Comic Book Helps Keep Sewers Clean in Castro Valley 

By Jim Force, Clean Water Magazine, correspondent, Members in the News

CV San Defenders of the Bay

Every night, a little boy in Castro Valley, California, asks his mom to read him a bedtime story from a comic book called Defenders of the Bay. He likes the monsters depicted in the comic book, its 20 action-packed pages, the villains and heroes, and the battle between good and evil.

What he might not realize is that the comic book is the product of the Castro Valley Sanitary District (CVSan). It’s designed to encourage people to keep deleterious materials like fats, oil, grease, wipes, and trash out of the local sewer system.
The comic book is the brainchild of Mike Nelson, CVSan’s public outreach specialist. In 2023, it won the CWEA Community Engagement and Outreach Award for small agencies.

“Comic books have universal appeal,” Nelson says. “People of all ages like comic books. They collect them, they share them, they keep them.”

Comic books reflect our fascination with characters like Spider-Man and Superman, a movement Nelson attributes to Stan Lee, the creator of Marvel Comics, and superheroes like Thor, the Black Panther, and Iron Man.

“They combine visuals and text into one of the most popular forms of storytelling, engaging both the visual and literary senses,” Nelson says. “Comics often leave room for readers to interpret and imagine the spaces between the panels.”

Evil characters

In Defenders of the Bay, the villain is the Clog Meister, the dastardly mastermind of sewer blockages and overflows. On his foul team are the FOG Monster, the Trash Monster, and the Wipes Monster. Battling against them to keep sewers clean and flowing are the CVSan maintenance team and all the collections department vehicles—the Vac-Con Truck, the Rodder Truck, and the Flusher Truck.

Whack! Pow! Arghhh! Swoosh!

The message for the comic book was framed through interviews with the collection staff to determine what the issues were with the local sewer system and how residents could help the district keep the sewers flowing freely. Nelson says traditional education efforts often fall short of engaging the public in a meaningful way. The comic book, on the other hand, takes some of the blockages the CVSan collections maintenance department finds in public sewer systems and re-imagines them as supervillains who threaten public health and the environment.

Once the story was developed, the CVSan team took the concepts to comic book artist John Hagemen, who developed the colorful illustrations and panel layout over a period of several months.

“John’s interpretation and creativity provided a great pace to the story and tension at just the right places,” Nelson says. “The book is a work of art in its own right.”

The book includes a glossary of wastewater and sewer terms to help readers understand their local collection and treatment facilities.

Distribution

CVSan ordered a press run of 10,000 books and developed a promotional poster to promote the publication. Last August, a Comic Book Release Event was held at Crush Comics, a local comic book shop. Over 8,000 copies have been distributed at several local community events.

“It’s catching on,” Nelson says.

He’s had people walk by and say, “Hey, can I get a copy of that?” And, of course, there’s the little boy enjoying it at bedtime.

As for cost, Nelson feels the book has been more than reasonable for a public outreach effort. The artwork for the book cost the district $2,400, and the poster was $250. The press run of 10,000 books cost $4,000, with another $1,300 for 2,000 posters.

Nelson says CVSan is more than willing to share the book and the artwork with other collection systems that are facing similar clogging problems in their sewers.

“It can be rebranded with a few simple changes,” he says, “The heavy lifting has been done. We all need to get the message out.”
Nelson can be contacted at [email protected] for more details.