New comic book tells the pope's story, manga-style

The story of Pope Benedict XVI has been told many times since he was elected pope in 2005, but “Habemus Papam” is the first time his story is being told in the Japanese comic book art style known as manga. 

The 32-page book will highlight the pope’s childhood in Bavaria, Germany, his priestly ordination, his elevation as a cardinal and his election as pope. With more than 300,000 copies published in Spanish and English, the book was distributed gratis to churches, hostels, hotels, bus stations and other locations so that young people attending the Aug. 16-21 World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid could get to know the international celebration’s humble host. 

The book is published by Manga Hero of Santa Rafael, Calif., perhaps the only Catholic-based manga comic book company in the world. The inspiration of Manga Hero’s founder Jonathan Lin, “Habemus Papam” joins several other Manga Hero titles, including a three-book series on the life of St. Paul and another series recounting the heroism of Judith in the Old Testament. 

But if Lin, a San Francisco-area businessman, was the inspiration for the book, it comes hot off the presses through the efforts of a worldwide talent pool. A writer in San Diego, an artist in Singapore and printers in Spain all contributed their talents to make sure that the world’s youth knew Pope Benedict’s story when they greeted him in Madrid. 

Animated faith

Of Chinese heritage, Lin was born in Washington, D.C., before moving with his parents to San Francisco when he was 4. Cousins who had been living in Japan before coming to the United States first introduced him to manga (panel comics) and anime (manga-style animated films).  

“I saw it and I was blown away by it,” he said. 

Originating in 18th-century Japan, manga as a form was updated and modernized with popular Western cultural influences in the 1950s after America’s postwar occupation of Japan. Today, manga-inspired books and films are also produced in China, Taiwan and South Korea. It has grown into a $4 billion export industry for Japan, Lin said. 

Because of manga’s popularity and dynamic style of presentation, Lin said it is perfectly suited to telling Pope Benedict’s story to young people. 

“Manga, for some reason, is fantastic at transforming any topic into something exciting for the reader,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “Using the accessibility of manga as a medium and writing a story on Benedict gives us a chance to showcase who this person is.” 

Lin hopes the book helped communicate Pope Benedict’s message to the youths at WYD. 

“He is always encouraging them to say ‘yes’ to something greater than themselves,” he said. “We’re constantly bombarded by messages in the media saying that the path to happiness is fame or wealth. ... We want this book to inspire young people to start thinking about the true path to a fulfilling life, to a true vocation in life.” 

A businessman and real estate developer, Lin decided to start the company about three years ago as a way to combine his passion for manga with his love for the Catholic faith. 

“When the opportunity came to start a business, I thought, why not do something I was familiar with — anime and manga?” he said. “I also had an opportunity to influence society in a way that is positive, a way that falls under John Paul II’s call for a new evangelization.” 

Lin said he approached the Madrid WYD 2011 organizing committee with a proposal to produce a Catholic-themed manga comic for distribution to the event’s participants. After Lin had submitted several ideas, the committee chose the papal biography. 

Write for the job

After starting Manga Hero in 2008, Lin said he knew he’d need writers who understood the mission that John Paul II had called for in the new evangelization. He found what he was looking for further down the California coastline. 

Opened in 2006, John Paul the Great Catholic University (JPGU), San Diego, specializes in teaching students to incorporate modern technology and ancient theology, offering degrees in communications media, business and technology with a core emphasis on Catholic thought and practice. 

When Lin looked for writers at JPGU, he couldn’t have found a more perfect fit than Gabrielle Gniewek, who started working for him soon after founding the company. 

“I’ve always has a soft spot for anime and manga,” she said. “When I came to college, I was known as the ‘Anime Girl.’” 

Gniewek is currently discerning a vocation as a pre-postulant with the Chaldean-rite women religious order Workers of the Vineyard at the Convent of Our Lady of the Fields, El Cajon, Calif. She is scheduled to graduate from JPGU this year and continues to write for Manga Hero.  

In developing the story, Gniewek used books, the Internet and other research outlets to find out as much as she could about the pope’s life. 

“I try to put humanity into the story,” she said. “Benedict might seem like a distant character, but he is a person, and so I’d ask how he would react to a given situation — such as being dropped into the Hitler Youth against his will. I took all his life stories and tried to make it as realistic — and relatable — as possible.” 

Another writer for Manga Hero, Matt Salisbury, helped Lin launch the St. Paul manga series, although he has since departed Manga Hero to help found a graphic design business. Salisbury said manga is a great medium for the Church to spread Christ’s message. 

“The art style is so visceral and so alive that it’s exciting to read one of those books because the story jumps off the page,” he said. 

Vision and revision

According to Salisbury, the relationship between word and image is never more important than in manga. The artist for “Habemus Papam,” Sean Lam, couldn’t agree more. Lam is a manga artist in Singapore and said that he found working half a world away with Gniewek’s script exhilarating. 

“The challenge was always to keep up with the beautiful script and matching [it] with the correct feel and art direction,” he told OSV in an email from Singapore. “Another difficulty was to create Pope Benedict XVI true to his look, believable yet manga-like. And lots of research and reading are a must to illustrate the large enticing events and the huge beautiful Vatican City depicted in the script.” 

The final product is all the more remarkable, Lin said, because Lam is not even Christian and yet, as a self-described “free-thinker,” Lam said he appreciated being able to highlight Pope Benedict’s virtues. 

“Having worked on the pope manga has changed my view of him as a somewhat distant persona to someone who is actually so down to earth, warm and loving,” he said. “His faith, unselfishness and willingness to take on the role of pope have left a huge impression on me.” 

Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.