Justin Martin grew up in Lynwood, Calif., near Compton, an area known for its high crime rate. When he was 8 years old, his cousin Alfred was shot and killed over a Walkman. Alfred was a senior in high school, was on the honor roll, and competed on the football and track teams. He was just weeks away from attending the University of California at Los Angeles on scholarship.
“You couldn’t ask for a better person,” says Martin, assistant professor of psychology at Whitworth. “He was someone to model and look up to.” Following Alfred’s death, Martin’s aunt gave him the one thing she knew would remind him of his hero: Alfred’s comic book collection, which Martin loved. As a child, he had immersed himself in the world of superheroes, watching cartoons and collecting cards. But during middle school he put superheroes aside after he discovered a love for Jesus Christ.
Martin’s father worked on Chevron’s oil rigs in Alaska and was often away from home, leading Martin to spend stretches of time with his great-aunt. “She would pray for an hour or more a day,” he says. “You know, the anointing oils on our heads. I got a lot of the foundation there, and in high school I decided to get baptized. That was the point I was feeling like I was making a choice to create a better relationship with God.”
In college, at the University of California, Berkeley, Martin led a Bible study, majored in social welfare and minored in education. One of the classes he took was Developmental Psychology for Educators. “A lightbulb just went off,” he says, grinning. “I fell in love with development and change and stability over time, and never looked back.”
During graduate school at Harvard, where Martin earned a master’s in education, he rediscovered his childhood passion for comic books and superheroes. But his renewed interest now lay in the moral, social and political parallels he identified between the stories and real life. He decided to incorporate this interest into his studies. For one course’s final paper, he wrote about using X-Men cartoons as a pedagogical tool for teaching critical thinking, conflict resolution and tolerance. For another research project, he visited elementary school classrooms and had the children complete a questionnaire about their attitudes toward popular superheroes. This project became one of the required qualifying papers for his doctoral program at UC Berkeley and was published in The Journal of Moral Education.
In recent years, Martin’s academic passion has evolved to include creative expression that incorporates his faith. He founded the comic book company R-Squared Comicz, which tells stories from a Christian worldview and seeks to engage both Christian and secular readers.
He also creates comic books that explore how we relate to God and to each other. Closest to his heart is Lightweightz, which was inspired by 1 Corinthians 12:7, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” This comic depicts eight teenagers in California who discover they have unique abilities, and it explores a variety of themes as each character struggles to make sense of their ability.
Whitworth students are now discovering what superheroes can teach us about morality (on Martin’s faculty webpage, the “Areas of Specialization/Expertise” section lists “Socio- Martin incorporates elements of popular comic book-based movies like The Dark Knight and Captain America: Civil War. “Superhero narratives can provide opportunities for students to engage with and evaluate social and moral concepts relevant to social life,” he says. These explorations include the areas of law, government and authority, as well as harm, justice and rights within societies.
Martin, who joined the Whitworth faculty in 2015, is currently working on two research projects: one that investigates people’s social and moral understandings of different types of heroes, and another on heroes and villains. He’s also writing a theoretical paper that draws connections between the common social and moral themes of superhero narratives and developmental theory.
Martin has grown leaps and bounds from the young boy who was devastated by his cousin’s death and searching for his own path through life. He is now a young man spreading the word of his true hero, Jesus Christ, through comics, and challenging his students and academia at large to consider societal issues from a superhero’s stance. Even so, he has retained a childlike delight for all things comics. “I’m still ‘geeked-out’ over my comic card collection,” he says, “which is sitting in my closet, by the way.”
Visit rscomicz.com to view the comic books Martin has created, to learn the fascinating meaning behind the name of his company, and to discover why the world needs Christian comic-book creators.
View a KXLY Channel 4 interview with Martin on superheroes in academia at kxly.com/news/whitworths-super-professor-1/665427539
This article was originally published on Whitworth Today, a magazine published twice annually by Whitworth University. It is reposted here with permission of the author, Trisha Coder.
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