Comic books have come a long way in the last century — from seductive destroyers of children’s minds to educational tools in the classroom. Of course they were never as bad as the Frederic Wertham‘s of the world made them out to be, just as today, not all comics used to teach are great at accomplishing the goal.
The practice of creating comics specifically for use in the classroom is in its infancy (on a wide scale, anyway), and most of the ones out there are still tackling the easier topics to translate into pictures. So give Jim McClain serious props for being one of the first to go after math.
Jim McClain’s Solution Squad is a passion project already a decade in the making, although the first full-length graphic novel was released just this year. Brought to life through Kickstarter, it’s both the culmination of McClain’s painstaking world-building and an opening for future stories to be told within this universe.
Before the 138 pages of content is a word from McClain himself, detailing the journey of the Solution Squad up until this point. It’s a nice intro that makes you want to root for the creator as well as the creation, and it’s the first hint that McClain knows how to differentiate his material from that of classroom comics creators just starting out — with a heavy emphasis on character.
After three instructional pages on how to navigate comic panels by Tracy Edmunds (something I sure could have used when I was younger), the reader is thrown right into the team’s mix with new member and point-of-view character Radical, in the double entendre titled “Primer.” He and we are introduced to the cast at the same time, a nice storytelling device that eschews the need for up-front character profiles — though you will get those in the backmatter, along with villain bios, for those who really want the immersive experience.
The characters are deliberately diverse, as a lifetime of comics fandom has made McClain want to see more than the usual kinds of faces, but more importantly, each represents a mathematical concept in both name and power. The team leader, La Calculadora, is the fastest figurer of the group, unless Equality decides to match her skill. Absolutia can both raise and lower temperature (meant to remind of the concept of an absolute value) and the Ordered Pair are twins, one of whom can only move laterally while the other is stuck going up and down, just like the coordinates of the x-y plane. Radical … well, he’s a time-traveler from the ’80s who surfs the hypotenuse of right triangles.
That may all sound a little silly, but Solution Squad is on the right level for its target (middle grade) audience. The Squad themselves are cohesive, with their own battle cry, and they grow and learn throughout the volume, rewarding the time invested. That makes it somewhat difficult to read the stories out of order, especially when the prime numbers learned in the first are used in the later battle with the evil Confectioneer (who has more candy puns than you can shake a Pixy Stick at).
The uneven art from story to story can be kind of jarring, too. “The Last Boy” is barely even illustrated at all, with what amounts to just a few pin-ups in a tale that’s mostly about bullying, without as much math as the others. Aside from the character profile images from comic greats including Ryan Ottley, George Pérez and Carlo Barberi, the most polished art comes from old pros Serena Guerra and Christopher Jones, and maybe surprisingly, McClain’s niece Rose. Much of the rest seems rushed or unfinished, particularly on the colors, which can look as if they might smudge from a quick thumb movement. The final story, “Factor 5,” features younger children with math powers of their own, and the art on that, by Joshua Buchanan, falls somewhere in the middle.
There’s also a lesson plan in the back to help teachers bring the prime numbers in the book to the desk, although plans for other included mathematical concepts, like train problems and ratios, are only available online. A bonus story, “The Case of the Eight-Inch Action Figures,” is also available for download to those who purchase the book.
After gestating for so long, Jim McClain’s Solution Squad may seem like an overnight success, but that’s only because a lot of legwork was put in away from the larger audience it now enjoys. So it’s not only ahead of the game for being one of the first readily available comics trying to teach math, but it’s got the balance between character, story and content down right out of the gate. This volume isn’t perfect, with some detours into other topics and an uneven artistic direction, but it is a ready-made teaching tool with nothing but an upside for future editions, if the styles of its creators can remain consistent.
Throughout the month of December, AiPT! is highlighting some of our favorite science-based books and activities for kids. Looking for that perfect holiday gift that educates while it entertains? Eureka, you have found it!