Pope Benedict vs. the X-Men

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At the recent March for Life in Washington, the National Shrine had several book authors do signings. The most popular author by far was Regina Doman. Her hit was Habemus Papam!, a manga-style graphic novel about the life of Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI.

Comic fanboys will point out the differences between manga and American comic art. In manga, the eyes are bigger and the action sequences more angular and kinetic. (And purist manga reads not from left to right, but right to left.) Yet what struck me about Doman's book on the pope was how much like an American comic it is. Specifically, the kind of comic produced by Marvel comics.

In the 1960s, Marvel revolutionized comic books by creating superheroes such as Spider-Man and the X-Men who, despite their great power, wrestled with doubt and personal problems. The reason Habemus Papam! works so well is that it presents not only Pope Benedict XVI, but Joseph Ratzinger, a young, handsome seminarian in Bavaria who struggles with doubt and obstacles both literal and figurative.

Catholicism is an intellectual religion but it is also a dynamic and passionate one. Unfortunately, in recent decades the Church has fallen behind in using the right genres of the popular culture, specifically films and graphic novels, to show this.

With the arrival of Habemus Papam! and, more specifically, its publisher Manga Hero, that may be starting to change. Manga Hero was started a few years ago by Jonathan Lin, a 37 year-old real estate broker from San Rafael, California.

Lin's father asked him, "Why isn't there any Biblical manga?" Good question. Lin produced 300,000 copies of a 32-page comic about Pope Benedict to distribute at the 2011 World Youth Day. It was a hit, and was then expanded into Habemus Papam!

As author Regina Doman explained to me in an interview, Lin is a businessman, and he wanted his series of graphic novels to be strong enough artistically that they could appeal to elitist comic fanboys. He brought in Sean Lam, an accomplished manga artist, and writers like Doman, who had experience writing a series of novels aimed at Catholic youth.

The result is a comic that could compete with today's super heroes. In fact, Habemus Papam! has a lot of the elements that make Marvel's heroes so compelling. There is the all-too-human main character who suspects that he may have a supernatural destiny but has to struggle with poverty (Peter Parker), prejudice (the X-Men), and enemies bent on global domination (Galactus in the Marvel universe; Nazis, modern nihilists, and the devil himself in Ratzinger's). There is a period of trial and doubt, followed by the metamorphosis into the hero, and the acceptance of the burdens of the calling.

I found myself totally absorbed in the story as a reader, not as a Catholic. Unlike with a lot of theology books, I couldn't stop turning the pages. It's exciting to imagine what Manga Hero could do with Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Edith Stein or John Paul II, who was a real life action hero.

Mark Judge is a columnist for RealClearBooks and author, most recently, of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock 'n' Roll.

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