“So where are the Christians?” I asked that in a cover story on graphic novels (book-length comics) five years ago. The June 28, 2008, article reported on the work of “the most interesting Christian writer and artist in the field,” Doug TenNapel, author and illustrator of Tommysaurus Rex, Earthboy Jacobus, Iron West, Creature Tech, Monster Zoo, and other imaginative works.
TenNapel and one of the cartoon characters he created, Earthworm Jim, have lots of fans: Jim, a worm in a robotic suit who fights evil, is also the star of a video game series and toy line. You can get a sense of TenNapel’s puckish humor from the names of his characters: Princess What’s-Her-Name, Queen Slug-for-a-Butt, Bob the Killer Goldfish, Evil the Cat, Henchrat, Major Mucus, and (my favorite) Professor Monkey-For-A-Head.
You can read more online about TenNapel, a 6-foot-8-inch graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University who’s turning 47 this month. The crucial line of his Wikipedia bio, though, is this: “He has expressed views against same-sex marriage.” In short, he’s agin it, and that degree of political incorrectness may be waylaying his up-to-now successful career.
The debate has raged in recent months as TenNapel tried to use Kickstarter (the site that links creators and donors) to fund his new video game. Soon, the boycott was on, with bloggers calling TenNapel “a homophobic, sexist bigot” and also “not a big fan of the right to abortion.” The hits kept coming: “TenNapel, used to be an admirer, but way to cling to a fading zeitgeist. … I regret that you will someday realize that your odious opinions have eternally tainted everything you’ve ever done creatively. … I’m crushed to have ever liked your work.”
TenNapel entered into Twitter dialogues with his attackers. In one TenNapel asked, “Do you care more about the truth, or blindly joining a cultural dogpile?” Attacker: “I care about social justice.” TenNapel: “If you don’t believe in my religious freedom, then you don’t believe in social justice.” Attacker: “I have no problem with your religious freedom, as long as it doesn’t harm other people.” TenNapel: “Religious freedom doesn’t mean you get to dictate what other people do.”
After being beaten up for months, TenNapel wrote to me last month and asked, “Where are the evangelicals in support of our work? … It’s gotten to where the last people I expect to help me out are evangelicals. I’m probably the most conservative evangelical working in comics, games, and animation, and I might as well be a Pentagram-wearing New Ager. … We on the front line need more cultural support from our people.”
True. Graphic novels are clearly important. Publishers Weekly recently surveyed bookstores and librarians across the country and found graphic novels in high demand. They’re checked out from the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio three to four times more often than regular print books. They’re checked out from a Brooklyn junior high school library 10 times more often than print books. “Graphic novels are the most frequently requested material in our Ivy League request system,” said Karen Green, Columbia University’s librarian for ancient and medieval history.
Christians working on graphic novels—like Christians in theater (“Christians on Broadway,” Oct. 9, 2010), in art, on newspapers, and in many other cultural fields—have to weave their way through the conventions of their genres and what’s biblically appropriate. Parental advisory: If graphic novels received move-like ratings, many would be PG or PG-13 rather than G, and TenNapel’s are no exception. (Personal experience: When I had fun writing two graphic novels, 2048 and Echoes of Eden, I periodically—and with only partial success—had to ask the artist to put a little more clothing on the female characters and reduce their, uh, lung capacity.)
C.S. Lewis, in his World War II BBC radio broadcasts that later became Mere Christianity, made contact with his audience by speaking of “enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is.” That’s what so many parts of our culture are as well. TenNapel and others deserve our support, and our recognition that in occupied territory it’s hard to have clean hands. We all need to keep reading, thinking, and praying.