Dave Kot is the founder of Face Value Comics, Inc. a non-profit in 2011 and recently changed the legal business name to “Autism at Face Value” to reflect the company’s social agenda for autism awareness and acceptance. Dave and his wife, Angie, write the scripts as a husband-and-wife team. Their artist, Sky O., has over thirty years’ professional experience with comic book illustration and the overall business. (Image on left is an illustrated version of Dave, Angie and Sky.) Add a Board of Directors including talented people from across the country and you have a company that is using its creativity for positive social change.
My curiosity peaked, I asked Dave and Angie to tell us more…
I am so excited to talk about Face Value Comics where you are “using a steampunk universe to build autism awareness.” How did Face Value Comics come about and why steampunk?
As a professional therapist and PhD student, Dave saw statistically-significant improvements in clients’ behaviors when they built greater empathy. Facial feature recognition remains a hallmark of our comics. Readers see a face showing a certain, universal expression, supported by a lot of taxonomy research and social learning theories. Speech and thought bubbles give language to the emotion. Finally, caption boxes or the overall story helps to place the feelings in context. Instead of re-inventing facial features with each new client, Dave thinks a comic book format helps convey the same intent, and makes learning fun!
The University of Massachusetts—Lowell conducted an art therapy program called “Steampunkinestics.” Their research showed how child artists with autism gravitated to the steampunk genre. We suspect this outcome has two reasons. A cogs-and-gears, Victorian-era world of steampunk has its own traditional rules for social behaviors, follows routines, and its technology more easily shows cause-and-effect relationships. Also, imagination of possible historical fiction and science-fiction lets participants lend their own views without being “wrong.” The lead artist for the steampunk band, “Abney Park,” is attributed with saying something profound about the steampunk genre. His thought is paraphrased as, “don’t argue that my ‘make-believe’ isn’t real enough.” Steampunk is a subgenre, outside of mainstream literature and comic books. Many kids with autism also feel marginalized. We want to reinforce that being one’s self is okay, even if it is not popular.
Since we debuted on Christmas Eve last year, several other comic book publishers have delved into the steampunk genre. Will their re-imagined worlds of heroes last? Only the future will tell. We do not intend to compete with other comic book publishers; we offer a completely different kind of product.
What kind of backgrounds do you have that led you to creating comics…and comic awareness?
Does being a fan count? We have had a love for comic books since we could read! We learned early how comics provide educational value, too. Dave received Issue #1 of “Spiderman and his Amazing Friends” as a young boy, after his grandfather died. The book helped him briefly escape some confusion and questions, and let him heal. Then, Dave has some interesting stories about comic books. Many of them include how he liked to read comics instead of homework textbooks. However, comic books always held some glimmer of truth about biology, chemistry, or other fields of study. Dave’s experiences with comics books versus textbooks is one still being fought by young readers today. The Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) suggests educators could help improve literacy and engage young readers with comic books.
Dave uses his academic and professional experience to help him create characters. Before he wrote the story, Dave completed a fictitious but rigorous psychological profile for each character in the story. Our characters have varying degrees of anxiety, attention deficits, autism, and depression, for example. We portray individuals, not just their diagnosis, with dignity and respect.
Sky brings over thirty years of experience to readers. He teaches Dave about format and plot. We’ve shared countless hours of laughter and vision on the phone (sometimes in just one evening)! Sky believes in Face Value Comics’ mission, and his passion makes his outstanding artwork even more noteworthy.
What age range are your comics for?
We follow the now-antiquated Comics Code Authority to make a family-friendly comic book for all ages. We hope parents will read the comic book with their children. We hope teachers feel comfortable with the backstory for use in classrooms. We envision an opportunity for dialogues between kids and their parents, teachers, and caregivers about important and relevant issues we all face. Adults have many resources to learn about autism; many kids do not read professional journal articles or lengthy academic books about autism. This comic book fills that gap, and gives kids with and without autism a chance to learn about one young man’s experiences with autism.
Tell us about your first release and its plotline.
We’ve sold about 1,000 comics since our debut release on Christmas Eve. Since then, fans across the world have bought and read the comic, and share heartfelt letters of gratitude. Suddenly, we’ve been thrust into the forefront as positive autism advocates. Dave’s been nominated by a fan in Australia for an international award for children’s literature. Professionals want to partner with us for education and community outreach, from local community support groups, to educators, to police departments, and others from all across the globe!
With the added attention and unsure expectations, we think we better understand our main character, Michael. He begins his first day at middle school. His bio-engineered service droid, “TESS,” helps him adjust. Michael tries to understand himself and his new friends. This experience takes places against a backdrop of an intergalactic invasion by despots wanting to eradicate useless human emotion.
We reinforce a core value system, too. We want to show how heroes are people who want to be Safe, Wanted, and Successful. People may not always be their best, but heroes try and try again, and learn from their mistakes. Kids want and need heroes like themselves.
Why did you choose to become a non-profit organization and what is your BIG vision?
Imagine if a doctor or politician had a comic book to clearly articulate their vision for good change. Cut through red-tape, political correctness, and cumbersome or inaccessible academic jargon. Now, make a message about acceptance suitable for children, without perpetual therapy appointments or governmental promises. Real change involves everyone, not just one group. This includes helping kids see themselves and their friends grow and learn as role models. Face Value Comics is just one voice. We never pretend to be experts, nor claim to have THE answer to a question-of-the-day. Our comic book entertains, while telling the story about a young man’s fight…a fight against misunderstanding…oh, and robots, and weird aliens, etc.
Incorporating as a non-profit is the best fit for us, because we felt it was the best way to disseminate our mission of Autism Advocacy and Acceptance. We believe that all kids deserve to feel safe, wanted and successful in their homes, schools and communities. As a non-profit entity we have been able to build creative partnerships with other small-and-large non-profit organizations with like-minded goals.
How would you like to see your comics used?
Possibilities are endless. Our comics suits all ages and reading abilities as entertainment, as well as education. Whether it is used as a textbook in a social skills class, for a family to learn something more about Autism, or simply to put a smile on someones face, these are all equally valuable possibilities. We anxiously await shipment of our first prototype of some of our comic book characters as action figures very soon!
You operate under a strong sense of social responsibility, which is so important. Will you summarize your pledge?
We believe all children have the right to feel safe, wanted, and successful in their homes, schools, and communities. Understanding their own and others’ emotions boosts confidences needed for improved social behaviors. Facial feature recognition builds predictive behaviors, and freezing these faces on a static page lets readers go back and re-evaluate the emotions for comparison. Face Value Comics reinforces these beliefs by telling a social story using a comic book for children.
If our readers only leave with one ‘takeaway’ after reading this interview—what would you like it to be?
Dave’s favorite page from issue one is upside down. This wasn’t a printing problem- it was intentional. Michael begins his first day at middle school, and has lots of questions. Although Michael is upside down, nothing special happens when people re-orient the page, except people transform THEMSELVES! Readers may have to literally change their view to see a person with autism differently than they may expect.
This is only the beginning. There are many adventures in store for Michael and his friends as well as Autism at Face Value.
Michael and his friends’ story continues with Issue #2 coming this March! We have lots of storyboard ideas for more than a year’s worth of regularly issued comics. Professionals have asked us to speak at numerous events, write academically on the research behind facial feature recognition, and lead our community into more positive awareness about autism. We write comic books, but never imagined the script that matches how rewarding our lives have become by helping other people understand one voice about autism awareness and acceptance. Nobody could have guessed the attention this work has already received. As Dave is fond of suggesting (and foreshadowing), “It’s about time…” and only time will tell what is next for Autism at Face Value!
All Images Copyright (©) 2013 Autism at Face Value
If you are interested in more autistic hero comics and comics that explain autism go to our Autism Comics Overview.