Ric Estrada: The beginnings of MORMON comics

4.29.09 | | 7 comments

.

    *
    Recently I wrote a short monograph about Mormons who work in comics.
    Yes.

    And you’re probably the best known of them.

    Yes, I am.

    And I just wanted — there is — I’m working on — for instance I’m thinking about putting together an anthology of Mormon artists and I was curious what you think Mormon comics should look like in the future

    Oph! Is that a question? What Mormon comics should look like in the future? Well, I tell you: because I worked for commercial publishers, DC comics mostly, for DC Comics for sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years, and for other New York publishers because I lived in New York at the time.

    Right.

    But the comics I did usually followed the stories they gave me to illustrate, which were superheroes, war stories, romance stories, detective stories. I used, you know, in the late, oh, 1940s, early 1950s, western stories, cowboys and Indians.

    Yeah.

    So as far as MORMON comics, I don’t know that there’s anything like MORMON comics.

    I don’t think there is.

    No, I think it’s a, you know, it’s a nice thought, but it’s a misnomer.

    *

Ric Estrada’s mentor when he first arrived in New York was a, “what do you call him, a Jack Mormon . . . he came from a Mormon background and he told me a thing or two about the Church, but he was disconnected with it.” Needless to say, this man was was not making “Mormon” comics. And outside of Church publications (mainly The Friend), there has been very little done in that respect. A thing here, a thing there. Gags in Sunstone, Mike Allred’s Golden Plates — but not much. So I asked the man with the experience why he thought that was. He offered two reasons.

The first is the amount of time and effort it requires to create a comic book. As Chris Ware wrote in his introduction to the 2007 edition of Best American Comics,

    . . . I should reiterate that cartooning takes a really, really long time and is hard, lonely work. Pages upon hundreds of pages are drawn and thrown away before any writer or artist eventually finds him- or herself. The reader may even reliably calculate that the time it takes to read a comic strip to the time it took to draw it is roughly 1:1,000, and I’m not exaggerating.

To put this much effort into a self-financed work in an unproven market is financial suicide (this is the second reason). Mike Allred, mentioned above, had to quit work on The Golden Plates and go back to his regular job of wowza bizarro funjobbery because he was swiftly going broke. Yet The Golden Plates books were, in Brother Estrada’s estimation, “very interesting, very good.”

Last time, I mentioned the Estrada-penned works “The ‘Mormon’ Battalion” and “Peace with Honor” which he wrote on sudden deadline to fill space in DC war-comics magazines. It was this incidental work done in a pinch that led to what may be the most widely distributed Mormon comic of all time.

    *
    As a matter of fact, when I wrote “Peace with Honor,” Elder Hugh Pinnock — he was on the counsel of the Seventies

    I remember the name.

    A missionary brought him the comic book and said, Look at this! This fellow must be a Mormon. Cause I said, you know, based on the Book of Mormon. And Hugh Pinnock phoned me from Salt Lake City and he said I’m in charge of the New Testament stories for children and I have looked into your background and you’re an active Mormon and I would like you to illustrate the New Testament stories for children.Well that’s cool.

    And then, not only was it cool, let me tell you the other part of the story. They offered me a certain amount of money for the book — it had about three hundred drawings — and I said, Look, this work is going to take me at least six months to do, so I don’t think I can live on that amount of money but if we break down panel by — you know, picture by picture, and I give you a minimum price per picture, you will see that it is more than that. And indeed it was TWICE as much as they were offering. And we negotiated and they accepted my price and then the editor of the Church magazines, he called me a few months ago — a few months later — and he said, Ric, you’ve done us a great favor because the Church, not out of malice, but out of not really knowing what artwork is worth, we have been underpaying our artists and as of now we’ll start paying their proper, the proper amounts.

    Oh. Well good for you!

    Well it was nice and good for the ones who FOLLOWED me.

    Right. Definitely.

    So anyway, that’s —

    I’m sure they’re grateful.

    *

I’m hardly the only Mormon kid who grew up reading this comic by an anonymous LDS artist. This comic is no longer published (the Church has payed for new illustrations), but it is still available online.

Comparing his work to that of the 2005 edition lets Brother Estrada describe his own style:

    He is very realistic, very photographic — it’s like almost like color photographs. And I’m not, I am not. Mine is the more linear — mine looks like like it’s sort of a better quality comic book. His look like excellent quality illustrations. Mine is more linear and car– not cartoony, but more like the comic-book lines and colors.

From New Testament Stories, drawn by Ric Estrada

In other words, Ric Estrada’s comics are purely comics, very Silver Age, very cartoon, very pure and of their time. Mick Rabin has said that his work “is amongst the true highlights to grace the pages of DC War (or any other genre) across a 40 year range.”

And his request for fair pay has undoubtedly benefited dozens — perhaps hundreds — of LDS artists who have worked for the Church, including the artist whose work replaced the 1980 New Testament Stories.

In the world of Mormon arts and letters, a constant debate is whether faithful artists should have, as a purpose, the conversion of others. And while disagreement exists on this question, I imagine that all faithful LDS artists, no matter on which side of the debate they stand, would agree that conversion would never be an unfortunate outcome of an artistic endeavor.

Bill Galban — another comics artist living in Provo — called,

    And we just chatted about this that and the other and he mentioned another fellow he knows who said that he had become, that he had been reactivated in the Church along with his mother because of a comic book story he had read in DC Comics that mentioned the Book of Mormon.Uh huh.
    And Bill said No WAY, they NEVER had a thing like that at DC comics. And I said, Bill, I have news for you. It’s a story called “Peace with Honor” and I wrote it based on the Book of uh, of uh —Ether.

    — Ether and I illustrated it. So there was indeed a story about the Book of Mormon in the 1970s and that’s the one he refers to. Bill said, Oh WOW, no Way! I never believed this could be possible.

    Uh huh.

    So that’s the story.

    Oh, cool. That must make you feel good.

    Oh, it made me feel wonderful that at least I reactivated two people.

    Uh huh. Yeah, that’s —

    The story did, anyway.

    Right. The worth of one soul.

    And I — [laughs] In the words of one fool, did you say?

    No, uh, in, the, the worth of one soul. Like it says in the D&C.

    I see.

So maybe there haven’t been many Mormon comics. Maybe Ric himself has only done a little.

    And so I have done two Mormon stories. “The ‘Mormon’ Battalion” and “Peace with Honor” for DC Comics. As far as I know, what I tried to put in my drawings, is I tried to put a certain amount of compassion and a certain amount of, you know, you can even call it spirituality. But a certain amount of compassion in the comics that I have drawn. And that’s about all I can do for quote-unquote MORMON comics. Okay?

Okay.

If it’s good enough to save souls, it’s good enough for me.

7 comments: “Ric Estrada: The beginnings of MORMON comics

  1. William Morris

    I am happy to report that, coincidentally, my parents gave us their copy of the New Testament stories for children when we visited them last week because the LDS Bookstore didn’t have one in stock (we picked up a D&C one to go with our Book of Mormon one, which we’ve already read). So yeah, my daughter’s first major, sustained experience with the New Testament will feature Bro. Estrada’s work.

  2. Theric Jepson Post author

    .

    As was mine. Shortly before I knew who Ric Estrada was, I found the NT comics online and experienced some very pleasant nostalgia.

    (Incidentally, earlier this month at LA Comicon there was a panel on Silver Age art that focused on Br Estrada’s work.)

  3. S. P. Bailey

    Interesting. I have good memories of the children’s scripture stories. (Which reminds me, I need to pick those up for my kids …) Did Ric Estrada do volumes other than the NT?

  4. Th.

    .

    No, and he doesn’t know who the other artists are. Since credit isn’t given, it’s a tough thing to research. I do recognize the artist who did the new NT version, but I haven’t been able to place him yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>