You Don’t Have To Be A Superhero To Be Empowered

Fanbase Press

3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life. 

Have you heard the saying about power and responsibility? It’s often uttered in comics narratives when the tidal wave of unmitigated evil threatens to engulf the struggling hero. Or when they’re trying, just for a moment, to pretend to be normal despite hiding a flamboyantly designed latex costume in their home. Anyone who’s dipped their toe in the vastness of the Marvel Comics Universe has heard some version of: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

It seems strange to say, but sometimes I mockingly utter that saying to myself when I glance at the growing stack of graphic narratives I want to read and review. I have to read them. I must! Graphic novels and comics have been part of my life since my maternal grandmother bought my first Archie comic at Wrigley’s Supermarket when I was a small child. They were further cemented thereafter every time she saved the Sunday comics and The Mini Pages for me. I wanted to read every word and savor every illustration. I still do. Those feelings are so strong that it becomes overwhelming at times. I start to believe that I won’t be able to do justice to the books that I read.

It’s one of the reasons why this month’s book, Quince: The Bilingual Edition (Fanbase Press, 2020), fell to the bottom of my to-be-read list as the list was restacked, rearranged, and added to over the year. I received the massive hardcover early in this column’s inception, but in the true fashion of the universe, even though I read the book later than I would’ve liked, I read it exactly when I needed it the most.

Quince is comprised of the original issues of the Eisner award nominated comic of the same name. It has a host of people at its helm. It was created by Sebastian Kadlecik, written by Kit Steinkellner and illustrated by her sister Emma Steinkellner. Valeria Tranier also translated the Spanish editions.

Quince, which is a shortened term for quinceañera, is the superhero story of Lupe Veracruz. Lupe laments that her “normal life was so boring it hurt,” then hours later, she accidentally blows up her bathroom moments before her quinceañera, a party celebrating her fifteenth birthday and coming-of-age. Lupe’s grandmother, Abuela, comforts Lupe and immediately assumes the role of Lupe’s trainer. Steinkellner does an amazing job in the storytelling and we know from the opening panels that even as her trainer, Abuela has always been Lupe’s mentor and confidante.

Like many superhero origin stories, there’s a training montage. But Lupe isn’t dragging trains or bench pressing tractors like a young Clark Kent. She’s more like Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. She struggles. Abuela and Lupe drive out to the open desert where Lupe practices flying against sharply hued skies that vary in shades of green as she rises higher and higher. Initially her powers are a feeble muscle that she has to strengthen before she can be her best super-self. It’s not enough to fly. She has to learn control. She has to learn how to accurately use her individual powers. And when Lupe’s exhausted, when she doubts herself, she must keep going. (Now I feel like I’m speaking to myself.)

Lupe’s life changes drastically once she gains control of her powers. She brands herself as the superhero Q and gets to work. She catches burglars. She saves families from fires. She is a crime fighting machine. Being a superhero allows her to express herself in ways she wasn’t able to before she donned her costume.

Quince is sprinkled with witticisms that keep the storyline upbeat. It’s also relatable. The characters are down-to-earth, and Lupe navigates everyday teen problems like self-esteem, crushes, and bullying when she’s not fighting bad guys. Even Lupe’s angst connects to a version of my younger self. From thirteen to sixteen years old, I wished I had telekinesis and telepathy. I didn’t want superpowers to be a hero but as proof that my life was not so painful and that I belonged in some alternative universe, just hidden out of sight, where I was special. Even as an adult, I can see myself in the story’s pages, trying to escape the mundanities of my life, trying to find my greater purpose and still struggling with the why of it all.

Quince is a revelation in fifteen acts. Lupe’s relationship with her grandmother — and her family overall — is a refreshing twist on the superhero-family tropes, such that Quince emphasizes how genuine interpersonal bonds shape Lupe more than the fine details of Lupe’s hero journey. Her superpowers are more of an aside. The language is also a little self-aware at times, but it’s mostly without pretension. The graphic novel often works well when it cuts directly to the heart of a problem while mixing in contemporary discourses around social issues such as bullying and body shaming.

Lupe is not like the slender, leggy, cookie-cutter attractive girls drawn in the comics canon of old. A panel depicting her costume hanging on the back of a door reminds me of images from contemporary comics movies and TV shows where the heroine’s costume is so hour-glassed shaped that the chest and waist nearly meet at two triangle points. The costume would be impossible for a human woman to wear. In Quince, Lupe is a curvy, brown-skinned curly-headed girl who wears a bright-pink hooded jumpsuit. In one scene, a girl jealous of the attention that Q receives from boys at school comments, “I thought superheroes were supposed to be skinny.” Lupe’s love interest quickly corrects the girl and the story resumes focusing on how amazing Lupe is. Her body shape is never a determinant of superhero abilities — her willpower is. And it’s the steadfastness of her willpower that pushes her to continue helping others even when she no longer has powers (not a spoiler).

Lupe muses, “…people in trouble don’t always need a caped crusader.” It could also be said that we don’t always need to be a superhero to do the right thing or to be our best selves. Sometimes it’s as simple as believing in ourselves. We can be heroic in our everyday lives, wearing our everyday clothes. We are not powerless. It just takes time for us to get into the groove and embrace our purpose.

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