Christian Comics? It’s No Laughing Matter!

butler_logo_216Did you know that people in ancient cultures around the world actually produced and read comics? Don't laugh … It’s true!

“Comics” may be defined as “a series of pictures which tell a story or make a point.” They are neither a new phenomenon nor the exclusive invention of any single country or culture. Modern day comics are just one of the latest incarnations of a narrative picture-story tradition that has been in existence for thousands of years.

Comics are the most widely read form
of popular literature around the world.

Comics Around the World
In Europe stained-glass windows, the Bayeux Tapestry in France and fifteenth century German woodcuts are examples of messages communicated through a series of artistic images. In Asia, Buddhist monks in sixth and seventh century Japan created “picture scrolls” which told epic stories, using symbols such as falling cherry blossoms to indicate the passage of time. Long before the arrival of the Europeans, Australian Aborigines were painting sequential images on bark and rocks to relate their own “dreamtime stories.” In Mexico wall murals in Teotihuacan show illustrated stories of jaguars that utilize a form of speech balloons.

The current and rather narrow English term “comics” comes from comical versions that gained tremendous popularity in England and the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, this medium is being used now to communicate a variety of messages, often more serious than funny, and usually more bad than good. The international audience on the receiving end of this type of information is enormous.

Throughout Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa billions of people of all ages are avid readers of publications they call manga, manhwa, bande dessinée, historietas, foto novela, fumetti or some other term within their own culture. All of these are versions and variations of the narrative picture-stories referred to as “comics” in the West. In fact, this visual medium is the world’s most widely read form of popular literature.

This truth can be difficult to grasp in countries such as America, where the largest selling comic book title moves around 2.5 million copies a year. This truth is more obvious in Japan, where the top title Shonen Jump sells 3.2 million copies every single week, the three top sellers have a total turnover of ten million copies per week and a staggering 2.1 billion comics are sold every year. This translates into 16.6 copies for every man, woman, boy and girl in that country! However, Japan is not alone in its extraordinary love of comics.

In Korea seven thousand new comic book titles appear every year, and twenty-five million volumes are published. About 8,700 comic book rental stores and 7,600 comic book arcades exist nationwide. Teenage boys and girls in Thailand rank comics among their most “popular reads,” and the top two comics, Kai Hua Roh and Mahasanook, together sell over eight million copies a month. Graphic novel comics featuring France’s popular cartoon character Astérix le Gaulois have sold approximately 200 million volumes. The Donald Duck comic is one of the most successful periodicals in the Nordic countries, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in Norway, Finland and Sweden each month. In the Middle East the successful pan-Arab comic strip magazine Majid has a certified weekly circulation of 150,000 to 175,000 copies and is sold in almost every Arab state. The international examples go on and on.

People of all ages read comics.

Why are Comics so Popular Around the World?
Some of the reasons that comics are globally popular are fairly clear:

  • They use exciting visuals to draw the viewer into reading compelling stories.
  • They engage the readers emotionally.
  • They are completely accessible, portable and reviewable, both by the individual who originally buys them as well as for other members of their household or community.
  • When compared with other forms of available “entertainment media,” they are relatively inexpensive both to produce and to purchase.

Many governments and international agencies have taken note of the obvious ability of comics to reach the masses. In the last presidential elections in Mexico, both major parties handed out comic books as part of their campaigns. The Brazilian health ministry prepared 1.4 million comic pamphlets to promote the government’s views on AIDS and sex education. In Kanpur, India, the citywide asthma awareness program used comic books. The Cambodian government publicized the country’s first census in more than thirty years with a media campaign that included comic books. The South African government distributed nearly 100,000 cartoon pamphlets to inform farmers about anthrax. UNICEF Somalia disseminated more than 500,000 anti-cholera cartoon leaflets and another twenty thousand on diarrhea, dysentery, diphtheria and dyslexia, drawn by one of Somalia’s top cartoonists.

Perhaps the most significant case to be cited is China, where 1.8 million copies of Mi Laoshu (Mickey Mouse) sell each month. Chinese authorities have made greater use of the medium than any other national government. Chinese comics have been produced to combat Western influence, promote national patriotism, explain Socialism, encourage oral hygiene and discredit religion. Indeed, the modern Chinese have a significant track record of using comics to persuade that dates back to at least World War II, when Chinese cartoonists engaged in “cartoon warfare” resistance. After the war the Communists propagandized Nationalist China with cartoon booklets before their takeover.

Comics and Christianity
Missionaries and Christian nationals have also recognized that comics are excellent communication tools. They see that gospel truth can be represented in an engaging story format, making it more memorable to both children and adults. They realize that comics can teach Christian discipleship to new believers with an understandable directness.

This is where COMIX35 comes in. COMIX35’s primary mission is to train ministries and individuals to produce effective Christian comics as part of an evangelism strategy and/or discipleship program for their own people.

The whole purpose is summed up in the “X35,” which refers to Exodus 35:30-35, where the Lord calls the artisans whom he will fill with his Spirit. The Lord not only gives them the ability, intelligence, knowledge and craftsmanship to do every sort of work, he also inspires them to teach it. Likewise, those at COMIX35 have been inspired by the Lord to teach others the comics production skills he has given them through years of training and professional experience.

Since 1996 COMIX35 has held over twenty-five Christian comics training workshops for more than seven hundred attendees representing forty-two countries across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.

Comics are read not only for entertainment, but
are also used in sharing the gospel.

The COMIX35 training is not an introductory “how to draw” class or a seminar designed for artists only. Sessions cover: identifying your audience; plotting and scripting; storyboarding and visual storytelling; editing and art directing; and cultural, communication and evangelism strategy considerations. The seminar is “hands on” for the participants and there are opportunities to create short comic strips and tracts that can go into print when the training has ended. Afterward the staff of COMIX35 continues to consult with and provide follow-up for individuals and ministries working on Christian comics projects which resulted from each workshop.

COMIX35 has helped launch successful comics such as Dorie the Girl Nobody Loved in Eastern Europe; PowerMark in the US and Southeast Asia; and numerous smaller comic and cartoon tracts worldwide.

Millions of copies of Christian comics are already in circulation reaching children, youth and adults in orphanages, prisons, schools and on the streets in ways that other print literature cannot. 

And that is nothing to laugh at!

Nate Butler is president/cofounder of COMIX35. He worked for over twenty years as acartoonist and writer/illustrator for clients such as Jim Henson, KingFeatures and comic publishers DC, Archie and Marvel.