28th April, 2006


The picture shows a couple of guys sitting on a park bench, one of them surrounded by pigeons as he holds a bucket of chips.

“Next time you see some pigeons snacking on some scraps, remember that food comes from God,” one tells his mate. “And God loves you more than pigeons. So don’t worry about what you’ll eat. And don’t worry about what you’ll wear.”

A COMIC VIEW: A section of comic artist Dean Rankine's version's of the 'doubting Thomas' story. IMAGE: Courtesy of Dean Rankine - www.webcomicsnation.com/deanrankine/


“There’s a lot of people in Australia who don’t read books and they’re not likely to read the Bible (so) how else are we going to approach them?" asks Graham Wade. "I mean, they’ll watch telly, but they’ll also read a comic and I really think the Gospel can be carried very clearly and very effectively in comics.”

There’s no biff! or zap! and no masked superhero, but the images represent one of the latest examples in a tradition of using comics to spread God’s word.

Their creator, Australian Dean Rankine - who has been creating comics for the past 17 years, explains why he thinks comics are such an effective means of communicating the Bible.

“Comics are just so 'user friendly',” he says. “Information can be presented quickly and easily with visual imagery to back it up. Generally speaking, comics aren't hard to make and not overly expensive to print...(and) as far as communicating the message of Jesus is concerned, though people might feel a bit intimidated picking up a Bible for the first time, they would generally feel pretty comfortable reading a comic.”

Christian comics will be the subject of a conference being held in Sydney at the end of next month. Aimed at Christians who want to learn about the production and use of comics-style literature, it will include sessions on identifying audiences, plotting and scripting, editing, and evangelism strategy considerations.

Among those leading the seminars will be Nate Butler, president of non-profit, non-denominational Christian comics training and consulting organisation COMIX35.

Butler worked for 20 years as a cartoonist, commercial artist and writer/illustrator of comics - working on characters including Archie and Jughead, The Muppets, Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Rocky & Bulwinkle, The Jetsons and the Berenstain Bears - before going into full-time ministry in 1999.

His website - http://comix35.gospelcom.net/ - contains numerous examples of situations in which Christian comics have played an important role in bringing people to Christ.

Conference organiser and veteran illustrator Graham Wade has been working as a comic artist since the Fifties with his works including Dr Paul White’s Jungle Doctor Fables and Bible Society comics on books of the Bible, including Daniel.

The 74-year-old Sydneysider says his fascination with comics dates back to when he was still in school.

“I’d won a competition when I was a schoolboy for the best comic,” he says. “When you’re kids, you know, you live by comics and I don’t know about you, but that’s (still) one of the bits of the newspaper that I look at. It’s very much part of our culture...They amuse but they can carry quite a message.”

Attempting to define why comics can be such an effective medium, Wade likens them to movies.

“They carry a visual and you read...and it can actually be a pretty absorbing experience reading a comic,“ he says. “You don’t just read them, you see them and feel them.”

While he these days enjoys Non Sequitor, Wade says that when he was a boy, the Phantom was always a favorite and not only with him.

“I was in New Guinea, for a while - I’ve done a lot of work in New Guinea - and the actual Phantom was such a star there.”

Wade says he decided to organise the conference to encourage more Christian artists into the medium.

A HUMOROUS TAKE ON LIFE: One of Phil Watson's many cartoons from his Shaaark! series. PICTURE: Courtesy of Phil Watson - www.onewhale.com

“I think we’re quite irreligious, which is handy ‘cos I reckon Jesus was pretty irreligious!” says Phil Watson. “I think we love humour...”

“I want to see more Christian comics and I want to see them well done...” he says. “There’s a lot of people in Australia who don’t read books and they’re not likely to read the Bible (so) how else are we going to approach them? I mean, they’ll watch telly, but they’ll also read a comic and I really think the Gospel can be carried very clearly and very effectively in comics.”

By way of example, Wade says comics have been used very effectively in reaching native Americans with the Gospel and says similar methods could be used in Australia to reach youth, Aborigines or immigrant populations.

“A school teacher who taught my son...had been a Slav migrant and he’d learnt to read English from comics and he became headmaster of a school,” he says. “I mean, really, comics can do great things.”

Comic artists and illustrators spoken to by Sight are in no doubt that Australians bring a unique perspective to the medium.

Phil Watson, a cartoonist who has worked on the Channel 9 TV show Burgo’s Catch Phrase and Christian childrens’ publishers such as the Bible Society, Anglican Youthworks and the Baptist Union and who will be among the presenters at the upcoming conference, says he believes that not only are stories a great way to communicate deep truths to people - and pictures, he notes, can be used to tell a story - but having an Australian perspective on religion helps.

“I think we’re quite irreligious, which is handy ‘cos I reckon Jesus was pretty irreligious!” says Watson, who names Tintin, Asterix and Batman as among his childhood favorities and landed his first big job after drawing a caricature of a friend on his dirty windscreen. “I think we love humour...”

Rankine, who contributes to numerous childrens’ magazines and for the Salvation Army both in Australia and the UK, says that while there’s not many, Australian Christian comic artists “definitely bring a unique flavour to comics”.

“We have a particular brand of irreverent humour and that's reflected in out cartoons and comic art,” he says. “Also, because there's no real 'comic industry' in this country (and no call to fit a particular mould) it creates an environment of independence and creativity which allows creators to basically do whatever they want.”

While Australia represents a small market for comics generally in world terms, Nate Butler says that billions of people of all ages across the world are avid readers of various comic forums, adding in a recent publication that the narrative picture stories known in the Western World as comics are “the world’s most widely read form of popular literature”.

While in the US, the biggest selling comic titles move around 2.5 million copies a year, Butler says that in Japan top titles sell millions of copies a week while in Korea, 7,000 new comic book titles appear on the market each year.

REVEALING TRUTHS: Artists like Dean Rankine hope to reflect the life-changing message of Christ in their work. IMAGE: Courtesy of Dean Rankine - www.webcomicsnation.com/deanrankine/

“Jesus came and and 'ordinary' people like you and me followed Him. And that's what I want to see reflected in my work,” Rankine says.

Comic artists in Australia point to the popularity of recent films based on comics - everything from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four to this year’s blockbuster Superman - as one reason behind the ongoing popularity of comics in Western countries.

“Hollywood have certainly seen comics as a excellent source to tap for new material,” says Rankine. “Particularly because, like film, comics are a visual medium which also use a lot of cinematic tools. So the transition to film can be relatively smooth compared to say a novel or short story. Book stores are also recognising the literary quality of comics. With many shops now having 'graphic novel' sections.”

One of the issues cartoonists and comics artists in general - and Christian ones in particular - have to grapple with is that fine line between the funny and the offensive; between challenging people and just shocking people for the sake of doing so.

Watson says that “as long as I'm honouring God with what I do, I'll make it my goal to cross lines in order to shatter people's myths about Jesus”.

“I'm sure I haven't crossed too many lines so far, but I fully intend to in the future,” he explains. “I know there's a big thing in the world these days where you shock people just for the sake of being radical, and then call it art. I don't agree with that. But I'll happily use humour to try and challenge people about Jesus. When I've fully worked out how to do this, I'll let you know!”

Rankine, meanwhile, says that while he’s “not much of an evangelist”, he wants to use his creative skills to help present the life-changing and revolutionary message of Jesus to people.

“Jesus came and and 'ordinary' people like you and me followed Him. And that's what I want to see reflected in my work,” he says.

“I try to make my comics as original and interesting as possible and do my best to avoid church jargon. I have a pretty unique, 'cartoony' kind of style. And with story titles that include God's Love is Like a Conjoined Twin, Mighty Mega Meatman and the Pastrami of Pain and More Angels Than You Can Poke a Stick At, I hope that they stand out as something that people (regardless of where they're at on their spiritual journey) would be interested in reading.”

• The COMIX35 training seminar will be held at the Mission to Seafarers from Monday 29th to Wednesday 31st May. For further details, contact Graham Wade at grawade@ihug.com.au.

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