When I asked Theric Jepson to write a bit about Mormon graphic novels, I didn’t expect that he would launch a full on bibliographic project. But he did — and even though the results make for a very long post, it’s very much worth a read. Indeed, it’s quite the amazing project and must have taken quite some time to put together. Thanks, Theric. ~Wm Morris
I’m also going to make you click through for the full post because the “more” tag seems to be causing some problems with the special formatting for the post.
This is going to be a post long enough that it risks breaking that tacit understanding between bloggers and readers: “This really won’t take you that long. I swear.”
In order to alleviate your sense of “This really might take that long,” I have chopped this post into sections and provided a table of contents wherewith you may click on ahead to the portions that interest you and comment thereupon. You should not feel you have to read the whole thing to start commenting. If you have lots to say about Mormon Superheros and couldn’t care less about who’s who in the funny papers, comment on Mormon Superheros and ignore the funnies entirely. Fair enough?
Let’s start with a couple definitions, then I’ll give you the ToC.
So. Comics. How do we define this term? The easy way: we do what everyone else does and agree with Scott McCloud‘s definition of comics. Which is:
I know Motley Vision readers are a bright crowd so I’m not going to insult you by overexplaining this definition. But I do insist on pointing out what still isn’t obvious to everyone, viz. there is nothing in this definition about blue pajamas or fuzzy animals. And if you have never read Understanding Comics (from where these images were taken), I insist you click on the picture above and sail over to Amazon and buy a copy for your home library. There’s a very good reason this book has become a required college course in many disciplines other than “mere” comics.
But before we go, can we add a touch more clarification to that definition, Mr McCloud?
Thank you. That’s the definition I’ll be using and even though I know some of my examples will stretch what most people are willing to call comics, I think you’ll be surprised by the comics legacy we see in Mormon Arts.
(Note: the spelling of comix in the title is a holdover from this stuff. Art Spiegelman has taken to using it more generically and although I like the sentiment, it’s never going to catch on. Still. It’s a good-looking word. Perfect for titles.)
Table of Contents
- I love the comics form. I read a lot of comics. If it’s my taste you’re concerned about, this post gives you a sense of what I like.
But today’s post has little to do with taste or anything else. I’m just trying to get a sense of what has gone before. What qualifies me for this? I can use Google, I guess. I have an idea where to look and who to ask. I dunno. No one’s really qualified to write the definitive monograph on Mormon comics. Best we know, I’m the best we’ve got. Sorry.
- Carl Christian Anton Christensen, a Danish man who converted in 1850, was one of the first notable Mormon artists. His Handcart Pioneers is “the most widely published painting of the Mormon pioneer experience by an actual pioneer.”
The other thing he is well-known for is Mormon Panorama, a series of twenty-three paintings depicting early Church history. Panoramas were popular at the time. The idea is, you get one long painting (or, as in this case, a series of paintings) and make it into a circle and people can stand inside and ooh and aah. Christensen took Mormon Panarama on the road and people took in his juxtaposed pictorial images in deliberate sequence and had an experience with art. Voila. The first Mormon comics.
Here are the fourteenth and fifteenth paintings in the sequence, depicting Carthage Jail. (Please note that here, as in future images, I have set them up so that if you click on them, you will be taken to where I obtained the images.)
- I hope starting with sequential paintings isn’t stretching our definition of comics too far for anyone. I think looking past the newsprint stereotype and seeing how the artistic strengths that are comics are applied in nonprint media is a great way to get us thinking about how comics work and the potential they have in the specific arena of Mormon Arts. Again, I can’t recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics enough to anyone interested in the artform.
We’ll be sticking with paintings for a little while longer, and next up is your favorite and mine, Minerva Teichert.
Teichert’s Book of Mormon series (only recently discussed here) was up on public display my entire time as a BYU student in the religion building. I had seen few of these paintings before, but I had many opportunities to study them 1999-2002. They are beautiful. Teichert is one of the great American artists of the last century and eventually everyone will realize that, I’m certain. Take a look at Nephi and his brothers bringing in their treasure and then, later that night, when his brothers bring Nephi a little something all their own:
Teichert wasn’t the first to tackle a whole series of Book of Mormon paintings (Christensen did it), nor would she be the last. I myself have seen the Arnold Friberg series at the Conference Center and Walter Rane’s more recent series at the L.A. Temple’s Visitors Center. The paintings are arranged chronologically. Or, in other words, they were juxtaposed in a deliberate sequence. The Church was making use of the strengths of sequential images to teach the Book of Mormon.
Of course, dealing with the entire Book of Mormon in only a few images is not the sort of storytelling comics is best known for. Nor, would I argue, is it its strength. But the Book of Mormon has consistently been a favorite place for Mormon comics artists to draw from. We’ll look into this more a little further down.
But before we leave the so-called fine arts behind, we need to talk about one more set of sequenced images: temple murals.
First a set of images representing Creation; often one part of the room representing an earlier portion of Creation than another. Then what? Another room. Then another. Each representing a part of the story. The images are static. They are there more for meditative purposes than as set dressing (I would argue) and they are comics. Comics on a grand and sacred scale.
- From the sacred to the funny pages.
Frankly, I’m surprised I couldn’t dig up any more Mormon cartoonists than I did. It’s a big field and I seem to remember there’s an editorial cartoonist in . . . Atlanta? who’s Mormon, but I didn’t find all that much. Sorry.
The big cheese in this category is Brian Crane whose Pickles is widely syndicated. LDS readers eventually catch on as Crane is fond of putting pictures of temples on his characters’ walls and they sometimes read the Ensign. Other than that, the Pickles could be any pleasant American family. I apologize for not having a better image for you, but this is the best currently online at comics.com (look in the first panel):
Actual Mormon-themed newspaper comics have existed in the past. I know Church schools have published some, but even with the assistance of the mighty 100 Hour Board I was only barely able to come up with one BYU comic and, as it was called PhD and later syndicated, I’m going to guess it wasn’t particularly Mormoncentric. The artist, Aaron Taylor, later went on to work as an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Herald (Provo/Orem) until recently.
The other person we must mention is Pat Bagley (not to be confused with cartoonist Val Chadwick Bagley, whose style has become the defacto look for Mormon funny pictures. That Bagley’s a brand unto himself. I, for instance, play Go Fish with my four-year-old on cards with VC Bagley’s drawing of Lehi, Lamoni, cureloms and cumoms.)
Something I find fascinating about the Bagleys is that despite an apparently widespread confusion, both have been successful in Mormonland (Val particularly, but Pat’s I Spy a Nephite is no slouch) while, at the same time, Pat’s presenting a political viewpoint at Mormonland’s gentile paper that doesn’t match the stereotyped Utah Mormon’s presumed viewpoint. I think this can only be interpreted in good ways.
- Madman is apparently Mormon as well. Even back in the ’90s, Madman was being stalked by “the Three Nephites,” which Mormons will recognize as a reference to Book of Mormon-related folk myth. More recently, his archenemy Monstadt tried to corrupt him by paraphrasing dialogue spoken by the Satan character in the LDS temple ceremony. Madman sang the oddball Mormon hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” to himself after being blasted into outer space. And in the March issue, Madman even (spoilers!) got married, kneeling at an altar across from his bride, while an alien performed the ceremony. This may be an unusual way for most Earthlings to marry, but it does closely resemble the “sealing” ceremony used to perform marriages in Mormon temples. Um, minus the aliens.
When Mr Morris first suggested this topic to me, I wrote my go-to guy on all things comics. He didn’t have any Mormonspecific information to add to my information, but he did send me to this post by Ken Jennings. I was already aware of adherents.com’s comic-book religion page, but I had forgotten all about it and was astonished, now that I was looking, how many Mormon (or possibly Mormon) characters there are.
I won’t discuss them all here, but I encourage you to follow the link and take a look at people like Captain Canuck (co-created by Mormon Richard Comely) that I will be ignoring.
The character I find most fascinating is Michael Allred’s Madman (we’ll talk more about Allred later). To quote Mr Jennings:
I wish I owned these books. Madman has leapt to the top of my must-find pile. As it is, I have no scans of Madman’s wedding; instead, I give you this:
One of the big event storylines in mainstream comics was Marvel’s Civil War. I didn’t read it; I don’t read a lot of superhero comics anyway and this would have been an investment of time and energy (and money) I did not have. But apparently, each state got it’s own superhero team–even Utah:
Marvel fans never got to meet this team, but if the information’s in a file somewhere, I would love to know their names.
However. While the existence of Mormon characters like Dr. Deseret in superherodom is fascinating, the fact is, to the best of my knowledge, the concept of a straight-up Mormon hero has not been pursued very far, if at all. Pity.
- This guy pops up everywhere, doesn’t he? He’s showing up here because he wrote Marvel’s Ultimate recreation of Iron Man.
- Captain Canuck may sound like a joke to us elitist Americans, but he’s big news in his native north. He was on a postage stamp and the Canadian version of Time. According to his creator, he’s particularly Canadian because “He’s against using firearms, which is somewhat Canadian, he’s more mild-mannered even when in costume, more polite, taps his own maple syrup… he’s more tolerant and unassuming” (source). In this portion of our discussion, however, we’re much more interested in his creator’s Mormonness and his work in the comics industry. Best I can tell, he’s been successful in the Canadian industry, but his work hasn’t traveled south much. So there you go.
- I’m hesitant to mention this guy. He’s so far removed from his time as a Mormon that he thinks he was baptized at age seven. Following him around the web, I get the sense that he’s hostile to his Mormon connection, so I’ll just leave him alone.
- This writer’s done some work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (I haven’t seen it, but if, when you think TMNT, you think silly movies and Saturday-morning cartoons, you don’t know the artistry of the original creators–even when they were being silly), Marvel and with a friend to create something called Runestone. But, if I’m not mistaken, he doesn’t have more than a couple publication credits to his name.
- Now we’re getting into some famous people. This is the gentleman whose fault it is that so many fans think Power Pack is Mormon.
Vellutto is an Italian immigrant to America and the first thing that strikes me about him as I read his interviews is how, once you know he’s Mormon, it seems so obvious. He says things like “‘you know what’ is paved with good intentions” (source) ask him if he prefers his coffee decaffeinated or straight up and he’ll say, “Actually my quandary is meat or spinach Lasagna” (source). He’s very deft.
Vellutto has worked all over the industry (his resume), including the same TMNT series as Quinn Johnson (but not the same issue) and such bigshots as Captain America, X-Men, Silver Surfer, Batman, the Green Hornet, Flash, Justice League, Green Lantern, Aquaman–you get the idea. Vellutto is a known quantity in the world of the superheros.
His distinctly Mormon work will come up later; for now, suffice it to say he’s a man with a reputation, lots of titles to his credit, and thoroughly LDS.
- Yes, there are more than one.
Mike seems to be the head of this clan. His brother Lee is better known for his prose work in science fiction, but has contributed a thing or two to the Madman universe. Laura Allred is an award-winning colorist best known for her work on her husband’s books (although it would be a mistake to say that is all she has done; her work ranges from Spider-Man to Fables and is quite the corpus). (If you’re not familiar with the highly specialized world of modern superhero comics such as what a ‘colorist’ does), a nice, brief primer can be found here.)
And so it seems that all the Allreds’ work finds genesis in Mike’s brain. If this is incorrect or highly insulting, I hope someone in the know will correct me.
Mike’s done work on comics from Catwoman to the Powerpuff Girls, but he’s most interesting for being part of the creative-ownership revolution in the 1990s. Comics artists were tired of creating something awesome like Batman and then seeing suits roll in batmoney while they continued working for a measly batsalary. Mike Allred’s Madman was one of the vanguard of creator-owned characters who shook things up and permanently changed the industry.
Hooray for Madman. (Movie rumored to be coming soon for over ten years now.)
(Speaking of movies, Mike Allred wrote G-Men from Hell, which movie I have an unwatched copy of somewhere in the garage. I need to find that thing.)
We’ll come to that Allred of the Kolob-singing Madman in a moment; first I want to discuss the other Mormons in the business that I’ve uncovered.
Orson Scott Card
- Speaking of the Allreds, easily the biggest announcement in Mormon comics ever was when he told the world he was giving up his high-paying gigs to adapt the Book of Mormon to the comics form. This led to all sorts of debate and expected laments like “I didn’t know he was a cultist.”
One of my great regrets as a consumer is that I didn’t buy a copy of The Golden Plates when it was at my local comics store. When I went back for it, it was gone. At any rate, Mike has had to discontinue the series at three due to poor sales (he’s publishing them himself) and if you’re a Mormon comics fan sitting on a wad of cash, I imagine he’ld love to talk to you. (Note: he also has plans for books of Jesus and Joseph Smith, so feel free to throw money at those projects as well.)
There are no shortage of Book of Mormon-based comics (the earliest I found was Eileen Chabott Wendel’s 1960 Nephi the Valiant published by Deseret Book), which makes sense as the book is the foundational document on which our entire culture is built. Even the Church has gotten involved: no less than Mike Allred counts Book of Mormon Stories as on influence on his own adaptation.
In response to (or annoyance with) the Allred version, Corey and Douglas Peery started their own comics adaptation. To the best of my knowledge, Book of Mormon Heroes moved even fewer books than The Golden Plates. I have theories as to why neither has done that well, but they’ll have to wait for a later post.
In the meantime, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
- Cypher begins in a dark and obscure future America with an unfortunate nameless hero. He lives in a world of ever-present anxiety and dread where those around him are more sophisticated and stranger than him. They seem to know secrets that he just doesn’t understand.
The unnamed protagonist soon realizes that the symbols surrounding him explain the meaning of life. He is plucked from his mundane existence and shown first-hand how bizarre this world can be if you peer beneath the surface.
I know, I know: how often do the words “wild” and “crazy” apply to The Friend? But that magazine is one of the few outlets (maybe the only outlet) of regularly occurring Mormon-themed comics. But let’s start by dispensing with the nonwild&crazies.
Sal Velluto you know. Here’s he’s working with somebody named Eugenio Mattozzi (about whom I have uncovered nothing) to comicsize the lives of the prophets. If you get the friend, you’ve noticed their work over the past view years. Pretty good stuff. A little Friend-bland, but overall, not bad.
The writer of this next piece (from last January’s Friend is regular Friend contributor and successful romance novelist Jane McBride Choate (assuming there is only one Jane McBride Choate). Drawn by regular Friend illustrator Elise Black (this Elise Black, not this one). To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing wild nor crazy about either of them.
Now. Wild and crazy.
Shauna Mooney Kawasaki’s drawing style has become one of the most recognizable in all Mormondom. Until recently, she ran The Friend‘s art department and her mark still is omnipresent, notably in the regular “Matt and Mandy” comics.
Sadly, Kawasaki has not published any Mormon comics outside The Friend. Her style, which I imagine many in the Mormon Arts community dismiss, is capable of much more than you might think.
A few years ago she had a solo show at the gallery in the Provo Library. Her trademark ink-and-colored-pencils style was applied to delightfully grotesque monsters and other assorted horrors. It was one of the most enjoyable shows I have ever seen. Seeing this classic Friend style applied to the headless and fanged was quite the disconnect. Sadly, this aspect of Kawasaki is little known. There are a couple of nationally published books (1 and 2) that hint at it, but nothing quite like what I saw in Provo.
I would love nothing more than to write a charming horror script for Kawasaki to illustrate. Someday, in fact, I hope I have a book of grotesqueries that will be perfect to send her way for illustrations. Please, Mrs Kawasaki! Make us a book! Let your wild and crazy side roam free!
Brad Teare is our next wild and crazy. He is currently working as The Friend‘s senior designer and his woodcut illustrations make regular appearances (example). But in outside the insular world of church magazines, Teare works making everything from corporate comics to adaptations of classic books.
But Teare is probably best known for his apparently very strange book Cypher.
The book is famously weird and parts of it first appeared in Heavy Metal (no further qualifications for wild and crazy required, thank you).
My only problem with Cypher (besides the fact that I haven’t read it yet) is that Teare hasn’t published another book since its release over ten years ago. What gives, Mr Teare? Have you found us wanting? (Note: his wife is also a painter, but I don’t think she’s done any comics.)
I think (and again, this is part of a future post) that one of the smaller LDS publishers needs to solicit these artists for stories and print a collection. I for one want to see what they are capable of.
- In brief:
“The Mormon Battalion” was a six-page sequence in Our Fighting Forces #135, 1972, by Ric Estrada (not LDS, presumably).
A comics adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet, originally based itself on Joseph Smith. Currently at your local Barnes and Noble.
We can fairly safely assume Joan Hilty’s not LDS, but Zion, her “Mormon-Jewish teenage love story set in southwest Utah,” is one of the few stories with Mormon characters I know of by a major author in the alternative press.
I can’t swear to you that Jake Parker is Mormon, but he attended BYU, making it 98% likely. (And, given he’s from Arizona, probably even higher). He’s been published in the popular Flight anthologies. Plus, his “language problem” seems very Mormon, don’t you think?
Just last week, Newbury-winning LDS writer Shannon Hale’s new book, a graphic novel, was released. Cowritten with her husband Dean and illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation, although his wife also helped making the book–I think that Hale pair are also LDS). I’m looking forward to reading it–looks like a fun take on the Rapunzel story.
Last but not least, Annie Poon. I just recently discovered this woman (and I’m a little irritated she doesn’t sell DVDs of her animation) but she makes and sells comics, much of which are available (in whole or in part) online. I’m most fascinated by her Eve story (but then, I always love a good Adam-and-Eve story).
- Most of the comics work by Mormons online is typical of its type. A few Mormon-penned examples that are typical of their online genre include Schlock Mercenary (science fiction) and Lin Christian-Foxxer’s work (cute animals). Nick Perkins’s “Cooties” (first strip here) is about kids in crazy situations (day one: alien invasion). Digital Strips is allegedly written by its characters, one of whom is Mormon (?). Jake Parker (mentioned above) has work online in the form of a prelude to LDS filmmaker Kohl Glass’s film The Promethean. Glass himself has work online (although they may be storyboards) (but what are storyboards if not comics?). Then there’s “the Little Mormon/Amish Girl” (presumably not created by a Mormon/Amish artist) and things like this:
So what do we have in webcomics that represents the Mormon experience? Well, there’s this (although it’s not really comics, just some cartoons), but what really asks for our attention are Gleaners and Pew People.
Gleaners, strip by strip, tells a missionary experience, starting at the MTC:
I’m intrigued by Gleaners, but every time I visit, the site seems to be on the blink. I don’t know how far the story has traveled from that first day in the MTC–I hope some distance, but I can’t see. I hope you will all click on the strip above and see if you can make it work. The strip has potential, but I can see so little of it, I don’t know how much.
Pew People, on the other hand, is less story, more jokes. But I like it. (Well, some of it. But it’s definitely worth a look. Click and explore.)
- Please, if you have contact information about any writers or artists in the Mormon Comics Scene (mentioned here or not), please invite them to our discussion in the comments section. I will be trying to invite as many of them as I can to our discussion myself, and, with your help, maybe we can get some input from people with on-the-ground experience.
Also, anything that’s happening (or has happened in the past) in Mormon comics, please share. By virtue of writing this post I’m probably the world’s leading expert (main competitor), but I still don’t feel like this WLE really knows very much. I’m sure there’s more to see and read and know. For instance, as Mr Larsen recently posted, I know nothing about, say Mormon manga. Or the 24-hour-comic some French kid did for his Paris singles ward’s New Year’s dance. But I would like to. This post is only the beginning; I don’t believe for a second that it’s comprehensive.
Mr Morris wants me to write about the direction of Mormon comics. My opinion’s great, but what about the opinion of people who actually make comics? And what about your opinion. I’m listening.