Christians seek new audiences with graphic novels
Dr. B.J. Oropeza learned how to read by peeling back the pages of Spider-Man comics handed down to him by the older boys in his family. His interests in comic books and pop culture media intensified as he grew older and eventually, a movie led him to Christ.
After that he decided to take the two most important things in his life — Christianity and comics — and write a book about their connection to each other.
From a young age, Oropeza, now a theology professor at Azusa Pacific University and author of The Gospel According to Superheroes, fell in love with the stories of superheroes. He grew up collecting them with his brother. A couple of his favorites included Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and one story in particular within the Fantastic Four series: the Galactus Trilogy.
In the year 1968, the trilogy was distributed among the mass population of comic lovers. Within this trilogy, a character by the name of the Silver Surfer comes to Earth by order of his master, Galactus, to destroy all of Earth and everyone who inhabits it. Galactus goes to other planets to consume their energy supply and decides that Earth will be the next planet he will consume.
Once the Silver Surfer gets down to Earth, he talks to the girlfriend of The Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and she tells the Silver Surfer that “human beings have a spark of divinity in them and they are beings that are worthy of life.” The Silver Surfer ends up siding with the humans and battling his master, Galactus, and Galactus decides to punish the Surfer by sticking him on Earth and stripping him of all of his powers.
Sound familiar? Sounds a little like the story of Jesus in the Bible. The Surfer saves the Earth from this dooming power and his punishment actually makes him more human. God sends his only son down to Earth to spread his word to the humans living there, and his son ends up sacrificing himself for the rest of humanity to be forgiven for their sins.
“The Silver Surfer from the Fantastic Four series was … a model superhero that, now looking back, had a lot of Christology or Christian undertones to the character,” Oropeza says. “I later was able to connect the dots, reflect on these particular characters.”
Oropeza also saw a connection between Superman and Moses’ origin stories. Both characters were sent away from their homelands in order to protect them and both characters were found by families who chose to raise the children as their own. And lastly, both were raised to become great leaders.
Christians connecting comics to their faith
Another man that was able to draw some connections between the comic and Christian worlds was Dr. Greg Garrett, author of Holy Superheroes! Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books and a professor at Baylor University. Garrett also noticed some connections between Superman and the world of Christianity itself. Superman was created by two Jewish teenagers in 1932 as a sort of Messiah figure. Superman’s Kryptonian name given to him at birth, Kal El, means “All that is God” in Hebrew, says Garrett.
Garrett also drew a connection between one of the more famous comic book writers for Marvel who just recently passed away, Stan Lee, and John the Baptizer from the Bible.
John is “a powerful and important figure in his own right — Jesus says of John that no greater person has been born of woman — but he also presages greater creativity to come,” Garrett says. “Lee was a great writer and creator who paved the way for even more artful and literary comics.”
Though Garrett had a different childhood from Oropeza in the sense that he grew up in a Southern Baptist home rather than an agnostic home in which Oropeza was raised, he strayed away from formal religion for more than 20 years. He then returned to his faith in an East Austin, Texas African-American Episcopal church. There, he found that he had a gift for ministry and so he decided to attend seminary to earn a Master of Divinity degree, for which the church sponsored him.
Garrett started writing about spiritual content of culture a few years before he even attended seminary. And although he did not go into parish ministry, he wanted to enhance his literature knowledge by applying his new theology training.
“I had long known that literature and pop culture dealt with spiritual themes,” Garrett says. “But I was drawn to some of the archetypal stories that comics often dealt with — power and responsibility, community, sacrificial heroism, and justice — and wanted to highlight them for readers, parents and teachers.”
His training led him to write his book about the connection between comic book superheroes and stories found in the Bible. And throughout writing his novel, he found that getting involved in popular culture can help retell stories in new ways and in impactful ways.
“Like any popular narrative, superhero stories often help us grapple with the problems of the world and the human identity,” Garrett says. “Being open to the possibility that those stories might enlighten as well as entertain adds a new dimension to our reading or watching films.”
Watching films is exactly what brought Oropeza to God and to Christianity. After watching the 1970’s horror film called “Damien: The Omen”, with a scene where the antichrist picks up the Bible to find out who he is from the book of Revelations, Oropeza started reading the Bible, starting with the book of Revelations.
“In a way, superheroes were a venue for me to think about God,” Oropeza says.
Evangelizing through comics
Younger generations of Christians are finding ways to connect to others and tell the story of Jesus by being able to tie pop culture into the mix. There is a special way to connect to millennials and now the Generation Z kids, says junior writing major at Point Loma Nazarene University, Toby Franklin. It’s through their favorite Netflix shows and the songs they listen to on Spotify and the memes that are circling through their Twitter feed, and without this knowledge of how the younger generations connect, it’s harder to spread the word of God, Franklin says.
Franklin has been interested in pop culture and comic books for most of his life and still has a strong connection to them today, though in some Christian circles, this idea of pop culture is looked down upon and sometimes is seen as sinful.
“I like pop culture,” Franklin says. “I like being a fan of things and I think it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It can make sharing your faith more accessible to some people. I definitely think being able to relate to others and know pop culture references and know people’s interests, I think that it’s really important and I think it helps people connect.”
Companies like David C. Cook with The Action Bible and Lion Hudson publishing with The Lion Graphic Bible are popping up now with a focus on trying to tell the stories of the Bible in a graphic novel format in order to connect with the younger people. Kingstone media, a media organization that produces graphic stories in both written and video form, released a graphic adaptation of the Bible that was a finalist for the Young People’s Literature in the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2017 Book of the Year awards.
“There is some level of anti-Christian bias in much of media and entertainment,” Kingstone publisher Art Ayris says in a press release after Lee’s death. “They have the freedom to create in that manner, but Kingstone seeks to counter that influence with comics and media that explains the faith.”
This company is focused on telling stories in a graphic format, especially Christian stories, because one third of millennials and half of teens never read the Bible, according to research done by the American Bible Society. And yet, the graphic novel and comic book industry is growing exponentially and increasing in popularity especially after the release of the DC and Marvel movies.
“In many ways, we feel his work has opened the door for us,” Ayris says in the release. “Because of the ubiquity of Marvel and DC worldwide, when we come into a new region with Marvel-styled religious comics we are immediately accepted. We are grateful for his far-reaching influence and seek to break barriers of our own in modeling his success, and most importantly, letting the Bible influence us in all we do.”
A graphic novel that features the Christian rock band Skillet will release Aug. 27 from the New York-based Z2 Comics. The story is set during an environmental crisis and the characters show that personal sacrifice is the only way to safety.
Shifting morality in culture and comics
This barrier-breaking that Lee accomplished through his comics and writing was one of racial, political and gender issues. And a main target of most of the comic books distributed was how these stories and characters were going to handle morality. As the years progressed, the ideal of what was right and what was wrong started to adapt along with cultural norms.
Oropeza separates the different eras of superheroes into three categories. The first era, when comics were first being written, tied morality into the patriotism of the American way with Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America. Most of these characters were beings that did no wrong and were perfect in every way and would always fend off the bad guys.
Then came the Fantastic Four, Thor, the X-Men and Spider-Man, where the stereotypical perfect superhero wasn’t the mold that these new heroes fit, but instead, they were just trying to bring bad people to justice. And typically these characters were outcasts trying to do good in a world that treated them so poorly because of their looks, their brains or something else that made them different from the rest.
And then in the later era of comics like the Punisher and Daredevil, the writers added ambiguity to good and evil and also added more reality. With the Watchmen, moral characters are questionable. And now there are writers like Mark Wade of Kingdom Come and also Kingstone media who are trying to bring Christianity directly into comics like Wade’s pastor-turned-hero character.
The second era of superheroes, the misfits, is the era that Oropeza says he relates to the most because these heroes aren’t perfect. They have their own faults and things they have to deal with.
“The particular theme of Spider-Man, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, speaks volumes for even believers.” Oropeza says. “We’re given the gift of the spirit and given these spiritual gifts and given these things by God not so that we can sit on them but with it comes responsibility and that responsibility is to exercise those gifts and to help others.”
Can super humans teach us how to be human?
Out of all of the comic book characters, Oropeza says that his favorite character is Spider-Man because the hero resonated with him. At the time of when he was reading comic books in second grade, he moved and he was the new kid who was teased at the new school so he related to Peter Parker who was also teased at his high school. Additionally, this was the favorite of Spider-Man’s co-creator, Stan Lee, as well.
“What [Stan Lee] likes most about Spider-Man is he’s so human,” Oropeza says. “He always screws up and often bad things happen to him. He very much reflects you and I as human beings. That particular aspect too resonated with me.”
Spider-Man also resonated with Franklin because like Spider-Man, Franklin struggles with identity and responsibility, he says.
“Peter Parker was always struggling to pay the bills, and he was a teenager, which was unheard of at that point, for superheroes to be young people,” Franklin says. “He’s really relatable and he has human problems which make him feel like he could be any one of us.”
For Franklin there are heroes, and there are figures people can look up to in the Bible, like Paul and Abraham, and, of course, Jesus; there are also heroes you can look up to in comic books as well like Superman and Spider-Man. And within a lot of the superhero comics, there are human aspects of these super humans that make them relatable to readers and create characters that people strive to be like.
“[Superheroes] have their problems and they sometimes desire things or they want things that are selfish but they put aside that stuff because they know that they can really help people,” Franklin says. “That’s what I want to be like, and that’s something that lines up with scripture: putting your own desires aside and even if you have power, you have the responsibility to use the resources you have.”