviors to see how that money influences elected officials.
“I wanted a book on dark money and how it has warped politics beyond recognition,” Siegel says. “This book is filled with hope and actionable ways to fix the problems we are confronted with today. And [illustrator] George O’Connor, of the Olympians series, takes it all to a whole other level with his art.”
RE-CONSTITUTION — by Beka Feathers, with art by Kasia Babis
The comic will show how we resist dictatorships and authoritarianism both at home and abroad. The U.S. Constitution has been a bulwark against oppression at home, and has allowed for laws, checks and balances, and institutions that help correct injustices and failures. Each country is a work in progress.
This book is by Beka Feathers, an expert in constitution-drafting and transitional governments, who was a former advisor for the U.S. Department of State on Yemen. As a lawyer for the Public International Law & Policy Group, she also advised on restoring rule of law in war-torn countries such as South Sudan, Burma, Georgia, and Kosovo.
“She’s among these people that nations call when they need to create a Constitution, emerging from war or tyranny and setting out on the path of Democracy,” Siegel says.
Illustrator Kasia Babis is an artist from Poland whom Siegel also discovered on The Nib. “Together, they offer us a very human story, and an entertaining ride into a truly global perspective, on the U.S. Constitution, and other new models beyond it,” he says.