Folding in real circumstances in a superhero comic has become a standard practice, but there’s a caution creators need to take in making sure they don’t trivialize the heavier topics and make their inclusions feel like cheap marketing gimmicks. Given that truth, I don’t think I’d ever want to touch a superhero comic that has a school shooting not only at the center of the heroes’ origin story, but as a recurring aspect that continually fuels the decision-making of the characters and the overall themes of the book. Too sticky. You get it slightly wrong and you’re setting yourself up for some ugly criticism.
When I reviewed the first issue of Ignited, I applauded it for its ability to keep the tone of high school tropes and inject some satire even as it acknowledged the heaviness of its central event. Stretch that out over four issues and the delicate balance becomes a little harder to maintain — you don’t want to bog down the narrative with a heavy gloom, but at the same time, you need to keep acknowledging the wider trauma and horror of the event, if only to keep your main characters from appearing self-centered.
In all of this, Ignited mostly succeeds. As part of Humanoids’ H1 line, the entire idea is that these are superhero stories more aligned to real life, and that means — if Ignited is anything to judge by — no one becomes a superhero with a slick costume right away. No one is suddenly super-toned. Nobody is starts at the beginning as a skilled combatant. And nobody immediately faces cosmic terrors. It’s a small world and there’s some building to do — both of the personalities involved and of the world itself.
As the story opens, summer vacation is over and the adults hope that’s been enough time for the kids to heal following the mass shooting the previous spring. Most of the kids are settling back into normal life with ease, but Anouk, our guide through this introduction, finds the rapidity that people put everything behind them to be unsettling. An incident involving a hack into the school’s announcement system creates momentary havoc and also breaks the ice by acknowledging at least the aftermath of the shooting, which has a movement to hand guns to the teachers. At the same time, some parents are gathering together as a de facto vigilante force designed to protect the kids, even acting as armed escorts when they go to school.
Ignited stands firmly against an armed response, as do the young heroes it features, and as they find each other in a stumbling way and help each other come to terms with what’s happened to them — they gained powers during the shooting — they also find themselves seizing some makeshift identities to try and prevent a disaster when armed protesters show up at the school to demand weaponizing the faculty. They don’t exactly know what they’re doing, but they do it anyhow, and the interaction between them becomes the most interesting aspect of the book. And since Waid and Osajyefo are not loose with answering all the questions of what exactly is going on, there’s still enough plot and intrigue for them to be sucked into as the personal dramas between them also unfold.
What became obvious to me as I read it is that not only is that while Ignited draws its story from the headline-grabbing horror of school shootings, it shapes its message from another aspect of recent incidents — the transformation of Parkland students into influential anti-gun activists on a national level. The parallels are there in a facile way. Somewhere during a moment of singular horror, those kids became real life superheroes, seizing the tragedy with sureness and stamina that kept them from backing down. I think this is the deeper inspiration for Waid and Osajyefo’s story, the idea that ordinary people can arise from nightmarish circumstances to become extraordinary, to make a difference.
Only time will tell if the superhero genre is the best place to play out those themes. I can see how it could be misconstrued as trite — particularly given that the subtitle of this volume, “Triggered,” with its simultaneous word play on a gun shooting and poking a little fun at the notion of being triggered and trigger warnings may be a little too playful, given the comics subject matter. But Ignited is a sincere effort and an enjoyable one that grabs your attention, and I hope it’s able to grow further with its examination of a painful subject, respecting that real people are forever changed by these events, some not for the better, and it requires the same tact and delicacy that a comic about superheroes springing from the World Trade Center on 9-11 would require.