Written by Charles "Zan" Christensen
Art by Mark Brill
32 pages, color
Published by Northwest Press
The Power Within is that sort of comic where I find myself wishing that comics in general had a wider readership. Inspired by the number of bullying-related suicides of teenagers over the past few years, Charles "Zan" Christensen and Mark Brill took the 24-Hour Comics Day challenge to create The Power Within, where the lead character goes through his own particular trial by fire. And while those not in its target audience will probably miss out on a lot of the emotional heft in this comic, its core message is strong and it makes me like to imagine copies of the comic ending up with the kids who need it the most.
By now, most readers will be familiar with the cycle that The Power Within‘s lead character Shannon goes through. He’s picked on by the bigger, stronger guys who mock him, throw food at him, and threaten far worse. When he tries to respond in any way but ignoring them, he’s rebuked by the school administration and told that the fault lies with him. Sadly, as the real world has shown again and again, this is hardly a stretch. Christensen takes his plot ideas from what happens every day, with no need to exaggerate in order to raise the level of drama.
When I saw the cover, I was afraid that The Power Within was going to have Shannon actually rescued by a superhero, but the contents of the comic itself are rooted firmly in reality. Like most teens and children pushed into the role of outsider, Shannon ends up relying on fantasies of being able to fight back and stop the bullying as a form of escape. I think Christensen times these moments well, not overusing the conceit even as he makes you wish that somehow a miracle would occur and his daydream would become reality. Likewise, Shannon’s few allies in school are portrayed realistically; that means that at times their responses are frustrating (because you want them to step up and do so much more), but they come across as human and someone that the target audience can relate to.
Brill’s art is solid from start to finish; watching Shannon from start to finish in The Power Within, you can watch his confidence crumble through the way that Bill draws him. His body language is on display, from the hesitant "I’m going to do this" pose on the first page, to the slumped, defeated look when he’s at his lowest point. Most telling is how Brill draws Shannon’s dream alter-ego; he’s not just physically powerful, but also displays a certain swagger and self-assuredness that’s lacking in the real world Shannon. Christensen and Brill prove to be a good match for one another, each telling part of the story in conjunction with the other.
Last but not least, I have to give The Power Within credit for its conclusion. The lows are at their lowest there, but there’s still a message of hope and encouragement that comes across as genuine rather than trite, or implausible. It’s a strong ending, and a good way to wrap up the comic. There’s also an all-star list of guest-contributors who provided pin-ups, and one- to two-page stories on the same subject. They’re good too, although I do wish they’d all been included at the end of the comic instead of sprinkled throughout. Finally, if you’re someone who is part of a youth services organization and or teachers’ group, Northwest Press is offering free copies; the comic even includes discussion questions to help jumpstart conversations about bullying and the comic’s message. That, to me, is the best news I’ve heard all day.