A Japanese art form that has become wildly popular with young people is now being used to tell the stories of our faith.
By Kathryn Oates
Maybe you’ve seen a young person reading them. Maybe you’ve run across shelves of them in your local bookstore. Or maybe you’ve never encountered them at all. But whatever your familiarity with the books of visual storytelling known as manga (pronounced mahn-gah), you may not have heard of its recent connection to the Catholic faith.
Manga originally referred to illustrated or “graphic” novels published in Japan (see “Where did manga come from?” on page 60), but as these books grew in popularity, artists in other countries adopted its distinct art style and storytelling format. Today, manga has spread around the world and is popular in countries as diverse as France, Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States. Manga art is easily identified by characters with large, emotional eyes and detailed (often gravity-defying) hairstyles. While the styles of individual artists vary, characters are usually youthful, slender, and expressive. In the United States, manga aimed at young adults appears to be the most popular, and, according to Publisher’s Weekly, in 2008 sales of manga in the U.S. and Canada topped $175 million.
With that kind of popularity, why not use manga to bring Catholicism to young people? That’s what Jonathan Lin, the founder of the publishing company Manga Hero (mangahero.com), wants to do. He’s been a manga fan since childhood, when his cousins from Japan showed him manga books and animated manga, known as anime (an-ih-may). Lin is also a Catholic (“and proud of it!”) who started Manga Hero because he wanted to celebrate the lives of saints and biblical characters by turning them into manga stories. And as a catechism teacher (“interacting with kids every Sunday helps me stay current with what’s trendy,” he says), he had a feeling the idea might prove popular. “With media playing such an influential role in our culture, especially (with) our youths,” he says, “I felt this was an area where I could make a difference.”
Lin soon reached out to other Catholics, including Matthew Salisbury, a graduate student at John Paul the Great University and former seminarian. While he ultimately didn’t have a vocation to the priesthood, Salisbury realized he felt called “to working in mainstream culture, and trying to bring some good into it, to show hope and truth.
“Talking to Jonathan was the catalyst that helped me see that there’s a real need here, a real market for this type of storytelling,” Salisbury says. “Along with young adult novels, manga seems to be one of the only growing mediums out there, and it’s growing explosively.”
When Lin gave Salisbury the job of writing the first two volumes of Manga Hero’s Paul: Tarsus to Redemption, Salisbury saw the chance to share the excitement and drama of Paul’s life in a format that would appeal to younger readers.
“I’ve always been fascinated by St. Paul,” says Salisbury. “I think his conversion story is really interesting. At first he was going down the wrong path, but he was doing it passionately. When God knocked him off his horse and showed him the truth, he was able to pursue Christianity with that same passion and zeal that I think young people really respond to.”
After producing the Paul series, Manga Hero published Judith: Captive to Conqueror, written by Gabrielle Gniewek. Also a student at John Paul the Great, Gniewek says she grew up reading manga. “I submerged myself in Japanese culture,” she says. “I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed Japanese at heart.”
Encouraged by the school’s motto, “Impact Culture for Christ,” Gniewek says she dreamed of combining her faith with her passion for Japanese art. When the chance to work on Judith arose, she jumped at the opportunity to “write good, clean, Catholic manga.”
While other companies have made biblical picture books or comics for children, Manga Hero’s Paul and Judith are the first Catholic — or even Christian — manga series to hit the market.
“Faith plays a huge role in my job, in making sure that our stories stay consistent with our Church’s teachings,” Lin says. Due to the condensed format, the writers took some creative liberties but tried to remain true to the biblical text and represent the historical characters in a way that would attract both Christian and secular readers.
“We don’t want to draw just the Christian audience,” said Judith author Gniewek. “Having Judith on the cover is going to appeal to Bible readers who are familiar with the story. Hopefully details like having kanji (Japanese language symbols) on the cover, and the style of art, will also appeal to the secular audience. I didn’t want this to be a preachy, ‘Hey, you should convert or a woman will come in the night and cut off your head,’ type of book,” she laughs.
“The real missionary work is to reach out to the broader culture,” Salisbury explains, “and I think that’s exactly what St. Paul did. You can’t really do that if you focus just on your Catholic niche culture. But if you really go into the mainstream culture, that’s where you can create some real good. There’s real hope you can plant by holding up these examples of goodness, like St. Paul’s life and Judith’s life.”
So far the feedback has been very positive, adds Lin. “People have responded pretty well to both series, especially the artwork,” he says. “All the criticisms centered on stylistic points. Some people preferred a grittier, more realistic style, while others wanted periodic interludes with more outrageous, totally exaggerated features to depict funny situations.” One catechist contacted the company to say thank you for creating the series, because “my students, and myself, love these books.” Another fan wrote, “This is totally amazing, I was just thinking how I wish there were some faith-based (manga) novels to read. Keep up the good work!”
Having completed the Judith and Paul series, Manga Hero already has new projects under way. “We’re working on several epic stories, starting with Moses and David,” says Lin. “We’re also developing a series on Jesus’ parables, as well as working with World Youth Day 2011 on a special manga just for the event in Madrid.”
Sean Lam, the mangaka (manga artist) of Paul and Judith, shares the rest of the Manga Hero team’s passion for the power of this art style. “Manga can deliver emotions faithfully and carry a vivid message to readers, evoking a sense of reality in the story,” Lam explains. “Young children are actually fascinated by the art when they pick up the book. I hope that my artwork can help them understand the emotional background of the set and characters, and bring them into that world to learn about the wonderful stories of faith.”
Where did manga come from?
Originating in Japan, the word manga is translated as “whimsical images” and dates back to the late 18th century. Humorous or entertaining Japanese artwork can be traced back to scrolls in the 12th century, but the birth of modern manga is generally attributed to Osamu Tezuka, the “Father of Manga and Anime” who published an illustrated book based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1947 that became an instant best-seller. Though similar to Western comics, manga is distinguished by its unique visual presentation, storytelling devices, and art style.
Check the ratings!
Topics portrayed in manga are extremely diverse and aimed at every age group. As with television, movies, books, and music, manga content also varies depending on the intended age of the reader, with some manga being designed for kids, others for young adults, and some restricted to adult audiences only. In the United States, a rating system helps identify which books are appropriate for what age group. Manga Hero’s Judith and Paul series are rated for readers age 12 and up.
Sharing the faith through comics
Manga Hero isn’t the only group using modern artwork to reach out to young adults. Robert Sheridan, an American comic-style artist, also uses his artwork to reach out to younger generations and share the stories of the saints (grailpress.com). The Diocese of Sacramento commissioned him to create a series of comic book-style saint images for Confirmation retreats, which have also been used by the Diocese of Baltimore.
“I think that younger people really take to it and relate to it well,” Sheridan explains. “The Catholic Church used to be the pioneer in artwork. Most of the great strides in the Renaissance were done for the Church, and it’s kind of a shame that it’s not happening as much as it used to. But overall the reaction has been very positive. My faith plays a huge role in the creation of my art. It’s a very meditative experience for me. I hope it will inspire people to look up the lives of the saints and learn from them, and ultimately be drawn to Christ and Christ in the Eucharist.”
Clergy who fight monsters… and other cool Catholic characters in Japan
Catholic-themed manga characters are surprisingly common in Japan, even though just under 0.5 percent of the Japanese population is Catholic. Most Catholic manga characters (usually priests and nuns) are portrayed in a positive light, with a strong devotion to their faith. There seems to be a prevalent mystique about Catholic characters, and they are generally depicted as formidable allies who fight evil, particularly demons and monsters. Characters are often armed with weapons, which can range from divine swords to holy handguns.
Artists often re-imagine their clerical attire, although even characters without a confirmed religion frequently sport crosses as jewelry or wear them embroidered on their clothing. Angels are another popular theme in manga, and characters are often shown with angelic wings for symbolic reasons or dramatic effect.
While Catholic-themed characters in manga and anime generally display signs of faith such as religious attire, attending church, or praying (including the Our Father), the characters are designed to appeal to a wide audience. They also seem to fit comfortably among other religiously cast characters. In the anime “Ghost Hunt,” a supernatural thriller, a young Catholic priest named John (pictured) is part of an investigation team that includes a Buddhist monk, a Shinto priestess, an Onmyodo (traditional Japanese esoteric cosmologist), a famous psychic medium, an intuitive teenager, and a scientific paranormal researcher. Despite actively using their faith to confront evil spirits in the supernatural thriller, the characters do not push their beliefs on others.
To dowload a PDF of the print version of this article from the April 2011 issue: