060: BANG! Exploding the Comic Cosmos

This is Part 3.
on the creative explosion in spiritually themed Comics, click here: Part 1. Part 2.

    Ahem! Ahem! Let us now pause in a moment of silent respect for Houghton Mifflin’s salute to the rapidly blossoming field of comic books and graphic novels. No kidding. I’m dead serious about this.
    The editors at Houghton Mifflin deserve a serious Thank You from anyone who cares about new forms of spirituality in media. This is the second-straight year that Houghton Mifflin has put its substantial imprint on the comic cosmos.
    You know, in 2015, we’ll celebrate the centennial of the hugely influential series, “Best American Short Stories.” If you don’t know the history, it’s worth exploring. Sometimes referred to as “BASS,” this is the traditional annual collection that helped to launch such American literary greats as Ernest Hemingway.
    Then, last year — after well over a century of terrific cartooning in America — Houghton Mifflin’s editors finally concluded that comics had reached the status of serious literature. So comics finally got  their own annual “Best American” anthology.
    The Oscar the Grouch of the comic-book world, Harvey Pekar, slumped irritably over the helm of the inaugural issue late last year as its General Editor and all-around curmudgeon. Now, Chris Ware, another giant in this emerging field, has placed his name and his creative blessing on the second annual volume.

    (CLICK HERE to jump to the new Comics section in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore — to read individual reviews and buy copies of books, if you wish.)

    BUT, where we really want to take you, on the last day of this special 3-day series, is into the lives of some of the high-energy writers and artists who are not as well known nationwide as, say, Harvey Pekar or Ernest Hemingway.
    Here at the Home Office of ReadTheSpirit, I need to say a sincere “Thank You!” to Kurt J. Kolka, the creator of a religious comic strip called “The Cardinal.” I’ve known Kurt for a number of years and encouraged his work on “The Cardinal,” by covering him and his red-garbed superhero occasionally in my decades of reporting on religious trends for The Detroit Free Press.

     Kurt really prompted me to take this fresh look at what’s unfolding in comics, these days, because he explained that — speaking for himself as one grassroots comic artist — he is feeling moved to develop his own comic series in complex new ways.
    I could tell from his email that he wasn’t just talking about the sophistication of his artwork. His whole enlarged view of the way that faith interacts with the world reminded me of the startlingly fresh preaching I’ve been hearing from Rob Bell, the best-selling author and widely traveled evangelist.
    Here’s what Kurt said in his newsy email to me, catching up on news about his comic work as well as his spiritual direction these days:   

    Over the past couple years I’ve been working on revising the
Cardinal strip and putting it solely online.  Rather than highlighting
theology as I have in the past, the new strip will dealing with the
more “practical” side of faith with Rich (The Cardinal) spending much
of his time as a volunteer at the local mission helping the poor and
homeless. By night he’ll protect them as The Cardinal. His faith will
be shown as being more connected to serving others.
also expanding the setting of Arbor City, making it the U.S. in

    Rather than all the “good” characters being Christian, I’m
creating more positive characters from all walks of life and all
religions and philosophies. It’ll be a far more developed and complex
world this time around. And the threats Arbor City faces won’t just be
from criminals, but from corrupt politicans, financially strapped
police forces and dangerous living conditions for the poor.

    As Kurt was describing his new approach to his comic series, I thought: What he’s describing is like a thematic overview of several Rob Bell “Nooma” films.
    So, I asked Kurt if he would help me develop part of this 3-day series this week. I asked him to contact some other religiously inspired comic creators — and, in turn, we asked them to send ReadTheSpirit notes on where their spiritual vocation is carrying them today.

     So, we’ll close today with three of those personal notes.
    And — NO — this is not our last story on comics. It’s our first series of stories on this emerging genre. Yes, we do plan to write more about this in coming months.
    But, right now, click on the following links to meet a couple of very cool comic veterans. You’ll enjoy their stories:   

    CLICK HERE to MEET BUZZ DIXON, who moved away from a prolific career in movies and television, where he racked up more than 130 television credits as a writer on shows ranging from “Batman” to “Transformers,” “My Little Pony” and “Tiny Toons.” He also worked on games and Internet projects.
    But his first love in media was the comic book.
    That’s where he has had his greatest impact. Now, he’s known as a successful pioneer in adapting Japanese-style manga formats (which are thicker, mass-market comic books, essentially) for an audience of religious seekers.

     CLICK HERE to MEET BEN AVERY, who has so many projects unfolding that it’s difficult to concisely summarize his work.
     Exploring his work online, I was attracted to a simple yet powerful idea he has posted online — a “one-shot” comic, called “The Tempest,” which he is selling online as a fund-raiser for the Salvation Army. Specifically, he’s earmarking donations from sales of the comic for the assistance of victims from tropical storms.
    What intrigues me is the way he describes the plot of the comic, which stars an artist. (Hey, Woody Allen always used to star as himself, didn’t he?) Here’s what Ben says about the “Tempest” storyline:
    “He’s just an artist. A normal man who writes stories of heroics and
tragedy. But now, surrounded by news of tragedy and disaster,
confronted with his own limitations, and facing the lifting veil of
innocence, he is forced to ask some difficult questions. Starting with,
‘What can I do? I’m just one man.'”

    FINALLY, CLICK HERE to MEET ROBERT LUEDKE, the creator of a beautifully designed, large-format graphic novel, “Eye Witness,” which I’ve spotted in a number of evangelical churches I’ve visited in the last few years.
    What I like about Robert’s story is that he went from a love of this genre — to running a comic store — to actually creating comics. That’s a remarkably successful journey.
    He’s also got a mature sense of irony about the strange twists and turns that life, spirit — and media — can take these days. At one point in his life, Robert decided that a career in comics was completely impossible! He writes, “Like the scriptures say: Once I became an adult, I had to put away childish things. And, for me, that included my pursuing a career in comics.”
    Yeah, right.
    Instead, Robert wound up right back in the middle of this booming genre.

    TELL US WHAT YOU THINK. We always welcome notes from you, your suggestions and especially your tips on what you’re reading and seeing right now that inspires you. Click on the “Comment” link at the bottom of this story online — or, you can Email me (ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm) by Clicking Here.

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