Hey everyone! I am back with a new interview for you! This time with Jim McClain, native to my area in Michigan- he is a math teacher in Indiana who makes comics. I first ran into him at Cherry Capital Comic Con back in May. We caught up later on Facebook and he sent me a copy of his book, Solution Squad. This is a book geared towards kids, but is definitely great for adults too. It is a superhero book that is about a team of people that have various powers and centers around math. Throughout each story are different lessons in math like decoding a message through prime numbers, percentages, history in math, and more. Being someone that was not particularly savvy in math, I had to slow down a few times while reading this to fully absorb what was happening. Anything that offers up a challenge is always good. When I told Jim this he said, "I spend a lot of time trying to persuade people who are afraid of math, that it's made for them. The whole point is to make it fun and not scary." Which is great approach. I imagine there are a lot of people out there who, like me- have not always had the best experiences with math. But Jim makes it fun, and I think having that approach can make the subject less intimidating for people. Jim was named Pop Culture Educator of the Year, which is definitely fitting. Solution Squad was also a finalist for the Excellence in Graphic Literature Awards.
My favorite issue was the one with a villain named the Confectioneer. She was a fantastic choice, her abilities are exactly what you think they are- all based around sugar. She's like a Harley Quinn, Willy Wonka mix with some special stuff all of her own. Jim tells me she will be back, which is super exciting.
I had a wonderful chat with Jim about his comics and his journey. One of the things I found most fascinating about Jim is that he and his wife adopted a little girl from China, Sera- who Jim molded one of the characters after. I thought that was really special, and Jim tells me that Sera loves being a part of the book and has her own costume and mugs!
Jim also has a YouTube channel where he incorporates lessons with puppets of the characters from the comic, such as this gem visiting the last standing Hot n Now:
Jim also posts videos and additional materials on the Solution Squad Facebook page.
Additionally, Jim has participated in various panels on how incorporating comics in the classroom can help develop interests in S.T.E.M. Here is one from NYCC 2016 that was a workshop panel hosted with Jim along with Matt and Shari Brady:
Here is an interview I did with Jim. You can check out Solution Squad webcomics online to see if it's for you, and I highly suggest ordering print copies!
Where are you from?
I was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, and went to elementary school all over the state, including Traverse City and Elk Rapids, but from 7th grade to high school graduation, I lived in Mesick, Michigan, which is where I consider my home.
When did you begin teaching?
I began as a substitute teacher in 1987, just after college graduation. Funny story, I probably had Derek Jeter in class because he was in high school at Kalamazoo Central when I was substituting there. I began teaching full-time in 1989 and ever since.
Have you always taught math?
With the exception of my student teaching which I did in English (my minor), yes. I have taught math from 7th grade to high school seniors and everywhere in between.
What grade levels do you teach?
I currently teach a course called 7th grade math problem solving. It's a great elective where I teach practical uses of math that is usually taught with a very rigid curriculum. I teach awesome stuff like tipping, unit pricing at grocery stores, loan interest, toy action figure scales, and animation frame rates.
You must really love math to write comics based around the subject. What made you bring Solution Squad to life?
I actually never cared for math when I was younger. I could do it, but it was a struggle sometimes. My challenge in learning it helped to drive me to make it easier for kids who struggle. That's where Solution Squad comes in. Comics make it more fun. Math can be a very dry subject if you teach it badly. But through teaching the subject, I started to see real beauty in it. I wish I'd had me as a teacher!
When did you create Solution Squad? Was it released as single issues at any point, or has it always been the full collection?
The idea first came to mind in February 2007. I originally made worksheets and activities based around DC and Marvel heroes, and I ended up with a lot of them. I was going to put them together as a book, but I knew it would be tough to get the major companies to agree to let me do that with their characters. So, I made my own characters. There are power similarities, of course. But with superheroes in general, there are really no new ideas. Just new ways of implementing them.
My niece Rose and I launched Solution Squad as a web comic on February 29, 2012, with a new page released weekly, concluding the first 32-page story eight months later. I created, designed, wrote and lettered the book, and she penciled, inked, and colored it. I would have loved to do the whole thing myself, but she is a far better artist than I am, so I hired her.
On April 24, 2013, Solution Squad #1 became one of the first class of the open-invitation ComiXology Submit books to be released, and we debuted the physical copy at C2E2 that same week. It was a very exciting time! I only have 60 copies of the original 3,000-copy print run left.
I really love that the team of characters is diverse. Can you give us a character breakdown?
Absolutia is the team's founder and financier. She can raise and lower temperature. When she raises the temperature, she lifts her hands up, and her hair and eyes turn red. When she lowers her hands, the temperature drops and her hair and eyes turn blue. She is emotionally unstable and knows it, having suffered trauma several times as a child. Her family, now deceased, smuggled her to America from Greece when she was very young.
Absolutia recruited La Calculadora to lead the team early on. La Calculadora is from Mexico City, the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Puerto Rican father. "La Calculadora" is the Spanish word for "calculator," of course. She has a brilliant mind, and is the master of many, many skills. She also has a perfect memory. She never forgets anything she has learned. I take a lot of stuff from people because of Dora the Explorer, but I always say, but what else was I going to name her? La CalculaDORA. It's right there in her name!
The two of them then recruited Equality, an African-American girl from our fictional Crescent City, Louisiana, which is a stand-in for New Orleans, my favorite city in the world. Equality can duplicate anyone's abilities, but can only copy one person at a time. If she really needs to, she can drain half of someone's abilities, taking them onto herself, but she really avoids doing that. It creates an invasive bond that she does not enjoy. Her father is the police chief of Crescent City. He is the Squad's sponsor, which lets them operate locally. I understand that it's a little on-the-nose for a black character to be named Equality, but this book is for kids. It's not about being subtle.
Then we have the Ordered Pair, Abscissa and Ordinate. This may be the most interesting of the selections. Abscissa and Ordinate are twins who were orphaned in China when they were very young. They were adopted by separate American families and raised separately. They discovered each other at an AAU track meet and when they met, their powers were triggered. Abscissa can run at hyperspeed along the horizontal plane. Ordinate can fly, as well as dive to the deepest ocean depths. He is very strong and tough. They work best as a team. Abscissa is fiercely independent, while Ordinate almost always follows her lead.
Then there's Radical. As the story opens, Radical is just joining the team. Radical is a (deep breath) time traveler from 1984. His power is to create invisible electromagnetic prisms in the shape of right triangles. He can move things, including himself, along the face that corresponds with the hypotenuse (longest side). He is a California surfer dude, and not the brightest tool in the shed, though he surprises the Squad sometimes with his very different mode of thought.
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
Abscissa is based on my daughter, Sera, whom we adopted from China in 2007. When I estimated her height and weight, I went off the projections her pediatrician gave us. Abscissa was originally going to be Latina, but the day we received our referral from China, the name she had been given at the orphanage began with X, which is what the abscissa in an ordered pair is: the x-coordinate. She didn't really have a twin brother, so I made one up. We had read about actual twins being separated and raised by different families, so it wasn't a big stretch to come up with that story.
Radical is based loosely on me as a kid. He's a little younger, born three years after I was born, but I wanted a character who could use slang from my youth and bring an old guy's perspective to the book without being the Professor X-type.
Other than that, they're all composites of people I know, like all fictional characters are.
Let's talk about the section of prose in the middle of the book. Bullying is so hard to deal with in schools, and you covered a lot of points in that story about why kids don't report it and the possible ramifications of bullying. How do you handle these situations as a teacher, and how do you teach kids to come forward?
We have a program in place to do that, but I always tell kids my personal stories of being bullied and how those instances affect me to this day. I think it's much more effective than the cookie-cutter approach we use in schools. I kind of take a little poke at those processes in the story. I try to teach my kids to respect everyone and that kindness costs you nothing. Standing up for the weak is what superheroes are all about. Or what they used to be about, anyway.
Have you introduced this book into your classroom?
Oh, yes. I've been using it for years. This is where I can separate myself from the other independent comic book creators in the world. The comics and the graphic novel are fun to read by themselves as entertainment. Kids do like my comic. But as an educational tool, a different format is available for teachers. I created a digital format of the comics, in landscape format in PDF form that any computer or tablet can read. It is projectable on a screen, and has different storytelling techniques unique to the form. Mark Waid helped to develop Infinite Comics for Marvel as well as his own Thrillbent website, and DC had DC Squared. This format is vastly underrated. Some people don't like digital comics and that's fine. But for classroom use, there is nothing better. A teacher can control the pace of the story, pausing to ask questions, to check for understanding, to gauge students' ability to infer from the story what it is going to happen next, and so many more things. It's really the crown jewel of my work, and hardly anyone gets to see it unless they know where to look.
How do your lesson plans work with the comics? Can you explain that a bit more for me?
Sure. In the first story, when they are trapped in the force field, right? They start to set up the prime number sieve. I stop there and have the students in class do it too. It's even hosted by LaCacluadora, who's trapped outside. She breaks the fourth wall on the worksheet. When the students decode the message, we go back to the comic and read how they do it, and their answer is confirmed. Then when Dora writes the coded message to the Squad...I have the kids do that one to make sure they get it. "What is La Calculadora up to?" That allows me to check for understanding. Now, the code makes a reappearance in the Confectioneer story, The Squad adopts it as their way of communicating secretly.
What about at other schools? I feel like this could benefit a lot of kids.
Yes, I can say definitively that other schools use my work. I sell the digital comic and lesson plans to go with it at Teachers Pay Teachers, and I have given in-services at schools to teach teachers how to use it. That aspect is just picking up steam.
Will you continue this series?
I will absolutely make more. One of my artists, Serena Guerra, is putting the finishing touches on a new story right now called, "The Case of the Eight-Inch Action Figures." The Squad gets action figures made of themselves to give to children but the prototypes all come out the same size, like Mego figures! They have to figure out how tall each figure should be to make them scale correctly. The kids vary in height from 5'0" to 6'8". My wife and I are working out a story right now where the Squad talks about their favorite foods and we're making recipes for each one. My wife teaches culinary arts, so it's a natural fit. We'll release the stories digitally one at a time, and when the time is right, run another Kickstarter to make another volume of the book!
Who are the people on the team of Solution Squad?
I design all the characters, write the stories, and do all the lettering.
The artists featured in the main book include:
Rose McClain: pencils, inks, colors https://www.rosemcclain.com/
Serena Guerra: pencils, inks, colors https://www.facebook.com/SerenaGuerraArt/
Christopher Jones: pencils, inks http://christopherjonesart.com
Paul E. Schultz: pencils, inks https://www.facebook.com/Imphatic-Studios-372873416186826/
Jessica Lynn: pencils, inks, colors https://www.facebook.com/Jessicadraws17
Joshua Buchanan: pencils, inks, colors click here for website
Robby Bevard: colors https://www.deviantart.com/robbybevard
Sheby Edmunds colors https://shellplusbee.com/
Do you have any upcoming shows or signings?
Always. Next up is Hall of Heroes Comic Con in Elkhart, Indiana on September 8-9.
How can people get solution squad if they want to buy it? Do you offer discount/bulk pricing if a teacher wants it for classrooms?
What is some advice you can offer for aspiring creators?
Don't quit and don't wait for someone to make your book for you. You can learn every single thing you need to know to produce a comic book online. Even as a relatively old guy, I learned enough Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign to make my book myself.
Is there anything you'd like to say to kids who might be having a hard time at school?
Hang in there. Though this is a relatively short period in your life, it doesn't feel like it right now. Get out on your own and then you write your own story.
Where can we follow you on social media?
@thejimmcclain both on Twitter and Instagram, but most of my blathering is done on Facebook. If you search my name and Solution Squad, you'll find me!