"Pope Francis: I Believe in Mercy" tells the story of the pontiff's early years in Argentina through his election in March 2013. The comic book is a new biography written by Regina Doman, a resident and parishioner at St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, Va. (CNS/courtesy Regina Doman)
“Pope Francis: I Believe in Mercy” tells the story of the pontiff’s early years in Argentina through his election in March 2013. The comic book is a new biography written by Regina Doman, a resident and parishioner at St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, Va. (CNS/courtesy Regina Doman)

“Pope Francis: I Believe in Mercy” is a new biography written by Regina Doman, a Front Royal resident and parishioner at St. John the Baptist Church. Sean Lam, an artist based in Singapore, illustrated the book in the Japanese style of comics, manga.

“For a long time I have been looking for an opportunity to get involved in a more visual project,” said Doman, a writer whose background is in television production. The book, released in August, is an attempt to “evangelize the culture,” she said. It is particularly intended for audiences like college-age men, who are key consumers of manga.

Until a few years ago, Doman herself didn’t know much about manga. She learned quickly after Manga Hero, the publisher of Pope Francis, enlisted her help on a different project.

“Manga is something that my kids are interested in more than I have been,” said Doman, who is expecting her ninth child.

“When I was younger, I never encountered any sort of Japanese comics,” she said in an interview with the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Arlington Diocese.

The idea of a papal biography in the form of a comic book may raise some questions for readers unfamiliar with manga. Aren’t comics only for kids? Could Doman have trivialized spiritual matters? And what about manga, associated at times with its own worst excesses — such as violent and pornographic situations, extreme even by American pop cultural standards?

In fact, the “whimsical pictures” are a multibillion-dollar industry and are read by people of all ages in Japan. Manga’s roots go back as far as the sixth century and the art flourished in the 1920s and ’30s — when numerous cartoonists went to jail for their work in the face of government censorship.

Nowadays, titles include everything from romance to mystery. Manga’s popularity surged in the United States in the early 2000s and, despite a dip in sales since then, has remained a hot commodity. The trend opened the door for publishers like Manga Hero, which focuses on faith-themed books.

Manga “allows for a more serious take on things. I found it very fitting for a subject such as the life of a pope,” said Doman, who also is publisher of the Chesterton Press.

“I really do feel there is scope for depth in there that you don’t often see in western comics,” she added.

The book does read more like a spiritual autobiography than a blow-by-blow account of major events in the pontiff’s life. There is a sizable amount of text in Francis’ own words.

The narrative moves forward through a personal profession of faith that Pope Francis made just before being ordained, and through the spiritual exercises of the Jesuit order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. The saint’s recommendations included picturing oneself within a scene from the Scriptures. Francis does just that in key moments.

In one scene, then-Father Jorge Bergoglio celebrates Mass right before he speaks to Argentina’s ruthless new president on behalf of a pair of Jesuits taken as political prisoners.

“Padre Jorge,” as he was called, has every reason to be afraid — after all, the dictator has no qualms about punishing priests. A panel juxtaposes an up-close drawing of Father Bergoglio’s dark eyes with a scene of terrified apostles, clinging to a boat during a storm. Then, Christ appears to the apostles. Father Bergoglio lifts the host, his mind apparently made up. Then, jumping forward in time, he tells the dictator, “I’ve come to ask you about my brother priests.”

Many comic book writers would simply have let the reader eavesdrop directly on Father Bergoglio’s troubled thoughts by placing a “thought bubble” next to his head. Pope Francis is a different sort of book — though he faces challenges and has the personal virtues worthy of any “superhero” storyline.

Francis is not the only papal comic book star: The lives of the popes have provided enough drama for several other adaptations. In 2012, Doman wrote “Habemus Papam: Pope Benedict XVI.” In 2000, the Vatican approved an Italian serial comic strip aimed at young people, “Karol Wojtyla: Pope of the Third Millennium.” Copies of 1983’s “The Life of Pope John Paul II,” originally published by Marvel Comics for $1.50, now go for $10 to $20 on eBay.

And when Francis seems to make headlines on a daily basis, who knows? There could be another book in the offering.

“It would be really fun to revisit later in his pontificate,” Doman said.

– – By Mary Stachyra Lopez Catholic News Service