Comic book visionaries

LOS ANGELES -- The story has everything that a comic book needs, like rippling muscles, heaving bosoms, torture, seduction, superhuman feats of strength and moments of crippling guilt.

The story builds through pages of dramatic close-ups, epic slaughters and cosmic revelations until, finally, the hero faces his ultimate decision. Will he take a leap of faith and risk everything?

"Oh Lord God! Hear me please. Give me strength this one last time," he prays. "I am prepared! You strengthen me, oh Lord! ... Now let me die here with the Philistines!"

Anyone who knows comics knows what happens next in "Samson: Judge of Israel," by Mario Ruiz and Jerry Novick. What happens next is painted in giant, ragged, screaming letters that say "GRRUUNN," "CRAACCKK," "AAAIIIEEE" and one final "WHUMP!"

The great Bible stories -- such as Samson in the book of Judges -- are packed with the epic visions and good-versus-evil absolutes that fill the pages of classic comics and their modern, supercharged siblings known as "graphic novels" or works of "sequential art." But what is less obvious is that some of today's most popular and influential comic-book artists are drawing their inspiration from deep wells of faith and classic religious stories, according to Leo Partible, an independent movie producer, graphic artist and writer.

"Anyone who knows where to look can find plenty of examples of faith in the comics and the culture that surrounds them," he said. "There is darkness there, but lots of light, too."

Thus, in the influential "Superman For All Seasons," a young Clark Kent turns to his pastor for help as he struggles to discern what to do with his life and unique abilities. Hollywood writer Kevin Smith's "Daredevil" hero wrestles with guilt while leaning on his Catholic faith. The mutant X-Man Nightcrawler quotes scripture and talks openly about sin, penance and righteousness.

The mystery of the Shroud of Turin is woven into Doug TenNapel's sprawling "Creature Tech," which probes questions about faith and science. Artist Scott McDaniel's website ( mixes discussions of faith and art with its pages of Nightwing, Batman and Spider-Man illustrations. The graphic novel "Kingdom Come," which helped redefine the modern comics, keeps quoting the Revelation of St. John as it paints an Armageddon vision for the superheroes of the past.

The 36-year-old Partible can quote chapter and verse on dozens of other examples as he races through stacks of well-worn comics, tracing the spiritual journeys of heroes old and new. It's crucial to understand, he said, that comic books are not just for children. They are a powerful force in movies, television, animation, popular music and video games. Hollywood studies the comics.

"Comics offer a powerful combination of visual art, the written word and the imagination," he said. "For millions of people around the world, comic books are a bridge between literature and the silver screen. ... This is where some of our most powerful myths and iconic images come from, whether you're talking about stories that were shaped by the comics -- such as the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- or actual comic-book stories like the X-Men and Spider-Man.

"People have to be blind not to see this trend. It's everywhere."

Meanwhile, traditional religious believers who work in the comic-book industry face the same questions as believers who work in other mainstream media, said Partible. Should they be involved in artistic projects that dabble in the occult, if that is what it takes to land a job? How much sex and violence is too much? Should they flee the mainstream and start a "Contemporary Christian Comics" subculture that produces predictable products for Bible bookstores?

It's crucial, said Partible, that traditional believers stay right where they are in mainstream comics, helping shape some of the myths and epic stories that inspire millions. They also can help young artists break into an industry that needs both new ideas and old values.

"People are looking for heroes," he said. "People are looking for answers to the big questions, like, 'What in the hell am I doing here?' I asked that question when I was a kid and some of the comic books I read did a better job of answering it that many of the sermons I heard from preachers back then."