Smile Politely

Abecedarian Amble: H is for Hero

Rest assured, there are heroes in our midst, even as the world marches ever into darkness.C-U is a safe haven in unsuspected ways; it seems a good time to spotlight a few noble spirits who are ready and able to lead the battle for Truth and Justice.

At April’s Small Press Fest! I was fortunate witness to the unveiling of Champaign-Urbana’s state-of-the-art brand new brand of Superhero Trading Cards. Collect all 25 and you will gain access to powers heretofore hidden behind quiet desks at the U of I’s Main Library. Two stealthy instigators, Primary Sorceress Mara Thacker (right) and Agent Engagement Sarah Christensen decided it was high time to disclose the unheralded skills of their coworkers.

They invite you to seek out the secret lairs of the 25 brave souls who cast caution to the winds to reveal their alter egos.

These stalwart librarians stepped up to the green screen at the Media Commons, props at the ready, had their mugs shot and transformed into character by Christensen, with just the right occult surrounds devised by Ali Krogman. Abracadabra, cards are at the ready, intended to lure seekers just like you.

Make your way to the Oak Street Library and delve out the Master of the Desk Arts, Benjamin Stone. What occult skills is The Minder ready to share? Need some fire breathing? Teen Dragoness Domonique Arnold at Uni High Library has sorcery at the ready to maintain order and intellectual inquiry among her charges. Step up for the keys to general world domination; Baroness of Biology, Kelly Trei, can point out the path.

Electric Ariadne Lynne Rudasill resides at the Global Studies Library, ready to guide you through treacherous mazes of information. Agent Access Laura Poulosky will point out Righteous Reads. When the moon is high and winds fierce, visit Time Traveler Lynne Thomas who stands guard over rare books handwritten in oak gall ink on calfskin. Prepare yourself to be transported.

MzInfolit, Vanquisher of Mis-/dis-information. Math Library Magus sequestered in the campus castle, Altgeld Hall. The Enforcer lurking in room 246H. The Accessibility Ninja can vault you into the fifth dimension. The Pubrarian melds media. Ms. Viz is whiz of data telepathy.

What are you waiting for? Join the game now, while energies are fresh and powers electric. Ready, Set, Dive Deep!

*  *  *

Some heroes walk among us on the streets of Urbana-Champaign; others are summoned from the realms of imagination. At age eight, Kofi Bazzell-Smith fell under the spell of Dragon Ball Z, a manga story introduced by Akira Toriyama in 1984.


It follows hero Son Goku from childhood to maturity on his quest to collect the seven magic orbs that can summon a dragon to grant his every wish. Villains and challenges make the path ever so compelling. Manga sports a dimension beyond our western conventions of “intro, conflict, resolution.” Japanese storytellers delight in embedding sudden turns and torques to hold you hanging – it’s “intro, development, twist, conclusion.” Bazzell-Smith is also drawn to the unpredictability of manga heroes. They aren’t limited to a set list of superpowers, like Batman or Spiderman. Instead, at a particularly intense moment, a character may erupt into wild and crazy feats that are one time only.

Bazzell-Smith has ever deepened his immersion in the manga arts. He managed to get himself to Japan at a tender age and find his own way to study illustration and language. Now an art student at Eastern Illinois University, he won a fellowship to return to Japan this coming fall to study at Kansai Gaidai University, or “big school.” He’ll have the chance to dive deeper into the subtleties of language used in manga. Sound effects are a specialty, with their own character set called giongo. There are over a thousand characters that represent specific sounds — onomatopeia. There’s one for rain, and one for the sound of a fist thudding against an enemy. Our basic “boom” in a lightning burst is a pale proxy to the complexities of manga. See some symbols here.

Over the years, mostly self-taught, he has honed a favorite character, Azuki  — “small red bean.” Her very identity embodies the humor and whimsy characteristic of manga; a young girl who is an unlikely master of the game Rock-Scissors-Paper, which she plays in full martial arts regalia. As the story and her skills develop, the battle intensifies to tackle aliens against the future of this earth. Watch her uncanny speed under fire, and how those two scissor fingers morph into powerblasters.

Bazzell-Smith appreciates how heroes arise in unusual places in manga. A new character he’s incubating is Trashman — litterers beware, you’ll be met with cosmic punishments. It’s a story that wrestles with unrealized potential. Trashman is afraid of his own success; he cannot call himself a hero. Be on the lookout for future developments, as we watch our oceans fill with plastic.

Bazzell-Smith deepens his storytelling with Zen and Buddhist philosophy, and the Samurai Code. Look forward to what will emerge when he returns from immersion in Japan.

* * *

Kids always have a finger on the pulsepoint of what truly matters. No wonder the best stories are crafted just for them; they know a hero when they see one. For an inside view I visited my friend Mario, freshly graduated from 8th grade at Urbana Middle School. He has a keen and unyielding take on truth and justice.

He gallantly took a break from a fierce battle of Fortnite, and told me what speaks to him. No hesitation — Spiderman. A teen who’s funny and cool. He gets places fast — and with ever so much style. His problems ring true: bullying, friends struggling with drugs; his own insecurities; how to grow up and make a living. Peter Benjamin Parker sprang to life in 1962 under the hand of Stan Lee at Marvel Comics. That radioactive spider bite that launches him into superhero status — couldn’t that happen to any unsuspecting kid?

I asked Mario if Spiderman carries with him that heroic “fatal flaw.” He gave me a knowing look. “Emotions. That’s what gets them all. There’s this girl.”

I consulted Urbana librarian Caleb Wilson, who knows what appeals to younger kids. #1 without a doubt is Humor. He watched the long streak of “grimdark” stories that dominated for a number of years. They’re what the genre sounds like. Helpless heroes are as confused and lost as we are. Wilson sees kids now turning back to humor and hopefulness, front and center. A surefire winner for that certain age will always be Captain Underpants. Writer Dav Pilkey makes him irresistible. Hapless friends George and Harold just can’t stay out of trouble at Jerome Horwitz Elementary School. They’re singled out for nasty punishments by  diabolical principal Mr. Krupp. Then – aha! A brand new 3-D Hypno Ring turns things upside down. Under its spell George and Harold convince Mr. Krupp that he is their very own life-loving and stalwart superhero. When he hears the sound of fingers snapping, he strips down to that signature wardrobe, dons a red cape, and strides forth as “the world’s greatest superhero, who fights for Truth, Justice, and all that is pre-shrunk and cottony.”  I don’t think Scholastic will object to this sneak peek.

Wilson’s own novel Polymer features an uber-famous monster hunter of truly weird origin and description. His calling falls under “new bizarro” stories. That may be just the storyline to compete with what’s unfolding in every daily newspaper. Keep an eye out for what Polymer has to offer.

*  *  *

These troubled days will offer strange tales to future generations. I’d say it’s the perfect time for superheroes to rise up from corners of the Main Library. Scratch around inside and see what skills you can share. Ask a kid — they’ve got the inside track. Don’t forget your whimsy. The future of the earth may be in your hands.

*  *  *
And what about that letter “H”?

Much as it looks like, it has origins are are in the Semitic l “heth” — fence or post. In Britain the Norman conquest brought along the letter “hache,” meaning hatchet. That’s not a far stretch to the lines of our roman H.

It’s the 8th most commonly used letter in the English alphabet. It’s oh so subtle how it morphs the sounds of the letters around it — th, sh, wh, and onward.
Here’s a nod to H.

Cope Cumpston is resident book designer, typographer, and community enthusiast. The archive for Abecedarian Amble lives here.

Photos courtesy of Kofi Bazzell-Smith; Marvel Comics; Scholastic Press; Cope Cumpston.

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