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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

The Pope in a New Comic Book

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

There's a new Caped Crusader in the comic book business these days. It's Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican-approved comic book purports to feature the "real life and true adventures" of John Paul II. It's already sold-out in Italy, and the publisher is considering translating the four-part series into other languages and selling it abroad. Entitled "Karol Wojtyla: Pope of the Third Millennium," it's a biography of His Holiness told in the comic book format of cartoons, larger-than-life depictions of the hero, and dialogue in bubbles.

Part 1 follows the boyhood of young Karol, stressing that (and I quote) "He really wasn't a geek!" We see him as a normal young boy - blocking a goal in a soccer game, zipping down a snowy slope on skis, and performing next to a beautiful girl in an amateur drama production. Supporters hastily point out that there's also the serious side here: Wojtyla loses his mother at 9 and his only brother at 11 - tragedies that affect him greatly. And the comic book points out that the future Pope "never felt the need to prove himself by smoking, drinking beer and staying out late as he grew up - as some boys do."

This is not the Catholic Church's first foray into the secular world of commercial culture, of course. The Vatican is on the Internet; Pope John Paul II received $8.5 million dollars from Simon & Schuster for his 1994 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope"; the CD of the Pope's hymns went platinum recently.

Those who support this new comic book take the view that it's merely spreading the message of the Church in a different medium - this one directed towards children. "We have to preach the Gospel to all of the people," a Vatican spokesman said, "so we have to use all the media. The comics are a good medium for children."

Others, however, are more hesitant about the effort, professing "putting the Pontiff on the same level as Superman and other superheroes is a mistake." In addition to criticizing the comic book format, they are also doubtful of the content, fearing that it will demean the church and reinforce a cult of personality. This is, after all, a comic book about the Pope rather than Jesus, God or the Scriptures.

It certainly represents one further step of the Catholic Church into contemporary culture, but it's not the first time a religion has turned to the media to popularize its beliefs. From the very first paintings of the Almighty God (whatever the artist believed Him to be), through Nativity scenes and stained glass windows and stations of the cross on church walls, the Catholic religion (and all other religions as well) have understood the power of images, the way to tell a story using pictures, and the importance of using contemporary media to get their message across.

"The Greatest Story Ever Told," "The Robe," "Ben-Hur" and countless other film epics (although not sanctioned or sponsored by the church officially) brought religion into new media of film and popular culture.

On television, religious messages which started out as merely talking heads or taped sermons progressed rapidly into TV with contemporary production values, such as all the evangelical TV ministries and even animated cartoons based on stories from the Bible.

Religion is an intensely personal and oftentimes passionate part of people's lives, and I'm certainly not making light of this comic book, nor even necessarily approving or disapproving of it. As a media watcher, I'm just noting it.

It's a tough balancing act that religions need to perform, with one foot planted firmly in the secular world and the other in the spiritual one, trying to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, between this life and the next.

On the one hand, religions need and want to get their particular message of salvation out there to the people - whatever that message may happen to be. On the other hand, it can be dangerous to commercialize the very icons which are supposed to lead us away from purely worldly concerns.

And the Catholic Church is not noted for quick or rash changes. I recall the big change from Masses in Latin to English, the first time lay people were allowed to perform various tasks, the slow inclusion of women into many (but not all) of the Church's ceremonies. All of that makes this Papal comic book even more noteworthy, it seems to me. No doubt there was serious thought and lengthy debate about giving Vatican approval to this effort.

When one of the admittedly most conservative, traditional religions decides to approve of a new media format for its teachings, it's a significant event.

I don't think that there's much of a possibility that we'll see a Daniel and the Lions video game soon, or a Mother Theresa action figure. There are, after all, still lines to between blasphemy and the embracing of popular culture.

But this past month the Vatican appears to have embraced a new medium for its teachings, and it's a reminder to all of us of the awesome potential of the media, and an example of a movement 2000 years old learning still more about using the media in this world to help us toward the next.