David Kot believes in heroes.
The Bedford County native and Pitt-Johnstown graduate is gaining recognition for creating the first comic book superhero with autism.
The doctoral candidate and mental health professional created Michael to help children with autism understand their condition, and also to help other children and family members understand autism.
“I believe all kids want and need heroes like themselves,” Kot said.
He introduced Michael in the first issue of Face Value Comics, produced by Autism at Face Value, the nonprofit organization Kot founded.
Between steampunk airship battles and alien encounters, Michael struggles to fit in with his middle school friends and learns about other people’s feelings, Kot said.
The Face Value Comic heroes display no traditional superpowers, but find success in fighting prejudice and injustice by understanding others. Stories rely heavily on facial expressions, he said.
Often the story begins with a freeze-frame character’s face and is told in flashback to help understand what made the character angry, sad or happy.
Facial expressions of emotion are universally recognized, Kot said, but they are fleeting. That’s why those with autism often don’t pick up on subtle signs of other people’s reactions to situations, Kot said.
“People diagnosed with autism don’t make a lot of eye contact,” Kot said. “They are going to miss it and not know how to respond. This allows readers to go back and look at it again and again.”
The pages also include captions that further examine the emotions and activity pages to supplement the story.
Michael is not the only one struggling with emotional or psychological problems. Each character has his or her own backstory and psychological profile to explain behavior.
“We went through all our characters and gave them some strengths,” Kot said. “They might do all right in a school setting, but they have high levels of anxiety. They may have a fear of battles, but like all heroes, they draw on their own strengths.”
Some of those strengths may include superpowers in future issues, Kot said.
“In true comic-book fashion, we’ll just have to wait and find out,” he said.
One of the villains is a mad scientist named Dr. Darling Moebius. While Kot admits “It’s fun to have a villain with the first name Darling,” the name is a tribute to retired Pitt-Johnstown sociology professor Jon Darling.
It was in Darling’s class that Kot began learning about facial expressions and how they affect relationships. Kot calls Darling a mentor.
“He’s a very bright kid,” Darling said from his home near Chapel Hill, N.C. “He took a lot from the course – a lot more than I thought. For his Ph.D. he tracked a lot of what we talked about in our course.”
Darling said he’s honored with the tribute, even if his character is the bad guy.
“I look on it as a compliment,” Darling said. “I think he’s onto something very good.”
The comic book has been well received by mental health professionals and others working with children who have autism, Kot said.
But the biggest honor was has been the recent agreement for distribution by Diamond Comic Distributors Inc.
Even as his creative team is wrapping up Issue 2, Face Value Comics is relaunching the premiere edition for worldwide distribution.
It will be expanded with additional pages of activities while keeping the story intact.
In addition to producing comic books, Autism at Face Value holds seminars and leadership events.
“A lot of people ask me if I am autistic,” Kot said. “The answer is, yes I am.”
Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.