Oakland students, Jun S. T. (Left), Heavenly S. (Middle), Essai T. (Right), part of the group of youth organizers in collaboration to create an Oakland-focsed comic book about super heroes.
Jun-Sang Kim, Heavenly Simpsom, and Essai Taleb are three of the four superheroes featured in the new comic book, “Town Force.” Credit: Amir Aziz

Comic book superheroes often have one thing in common: they come from privileged backgrounds. Think Batman, the alias of the wealthy philanthropist and business owner Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, the billionaire owner of Stark Industries who saves the world as Iron Man. There’s even Thor, the son of a god.

But what about the real world? Who are the unsung heroes of our daily lives?

In the new comic book “Town Force 1 and the Battle for East Oakland,” readers are introduced to four real-life teenage superheroes: Essai Taleb, Natalie Zapien, Jun-Sang Kim, and Heavenly Simpson. This fearless foursome of Oakland natives fights villains, but their adversaries aren’t supernatural beings like Bane or Venom. Instead, the young heroes of Town Force band together to combat the forces of gentrification and save their school, Castlemont High. 

In the process, they learn about themselves and the superpowers they have within: Taleb has a thundering voice that can crack solid objects; Zapien has the power to heal people’s trauma; Kim possesses superhuman strength; and Heavenly leaves a trail of trees and flowers wherever she walks. Taleb, Zapien, and Kim, who are 19-years-old, and Simpson, 18, don’t have these fantastical powers in real life of course, but their talents reinforce the comic book’s core message: that youth have unique powers to change the world. 

Credit: Oakland Kids First

Town Force 1 was developed by Oakland Kids First, a nonprofit that works with Oakland youth leaders to improve the education system. Bay Area visual storyteller Wahab Algarmi wrote the story after listening to the four teenagers talk about their lives growing up in Oakland. The book is illustrated by Jimmie Robinson, who also grew up in Oakland and has created several successful comic books.

“This was a project that we spearheaded to try to tell the story of the organizing work that our young people do all the time,” said Lukas Brekke-Miesner, executive director of Oakland Kids First. “Oftentimes, the community at large is not really aware of all the amazing work that young people are engaged in.”

While the comic was in production, Oakland Kids First was dealing directly with the effects of gentrification. The nonprofit’s lease expired earlier this year before the pandemic and the landlord doubled the rent, forcing the organization to move out. Oakland Kids First has operated virtually since then, but the group will need to find a new office space when the pandemic is over, said Brekke-Miesner.

As the nonprofit transitioned, the team continued its work on the comic, weaving reality and fiction together by drawing from the real life experiences of Taleb, Zapien, Kim, and Simpson. As the teens were working on the project, Simpson and her family dealt with homelessness after their landlord sold the property where they lived, a hardship that is retold in the comic. Similarly, Zapien’s family was displaced due to a fire. Taleb lives in a multigenerational household where he is the oldest of 12 siblings, and Kim has seen his neighborhood change and his neighbors lose their homes to foreclosure. 

As they worked on the book, Taleb, Zapien, Kim, and Simpson were playing the role of real life heroes, organizing students to pressure the Oakland Unified School District board to reinstate OUSD’s free supper program, which serves low-income students. The program had been cut during the district’s 2018 budget crisis. Their organizing efforts helped win $3.6 million from Oakland’s Measure HH soda tax fund (passed by voters in 2016 to raise funds for nutrition and health programs) and the supper program was saved.

“I hope that when students can get back into classrooms, the comic book is taught to show students, these were your classmates and they did all of this, and you can do it too,” said Taleb.

“Having seen students for the very first time step up to the mic and tell their truth to a panel of adults, it is incredibly thrilling to see,” said Christina Chung, an Oakland educator who worked on the comic book, referring to the four students advocating to the Oakland school board. “You see at that moment how someone’s life just changed, what it’s like to use the power of their voice.”

Also while the comic book was in progress, Oakland Kids First and OUSD students led a successful campaign to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in OUSD school board elections.

“We want to amplify that young people in Oakland have a really rich legacy of organizing,” said Brekke-Miesner. “It is so critical to who Oakland is as a city. If you look at the history of social movements here, young people have been smack dab in the center of all of them.”

Simpson said Town Force’s creators want other students to know that their voices matter. “I hope that it influences the youth to know that they are not alone. That others went through similar struggles.”

In the comic book, the young heroes of Town Force 1 band together to combat the forces of gentrification and save their school, Castlemont High. Credit: Oakland Kids First

Because of the pandemic, Oakland Kids First has been unable to share as many copies of the comic book with educators and students as they’d planned. But the nonprofit is also making the comic book available to the general public. Brekke-Meisner said that sales from the first issue will be used to pay for production of a second.

“It is incredibly important to continue to tell stories of resistance,” Brekke-Miesner said. “And to feature, as the protagonists, the folks who are in the crosshairs of oppression.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.