Our Marvel, The Art In Heaven

“So tell me, De,” people say to me, “how do you reconcile being gay with being Catholic?”

Alright, it might be a fair question to some people. But I invariably respond, “There’s nothing to reconcile. J-Dog is my homeboy.” Jesus loves me, this I know, because Marvel and the Comic Code Authority tells me so.

Three guys walk into a bar in Japan in the late seventies – a rep from Marvel Comics and two Franciscan friars. Over coffee, they had the idea to do a comic book about the life of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. They got another Franciscan, a childhood comic book kid who had also been an advisor on Francis-centric productions in Hollywood and on Broadway to write the script, and then they called in the big guns. John Buscema – think Conan the Barbarian and The Silver Surfer – and Marie Severin – Doctor Strange, The Hulk, The Spectacular Spider-Man – did the art on what would become Francis: Brother of the Universe (Vol 1 Issue 1). There would never be a second issue.

It was published in 1980, and is still in print through the religious printing house Paulist Press. Awesome. It cost seventy-five cents in the first run. A new copy through Paulist will run you a dollar, and it’s available now in English and Spanish.

My copy was given to me about fifteen years after it was first published, by my great-grandmother during one of our infrequent visits. The cover is almost falling off, the pages are significantly yellow, and it has a place of pride on my bookshelf next to my 1885 King James Bible (from the same venerable old lady). I think I’ve read the former more than the latter. Every time I need a spiritual pick me-up, I go back for another read.

The story’s pretty simple. Young Francis goes off to the Crusades, realises that people are basically jerks to each other, comes home and becomes a pretty cool dude. He travels all over the known world, even deep into Muslim country, not to preach but to learn. He talks his way into Jerusalem itself when Christians all around him were dying for setting foot on the same continent. He comes home, his family isn’t too happy about his new haircut, hanging out with lepers, talking to animals, and the whole stigmata thing. He establishes the Franciscan order and dies, singing God’s praises. The comic book includes his famous prayer, The Canticle of the Sun, and information about the modern Franciscan order.

Booooring. No radioactive superpowers, no hideous mutated arch-villains? Marvel was slipping in the good old days, right? Hells to the no, my friends. They managed to stay away from preaching and drew out the emotions of Francis as he struck out into desperately lonely and dangerous territory.

Religion in comic books is nothing new. Illustrated lives of Jesus and the saints have been kicking around as long as there’s been paper. If every spiritual tract could be as well-written and enthralling as Francis: Brother of the Universe, Sunday school would have a lot higher attendance. Think religious discussion doesn’t belong in your black-and-white monthlies? Check out the manga Young Saint Men out of Japan – imagine Jesus and Buddha as roommates in modern Tokyo.

Okay, now imagine it without the cheesy sitcom theme song.

Both young holy men seek to reconcile the traditional teachings of their faith with the challenges of modern life, a theme which is always relevant in a world that changes faster than religious texts will allow. There are dozens of titles which explore religion and faith from different perspectives, and can still be enjoyable. Preacher jumps to mind pretty quick.

So next time you’re thirsting for some spiritual enlightenment, turn to Brother Marvel.

And if anyone makes a comic book adaptation of Lamb: The Gospel According To Christ’s Childhood Pal, Biff, let me know.

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