Comics for Christ

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  October 10, 2007
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If repurposing pop culture for the Christian set is a renewed effort, it’s not an entirely new idea. Zondervan, and its kids division, Zonderkidz, have been around for 75 years, producing books and Bibles for children and young adults. In 2007, Zondervan was named Supplier of the Year by the Christian Booksellers Association. They’re the masterminds behind popular Bible translations such as the Couples Devotional Bible and the Superheroes Bible, which combine biblical passages with inspirational readings, layperson explanations, character guides, and reading-related activities. Among their Christian fiction and non-fiction titles is the monster hit ThePurpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren, which was catapulted into the popular Zeitgeist when an Atlanta hostage read passages from the book aloud to her murderous captor (and gave him some crystal meth, but never mind), convincing him to surrender peacefully.

The Zondervan folks know a profitable trend when they see one, and they see one in manga.

A Japanese comic motif (literally translated: “whimsical pictures”), manga’s visually unique style is reminiscent of anime in film — mostly because of the characters’ big eyes, black-and-white illustrations, and exaggerated emotions. According to Zonderkidz vice-president Alicia May, the market for manga with American kids and teens has tripled in the past three years. It’s especially popular with young girls, who make up 60 percent of manga readers. American sales of manga are estimated to be around $300 million per year, and industry experts say it is one of the fastest-growing fiction categories in North America.

Meanwhile, Christian literature in general continues to enjoy rising popularity: the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) reports that the US market for all religious books in 2004 (the most recent statistics available) was 11.4 percent of the overall $2 billion market, and more than 85 percent of those were Christian titles. In 2005, the ECPA commissioned a study that showed the Christian-book market is growing “at a faster pace than the industry average,” and that Christian book-buyers spend more money on books annually than those who purchase non-religious books.

From a business perspective, then, it makes sense that Zondervan would develop Z Graphic Novels, which use loose interpretations of manga style to tell biblical, superhero, and fantasy stories. Two volumes each of six series have been issued so far; 48 volumes total are planned for the next four years. Evidently, they intend to do well by doing good.

And Zondervan isn’t the only company promoting a multi-year Christian-manga contract. Earlier in 2007, the publisher Thomas Nelson Inc. announced it would release 10 faith-based manga titles, within the Serenity and Goofyfoot Gurl series. (Goofyfoot Gurl debuted this past month.) These aren’t low-profile deals. They’re even getting props from comics don Stan Lee (oh, just the co-creator of Spider-Man, X-Men, and the Hulk), who described Serenity as “a clean, inspiring teen-aged Christian comic done in a hip, contemporary way.”

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