Yesterday I posted a link to my latest interview I did by illustrator Takeia Dunlop for her blog Spray Paint & Ink Pens. Those who know me know that I can be long-winded at times, some parts of the interview were not included on her blog. For those who want to read the full interview, I’ve included it below…
When would you say you fell in love with comics? What’s your earliest memory of reading comics?
I was first introduced to comics when I was eight years old. I can definitely say that it was love at first sight, lol.
Did someone introduce you to comic books, or was it something you discovered on your own?
I was introduced to them. When I was eight, my older cousin passed away. After he died, his mother gave me some or all of his old comics, I can’t remember. To my recollection, that was the first time I learned about what comics were, or that he collected them. I mostly remember the Spider-Man and X-Men comics he had.
Talk a little bit about your religious beliefs. Were you raised in a family that had the same values and traditions as you?
In general, yes. My father worked on the oil rigs in Alaska, and would be gone for 2-3 weeks at a time, and then home for one week. My mother also worked full-time, so as result, I spent much of my formative years at my Auntie Dottie’s house, who was basically the go-to babysitter on my mother’s side of the family. She’s a devout Christian, so much of my exposure to Christianity growing up came from her. As I got older, my mom, sister, and I started going to church regularly. My parents also kept me in Christian schools, so I was always surrounded by Christian values and beliefs. It wasn’t until around my junior year of high school that I decided on my own that I wanted to follow Jesus.
When did you realize that you wanted to combine your love for comics with your spiritual beliefs, and how did that shape the course of your journey as a writer?
I finally made the decision to combine the two on May 27th ‘09, but I’d been considering doing so since ‘06/’07. In terms of shaping my journey as a writer, I would say the decision to combine my love for comics with my faith has impacted me in at least three respects. First, it’s provided me with a general framework with regards to the type of characters I want to create and stories I want to tell. For instance, the over-arching theme throughout the first comic I am working on, Lightweightz, deals with how we relate to each other. Therefore, each of the main characters, or Lightweightz, has an ability that is interpersonal in nature, influencing how they understand and relate to others. The comic is not going to be “preachy,” and all of the characters are not going to be Christian (nor are all the non-Christians going to eventually become Christians later). People of different beliefs and worldviews interact with each other all the time, so my decision to have some characters be Christian, some not, and some searching stems from my attempt to accurately reflect the real world. What I hope to show is that there are many ways in which God is relevant and working in our lives, whether we notice it or not.
The second way in which it’s shaped my journey is through an understanding that because my comics are Christian-themed, I shouldn’t expect to have some success as a writer simply because of the message. One of the things I noticed about Jesus is that although His message was powerful, He didn’t simply rely on the message to impact people’s lives. If they were hungry He fed them. If they were farmers He spoke in parables using agricultural concepts. If they were tax-collectors He spoke in terms of financial transactions and so forth. He cared so much about people that He made an effort to understand them, who they were, and what their concerns were. This helps me as a writer because I realize that I have to have a deep respect and appreciation for comics as an art form, and for writing as a skilled craft, if I hope to even be an “ok” writer, let alone a good one. My potential readers care about quality writing and storytelling, so I must care about that as well if I expect anyone to read it. Even though I’m just starting off and therefore it may be a while before my writing shows tangible signs of improvement, the point is to never be satisfied and always work to improve. I also feel like once you’ve identified your target audience, you owe it to that audience to care about what they care about, and to do the best you can to make sure the work you create reflects that. I feel like just relying on the message isn’t doing justice to my potential readers, whether they are reading it for the message or for the story.
The third way it’s shaped my journey has been through something I did in March called the attribute challenge. For each day in March, I challenged myself to do some kind of writing for each day that month, whether it was 5 minutes or 50 minutes. In addition, each day I focused on a particular attribute I believed applied to God and/or Jesus, and briefly blogged about it. This was my way of more tightly synchronizing my love for comics and my faith. It also helped remind me that any type of work I commit myself so, I should approach it as if it’s a reflection of my relationship with Christ.
What would you say are some of the challenges of being a writer for Christian-themed comic books?
I would say the biggest challenge is not getting boxed into a particular genre or category that would significantly limit the amount of potential readers. I think when something is labeled “Christian” or “religious,” people tend to conceive of that thing as having certain characteristics. I feel like some of most common associations with these characteristics are corny, preachy, close-minded, and discriminatory. Just as we as Christians need to do a better job of not being close-minded to non-Christians, I think some non-Christians can also do a better job of not lumping all Christians into one stereotypical category, especially the same category as the Christians who historically and to some degree currently tend to judge, ostracize, and harm others in the name of religion. There are many Christians who earnestly try to live out Christ’s teachings in terms of loving everyone, they just don’t get the face-time or media coverage as some of the more drama-filled and sensational/hysterical instances. Not every follower of Christ agrees with everything that has been done by or associated with Christianity as a religious institution.
This is actually the main reason why I decided to label my comics Christian-themed as opposed to Christian comics. I believe the former approach better enables me to tell stories that are relevant to all people, regardless of their background or belief system. That doesn’t mean I’m going to hide or water down my beliefs, but I’m not going to over-saturate my stories with those beliefs either. I feel like if your target is only/primarily Christian readers, or your goal is evangelistic in nature, then more explicitly Christian comics can be really beneficial to those readers. But if your target includes non-Christians as well, then you have to make sure your stories deal with issues that those readers care about. If someone reads my comic and decides to investigate who Jesus is for themselves then great! If not, then hopefully they enjoyed the comic because it was a great story, and addressed issues that they care about. At the end of the day, my goal as a writer is to tell the best stories that I can, and do so from a Christian worldview.
Honestly speaking, Christian-themed comics are not at the forefront of the comic book industry, and many people may already have the wrong impression of these types of comics by assuming that they will be boring or preachy. How do you, as a writer, plan to break through that barrier to show people that Christian comics are just as entertaining as anything else out there?
One important way I hope to do this is by producing quality work that demonstrates that I care about comics as an art form and writing as a craft. I also understand that it’s going to take a while before the quality noticeably improves, as it takes time to “iron the kinks out” so to speak. The other way I hope to do this is by focusing on the characters’ inner and outer lives. My stories will be very character-driven, because I believe that’s what ultimately keep readers interested in a title long enough to support it. Regardless of the genre, I think at the end of the day, the connection between the readers and the characters is what gives a story the most potency. Because it’s Christian-themed there are some things that will be noticeably absent from my stories such as nudity, profanity, and over-the-top violence. Although I currently read some comics that contain these elements, I also read comics that do not contain these elements. The common ground is the characters, and the things they experience as they try to make sense of themselves, their role in the world, and how to relate to others. And it’s that common ground that I hope my readers will find both relevant to their lives as well as entertaining.
How will your story appeal to non-Christians?
Hopefully, my story will appeal to non-Christians because the characters will deal with real issues and concerns that everyone can relate to.
Tell us a little bit about your story, Lightweightz. What was your inspiration behind the story?
Well, Lightweightz will be a mini-series that is set in California and is about eight teenagers who discover they have unique abilities. The story will revolve around how each of these teenagers tries to make sense of these abilities, and their place in the world as people who possess these abilities. My main inspiration for the story came from a comic I’ve been reading since 2007 called The 99. It’s about young people who each have an ability that corresponds to one of the 99 attributes Muslims attribute to Allah. I really liked the idea, and started thinking that it would be cool if there was a similar comic that focused on abilities that reflected or related to Christian qualities or principles.
Building off of this idea, I decided to create a comic where instead of people having abilities that were generally more intrapersonal in nature (e.g., the ability in and of itself does not have any direct implications for how the person with that ability relates to others), the main characters’ abilities would be interpersonal in nature, and thus have direct implications for how they relate to others. For example, abilities such as flight, teleportation, and energy projection are in my opinion intrapersonal, whereas abilities such as telepathy and emotional manipulation are interpersonal. For Lightweightz, these interpersonal abilities relate to Christian qualities or principles in that they deal with how we understand and relate to others, something I believe Jesus focused on in great detail.
What is the message that you are trying to get across in Lightweightz?
The general question I want to pose with Lightweightz is “What would you do if you had the ability to relate to others in a more significant way?” Hopefully this and similar types of questions will naturally come up as people read it because the abilities the characters have are exaggerations of things we already do when trying to understand and relate to others. For example, Grace has the ability “comprehensive empathy,” which is an exaggerated form of understanding another person’s perspective, something we all do when trying to get to know someone. Another example is Qasim, whose ability (“social acuity and balance”) is an exaggerated form of noticing similarities and differences among individuals within a social setting. My hope is that readers will look at these abilities not as something “alien” to the human experience, but simply an entertaining exaggeration of it.
One of the things that I’m liking about Lightweightz is that there are a bunch of different characters from different backgrounds. What was your inspiration behind the problems that these characters face, and how will your beliefs and the message that you are trying to get across affect the journey of these characters?
From the outset, I wanted Lighweightz to consist of a very diverse group of individuals. As a huge comic fan I read tons of comics, so I’m aware of the lack of diversity in some titles, as well as the power and beauty of diversity that it present in others. So I always knew that I wanted my characters to vary in their ethnicity, personalities, and worldviews.
As for the problems they will face, they stem from me trying to reflect the real world the best way I feel I can at the moment. I say at the moment because as I am still growing and working out some things within my own faith, I hope to be able to tell stories that address even more issues and concerns that people have. In terms of the role my beliefs and intended message may play in my characters’ journey, I think one way it will have an impact is through the relationship between how they make sense of their abilities, and what worldview they adopt or hold. I believe that while our experiences with people do not solely define us, they do play an important role in how we come to view the world. And since each of the Lightweightz will make sense of their abilities in the context of understanding and relating to others, readers will be able to see how the problems they face relate to how they make sense of their abilities, and how they view the world.
Will we see the faith of your characters tested in any way?
Definitely. On some level, each of the characters will be tested with regards to their faith in humanity, relationships, themselves, and so forth. In terms of faith in God, the characters who believe in God will be tested in this arena as well. One character in particular will seriously struggle with his faith, as a result of what types of things his ability exposes him to.
So there’s the full interview. Thanks for taking the time to read it, and have a great weekend.
© Justin Martin and www.rsquaredcomicz.com, 2011. All rights reserved.