Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Q&A: Kevin Frank on Christian Comics

Cartoonist Kevin Frank, profiled in The New York Times last month, has just launched an openly Christian comic strip, called Heaven's Love Thrift Shop, under the banner of King Features Syndicate, which distributes Hagar the Horrble and many other well-known strips. Stan Guthrie interviewed Kevin about the new strip.

A syndicated Christian strip is pretty unusual, isn't it?

Yes, it is. Of course, Christians have been drawing syndicated strips for a long time–and you still can't beat the first "Charlie Brown's Christmas" for unabashed Biblical references–but to have a strip plainly marketed as a "Christian" feature is certainly remarkable.

What's your professional background?

For about 15 years I was a member of an intentional Christian community [Jesus People USA] in Chicago. During this time I volunteered in a homeless shelter and even a thrift shop, among many other things, but my primary job was as a graphic designer for publishing arm of the community. I designed projects ranging from magazine spreads to music packaging and T-shirts. I learned the craft on the job, beginning in the pre-computer days and later making the transition to desktop publishing. Also I was fortunate to work as the staff cartoonist for the magazine, Cornerstone, for about 10 years, and won my first [Evangelical Press Association] award there in 1989.

What else do you do besides your Christian strip?

The syndicated strip is a lot of fun to do, but I still earn my living as a freelance artist. I've created cartoons and illustrations for publishers like Cook Communications, Group, and Pioneer Clubs. For a couple of years I drew a full-page comic for Campus Life magazine called ZED that in some ways was the precursor to Heaven's Love. ZED was another EPA award winner in 2006. Samples of my freelance work can be seen online at http://www.kevinfrank.net

Why did you do a Christian strip?

Obviously as a person of faith I am interested in writing about my own journey as a Christian. The work that I first produced found publishers in the religious community, and eventually I submitted some printed samples to different syndicates. Meanwhile the syndicates had started focusing more and more on niche audiences that were unrepresented in the comics pages, and noticed the large audience of Christians out there. Nobody ever said the words Passion of the Christ to me, but I'm sure the box office returns from that film did not go unnoticed. So I guess you could say that the timing was providential in that I was at the right place when King Features decided to try to develop a "Christian" strip. I realize that it may end up being too controversial to land in a huge number of papers, but as long as I have this amazing opportunity, I'm going to be faithful to make the most of it.

What do you hope to accomplish with it?

As I mentioned in the New York Times interview, my goal is very simple: To remind people that there is a God, and that God loves them. If I can accomplish this on a regular basis in any number of newspapers across North America, I will consider the strip a success. Plus, as a cartoonist, I always hope to entertain my readers as well.

Who is your intended audience?

I'm trying to make the strip accessible to everyone. One of the reasons it's set in a charitable thrift shop is to make it more palatable to all readers, even those who do not consider themselves people of faith. And even though it deals with serious issues like homelessness, it's still warm and engaging.

How open can you be about the gospel?

Heaven's Love Thrift Shop is being marketed as a "Christian" strip, so to a certain degree I can be very open about the gospel. The samples that are being sent out to newspaper editors include one strip where a character quotes Romans 3:23 and 6:23, which is about as straightforward as you can get. At the same time it is important for me that the comic is as inclusive as it can possibly be, so I try to include a lot of just plain funny strips as well.

What responses have you gotten so far?

So far the feature has been picked up mostly by smaller papers, the largest to date is the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. I suppose that big city editors may be worried about offending their more diverse readership. Still, I hope to prove myself over the long run, and trust that eventually some larger papers will pick it up as well.

Johnny Hart got into trouble a few years ago for including Christian themes in his strip, B.C. Have times changed, and, if so, why?

In my opinion, the primary difference between what Mr. Hart has done and my own strip is that editors/readers know up front that this is a Christian comic strip. In B.C. it was a case of changing direction of the comic, radically, in midstream. I can understand why some people might be upset with that, although I thought Mr. Hart's Christian strips were great. With Heaven's Love people will know what they're getting from the very start, and while it may never reach as many readers as B.C. does, the ones who do see it shouldn't be surprised by the contents.


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