Monday, July 29, 2013

An Interview About Eternity

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Timestamp: 2013-08-05 01:51:28 UTC

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Before I went to ICRS, graphic novels were relatively unfamiliar for me but I was intrigued to learn more about this genre, especially when I learned that Randy Alcorn was the author of Kingstone's newest release, Eternity. While I was in St. Louis, I was honored to sit down and chat with Art Ayris, who is the CEO of Kingstone Media Group and Kingstone Comics. I briefly saw Randy Alcorn at ICRS, but conducted an interview via phone a couple of weeks later. After talking with them and reading this graphic novel, I can see the huge potential for reaching teens and young adults with this medium. Here's a little bit about story, followed by the combined interviews and a giveaway!

Randy Alcorn & Javier Saltares
(Kingstone Comics)
ISBN: 978-1936164257
July 2013/120 pages

Available at Deeper Shopping, Amazon, and Comixology.

Eternity is a dramatic rendition of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

This graphic novel is a dramatic rendition of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Author Randy Alcorn and artist Javier Saltares take readers into the realm of first century Jerusalem and then two very different eternal realms.

Watch the trailer:


Eternity is a graphic novel, and I understand there is a difference between graphic novels and comic books. Can you explain the difference?

ART: Comic books are typically thirty-two pages or less and have the softer text paper. The graphic novel is a full story. A lot of times comics are serialized. We do some stand-alone comics and some serialized comic books. Primarily, they are either stand-alone stories or they will anthologize the comics into one big graphic novel. And frankly, retailers do better with graphic novels because they are more like books and they know how to place them and display them, that sort of thing. They aren't "floppy."

But the actual type of art is the same, correct?

ART: Yes. It's all serialized graphic art.

I know that the goal of this is to appeal to younger kids and to the teens, and you have said, "Put a Bible and a comic book on the table and which one do you think a teen's going to pick up?" While I agree with that somewhat, there is a point at which that breaks down. You put vegetables and junk food on the table and the kids are going to choose the junk. There's a point you have to teach people to like and choose that which is good and healthy. Can you address this?

That's a really good question and I don't think anyone has ever asked me that before. But let me share with you from my vantage point where I'm coming from. I'm a Southern Baptist pastor, an executive pastor of a large Southern Baptist church, and I am all about outreach. Over the years I've had a lot of relationships with people who were not people of faith, and of course a lot with those who are people of faith. If I've learned one thing in the Lord it's this: you have to connect with people where they are in life. One of the things that a lot of churches don't realize is that kids are already out there reading comics and graphic novels. There are two or three guys from my church that come to mind right now who read the graphic novels. So I think you need to start where people are. The truth is, a lot of the kids are already reading them.

The other thing is, a lot of people have reading issues. I used to be a school teacher, and some of the kids, especially boys, won't be into reading. My mother had a doctorate in education and she was a phenomenal teacher. She got me reading at a young age. I'm a big reader and I love reading all kinds of material. But the truth is, for a lot of different reasons, the graphic novel medium will be a better medium than text, for boys especially, to get into the window of their soul and heart. A lot of this stuff they wouldn't pick up, text-wise. A comic graphic novel is a quicker read and a more entertaining read in some ways to certain people. And people learn in different ways, too.

Randy, I understand that you are a big fan of comic books and graphic novels. Can you address the tension between the need to make things relevant for kids yet keeping the message intact, and not focusing so much on making things "fun" that we compromise the message?

RANDY: I think the most important thing to realize is that there are different reasons for different kinds of books. Each kind of book has its own audience. I write novels. I've written short stories. I write a lot of non-fiction - long, medium, and short in length. I write non-fiction articles. I've written non-fiction children's books and fiction children's books. Now, some people have said, "I'll read your non-fiction but I'm just not a fiction person at all." The same argumentation is what non-fiction people use against all fiction: "Non-fiction is true and fiction is false." That's what they think in their minds. Of course, the reality is that much non-fiction is false and much fiction contains a great deal of truth. So when it comes to graphic novels, that's just a matter of the medium.

I think it's easy for people to dismiss graphic novels because they think that it's just a comic book or it's all about violence or visual imagery that's disrespectful to women. Of course, if you are a Christian and you are writing a graphic novel, you don't do that! And I didn't do that. This graphic novel is a way of reaching people who will read a graphic novel and, in my opinion, because you asked about compromise, it represents no compromise whatsover. Zero! It's me telling a story and taking the liberties that are always taken in Biblical fiction. In Biblical fiction, my number one rule is: you never, ever, violate anything Scripture says. You always take what Scripture does say and you include it. For instance, every single verse and every single word of those verses about the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 are in the story. What Abraham says in the parable, he says in the story of Eternity. What the rich man says in the parable, he says across the chasm.

But now, that's just thirteen verses and I'm writing a 120-page story. How are you going to do that? You take what Scripture does say and you try to elaborate on it. I think Jesus wants us to picture this, whether it's literal or figurative, as if it actually happened because the rich man says to Abraham, "send Lazarus over so he can dip his finger in water and cool my tongue." It's a very graphic imagery type of parable. Well, that's exactly what I'm doing in the graphic novel with the help of an artist - a lot of help, because it's very high quality art! He's depicting these things which, if I were preaching on it, I would be giving people words to try and create these mental pictures. To me, the book is very true to Scripture, does not contradict Scripture in any way and what it actually does - and this is the dynamic of it that I think addresses your question and is important for people to understand: if I had restricted the story only to those thirteen verses in Luke 16, I actually would have been misleading the reader. The reader is supposed to read the thirteen verses in the context of the entire book of Luke, which shows the Gospel. It shows Jesus. It shows the teaching of Jesus, the life of Jesus. It shows His substitutionary atoning death on the cross, and it shows His resurrection. Now if you just stick with those thirteen verses, there is no belief in Christ, placing faith in Christ for salvation, and if you only have those verses, you could actually conclude that you work your way to heaven for being poor or through caring about the poor.

By putting in the Messianic passages, Isaiah 52 and 53, I've included Old Testament prophecy about Jesus. I've also included the life of Jesus. (You meet Him on the street outside the home of the rich man and where Lazarus is in the street.) Virtually everything Jesus says is directly from Scripture. In the end, this graphic novel is fuller of Scripture and scriptural truth than just about 120 pages of anything you've ever read!

Yes, I was pretty amazed when I actually sat down and read it! I get a bit sensory overloaded just because of my style preference, but the meat of it is phenomenal. And I knew if there is anyone who would do something like this well, as far as the content goes, it would be you. The way you threaded it all together was incredible. And you even pulled in Titus! You covered it all.

RANDY: This is the liberty. You look at the story and think, "the rich man died." We're not told how or why he died. Everyone knows, because I put those exact verses of Scripture, that many of the things that I said are not actually in the text. But it doesn't contradict the text to suggest that the rich man may have been murdered. The text doesn't say that so if I were teaching, I might mention a variety of possible ways he could have died. If a preacher said that, no one would say he's gone off the deep end! When you teach a passage, you work with what's there and try to think of different possibilities of meaning and what might have happened. In fiction, you are doing exactly the same thing. You are just writing it as a story. As long as people understand that scripture is inspired and Biblical fiction based on scripture is not, then they can profit from the writer of Biblical fiction and envision what the larger story might have looked like. Then when we read the actual passages of scripture, such as the story of Sarah, we feel like we know her and feel like she was a real person. And maybe her personality was a little different than portrayed in the Biblical fiction, but the point is, she was a real person and we should think of her as a real person.

Well, I'm really impressed, kudos for the high quality and getting top people to do it. I hate when Christian stuff is cheesy. It gives us such a bad reputation!

RANDY: You raise a great point. Even though I've certainly talked with people a lot and shown them the quality, I haven't thought of it in those terms, and it's a very good way to put it. If we as Christians are going to become "all things to all men that by all means we can reach some," if we are going to enter into a realm that is popular-and this includes movies, computer programs, websites, social media, really everything-we have got to do it at a high quality. If we don't, we fall into the usual stereotype-and it's not just non-Christians who generally don't like Christian movies, I talk to many, many, many Christians and they are just generally disappointed in the quality of the Christian movies they see. Now there are exceptions, and someone will say, "That was really good, even though it was a Christian movie." That just shows that our expectations are that if it's a Christian movie, it's going to be stupid, corny, and cheesy with terrible acting, terrible direction, terrible special effects, and it's going to look like it was filmed in someone's basement with a handheld camera. Well, of course, that's a stereotype and there have been a number of good Christian movies. BUT, when we entered into the graphic novel realm, and maybe it's because it's easier to pull this off with a graphic novel than a movie due to the expenses, I can tell you this: anyone who looks at it just objectively, who doesn't evaluate the story on the basis of whether they like a religious story or not, if they simply look at it in terms of the layout, design, colors, and quality of the art, an atheist who loves graphic novels will have to admit it looks really good even he disagrees with the content of it. If you got "that looks really good." that's going to reach a ton of people because even the person who rejects the message will have read the message. But the vast majority of people who read the books that I usually write, if they reject that message, will usually put it down and quit reading. With a graphic novel, the art is going to compel them enough to keep going and hopefully the gospel message is going to get to them. Some of them may be surprised at the way the Holy Spirit touches hearts because He can use His word. He says His word will not return empty without accomplishing the purpose. And as we said, the Eternity novel is full of God's word, not just the parable but the words of Jesus, the whole gospel story. My prayer is that God will use his word in many lives to open hearts.

ART: I can't tell you, Linda, how many people have written us and called and said, "Thank you! There's somebody out there creating high-end Christian graphic media." The whole reason we started publishing Christian graphic media is that there weren't that many. We saw a market opportunity but from a pastoral standpoint, I saw outreach opportunity. We are about to sign a number of language licensing deals. Here in the US, the comics market is about $500 million/year. In Japan it's five billion dollars a year.

I was thinking about that with their big focus on Anime. Are you looking at going that direction (Anime)?

ART: No, we're going to stay with a more Western-style Marvel/DC look. When we started the company, Manga and Anime was super-hot. But we are wanting to be more cinematic, more film-like, so we stayed with the Western-style art. I'm glad I did because Anime has dropped some. The biggest one went out of business.

Do you foresee that you might do some films?

ART: Well, we've got an agreement right now with Sony. Sony came to us; they've got a great movie coming out that I'm very excited about. It's called The Remaining and it will be in theaters in 2014. They wanted a graphic novel with it and thought we were a good fit so we are doing that.

Is it a Christian movie? The title sounds like it.

ART: It deals with a group of college kids and what happens immediately after the Rapture. It is a great story. But it's kind of unusual because it's a horror/thriller type. We're having conversations now with Sony about what's going to be the best strategy but we're doing the graphic novel. We're producing it now so we will release it next year when the movie comes out.

Actually, we've had two of our novels that have been optioned for major motion pictures. With our fiction imprint, we don't print anything that we don't think is translatable to film. With our comics and graphic novels, I figured that at some point there would be film tie-ins because it's so prevalent with Marvel and DC. Besides the thing with Sony, we are actually talking to another studio now about some other projects. There is such a close kinship because you've already storyboarded it so you can see what it is. I figured film would come along at some point and now it's starting to happen a little bit.

You used the same artist who worked on the mainstream graphic novels. I don't presume that he is a Christian. If that is true, was that a challenge to communicate the concept and for him to do this type of project?

RANDY: The artist, Javier Saltares, is a Christian. He's a committed believer. There were other people involved in the project who were not believers. I have worked with three previous artists, two of whom were not believers, so I do know what that's like. On those occasions, I found it to be very rewarding because when I would explain to them what I was looking for, I would share the gospel with them. It's a great witnessing opportunity but you're certainly right. They still have to get it and be able to portray a thing even if they don't fully believe it. I think when it comes to Christian projects where unbelievers are involved at some level, I think it works best if it's not at the conceptual level, when it's not where they have control over the direction of something. For example, I know of some "Christian movies" that have had non-Christian directors. This becomes a very big problem because the directors normally have a freedom to change things. You can have a screenplay that has been carefully constructed in the word choices, the scenes, and the message, and then have a director who doesn't get it and decides it would be much more interesting to insert a love scene early in a relationship or makes some other change. So if it's a power or control position for the overall project, I think that should be avoided. But unbelievers can be involved in other aspects and certainly are. Not everyone who touches the book from production to the reader's hands is a believer. But you realize that God can use the final content and along the way, the more unbelievers who touch the project, the more potential unbelievers who may actually read the project!

Oh, definitely! I had just wondered, because the art is such an intimate and highly involved aspect to draw those pictures and convey the message, how that worked.

RANDY: Right. And I think it really did help with some of the scenes, especially involving Jesus-dying on the cross, the resurrection. One of the things in the book I asked Javier to do was give me this really powerful angel at the resurrection scene. So the angel appears and it's very powerful. Then I asked him, on the bottom of the next page, to have the angel pull back the stone and then bow his knee before the risen Christ, who's about to come out of the tomb. I'm not saying an unbeliever couldn't have done that but I think of a great angel of God, one of the most powerful beings in the universe but still a creature-what would he have looked like as he bowed his knee before the risen Christ, God's Son?-and I just think that, all things being equal, a skilled artist who is a believer can do that better than a skilled artist who's an unbeliever. The caveat to that is that an unskilled believer with the greatest heart in the world can make a shot at it, but you know what? A good heart doesn't cancel out bad art!

Do you see the impact of these being primarily outreach or in-reach? Or both? What is the heartbeat/

ART: Number one, I think we need to be a voice out in the market. I feel like God never leaves Himself without witness, whether it's nature or people. God always has witness out there. It's really fascinating because people don't know what to do with us! These guys are producing Christian graphic novels - high-end, premium quality Christian comic books.

So where are they sold? In the Christian bookstores or in Walmart?

ART: They're in both. Walmart has picked us up. Barnes & Noble is about to do a run with us.

Where do they put them? Are they in the graphic novel are or in the Christian section?

ART: They put them in the Christian section. But we just signed with Comixology, which is the largest comics app in the world. They had over 120 million downloads. They are the biggest e-book comics distributor in the world. We just signed with them and we will be live on there on July 10. We are the only Christian comics book publisher on Comixology. iBurst Media, which is the largest e-book seller to libraries, just signed us and they are rolling our stuff out. We are kind of nimble because we are not locked into denomination or other things; we are a little more "free-range," so to speak, if I were to use our Western analogy. Both the general market and the Christian market pick us up. In the general market, I want to say, "Hey! There's great premium quality here." And to the Christians, I want to say, "This is trustworthy material and it's also very effective in outreach." We have some churches and individuals that buy it by the box because they know it will reach and connect with kids.

You and I are the same. We want our kids, the kids in our church, and the kids in our community to understand the Bible.

We have an opportunity. There are a lot of people who are Bible-illiterate. My sense is this is going to be an entry point for them to learn and understand. Terri Blackstock said, "I have never read a graphic novel before. It was incredible." Max Lucado said, "I will never read the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus the same way again." I think when you marry the graphics and the text, it has an impact in a different way than just the text. I'm not against text; I'm reading a great novel right now. But that's why we're doing what we're doing.

It has been a pleasure talking with you and learning about graphic novels. Thank you so much!

I have an autographed copy of Eternity to give to one of you! To enter, leave a comment on this post no later than 8:00 pm CDT Saturday (8/3/13). US mailing addresses only, please. Winner will have 48 hours to respond after being notified or a new winner will be chosen.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from Kingstone Media. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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sara said...

Randy Alcorn is one of my favorite authors. I was all set to be part of the FB conversation the other night on the book and then something came up and I couldn't :(. thanks for the interview...I am excited to see and read this book and am beginning to think about who I can share it with.

Barbara Thompson said...

Wow, I love this graphic novel. Randy Alcorn is a great author. I have the perfect person to share this novel. He loves to read as much or more than me. Always a book in his hand. Enjoyed the interview. Thank you for sharing and please enter me in the giveaway.
Barbara Thompson

Nonnie said...

Randy Alcorn does great Christian fiction. Thank you for this post.