The grand Basilica of San Jose de Flores usually inspires visitors to gaze up at its Corinthian pillars and soaring 19th century Italianate clock tower.
This landmark in Buenos Aires played a strategic role in the life of a young Argentinian named Jorge Bergoglio. In a new book entitled "The Life of Pope Francis," he is shown shielding his eyes as he stands, stunned, in front of the sanctuary in 1953. His simple exclamation: "Dios mio," or "My God!"
Since this is a comic book, readers are told what Bergoglio was thinking. If this one moment is worth two giant images in a 22-page book, then the author has to show why it's so important.
"My goal is to focus on a few key events that made a person who are, on the forces that shaped them, not just on what they accomplished in some adult role on world stage," said author Michael Frizell, a creative writer who works in adult education at Missouri State University.
"I prefer to write about the personal, quieter scenes in a person's life. … It's especially hard to capture that when you're trying to describe a religious experience."
This private "Dios mio!" moment matters because whatever happened drove Bergoglio inside the church and into a Confession booth. This revelation changed his life.
In comic-book language that sounds like this, framed in thought boxes: "I ... don't quite know what happened. I felt like someone grabbed me from inside … and took me to the confessional. It was on that day that I knew my destiny was preordained."
Comic-book biographies are a niche of their own, covering the lives of public figures in the same punchy, graphics-driven format in which readers -- not all of them young males -- are used to encountering fantasies about super heroes. In Frizell's case, he has produced the texts for comic-book biographies of personalities ranging from Alice Cooper to U2's Bono, from "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, from Nancy Reagan to three books on Hillary Clinton.
The assignment from Storm Entertainment to write about Pope Francis was intriguing, said Frizzell, in part because his mother was a devout Catholic. As he began his research, it was obvious that the book would have to include some controversial issues, such as a messy 1970s case involving the military junta, two kidnapped Jesuits and Bergoglio.
"When you are writing about religion you have to be extra careful," said Frizell, in a telephone interview. "I find it dismaying all of the vitriol -- especially in online forums -- that surrounds anything that has to do with religious topics and religious people. I almost turned this job down because of that."
While doing research, he quickly decided to avoid topics that were not covered in at least three on-the-record sources in public media, or backed by a clear reference in the writings of Pope Francis, before or after he reached the Vatican. Frizell said he soon learned that the pope seen in news reports was quite different than the man found in earlier coverage of his career or in his own writings and remarks.
The first draft took 40 pages. Frizzell ended up, working with artists Vincenzo Sansone and Ben Gilbert, trying to tell the story of pope's life -- a story arc from birth, through his formative years and career, then his leap onto the world stage -- in a comic book just over half that length, containing 80-plus images. The writer studied an earlier Marvel Comics biography of Pope John Paul II for guidance.
Some colorful details went on the cutting-room floor, such as young Bergoglio's work as a bar bouncer. Then again, two pages focused on the young man's love of a novel -- "The Betrothed" -- in which a priest fights to protect two young lovers threatened by an evil baron who does not want them to get married.
The first-person voice of the future pope offers this narration: "The priest, you see, is the hero. Perhaps that is why I am a romantic at heart. Thus I will answer God's call. I will become a priest."
These kinds of religious experiences "are scary, personal stuff," said Frizzell. "But faith is crucial in so many life stories. Obviously, that's the case with the pope."