Superb: Transforming Disabilities into Special Abilities

Dr. Sheena Howard of Rider University talks about her comic book creation, Superb: the world’s first Down syndrome superhero.

By Emma Eisenberg

Dr. Sheena Howard is one of the writers behind Superb, a new comic book series that launched this summer as part of Catalyst Prime, the line of superhero comics published by Lion Forge. Superb follows two nontraditional protagonists who become superheroes—a teenage boy who has Down syndrome and a black teenage girl. Howard’s academic book Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation won a prestigious Eisner Award. Dr. Howard is the first black woman to win the Eisner and is an Associate Professor of Communications and Journalism at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. ONEder caught up with her by phone to discuss creating Superb and what it means for representations of neuroatypical people.

How did the idea for Superb come about?

Dr. Howard: The people at Lion Forge Comics approached me and said they were interested in making comics for everyone, particularly one about a character with Down syndrome and could I help write one. I had been writing academic books about race and gender and representation, but had never written my own comic book. I immediately said, ‘yes.’

I really believe in what comics can do. Comics are a great place for kids to start enjoying reading, and get into the rhythm of life. [Lion Forge] had a loose idea of what they wanted the story to be, but my co-writer and I were given great freedom to invent the story.

Jonah, the superhero with Down syndrome, is a great character. How did you approach creating him and his super powers?

Dr. Howard: It was all about trying to get it right, as I do not personally share Jonah’s experience. But anytime you’re creating a character that’s not often represented in mass media, it’s especially important to get it right. This might be the only time people like Jonah are seeing themselves featured, and I took it very, very seriously.

We gave him the power of silence, the power to silence people, since that seemed realistic to what a child with Down syndrome who may be getting bullied at school would want.

To some extent, I drew from my experiences working and living with children with disabilities for my masters from 2005-2006 as part of a vocational independence program. I made him a little naive, but very sociable and engaged, like some of the students I worked with. But we also worked closely with the National Down Syndrome Society. We would send them the script. They didn’t guide us in any particular direction, but if there’s something that they saw that stuck out, they would come to us and say, “Hey, you know, this is offensive to the community.” They were invaluable.

Was there anything particularly challenging about writing Jonah?

Dr. Howard: I’m a black queer female, so I understand the repercussions of being misrepresented and underrepresented. I wanted to show that Jonah is a complex person who moves through life not governed by his disability, while also showing that the issues Jonah is facing are real challenges. I wanted to show Jonah dealing with important issues like learning disabilities in a school setting, and challenging social interactions. I was trying to be very delicate as a writer. You don’t want to go overboard in showing how hard things are for him but you also don’t want to normalize the character so that people don’t understand his unique experience. It’s a balance. As more issues of Superb are released, I think you’ll see that we address his developmental disabilities more and more.

The other day somebody tagged me in a tweet on Twitter with a kid with Down syndrome reading the book. I had conveyed the specific features shared by many kids with Down syndrome, the tweet said, and so much in the book felt right. That’s what motivates me.

In addition to her work for ONEder, Emma writes essays for a variety of publications, including VICE, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and Slate.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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