April 3, 2008

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The Scrapyard Detectives: Collected Cases, Vol. 1 (2007, The Diversity Foundation, 104 pages)
By Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com

Savvier, older kids might be aware that The Scrapyard Detectives has a diversity agenda or perhaps diversity agenda is just how a comic book like this looks here in New Hampshire or in Utah, where it originated.

The Scrapyard Detectives stars three kids — two boys (one is African American and one is Latino) and one girl (who is Asian and is in a wheelchair). Ray, Robert and Jinn pal around solving mysteries and inventing high-tech gizmos to spy on bad guys. The bad guys, so far, are an overzealously "patriotic" kid who hates immigrants, and an evil stepfather who forbids his kid to hang out with people not "his own kind." This collection includes those two stories and a third one that shows how the Scrapyard Detectives got together, plus a "Captain Patriot" installment about a space-traveling, tolerance-spreading hero. There's also a story in which a hate crime turns out not to be a hate crime at all. So The Scrapyard Detectives is about having your head screwed on straight and not pre-judging.

It's easy to like this as a real-deal comic book with a good heart. To a neophyte kid, not yet aware of the broad realities of xenophobia, this is just another crime-fighting comic. But it makes a good point, one that will resonate with most kids.

The single-volume comics have been given out free to schools and libraries by The Diversity Foundation (www.thediversityfoundation.org), which created the series, but now you can buy this collection for $5 at bookstores.

The writers are Chad Denton, Nathan Shumate, Jesse Leon McCann and Batton Lash, with top-shelf artwork by Bill Galvan, Rob Hawkins and Jack Purcell. It's a professional job, indistinguishable from any mainstream Archie-level or old-style Superman kind of comic. Which is why when Robert holds up the flag and says "It has to belong to everyone, or it isn't worth having," it works just fine.

OK, it's a bit too tidy when the evil stepdad has a sudden change of heart, and I kind of wanted to laugh at the way Captain Patriot, having met up with a couple of otherwordly civilizations, tells the different groups to play nice together: "I'm not turning this ship back on until the two of you realize how much better it would be to share Oros IV…." But (a) just because I'm a little too sophisticated for this doesn't mean your basic nine-year-old is, and (b) that's how good old-fashioned American comic-book heroes are supposed to talk, and (c) there's plenty of other stories, movies, etc. out there with that level of message-sending; why not at least have some with a good message?

The nonprofit Diversity Foundation has tasked itself with "strengthening and aligning global communities." That mission statement must be, intentionally or not, a riff on the day job of its founder — a dentist. He was raised in a polygamist home in Utah, left the fundamentalist group and eventually formed the Foundation to help the "Lost Boys" who are banished from polygamist sects. The Foundation now tries to foster multicultural awareness and thus help prevent hate crimes. Starting with comic-reading kids. A —Lisa Parsons