Alien invasions, intergalactic conflict, and fearless, world-saving leaders with extraordinary powers are the stuff of countless comic books. And with his new Face Value comics series, Dave Kot, a Pennsylvania-based mental health professional, has added another star to the vast comic cosmos. Although it has its share of sentient robots and laser beams, Face Value is unique: It is the first comic series to feature a starring character, named Michael, with autism. Working with an illustrator, Dave designed a comic book series to help change the public perception of autism–and to help young people with autism better perceive the world around them.
While opening a copy of Face Value, Dave shares the scene of which he is most proud. Michael stands in front of school on his first day, a bit fearful–and upside down. “It might appear that Michael is upside down,” he says. “He kind of is. But it was done intentionally; it was not a printing mistake. Readers have to literally change their perspective, to look at a person with autism differently than they may have expected.” He flips the comic upside down, making Michael right-side-up. “And that’s the point of what we’re doing with the comic book.”
Dave has worked with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and designed the series specifically for young readers who have the condition. In Face Value, Michael struggles with acceptance in school and by his peers, in addition to his otherworldly challenges. He is a strong, sympathetic character as well as a role model for the readers Dave hopes to reach. And though its steampunk-science-fiction setting is meant to entertain, the comic book places special emphasis on the expression of characters’ feelings. The goal is to help readers better understand emotional response.
The very nature of a comic book’s static images is a useful tool for doing so. “Freeze-framing a facial feature allows a reader to understand what the facial feature looks like, and that’s one level of what we’re doing with the comic book,” Dave explains. “The second level uses speech bubbles to give language to what that feeling is. So you actually begin to understand, when a character says, “I’m angry,” and then you can begin to match up that language to the facial expression. The entire story helps place the situation in context, on what maybe made them angry, and what that looks like. So you can predict what someone may do when they’re feeling these emotions. That helps build empathy.”
Dave’s interest in helping young people deal with ASD extends beyond the professional–he is autistic himself. “I have an official diagnosis from a trained professional,” he notes. Being on the spectrum, however, “helps me understand what other people are going through.”
Characteristically modest, Dave does not profess to speak for all people with ASD. “We’re just one voice,” he admits. “But it’s one voice that isn’t being heard in the comic book market, and it’s one voice not being heard in a lot of social advocacy. And this sets up a dialogue to be able to talk about what autism is, and what it isn’t.”
If early interest is any indication, he may be on to something big. “We sold out of our first run of one hundred comics in just a few days, around Christmas time, when we released it to the public,” he says. “And all the comic book stores in our area have been absolutely fantastic.”
“Dave’s comic has been doing really well,” says Nicky Wagman, from the Comix Connection store in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “We’ve sold out of two batches already, and we’re already on our third batch.” Face Value is also selling well at the store’s other location, in nearby York. “Which is just awesome,” Nicky adds. “It’s really spreading by word-of-mouth.”
Dave is grateful for the independent comic book stores in central Pennsylvania who’ve gotten behind Face Value. “Part of autism awareness is acceptance,” he says. “They support me in not just making my own comic book, but they support the mission behind it.”
Although Face Value is available in only a few stores for now, it can also be digitally downloaded. This has helped Dave reach well beyond Pennsylvania; in its short existence, Face Value has already acquired an international following. “I get emails from fans across the world,” Dave says. “My favorite one was from the UK. A mom with a son who is non-verbal showed him our Facebook fan page. He looked at the screen, pointed to it, and then he pointed to himself. So he got it.”
Dave pauses, nearly overwhelmed. “I don’t have words for that.”
To learn more about Face Value Comics, or to order a digital or paper copy, please visit: http://FaceValueComics.com.