ZONDERVAN is jumping into the new world of comic books with a dramatic splash! More than two years of development went into the lavish, movie-like, full-color graphic novel based on the final book in the Christian Bible: REVELATION. This places Zondervan on the cutting edge of creating and marketing comic books—most famously promoted these days by DC Comics. In 2011, DC (publisher of Superman and Batman since the 1930s) made literary history by cancelling all of its existing comic book series and relaunching 52 comic book titles with dazzling new full-color art and fresh storylines.
ZONDERVAN IS BETTING ON COMICS: Over the past decade, the Christian publishing house Zondervan has pushed hard to reach young readers with comic books in formats often called “manga”—a style of thick and often less-expensive pulp comic books made popular in Japan. Zondervan’s online index to it’s “ZGraphicNovels” displays its wide range of themes, including actual Bible stories (Kingdoms), some super-hero adventures (Morningstar), Japanese-style sci-fi/fantasy (TimeFlyz), and even a series about a little girl who is secretly a Ninja warrior (Tomo). Graphic novels are likely to continue as an important genre for Zondervan, even though the publishing house is in the process of merging with Thomas Nelson under the overall ownership of HarperCollins. Graphic novels won’t disappear even if the merger brings some downsizing. After all, Nelson has been publishing its own graphic novels, including titles by popular Christian fantasy writer Ted Dekker.
Comics Are Booming: Read our other story today that explains why comics are booming worldwide.
REVELATION: THE BIBLE MEETS HOLLYWOOD AND COMIC BOOKS
HOLLYWOOD has loved The Bible for more than 100 years, but American religious leaders hated comics for decades—even promoting large-scale comic burning in the late 1940s to safeguard impressionable youth. In the mid-1970s, religious themes blossomed briefly in comics. Former Archie writer Al Hartley created a series of popular Christian comics. DC Comics launched an expensive, large-format line of Bible stories. But none of those experiments flourished.
NOW—Flash forward 40 years and the current mash-up of the Bible-and-Hollywood-and-Comics is producing eye-popping new media like Zondervan’s REVELATION.
WHO IS MATT DORFF, The Hollywood Writer/Producer/Director? As a moviemaker, he’s not a household name like Tom Hanks or Woody Allen—but you’ve probably seen one of Matt’s made-for-TV movies over the past 20 years. One of his specialities has been made-for-TV films about the lives of celebrities, including the Osmonds, the Brady Bunch stars and Robin Williams. He has worked on comedies, dramas and thrillers.
WHO IS CHRIS KOELLE, The Comic Creator? Like thousands of independent comic creators, Chris Koelle worked on a wide range of “indie” projects before collaborating with Matt Dorff on Revelation. (For more on indie comic artists, see our other story today featuring Kurt Kolka.) Chris is both Christian and a talented comic artist, but his previous projects were far from biblical tales. One earlier project was called Battle Surgeon about the heroic adventures of a medic in the U.S. armed forces.
Writer Matt Dorff lives in Los Angeles, California. Artist Chris Koelle, lives in Greenville, South Carolina. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm lives in Michigan. In a series of telephone interviews, Matt, Chris and David talked about the unique production of Revelation.
Today, we are sharing highlights of our conversations …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MATT DORFF AND CHRIS KOELLE
ABOUT THEIR NEW ZONDERVAN GRAPHIC NOVEL: REVELATION
CHRIS: The official number of panels I created for this book is 575. And, I can tell you: Matt is the pickiest art director of all time. My arm still hurts! (laughing) I mean, I made it through this book but it was a big project and, sometimes, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish. How we did this is quite a story.
MATT: I know a lot about visual storytelling. I’ve written about 30 movies over the years that were produced for ABC, CBS, NBC and cable networks. I’ve done nine movies for the Lifetime channel. During the 2007-2008 Writers’ Guild strike, a comic book publisher contacted me out of the blue, saying he really liked one of my movie scripts and wondered if I would consider turning it into a graphic novel. That sent me off into this new form and I began to work on graphic novels.
In April 2010, when I received this new translation of the Book of Revelation in the mail, I was immediately fascinated with the possibilities. I grew up in a secular family. My parents weren’t particularly religious. The Bible wasn’t on my own radar screen much as I was growing up. Then, years later, when I began to read the Bible as a filmmaker, I kept telling myself: Wow, I can’t believe what I’ve missed! This is such a deep well of fascinating stories and archetypes.
CHRIS: I had worked with Matt—and when he first brought up the idea of doing Revelation as a graphic novel, I knew Revelation. I knew what was involved. I told him: “No! That’s way too ambitious. I’ve never heard of anyone doing a moment-by-moment, verse-by-verse visualization of Revelation in this format. No way.” But Matt kept at this idea.
We wrote lots of emails in which he would try to convince me and I would reply: “No, I’m not ready for such a huge project.” But when Matt wants something—well, calling him persistent is an understatement.
MATT: That’s true. Chris is a deeply spiritual Christian and he knew even more than I did how difficult this would be. But, I never had a doubt in my mind that, together, we could do it.
The main challenge was figuring out a point of view for this graphic novel. We decided that we would follow the verses—and just the verses of Revelation—in the book. But how do you visualize those verses?
The most important thing that I finally realized was: Revelation is from John’s point of view, so this whole story could be told in the first person—from John’s perspective. That made it very cinematic. Then, I could adapt the scenes into a graphic novel script that was a lot like a film script. I would go: Page 1 Panel 1—here’s what we see in the panel and here’s the text with that panel. Then, Page 1 Panel 2 and I could lay out the story from John’s point of view, as if we were making a movie of it.
CHRIS: He would give me his script for a chapter of Revelation and we would then call and email back and forth, discussing the final concepts for the panels I would have to sketch. Then, I would do some sketches and send those to Matt. We would call and email some more until we would approve each one, panel by panel for 575 panels.
MATT: The sketches were really just to make sure we were looking at each scene from the same viewpoint before we finished each panel. Were we agreeing on the composition? And, when we were, then we were ready for the photography. We had this long-distance working relationship with email and Skype and telephones. I made several trips out there to see him, but he really was leading the project in Greenville to produce the final pages.
REVELATION: FROM SKETCHES TO PHOTOS TO FINAL ARTWORK
CHRIS: Once each sketch was approved and locked down, I would work with models and props and produce the photos I would need to create the final artwork for that panel. So, by the time I was doing the final artwork, I had very detailed notes and I completely understood our concept of how to stage each part of the story.
Most of the scenes and figures that appear in the book were drawn from live models or photographs of live models. I shot them in costume with lighting. We didn’t have finished period costumes for the models, but we might use a bathrobe or towel or something else to show how the ancient fabrics would have been draped around them. I am very thankful to Doug Young, a friend and a great artist who also lives in Greenville. Doug is a sculptor so he understands the kind of visual drama we wanted—the poses, the lighting, the forms and the shading that I need to see to create each panel. He was fantastic in helping me with a lot of the models and photos.
MATT: Doug Young was great and he actually wound up as our model for John in the book. When I saw Doug’s face, I said: “This is the face we need for John.” Because Doug was helping us with photographs and lives near Chris, we could go back to him again and again when we needed a different viewpoint or expression or angle on our figure of John.
CHRIS: I wasn’t kidding about being hurt in the middle of this project. This was so intense, day after day, month after month. When I was most of the way through the book and had just started Chapter 20—with three chapters left—I felt this weird sensation in my back. The day went on and I developed this paralyzing knife-in-my-back pain. It was the worst day of my entire life. I was thinking: This is it! No way can I finish this book! I couldn’t sleep that night. Eventually, it subsided and I was told that I had to stop working like I had been working. A good friend had a standing desk and she let me use that to finish the last three chapters standing at that desk.
REVELATION: MANY VISUAL CONNECTIONS THROUGH HUMAN HISTORY
MATT: The imagery in this book is so rich.
DAVID: In reviewing your book, Matt and Chris, I was absolutely fascinated! On nearly every page, I spent longer than I expected in just exploring the imagery. For example, in the ancient era when Revelation was written, the writer was reacting to the Roman Empire as a great evil force dominating the world. But I’m pretty sure that one of the Roman panels in the middle of your book is based on a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will, the famous film about Adolf Hitler’s early Nazi rallies. In your book, it’s the Roman Empire, but that one panel looks a lot like the towering imperial design of the Triumph of Will rally. Am I right about that?
MATT: That’s a very good catch! Yes, as a filmmaker, I was thinking of many visual associations in this story. If you look closely throughout the book, you may be able to catch a touch of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal at one point. When we got to scenes involving Roman power, yes, I wanted to show one visual reference there to Triumph of Will. There are other visual references throughout the book. The point is that these forces described in Revelation stretch through thousands of years of human history.
DAVID: It is a tribute to both of you that the book carries a strong emotional message from start to finish. This book isn’t just a parade of strange symbols, which is how Revelation often appears to first-time Bible readers. This really is a moving story as you present it.
MATT: Turn toward the end of the book where we see John embracing Jesus in one scene. It’s in the passage where we read the words, “Death shall be no more”—and this truly is a moment of catharsis in the story. I hope that some readers will be shedding tears at that point in the story. The message is that strong.
You may enjoy our other story today: Why comic books are so important!
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.