Trenton-raised writer is now raising Trenton superheroes
A new group of heroes and villains is about to descend on Trenton. That includes Infinite, aka Trenton High School teacher Isaiah Kemet; Range, the world’s greatest assassin who has yet to reveal herself as a hero or villain; Jaden, aka Order of the Lites leader Monique Kemet; and Who, an unknown sleuth on the trail of multiple killers who stumbles on a secret that will mobilize these heroes to save Trenton, and all of humanity, from the greatest threat it’s ever faced — the arrival of the Surians.
Then there’s Maurice Mander, the Trenton-raised superhero creator who divides his time between Trenton and a classroom in Philadelphia that doesn’t look like much of a classroom. Posters of Batman and Spider-man adorn the walls. Action figures stand guard along the windowsills. A large banner depicting all the African-American superheroes in a scene reminiscent of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” hangs proudly beside Mander’s desk.
“I call this my superhero training academy,” says Mander. “Parents come in here and say my room looks like nothing they’ve ever seen before. And that’s the magic. Most of my students are comic book fans or sci-fi fans and they decorated the classroom. They bought all these posters you see here with their own money. They own this classroom.”
Mander teaches creative writing and social reasoning at the Eastern University Academy Charter School. He is a lifelong comic book fanatic and the co-author of graphic art and comic book design course for the Philadelphia School District — his home away from Trenton. He is also the creator of the comic book “Surian Seed.” “I marry real people in Trenton alongside my characters. There are people that I grew up with who are in my book. All the images shipped to the artist [Matthew Seel] are real images from Trenton that he reproduces.”
Characters in ‘Surian Seed’ include Monique Kemet, aka Jaden, a graduate of Trenton Central High School and now a full-time social worker and superhero.
Mander is a comic book geek and proud of it. Not only is he eager to share the real-life successes of his students, but he’s got an entire fictional universe in his head bursting to get out. The story of “Surian Seed,” his efforts to put that story on the page, and the opportunities he’s had since “Surian Seed” began, are worthy of a graphic novel.
Sixteen years ago, Mander began his Surian Seed project in an unconventional way. Prior to working on the first issue, he created and self-published an encyclopedia outlining the universe of Surian Seed with all of its characters. “I created the encyclopedia first and took it on the road with me. I went to comic cons and it sold out. The thing that grabbed people was that there was a group of superheroes that were all graduates of historically black colleges. That had never been done before.”
Interest in Mander’s fictional universe grew. In addition to the encyclopedia, he created a website and Facebook page to promote “Surian Seed” and began introducing new characters, plot points, and storylines. He was invited to do television and radio interviews. He landed public speaking engagements. While on tour, he was offered the job at Eastern University Academy Charter School.
“Now I’m teaching seventh and eighth graders how to write a five-paragraph essay. I tell them to design a superhero. Tell me his powers, his city, and everything about him. Give me five powers. Invisibility, speed, skin like steel. Now you’ve got an outline. Now write about it. Before you know it, you’ve got an essay and they wrote about something they wanted to write about and it didn’t cause them any duress. And of course, it better be spelled right and you better use proper grammar. They say ‘We can’t write five paragraphs with five sentences each,’ and I say ‘Yes you can. You just didn’t know what you wanted to write about.’”
Mander grew up in Trenton in the 1970s and started reading at an early age. At age seven, he got hooked on newspaper comic strips and eventually graduated to comic books and graphic novels. “You can take a great graphic novel and tell a phenomenal story. Batman is the most complex character, and ‘The Dark Knight’ is the holy grail of comic books. That book was a huge influence on me. I wanted to take my own experiences and combine them with my art.”
When Mander refers to his own experiences, he’s talking about his childhood in Trenton.
“Trenton is Gotham City,” he says, referring to Batman’s gritty, fictional base of operations. “We lived in the projects. One of the advantages I had was that I had teachers who had a vested interest in me when I was young. I come from a family that had a lot of challenges. Some of them were involved in the drug trade in Trenton. Education wasn’t as important as survival. None of them had high school diplomas.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate with a high school diploma. My mother was intent on sending me to do something productive. My first teacher of significance was at Junior Five elementary. Her name was Ms. Kovak. She told my other teachers that I’d be the best student in their class if they just believed in me. My favorite teacher was Mrs. Jones. She never took nonsense from any of us, but she did it with love. Teachers leave something on you when they do it right. Teachers can change your life. I would go back later to see Mrs. Jones, and we would both just start crying.”
After high school, Mander earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Morehouse College and a master’s degree in African-American history from Morgan State University.
The main character of “Surian Seed” is Isaiah Kemet (aka Infinite) who is also a teacher at Trenton Central High. “I have about 18 to 19 characters. They’re all very complex and sometimes you can’t tell the difference between the heroes and the villains. In the city of Trenton, people die. And sometimes decisions have to be made. And those decisions determine whether or not someone is a hero or a villain. People die. Heroes get shot. The outcomes are not predetermined. Sometimes my heroes cross the line.”
Mander is proud of his Trenton heritage, but he also recognizes that the city has problems. It’s a complicated situation for anyone that grew up loving the city. “We’ve been victimized by schizophrenia,” he says. “When we go to impoverished cities throughout the country, we embrace the fact that we’re from Trenton and we have this ‘don’t fuck with me’ mentality. But when we’re in upscale neighborhoods and talk about Trenton, we talk about how it’s not so bad. That’s the duality of survival. That’s the duality of blackness. You have to present yourself in different forms depending on the company you keep. I need children to know that you may be born in that poverty, you may be born into circumstances where you see things that children should not see. That does not mean it’s the end of what you will become. You have a right to move beyond what you see and determine your own destiny.”
Characters in ‘Surian Seed’ include Isaiah Kemet, aka Infinite, a Trenton high school teacher.
In addition to using fictional superheroes to inspire his students, Mander also encourages them to engage in real-life acts of charity and heroism. “We find out what families are in need and we put together boxes of food. But we put in toys too. For the kids. Action figures and things like that. They didn’t know toys were gonna be in those boxes and when they get them, they’re just insanely happy. We practice collective economics. Everybody gives. Everybody works. Not to make money, but to make people happy.”
Despite his dedication as a speaker and educator, Mander still continues to work on the “Surian Seed” books. “The first book is issue #0. It’s 22 pages of comic book and 22 pages of the novel. The next book will be a full novel with one-shot illustrations throughout. I only trust one artist to do my book. Matthew Seel. I met him at comic con where I was selling the Surian Seed encyclopedia, and at the end of the weekend he gave me a drawing of one of my characters.”
Meanwhile, his “Surian Seed” website has expanded to include a larger entrepreneurial initiative called “Superhero Incorporated.” Its stated mission is “to use art and creative writing to help improve the quality of life of children.” In November of 2011, Superhero Incorporated inaugurated “The Surian Seed Community Youth Event” as a way to promote the book and give away school supplies and toys to needy families. Despite the fact that he spends a good deal of time in Philadelphia, it was important to Mander to hold the event in Trenton. “I keep a home in South Trenton, but I live in Philadelphia. We can be from Trenton but we don’t have to be stuck there. The streets welcome you, but if you’re not careful, they can break you. That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate what the streets helped you become. I’m Trenton first.”