VERNAL — Shelbi Webb is in many ways a typical 12-year-old girl. She likes to read, write and play the violin. She broke a bone for the first time this year. She thinks her little brother can sometimes be a pain. And like 28 percent of students in sixth to 12th grade in America, she’s been bullied.
In September 2016, a girl in Shelbi's class began to bully her. Like many young kids, when the bullying first started, Shelbi tried to handle it herself.
Up until a certain point, “Shelbi was doing okay,” her mom, Maggie Webb, said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “It’s been a big thing for me to build (Shelbi’s) self-esteem and self-confidence … and (give) her the skills necessary in dealing with that bully.”
Once the bully threatened Shelbi’s life, however, her parents stepped in and the bully was removed from Shelbi’s class.
While this was happening, Shelbi was also grieving over the death of her father’s best friend, Dave Eaton, who took his own life in March 2016. Shelbi said Eaton was like an uncle to her, and her dad credits Eaton with helping her develop her love for comics.
The abrupt loss took its toll on both Shelbi and her father, Jason Webb.
“It was very hard for me,” Shelbi said. “I felt like I needed a superhero.”
So with her dad’s help, she created one: Sugar Glider. While Shelbi initially wanted to name her superhero Flying Squirrel, she soon found that Marvel had beat her to it, with the superhero Squirrel Girl. Hunting around for another animal, Shelbi discovered the sugar glider, which she said "was the most adorable thing I've ever seen." Shelbi and Jason Webb worked together to write what became the first "Sugar Glider" comic book.
Sugar Glider’s secret identity is Jordyn McKenzie, who according to the Glider Comix website, is a “16-year-old high school student at Blackbirch High School,” located in a “Southern California beach community.” Like Shelbi, she's a pretty normal kid. She’s a member of the track and field team and loves extreme sports. Her geeky best friend, Edgar — based on Eaton — has a pet sugar glider. But after a meteor crashes in her hometown, Jordyn wakes up with some not-so-normal abilities: “super speed, enhanced agility (and) augmented healing,” according to the Glider Comix website.
Jordyn’s super speed is inspired by Shelbi’s other favorite superhero, the Flash, but otherwise, she's sort of like Shelbi’s alter ego. They even have the same haircut. More importantly, they both share Jordyn’s most unique superpower: empathy.
“I understand what people are going through and I want to help them,” Shelbi said. “We created Jordyn because she will help people who are going through similar situations that I (went through).”
While every superhero must have a villain, Jordyn's foes battle issues common to many teens. The meteor that gave Jordyn her super empathy also caused other teens in her fictional hometown to develop powers based on self-image, anxiety, depression and addictions — her mom’s idea. These teens are the villains or bullies that Jordyn must face, but this superhero doesn’t just try to thwart them — she tries to help them.
“That’s part of her enlarged empathy,” Shelbi explained. “(The bullies), they’re not really bad guys; they’re just misunderstood. She wants to help them because she realizes that.”
Of course, Jason Webb said, Jordyn is not a psychologist and can’t provide the antagonists with the professional help they might need. That’s where Shelbi’s most recent idea comes in: a comic book character based on a family member who is a psychologist and runs “a place of refuge, a place of healing,” as her dad described. There the villains, who are really just troubled teens, can get the help they need.
The idea came from Shelbi’s personal experience meeting with a therapist who helped her deal with her sadness over Eaton’s death and the trauma of being bullied.
“Now I know how to deal with it, and I know that everything’s going to be OK,” Shelbi said.
She hopes the portrayal of therapy and counseling in the Sugar Glider comics will encourage kids and teens to talk their parents and not be afraid to seek professional help.
“It’s not a bad thing to need a counselor. It’s not a bad thing to go tell your parents about (issues). … It’s actually good and it helps a lot,” she said.
Although Sugar Glider was originally created for Shelbi, it has helped Jason Webb find peace, too.
“I think it was kind of a healing experience for both Shelbi and I, being able to honor (Eaton) in this and kind of still have him in our lives and continually be reminded of him, because now he’s in this comic that we’re constantly talking about, thinking about (and) doing something with,” Jason Webb said. “He’s always going to be a part of it.”
The first "Sugar Glider" comic is just the beginning of the Webb family's comic plans. Orders are available for the first comic, and artwork for the second comic is already underway. Shelbi and her dad have ideas for at least the next eight in the series but hope to do even more with their comic, with the goal of helping kids and teens. They'll be at the Denver Comic Con in June and FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention in September.
While Shelbi is still just a normal 12-year-old girl, she’s a 12-year-old girl who has found her voice in a unique way, and she wants to use it to help people.
“I’m very proud of her for staying strong, and finding an outlet, and being OK with using her voice, and trying to help kids … to know that things are rough and this world is rough and it doesn’t seem to be getting much easier or much better,” Maggie Webb said. “… She can be a voice to say, 'You know, there’s other ways that we can heal, that we can deal with this.' I’m proud of her for taking a stand, really, and trying to help these kids … to know that things will be OK. I’m very proud of her for that.”