Manga Catechesis

SOMETIMES I JUST DO NOT KNOW what to think. This is one of them.

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A comic book, Habemus Papam, featuring Benedict XVI as a manga-style superhero will be handed out to all the ardent juveniles who show up in Madrid for World Youth Day. It runs about a week, from August 16 to 21. You might think that gives the beardless young enough time to read a real book. But why read if you can get the gist of things just by looking at stylized graphics done in the style of trendy Japanese comics?

National Catholic Register seems quite keen on the idea:

Manga Hero, based in San Rafael, Calif., is behind the content. Jonathan Lin created the exclusively, and unapologetically, Catholic comic book-publishing company in 2010. He uses an Asian twist on the more traditional superhero comic books with which Americans are familiar. His decision to get involved with World Youth Day 2011 is an example of divine Providence at work.


“I have a friend who knew someone who worked at the World Youth Day headquarters, who then told me where to submit a proposal to World Youth Day 2011. They asked us to develop a plot that highlights the Pope’s message to young people from past WYDs he attended, as well as the theme for this year’s WYD. The organizing committee then approved the proposal, and, thus, Habemus Papam!was born. We’re printing 300,000 copies, half in English and half in Spanish.”


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I dislike manga. It is the quality of the pictures that gets under my skin. The graphic quality lacks linear grace; it is vacant— particularly soulless, mechanistic, trite. (Compare the drawings that came out of the Disney studios in their heyday. Even Archie had more humanity than the stylizations of manga figures. Moreover, I dislike World Youth Day, a Catholic-lite Woodstock contrived and promoted by JPII. The pope as rock star. That is an aberrant faux pas in its own way. It encourages young Catholics to forget that the first ten bishops of Rome—now called popes—suffered martyrdom, not stadium applause.

The pope as a show-boating action hero? It is not particularly on the mark. It seems even a bit grotesque. This pope is not a stage-conscious old thespian like his predecessor, John Paul II. Benedict is more at home in the library or at his piano, which he plays daily. A great lover of classical music, he has said that Mozart “penetrated his soul” while he was growing up. It is unlikely that such quality of penetration, or of soul, will translate well into manga-ese.

Lin sees manga as a tool for evangelizing, one made all the more attractive by the popularity of it:

“I grew up watching anime, having been introduced to the medium by my cousins from Japan. We want to use manga as a tool to show the youth and the world that the Church is not afraid of modernity and evolving culture. It is not afraid to use, in this case, new and compelling forms of media to meet young people where they are,” explained Lin.

We hope manga becomes a fun platform for people to learn more about the Holy Father and realize that the Church is relevant, visible and active in modern culture. Manga represent an important opportunity to reach out to people with an attractive form that can transform society and inspire interest in the faith.

Nice that Japan has provided the model for a “fun platform.” The irony here is that Japan has a history of stern resistance to Christian proseletizing—one reason why Habemus Papam is not being printed in Japanese.) More to the point, Christianity is not about fun. (Ask the Christians in Egypt, Iran, Somalia, and other Muslim-dominated countries how much fun it is to be Christian.) More to the point, Christianity spread across the ancient world for 300 years on the basis of personal witness: “See how they love one another.” It was never: “See our comics.” Not our murals, our altar-pieces or our frescoed ceilings either.

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I wish Manga Hero well. Really, I do. This is one time I hope I am all wet. But, to be honest, I have a hard time trusting the quality of interest stimulated by brash cartoons. Remember Classic Comics? Remember Moby Dick as a graphic whale story?

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The graphics were infinitely more subtle and sophisticated—compositionally and coloristically complex—than manga. Certainly, they succeeded in giving us the storyline—enough to pass exams. But the spirit of Melville was lost in the pulp. It is worth asking whether the entire Manga Hero project—not to mention World Youth Day itself—is largely a genuflection to secular culture passing as promotion of the gospel. I tend to see it as a move destined to endorse secularism, albeit in a Christian idiom.

Note: In the end, I guess I really do know what I think. But like one of E.M. Forster’s characters, how do I know what I think until I see what I say?

2nd Note: A reader sends this image and asks: “Who looks more like an action hero, Ahab or Benedict?”

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© Maureen Mullarkey