Black Christian Heroes To the Rescue in Comics

By Timothy Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006

As an avid comic book reader and co-founder of comic publisher Milestone Media, Michael Davis saw two niche markets he thought were underserved.

One was a comic book series featuring prominent religious themes, and the other was a religious comic with African American characters in lead roles.

By joining forces with Chicago-based Urban Ministries Inc. (UMI), Davis bridged those two needs and created the Guardian Line series to quell the notion that readers are not interested in Christian-based comic books led by black characters.

"Comic book fans are like country music fans," said Davis, who is based in Los Angeles. "They will follow you forever if the work is good."

With its first issues released this month, the Guardian Line consists of four comic books. The action takes place in fictional New Hope City, where the main characters confront their immoral adversary, Steven Dark.

One of the books, the Genesis 5 series, revolves around five angels appearing as high school students. Code examines the trials of a wealthy yet shadowy man who uses the Bible to help others. The Seekers, which will be released next year, tells the story of three teenagers who travel through time aided by an MP3 player. The lead characters of Joe and Max are an 11-year-old boy and his guardian angel.

Sharif Chauncey, youth minister at Life Changes Destiny Center in Annapolis, said pre-teenage readers may find Joe and Max appealing. "Bibleman is cool, but it ain't real," Chauncey said of the popular video series featuring the evangelical superhero. "I'll buy [Joe and Max] for the children's ministry. The issues and the scenery are realistic."

Founded in 1970, Urban Ministries is an independently owned and operated African American Christian media company with a distribution network of 40,000 churches and 1,500 bookstores for its books, CDs and DVDs.

"It's a unique blessing for us that we have a built-in audience," said Carl Jeffrey Wright, president of Urban Ministries. "The audience for comics is the broadest for any mass media. It's very important for us to be in the comic book stores."

Although comic books with religious themes have not captured a large share of the market, they have been around for decades.

Publisher George A. Pflaum's comic book Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact began in 1946 and was distributed on a subscription-only basis through Catholic schools until July 1972. A month earlier, Marvel Comics unveiled the first African American superhero to head a series, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.

Matt Klokel, co-owner of Fantom Comics in the District's Tenleytown neighborhood, plans to diversify his inventory by adding titles from the Guardian Line. Klokel estimates that less than 5 percent of the 150 titles in his store are spiritually based.

"There hasn't been much of a demand for religious comics," Klokel said. "There has been a request for more minority comics."

According to Diamond Comic Distributors Inc., one of the largest distributors of English-language comic books and related merchandise, comic book sales in North America grossed more than $322 million through October -- a 12 percent increase from the same period last year.

Jerry Magner, director of business development at Diamond, said interest has grown for Christian comic books. "There are other comic books out there in the Christian universe," he said. "The Guardian Line should be successful because of its content. It does have a mainstream appeal."

Which is exactly what Davis and UMI set out to do when they began developing the series two years ago.

"The books are not geared toward African Americans only," Davis said. "They're geared toward everybody."

Davis's experience as a youth mentor and co-creator of the animated cartoon series "Static Shock!" has helped him to understand that challenging young minds is the most effective way to reach them.

"We respect the integrity of our readers. These books do not preach, they inform," he said. "Every one of our characters has a professed faith of some kind. None of our characters will shy away from their faith."

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