Superhero with Down syndrome stars in new comic by N.J. prof

 Rider University professor Sheena Howard is co-author of a new comic book series, ''Superb,'' which features a teen superhero with Down syndrome. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rider University professor Sheena Howard is co-author of a new comic book series, ''Superb,'' which features a teen superhero with Down syndrome. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

So, out in space, there’s this mysterious meteor — which may or may not be part of a sentient alien being. That part is not yet clear. But what we know is that this space rock has certain, still-unidentified properties.

It collides with Earth, breaking up in the atmosphere, pieces slamming into towns all around the world.

“The meteors hit Earth. When teenagers come in contact with meteor fragments, they get enhanced,” said Sheena Howard, co-author of the new comic “Superb.” “They get various super powers.”

In the story, a teenager with Down syndrome comes into contact with the meteor, and he subsequently develops the ability to temporarily mute and paralyze people with rays that shoot out of his eyes. As with many super heroes, his powers are an extension of his character.

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“In the first issue, you see him getting teased on the school bus,” said Howard. “I wanted to make one of his powers to silence people, because as a kid who gets teased, one of the things you want to do is shut people up, stop them in their tracks.”

Howard, a professor of communication at Rider University in Lawrence, New Jersey, writes about representations of race and sexual orientation in American culture.

She is also a comic nerd. On Wednesday, Howard was sitting in the window of the Atomic comic shop on Philadelphia’s South Street signing copies of “Superb” on its debut day.

“Everybody’s at the San Diego Comic Con right now,” she said. “I hope to be there next year.”

Most modern super heroes have challenging personal lives, but you don’t see many with learning disabilities. In “Superb,” the character Jonah goes to school, but is not as clever as his classmates. His tastes tend to be immature. In the first issue, he is still not certain what to do with his newfound superpowers.

“Superb” is published by Catalyst Prime, a new venture now rolling out a hero universe designed to be diverse and inclusive. The co-star of “Superb” is a black teenage girl who develops superstrength. In another title, “Noble,” an African-American astronaut returns from space with amnesia.

All of the titles in Catalyst Prime’s universe are linked by the same meteoric event.

Primarily known for her academic writing (this fall, Howard’s “Encyclopedia of Black Comics” will be published), Howard’s comic book writing is meant, primarily, to entertain. Nevertheless, real-life issues creep into this story set in Youngstown, a Rust Belt town in Ohio dealing with cataclysmic disaster.

“Really, the story is trying to show how this town picks up the pieces after this 9/11-type event,” said Howard. “Eventually, we are going to get into stories about how people use the media in nefarious ways, creating fake news stories. So we’re touching, subtly, on real-life things that are happening.”

Howard has about nine issues in the pipeline right now, with story lines to fill another dozen. If the audience wants it, she said she’s willing to write it indefinitely.

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