Cover Story

What's black and white and read all over?

"What's black and white and read all over?" Continued...

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

As Christians enter this expanding field, one key question will be whether corporate marketing departments or artistic creativity takes the lead in the new breed of graphic novels. The Zondervan division Zonderkidz announced last year that it plans to roll out 48 titles during a four-year period. Its website croons, "Told through manga-the visually centered, hottest craze in storytelling-these story collections are sure to knock your socks off and leave you wanting more." Well, maybe.

Two of the three Zonderkidz manga I read seemed thoroughly imitative. Son of Samson and the Judge of God is all muscle and almost no God. I Was an Eighth-Grade Ninja is a cross between Disney and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Potentially the most interesting series is Kingdoms: The Coming Storm, which uses the four books of Kings and Chronicles as backdrop in telling of a fictional Iddo and his descendants, advisers to Judah's kings.

Those series may turn golden in not just cash but character, but Zonderkidz's web announcement is not cause for optimism: It said the books are "researched and created with input from leaders in the graphic novel and Christian bookstore industries," and represent a "safe alternative to mainstream manga." Given the crudities typical in manga, that makes sense, but the track record of literary and artistic products based on collective research and input is not great. Furthermore, engrossing graphic novels are rarely going to be safe. The more important question is, are they good?

Graphic novels like Maus, Watchmen, and Persepolis grow out of individual passion, and individualistic graphic novels from a Christian perspective are still rare.

The most interesting Christian writer and artist in the field may be Doug TenNapel, whose Tommysaurus Rex (Image Comics, 2004) is a clever adventure in clear black-and-white drawings of a boy, a dinosaur, a summer. His Earthboy Jacobus and Iron West (Image Comics, 2005, 2006) are imaginative: Earthboy posits a parallel universe, and Iron West mixes elements from Westerns with robots, a train monster, and Bigfoot.

Those books seem aimed at children, and TenNapel goes further in his work for adults: Creature Tech (Top Shelf, 2002, 2005) is an elegantly illustrated mix of science fiction and Shroud of Turin magic, while Black Cherry (Image, 2007) is a hard-boiled detective dive (with fantasy elements) into the lurid world of mobsters, strippers, and gang-bangers. (Warning: The language of the latter is nasty at times and some of the drawings are of unpleasant reality, but both words and pictures are appropriate to the novel's milieu.)

TenNapel's newest, Monster Zoo (Image Comics), hit the bookstores earlier this month. It's the story of a teenager who, with his friends, visits the Los Angeles Zoo and finds that-due to the presence of a huge pagan artifact brought in as a money-maker-the animals have mutated into hideous creatures.

Some readers will complain about instances of crude humor that appeal to teenage boys but are not to everyone's taste. Others may note that Monster Zoo promotes courage and self-sacrifice but does not have a Christ-centered message as such. But TenNapel's latest does have abundant imagination and vivid characterization, and that makes it far more beckoning than paint-by-numbers pieces with solid theology but little approachability-and far more interesting than comics sermonettes that portray Bible characters merely as slightly sanctified superheroes.

Other notable graphic novels

Pride of Baghdad (DC Comics, 2006), by Brian Vaughan and Niko Henrichon, is a kinder and gentler anti-Iraq War piece: it shows war's casualties by telling of a pride of starving lions that escaped the Baghdad Zoo during the U.S. bombing of Iraq in 2003.

Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95 by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics, 2000-2001) is a bitter book about that struggle from a Bosnian Muslim perspective. It has less charm than Persepolis but its realistic artwork and words of misery make it more of a punch to the gut.

A series of five (so far) DMZ books written and drawn by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli (DC Comics) depicts Manhattan as a fought-over zone during a future American civil war.

Leading instead of following

Artist Doug TenNapel believes the new world of graphic novels is an open book for Christian artists

By Marvin Olasky

Doug TenNapel, 41, stands out in a crowd: He is 6-foot-8. He also stands out among divorce-prone artists because he and wife will be celebrating their 18th anniversary next week; they have four children ranging in age from 1 to 6. TenNapel lives in Glendale, Calif., goes to Church for the Nations-a Bible-centered evangelical church-and attends through his church a weekly men's Bible study/accountability group.

He criticizes "bad Christian pop culture" that "follows culture instead of leads and paints an easy Christian experience over the brutal objective morality of our Bible." He notes, though, that God can still use mediocre products and embarrassing people: "There's a place for really bad Christians and really bad Christian comics." His major concern is not corporations just out for profit but "a church culture that doesn't encourage and champion artists and writers into this welcoming medium."

Graphic novels offer particularly welcoming opportunity, TenNapel says, because they are "cheap to produce compared to television and movies. I can't get my worldviews into movies because I can't access $150 million to push my values on screen, but I can do a graphic novel . . . by myself. We need to send a message to Christian comic storytellers that this is a good time to get into a medium where they have a relatively high success rate to get the story out intact."

TenNapel says Christians "have an opportunity that we largely missed in movies and television, where perhaps Christianity won't abandon this form of story-telling to the other side so quickly. . . . We need hundreds more authors and artists entering the medium to best serve the minds of our flock and those we want to join our flock. If we are tired of not having our story told then we should encourage our people to tell the stories (and get good at telling them). . . . This is the language of our culture and we're still trying to play catch-up."

He notes that his own books "make a case for linear, western, objective moral truth to kids who not only have never been to church, but have never received a world view off the reservation of postmodernism. My books are reaching those kids. They send me email. The other group of readers are the Christians with lapsed faith . . . the bent branch that is not yet broken."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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