Graphic novels, big questions

Doug TenNapel isn't your ordinary guy who doodles on a church bulletin when the sermon gets boring.

Instead, the Eisner Award-winning cartoonist scribbles in his daily calendar -- creating a bridge from the pew to his studio. The result is a pocket universe of character sketches, strange movie ideas and graphic "plot wheels" in which he works out the twists and turns in his stories.

These days, swarms of Kid Elves on flying logs bump into sketches of Bigfoot, next to rough ideas for a violent, at times profane graphic novel that TenNapel is creating about crime bosses, invading aliens and an inquisitive priest.

"I can write 10 of these stories a year, but I only have time to draw one," he said. "When I see these things in my head, it's like I'm watching movies. ... But in the past they've been too far out for Hollywood."

TenNapel is a cult figure with online fanboys who admire his work in cartoons, video games, television and, especially, his book-length graphic novels with complex plots and images that resemble movie storyboards. But things will change if his "Creature Tech" reaches movie theaters.

What is the graphic novel about? Publishers Weekly said: "It's the story of the battle between the abrasive good-guy scientist Dr. Ong and the resurrected Dr. Jameson, a malevolent 19th-century occultist-mad scientist who sought to rule the world. Ong ... returns to his hometown after being appointed to direct a research facility locals call Creature Tech. There, he opens a crate housing the Shroud of Turin. Things get complicated when the ghost of Jameson ... steals the shroud, resurrects his own body and resumes trying to take over the world with the help of an army of conjured hellcats and a gigantic space eel."

Wait, there's more. Ong is also a seminary dropout and his father is a pastor who used to be a scientist. Then there's the 7-foot mantis the U.S. government sends as a security team and the symbiotic alien parasite that clamps onto the hero's chest and, strangely enough, makes him a better person.

This is a normal TenNapel plot.

It helps to understand that he grew up in rural Turlock, Calif., in a home that, during his childhood years, contained many religious influences -- from atheism to evangelicalism. He studied art at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and eventually took a TV animation job with "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

Then he moved into video games, leading to his 1994 hit "Earthworm Jim." Two years later, Steven Spielberg hired him to create the "Neverhood" games for Dreamworks. TenNapel was a digital success, but he also spiraled into burnout. Then, in 2002, he created "Creature Tech."

The key moment came when the blogger called "Moriarty" posted the following at the Ain't It Cool ( site for film insiders.

"There's no doubt. It's weird. ... It's also very funny, profoundly sweet and heartfelt, touching in a strange way, and serious about concepts like faith and family without being in any way preachy or corny," he wrote. "Simply put, Creature Tech is the best American animated film since The Iron Giant. ... Better than anything from any studio. ... It's a movie that just happens to be in print."

Within minutes, studios started calling his agent. Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox won the bidding war and early work began on a live-action movie.

Part of the challenge, admitted TenNapel, is capturing his blend of fantasy and Christian faith. Some critics wish he would quit weaving sin, redemption, politics and science into his plots. Then there are church people who think he should be drawing evangelistic, "Christian comics" and avoiding his occasional blasts of sci-fi potty humor.

Hell through the Hollywood lens

LOS ANGELES -- Hell looks really cool, when seen through a Hollywood lens.

The good guys in the upcoming thriller "Constantine" do comment on the sulfur smell in the hell edition of Los Angeles and it's a pain coping with all those extra tortured, brainless, flesh-eating demons on the 101 Freeway. But the city still looks like Los Angeles, even after an eternity of hurricane-force firestorms.

The other place can't compete, when it comes to entertainment value.

"The reason why heaven isn't shown as much in these kinds of movies, honestly, is that no one knows how to depict it in a cool way," said screenwriter Frank Cappello, after the film's press screenings.

"Audiences love to see hell. They want to see demonic images. But if you show them angelic beings, if you show them the light ... it's like they say, 'Oh, gosh.' "

So it's no surprise that "Constantine" offers a mere glimpse of a heavenly reward, before its chain-smoking, hard-drinking, cussing antihero is yanked back to his life as a rock 'n' roll exorcist. The John Constantine character was born in stacks of "Hellblazer" comic books and, as played by the neo-messianic Keanu Reeves, is part Dirty Harry and part Indiana Jones, channeling "The Matrix" and "Men in Black."

How dark is this movie? The angel Gabriel gets ticked off at humanity and decides to cue the apocalypse.

The director and writers agreed that their movie raises big questions about salvation and damnation, sin and repentance, fate and free will. It will raise eyebrows among the 81 percent of Americans who, according to a 2004 Gallup Poll, believe in heaven and the 70 percent who believe in hell.

"I'm a skeptic, myself," said director Francis Lawrence. "For all I know, you die and rot in a box and that's it."

This response was par for the course, as the "Constantine" cast and crew fielded questions from critics and reporters, including a room full of Catholic and Protestant writers. One after another, the Hollywood professionals said they wanted their movie to inspire questions, but remain agnostic about answers.

A Catholic priest among the press agreed that it doesn't make sense to expect coherent doctrine from a horror movie, even one this packed with references to Catholic rituals, relics and art. Yet "Constantine" is precisely the kind of pop-culture event that may cause young people to ask questions.

"It's based on a comic book and looks like a video game," said Father Joe Krupp of and Lansing (Mich.) Catholic High School. "Like it or not, you just know that the kids are going to be talking about this and we need to pay attention. ...

"This movie is messy, but it does say that there is a heaven and a hell and it says that our choices are powerful and matter for eternity. It also says that each of us was created by God for a purpose. It says that several times."

Spiritual warfare is quite literally the key, with the antihero fighting to earn his way into heaven. At one point, Constantine chants Latin prayers and threatens to send the demonic Balthazar to heaven instead of hell in a brass-knuckles version of Last Rites. But just before he pulls the trigger -- on a shotgun shaped like a cross -- he reminds his adversary that he must "ask for absolution to be saved."

Constantine knows how to get to heaven, stressed Cappello. He is simply too angry and cynical to obey. Seek God's forgiveness? Forget about it.

"His pride gets in the way of him asking to be let off the hook," said Cappello. "It's basically, 'I'm going to do it myself.' "

Yet Reeves urged moviegoers not to judge his world-weary character too harshly, because he does muster up one act of self sacrifice. In the "secular religiosity" of this film, that is enough.

"That's what, you know, gives him a chance of going upstairs," said Reeves. "But ... did he make the sacrifice so that he could go to heaven, or does he really mean it?" In the end, "the man upstairs knows, just like Santa Claus, if you're telling a lie or if you're really nice. He knows."

And all the people said: Whoa.