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What's black and white and read all over?

Graphic novels are the latest blockbuster answer to an image-driven culture in search of stories and meaning

What's black and white and read all over?

Every once in a while Christians discover that they are way behind in some emerging art form-and then comes a rush to compete, sometimes by imitating the style of prominent secular artists. Contemporary Christian music has produced some original talent but a lot of sounds like singers, as in "Let's sign that group. It sounds like The Bangles." As Christians enter the field of graphic novels, will we see original work, or merely a sliding of toes into the spare sandals of Japanese manga?

Maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves: What are graphic novels, anyway? Books that display explicit sex and violence? No: The term refers to comic books that tell a story-not necessarily fictional-and have enough pages to need a bookmark. And in the early years of the 21st century, they are hot in publishing:

Time: "Graphic novels have finally reached a point of critical mass in both popular consciousness and sales . . . the public awareness of these books has vastly increased, creating a kind of renaissance era of intense creativity and quality."

The New York Times: "Comic books are what novels used to be-an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal . . . the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels."

The New Yorker: "Graphic novels . . . pumped-up comics . . . are to many in their teens and twenties what poetry once was. . . . Like life-changing poetry of yore, graphic novels are a young person's art, demanding and rewarding mental flexibility and nervous stamina. Consuming them . . . toggling for hours between the incommensurable functions of reading and looking . . . is taxing."

Scholars trace the form to 19th-century albums in Europe and to an American book-size comic, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (1837). The first major popular success may have been the Tintin books of Belgian artist Herge (Georges Remi, 1907-1983): His sagas of gutsy reporter Tintin and faithful dog Snowy have been translated into dozens of languages. A Tintin movie directed by Steven Spielberg is due out next year.

After World War II, manga, a Japanese word for "whimsical pictures," became a huge part of Japan's publishing industry, with virtually every genre (including action-adventure, romance, science fiction/fantasy, and pornography) represented.

Today, graphic novels in the United States include kids' books with big-muscled dudes and "adult" stuff with big-breasted dames, but also brainy works whose authors try to fulfill a prophecy from novelist John Updike: In 1969 he spoke of "the death of the novel" and speculated about "a doubly talented artist" who would "arise and create a comic strip novel masterpiece." The term "graphic novel" began to appear in the 1960s and 1970s: The first volume to have the term on its cover was Will Eisner's A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories: A Graphic Novel (1978), but Eisner's work was actually four short stories, and the title suggested more than the stories delivered.

Two prime contenders for the "masterpiece" designation emerged during the 1980s. In Maus: A Survivor's Tale (Pantheon, 1986), Art Spiegelman's brilliantly told story of his Holocaust-surviving father and the psychological damage his dad (and then the whole family) sustained, Spiegelman depicted Jews as mice and Germans as cats, but there was nothing Disney-like about a story interweaving Holocaust history with father/son psychological conflict. A Pulitzer Prize and many other awards have recognized Spiegelman's innovative work.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also showed mastery in Watchmen (Graphitti Designs, 1987), an imaginative science fiction work about the human side of superheroes in a world that needs and hates them. Moore's goal was to make a superhero Moby Dick; something that had that sort of weight, that sort of density, and Watchmen's multi-level, symbol-laden dialogue combined with cinematic techniques to make it at least a big tuna. Time in 2005 called Watchmen one of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present."

A more recent masterpiece contender, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon, 2003, 2004), combines simple drawings and elegant prose to tell in a charming yet passionate way Satrapi's story of growing up in Iran. Her Marxist-leaning family during the 1970s demonstrated to overthrow the Shah, and realized too late that the new, Islamic regime was far worse. Persepolis became both a critical and a commercial success, selling half a million copies-and now it is also a movie.

But the graphic novel that artists discuss the most is Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 2000). It's the story of a sad 36-year-old Chicago resident who accurately calls himself "a lonely, emotionally impaired human castaway." Corrigan in most scenes is no longer a kid but a sad, dim-witted searcher for a lost father who is glad to stay lost. Some pages contain large panels seemingly created by an expressive painter; others sport intricate little boxes that appear to be etched by an obsessed engineer. Every section, though, displays nihilistic despair about the meaninglessness of life and the unsatisfactory nature of father-son relationships.

Jimmy Corrigan apparently struck a chord: It sold 100,000 copies in hardback and more in paperback. It received rave reviews from The New York Times, which spoke in headlines of Ware "Creating Literature, One Comic Book at a Time." It received academic acclaim: the Yale University Press quickly published Daniel Raeburn's Chris Ware (2004), a scholarly chronicle of Ware's life and career. And it furthered the tendency among graphic novels to emphasize alienation, discontent, and estrangement.

To name just a few examples: Daniel Clowes's David Boring and Ice Haven (Pantheon, 2000, 2005) depict with clever cross-cutting American lives of quiet desperation. Kim Deitch's The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Pantheon, 2003) fulfills the promise of its title. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) is a poignant but pointed memoir by a lesbian daughter of her relationship with her dad, who had homosexual and suicidal tendencies. Craig Thompson's Blankets (Top Shelf, 2006) features a young man rebelling against his fundamentalist upbringing but never coming to understand the biblical centrality of grace.

Exceptions to this bitter streak deserve honorable mention. Ben Katchor's The Beauty Supply District (Vertigo, 2000) is a nostalgic tribute to New York City life circa 1960. Bill Willingham's Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (DC Comics, 2006) cleverly shows what happens when an evil warlord known as The Adversary takes over the land of Snow White and other fairy-tale characters. Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar (Fantagraphics, 2003) is a gritty and sometimes raunchy Mexican-American melodrama in black-and-white comic panel.

But themes of misery abound, and they track closely with the lives of graphic artists themselves. Many write or talk about their lives as high school outcasts, with cartooning becoming a refuge and then an obsession. As part of the herd of independent thinkers, many rage against The Machine and the bourgeoisie. Politically, many graphic novels are on the left, with the war in Iraq engendering considerable comic opposition; for example, Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman's Shooting War (Grand Central, 2007) is an intense and crude anti-Iraq War book.

Graphic novels have also become a means of expression for artists and writers from minority communities. Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (Roaring Book Press, 2006) provides a charming perspective on those who feel trapped between two cultures yet benefit from both. But Toufic El Rassi's Arab in America (Last Gasp, 2007) is a bitter attack on the United States. It offers up as heroes Noam Chomsky, Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung, and it provides a map of the Middle East with no Israel on it: Between Egypt and Lebanon is a patch merely called Palestine.

All this angst and anger may cover a search for meaning, and graphic artists from a variety of religions are suggesting answers. Osamu Tezuka's multi-volume Buddha (Tezuka Productions, 2006; originally published in Japan in 1987) fancifully tells of Buddhist origins. Steve Sheinkin's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West (Jewish Lights, 2006), stars a witty rabbi who outwits bad guys and dispenses Talmudic and Hasidic wisdom in the process of tricking liars into confessing, retrieving stolen money, and returning to rationality a child who thinks he's a chicken.

So where are the Christians?

In part, they've been retelling the Bible in comic book form, and sometimes adding to it. Javier Saltares's David's Mighty Men (Community Comics, 2005) has lots of muscular guys bashing each other in color.

The Manga Bible (Galilee Trade, 2007) is an unattractive black-and-white job that could have used better production values (Tyndale also has published a Manga Bible, as well as a volume called Manga Messiah). But Robert Luedke's Gospel- and Acts-based Eye Witness series (Head Press, 2004 and 2006, with a third volume due out in August 2008) is well-drawn, well-plotted, and colorful.

Christian efforts that are not the retelling of Bible stories include Stephen Baldwin and Bruno Rosato's Spirit Warriors (Broadman & Holman, 2006-onward), a series of feverish plots and muddy black-and-white drawings, and the Joe and Max series (Guardian Line), featuring a muscular Hispanic Max who is a guardian angel.

The pickings should become greater as large and small publishers enter the field. Thomas Nelson is bringing out graphic adaptations of Ted Dekker's dark, hot-selling novels, as well as manga-styled series for teen girls. The company has stated that secular readers will be unable to distinguish many of them from the output of secular publishers, although Christians may detect subtle religious themes.

A new, small publisher, Kingstone Media, has also entered the field with graphic novels based in Genesis, Daniel, and the gospels. Kingstone also is contracted to publish one book set 40 years in the future when genetic engineering has brought us creatures who are half-man, half-monkey. (But I'll say no more about that because I'm the author.)

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

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. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.