- Associated Press - Sunday, March 23, 2014

SITKA, Alaska (AP) - J. Torres loves to tell stories, whether it’s writing another installment for the Wonder Woman comic series, or his own creations based on Native and Filipino folklore and legends.

“I like to mix it up,” said Torres, who has written for DC and Marvel comics and created his own graphic novel series, Bigfoot Boy.

Torres was in Sitka earlier this month, meeting kids in the local schools and putting on a program for the public at Kettleson Memorial Library.

The visit of the Canadian author was part of the Alaska Spirit of Reading program, which brings one author a year to Alaska schools. The program is funded by the Alaska Association of School Librarians, with an Interlibrary Cooperation Grant from the Alaska State Library and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Kari Sagel, the Blatchley Middle School librarian who works with the Spirit of Reading program, said she and former Sitka High School librarian Ginny Blackson selected the 44-year-old Philippines-born writer for several reasons.

“Comic books always interest us,” said Sagel. “We were also looking for someone who was Filipino - Filipinos are not well-represented in school visits in Sitka.”

The librarians also liked the fact that Torres‘ work appeals to a wide range of age groups. He wrote a series of board books about the characters Checkers and Dot for youngsters; the “Bigfoot Boy” series for elementary-age kids; and “Lola: a Ghost Story” graphic novel for older kids. Some adults like to read them, too, Sagel said.

“We like to cross grade levels, if we can,” she said.

“I’ve written for infants all the way up to old people,” Torres said.

While in Alaska Torres visited schools in Juneau, Unalaska and Anchorage, and the McLaughlin Youth Center. He attended the Alaska Library Association conference and also had a Skype visit with Dillingham students.

He’s enjoying his visit, he said.

“It’s always great to go out and meet readers,” he said.

Torres said he realizes there’s some resistance to the comic book form which can come from parents or teachers.

“There’s a stigma” to comics among people who are not accustomed to taking them seriously, he said. “I’ve made a few converts. … Usually I’m preaching to the converted, but it sounds like we’ve turned a few people around.”

Torres said the comics can turn nonreaders to readers, but that’s not their purpose.

“It’s obviously an art form and a literary form on its own, and its own media form,” Torres said.

Torres was born in the Philippines and raised in Quebec from the age of 4. Growing up, he enjoyed reading graphic novels, which could always be found in the school library and in classrooms. This wasn’t the case in other places, he later learned.

“I’m starting to discover it’s not quite the same everywhere,” he said. “Sometimes I’m surprised people resist or aren’t that knowledgeable about it.”

His first book was “Copybook Tales,” a story about two friends growing up in 1980s Canada who have a dream about writing comics.

“I made some key fans out of that book, people who became dealers and publishers down the line,” Torres said.

He’s now a comics author in his own right, but balances that with assignments from major comics publishers.

“As someone who grew up reading comics it’s hard to pass up a gig writing Archie and DC,” Torres said. DC is the publisher of such classics as Batman, Green Lantern and Superman.

His first big break came with an assignment to pen the stories for the 1990s incarnation of Teen Titans, a story about superhero sidekicks (Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad), which was originally created in the 1960s. Torres wrote 54 of the 55 comics in the Teen Titans Go! series. (The series was supposed to be canceled at 48, but fans clamored for more, bringing the total to 55.) His editor read his other stories, which led to his own original work being published.

“The fact that I get to do both is amazing,” Torres said.

His next DC assignment is a Batman story, due out early next year.

His favorite, though, is Wonder Woman, the Amazon with super-strength.

“I’ve always had a thing for Linda Carter,” he said of the star who played Wonder Woman in the TV series. “She was my first crush in the 1980s. … She’s such a cool character.”

A common theme between his own creations and the superheroes are their roots in legends, folklore and mythology. Wonder Woman’s story is rooted in Greco-Roman mythology.

“That seems to be something that inspires me,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a big part of the story. Other times it’s just background.”

But Torres hopes kids are inspired not just by his stories, but by his own story as a self-starting writer. He wants them to be inspired to tell their own stories.

“Kids are receptive to that,” he said. “I’m super-proud of the fact they can relate to me, and that they look up to me. That’s the message I’m here to bring: you can to it too.”

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