197: Conversation With Comic Book Iconographer Chris Yambar

ne way to look at Chris Yambar’s body of work — from his goofy “Simpsons” comic books to his cool-cat salute to the 1950s with his espresso-sipping “Mr. Beat” — is to peg Chris simply as a “comic artist” and then smile pleasantly in his direction.
    But, if you do that, you’ll miss entirely the prophetic force of his work.
    This other way of looking at Chris’ work envisions him as perhaps a young Michelangelo in his prime — and I don’t mean the Michelangelo we think about today as a patriarch of the fine arts. No, think about the controversial and restless young Michelangelo in his heyday, creating powerful spiritual images that prophetically rattled the spiritual conventions of his day. Remember that when Michelangelo finished the “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, church authorities in Rome were so angry that they hired another artist to paint over the shocking parts!
    Well, to be clear about this, Chris doesn’t even claim to rival Michelangelo — that’s my own way of conveying the spiritual impact Chris is trying to have with his huge array of projects. Chris is an artist who cares passionately about our world. He’s deeply concerned that most religious leaders today are missing the important potential of media in conveying the truth of faith. He’s working night and day to play a role in transforming that situation.
    Along the way, a few of his comics might even seem offensive. For instance, some evangelical Christians are rattled when they find rock superstars and Mexican wrestlers in his comics. Some critics object to the fact that he writes for the Simpsons. But Chris doesn’t care if the water around him sometimes gets a little hot. “You’ve got to look at everything out there, look everywhere these days. You’ve got to keep asking questions. That’s what life’s all about,” he told me.
    And, right there, he’s talking our language, here at ReadTheSpirit. That idea is right there in our founding principles.

So, here are highlights of our conversation with Chris Yambar:

AVID: Chris, I admire the fact that your mission as an artist takes you all over the place — into all kinds of subjects and themes. You’ve just published the first issue of this new Life Maxx comic book aimed at inspiring people wrestling with cancer and its aftermath. In fact, in the first issue, you focus on teenagers who are going through heavy-duty cancer treatment.
    In the first issue, a former star athlete is ashamed to tell his high school teammates that he’s going through cancer treatment — so they get angry when he just drops out of the team. This poor guy’s life is turning out terribly. Then, he meets Life Maxx — a costumed superhero you’ve created. And he discovers that Life Maxx himself is a cancer survivor. This hero turns out to be a brilliant scientist who has devoted his life to developing technology to help cancer survivors make a difference in the world.
    And, we probably should explain to readers that you don’t have cancer yourself. You developed this new line of comic books with a friend who lives near you there in Youngstown and is a cancer survivor. She was the inspiration behind this series.
    Is that a pretty good summary of Life Maxx?
    CHRIS: Yeah, you’re right on the money with that. The whole idea with Life Maxx is that we can be more than just cancer survivors. We can do more than just wake up in the morning. If you begin to realize that you still can make a difference in the world — then, ahhh-haaa! That’s the real thing we’re trying to help people go for with Life Maxx.
    Whether you’ve had cancer or not — if we really stop to think about it for a moment — we begin to realize that we’re nearly always just 3 centimeters from the drop-off point in life, right? Life is that fragile. Right now, I don’t know if a plane is heading through my roof. Things happen.
    But the whole philosophy of Life Maxx is that he ran into one of life’s worst obstacles: cancer. And he’s dealing with it. He has restrictions and some definite physical parameters. But he’s using his mind and his imagination to do something about it.
    In the next issue, Life Maxx is going to meet even more people who are dealing with all the different stages of cancer — and he’ll have more adventures and we’ll see him in various social situations that come along with having cancer.

    DAVID: But, we don’t want to leave readers with the impression that it’s a super-somber comic book to read. In addition to Life Maxx, you’ve also introduced the character of Chemo Girl in this first issue — and those two are actually flirting a little bit by the end of the first book, right?
    CHRIS: You’re right! Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in Life Maxx. We want it that way. Hey, Life Maxx laughs at himself. I mean, what are we talking about here? I mean, this is a hero who runs around outer space wearing long underwear, right? I’m sorry, dude — any way you look at that, this is goofy stuff.
    Yeah, I created this with Brenda Rider, who is a cancer survivor here in Youngstown, and I want to mention that, in this case, I wrote the book, painted the cover and designed the pages, but I want to mention the artist who drew the pages from my layouts: George Broderick Jr. He’s a great artist.
    From the start, when I started talking to Brenda about this, we agreed that we didn’t want any of that old 1960s stuff in, you know, those old educational publications that kids sometimes were handed. You know that stuff for kids that just looked like some doctor had designed it? So much of that stuff just looks ooooold. It doesn’t reach kids.

DAVID: Reaching people — I know that’s what drives you on a deep level. I’m going to ask you more about that. But, before we talk about what you see as the future of the church and all that — I want to ask you about another of your comic characters, maybe your single most popular character: Mr. Beat.
   How do you describe him? What’s the essential Mr. Beat?

   CHRIS: I’ll never be as cool as Mr. Beat. He looks like a classic ‘50s Beatnik. He’s all about the fun of life, living it to the fullest –- and he’s had way too much caffeine intake. He plays the bongos and runs a coffee house and he’s your original man in black: black beret, black chin hair and mustache, black outfit and black shoes.
   He has all kinds of little adventures because life always seems to open up for him and he finds himself in the center of all kinds of problems that he has to fix. He’s God’s little agent of cool.
   In real life, it’s often like that, too, you know? We think things are so complicated, but there’s often something very simple you can do that will fix many things. We just worry so much that we can’t find that one thing. Not Mr. Beat. He’s the quick fix.
   DAVID: And he’s sold very well, too, right? He’s been in comic books and he’s been on coffee cups. I know I’ve seen him pop up various places over the years.
   CHRIS: He originated in my sketchbook in 1994. He began appearing on coffee mugs a year after that for a small coffee-mug company I co-owned and then he went into his first little publication.
   DAVID: There’s something about him that’s very attractive, that draws you to him.
   CHRIS: Whenever we’ve published a new Mr. Beat comic, it always sells out. I think it’s this matter-of-fact approach he has to things. I think we need more of that in our faith. Too many people in evangelical circles feel it’s their right and their responsibility to chase people down and make them convert — or to beat the hell out of everybody they disagree with. And I don’t see Jesus that way at all. Jesus knew what was going on. He was very savvy. He knew who was trying to set him up, who was trying to kill him –- but he picked his fights very wisely. And then in the middle of all of it, he would answer people’s questions matter of factly and he’d keep saying, “Follow me.”

   DAVID: Growing up, you lived in what you call “a two-fisted town.” Your Dad was a steelworker.
   CHRIS: He worked in the mills. He was a machinist. I tell people I grew up in the buckle of the rust belt. And my Mom and Dad turned out four Irish-Slovak children and raised us Catholic. But I had trouble with a lot of that by the time I was a teenager.
   One time, to straighten me out, my Dad took me to see a priest. He took me to the one who was supposed to be the hip priest at that time. He was this guy with a beard, liked to drink wine. A hip guy. And when we walked in to see him, he told me: “Ask me anything.”
   So I asked him all these questions -– and he kept telling me: “You have to accept this by faith. It’s a mystery of the church.”
   Well, after a whole lot of those mystery answers, I said: “You know, you guys should hire the Hardy boys or Nancy Drew and have them look into this, because I know more than you do about these things already — and you’re wearing the collar and the whole costume there.”
   And, for that, my Dad gave me a smack –- right there with the priest. I got a smack.
   But there I was in my early teens and none of this made any sense to me anymore. My Dad was a die-hard Catholic who took everything at face value. It all worked for him, but not for me. I just stopped going. I became the son who, you know, they’d say: “And that’s the son who doesn’t go to church.”

   DAVID: But, later, you did start going to a kind of church –- big time. You got caught up in the Jesus movement in the late 1970s.
   CHRIS: A friend of mine gave me a paper bag and in that bag was “Good News for Modern Man” -– the old denim edition of it, the kind the hippies carried.
   I had begun to jump into Buddhist philosophy and Taoism, which was great -– they said there was order and there were reasons out there –- but it was vague on giving me a personality on which I could rely. I was serious about this. I was reading everything I could find on Buddhism and Taoism.
   Then, I read the New Testament in this new Bible and it was like Christmas lights were going off in my head like there was no tomorrow. I had what we might call an in-filling. It was definitely the person of the Holy Spirit. I could feel a definite presence in my life. I could feel a personality living within me –- or to be more accurate, I began to live in the person of the Holy Spirit and things began to become very real for me. Suddenly, I didn’t need to go through anybody to talk to the Creator -– I could go directly like Jesus said we could.

   DAVID: I know that you became an ordained pastor. I know you’ve had experiences in ministry that range from hands-on work in helping needy people in the city –- to working as a pastor with a congregation. But you’re between churches right now, you’ve told me. You’re not on staff anywhere as a pastor and you’re not regularly attending a particular church, right?
   CHRIS: I would say my church consists of getting together with other people and talking about our lives and the Bible and drinking coffee. You could say it’s an emergent kind of church, but I’m not big on those titles. People talk about emergent and post-modern and I go: Eeeeeeek! I run the other way. I don’t like that whole thing of trying to slap labels on people. And — there are some movements in Christianity that people are trying to sell us these days that are just stupid, you know?
   For me, I do believe in absolutes. I do believe in absolute faith. I do believe in putting your money where your mouth is when it comes to our faith. But my community of faith now is -– is friends.
   DAVID: A network of friends.
   CHRIS: Yeah, a network of friends, but this isn’t like a neighborhood group of friends. My friends are spread out all across the United States. I’m on the phone at least two hours a day with friends. And I talk with friends here in Youngstown, too. We started a Bible study here that moved into a small house, then moved into a pool hall –- and that lasted as long as people showed up. Then, it just finished up and we said: We’re done with this, now.
   We have times when we meet pretty regularly. Then we have times we don’t meet so regularly here. But almost every day I’m with friends, talking about our lives, maybe talking about something we’ve read in like the Gospel of John.
   DAVID: You’re pretty outspoken in criticizing a lot of organized religion. In an interview with “The Wittenburg Door,” you said at one point: “Too many Christians are so uptight they wouldn’t recognize a good joke if it bit them in the” — and the Door editors changed your word to “hiney” in discreet parentheses. Then, you said, “We’ve got too many people in the Body of Christ who are socially unable to get beyond the imposed rule books and mental boxes designed by their church-ghetto leadership.”
   Now, when we published our Conversation with Ken Wilson recently, he actually was saying some things that are pretty close to what you’re saying. He didn’t say them quite so bluntly, but there’s obviously a strong movement among creative voices who care about the future of faith –- but who are very uncomfortable with the organized expressions of it that we’ve inherited.
   CHRIS: Absolutely. We live in a time right now in which the Protestant sector has stopped building anything that’s helpful. Some of them are building like these big homogenized malls.
   DAVID: You’re talking about churches that look more like sports arenas?
   CHRIS: Yeah. You don’t know if you’re going to church or to a business convention. The Joel Osteen kind of thing. And this cotton-candy gospel some of them are selling. You know, faith is about more than cotton candy. Jesus didn’t chase people down and beg them to follow him. He just said: Follow me. And he knew that most people wouldn’t.
   It isn’t about cotton candy. I think that sometimes we do need to talk about guilt and sin and difficult things that are so important in our lives. I’m against beating up anyone about anything. But Jesus was always very practical. He was absolutely honest about what was going on around him.

   DAVID: So, you don’t like the sort of homogenized mega-church that looks like a fancy sports arena. I’ve got that. But, after all, you’re an artist, a designer -– so, what should a church look like?
   CHRIS: When I was a kid, I still remember this little Catholic church about six blocks from my house. I still like that building and when I want to go into a church building –- maybe a half a dozen times a year, I’ll go sneak back into that little church. I don’t consider myself a card-carrying Catholic anymore –- but in that church I go back to a simpler place with God. The architecture of it speaks to you right away.
   I love the windows –- all thematic –- and the stations of the cross are incredibly powerful. As an artist myself, I’m thinking of doing my own stations of the cross. This is architecture that speaks to you like it’s speaking from another world. And the sound in there! I mean, if a church mouse farts in the balcony, it sounds like an elephant charging through the place. This is a place where I can walk inside and really focus.
   I need to see myself as being small before God. I need to worship God. I feel that I can do it there.
   DAVID: As I hear you describe this, you’re talking about spirituality expressed not in words, but in visual images –- the shape of a church, the striking images of stained glass windows, statuary, stations of the cross.
   No question, we’re a visual culture these days -– and you’re a visual artist. I’m assuming this is part of why you feel so strongly about these issues.
   CHRIS: Yes, people think in visual terms these days. This gives us a lot of opportunity to speak to people in new ways. Think about this “Zohan” movie by Adam Sandler. I’m ready to tip my hat to Adam Sandler. I run hot and cold on Adam Sandler and his humor, because his potty humor gets so dumb. I mean, I’ve used potty humor myself -– and after while I think it just gets too dumb. But Adam Sandler really is trying to say something about the situations of Israelis and Palestinians in that movie. I also think there’s going to be some very important commentary in this new Pixar movie, “Wall-E.” And, “Iron Man” also had some very strong themes that I thought were very important.
   We need to be watching for those themes and talking about them more.
   DAVID: Well, we’re trying to do that here at ReadTheSpirit. We got a lot of fascinating feedback from readers on “Iron Man” in particular, and on “Zohan” as well.

    CHRIS: There are powerful things being said when we communicate on this level of symbols.
   I don’t consider myself a Catholic. I don’t consider myself a card-carrying Protestant, either. But, when I walk into a Catholic church and look at the symbols –- the stained glass and sculptures and stations of the cross — that drives home something that goes beyond words. There are subtleties in symbols that are forever burned into our brains and I mean that in a good way.
   That’s the power of symbols. Captain America’s shield -– you get what that shield means instantly. You know what it’s all about at a glance. And that’s how it is with religious imagery. I’m not talking about worshiping images. That’s a perversion of these images. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am talking about experiencing what these symbols and images mean on a very powerful level.
   If you’ve ever experienced this –- if you’ve felt yourself flooded instantly with inspiration just by looking, just standing there in introspection –- then, that’s what I’m talking about.
   Powerful symbols speak without words. We can become very conscious that God is there with us. It’s like an event. It’s a moment of –- woah! You know that something happened but a word wasn’t spoken.
   I’m talking about moments of true clarity –- when you have to stop everything and just take a deep breath. You can feel that something is set in motion within you. That’s powerful. To be able to help people do that -– to help people find those moments -– that is art. That is art in its highest form. The greats knew this.
   Rembrandt knew this. He would choose a subject for one of his paintings –- and perhaps he would be painting an ordinary man, but this figure would become the subject of a great painting, something much larger than the man he painted. It would become a painting that people could experience in a powerful and timeless way.
   Without a word, the image itself would speak louder and longer than any sound we have ever heard.

AND SO ENDS our Conversation With Chris Yambar.

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