In the Battle Pope comic book series, a slovenly, muscle-bound version of the Catholic leader bumbles from one superheroic adventure to another—with a hippie Jesus as sidekick. The only time a serious question of religion arises is when it offers a convenient punch line.
While people of faith certainly enjoy their share of juvenile humor, they’ve often had to look hard to find more-substantive treatments of spirituality and real-world issues in comics. But the last few decades have seen a maturation of the genre, as comic books and graphic novels—which are essentially book-length comics—address serious issues in thoughtful, creative ways. Think of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus, which documents his father’s experience in the Holocaust, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic memoir of her child-hood during the Iranian revolution.
The industry has snowballed in the past five years, and now rakes in big readers and big bucks—last year, graphic novel sales in the U.S. and Canada reached $395 million. Combine this with revenue generated from movie adaptations of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Wanted and you have an industry that feels larger than life.
Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second Books, which publishes graphic novels, said his plan when creating the imprint in 2006 was to include graphic novels about race, politics, and social justice “for the world citizen,” which coincided with creators’ increasing desire “to tackle big things in new ways.”