An interview with Pope Francis, new leader of the Catholic Church, has been causing shockwaves all over the world since it first appeared inthe magazine America: The National Catholic Review. What is the pope saying that's making so many headlines? He's talking about comics, of course. What else?!
In his short reign, Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air for the Church, eschewing the riches and glamor that have long been associated with the office for a more down-to-earth, man of the people type image. If choosing to live in a smaller, less lavish apartment, carrying his own luggage, and washing the feet of convicts didn't get the message across, this interview is sure to leave an impression, as Pope Francis covered everything from blockbuster event comics and variant covers to editorial interference and gay marriage. The interview represents one of the most in-depth takes on the state of American comics from a notable religious leader since L. Ron Hubbard penned a 40 page essay on the problems with Crisis on Infinite Earths from his deathbed in 1986.
So who is this man, this controversial figure, who dares to challenge the status quo of the comic book industry?
"I am a sinner," said Pope Francis when asked how he described himself in the interview. "That is the most accurate definition. I purchase event comics. I buy all the tie-in issues. Vatican Comics has been given explicit instructions to pull every tie-in for Infinity. I am a sinner who the Lord has looked upon."
"I buy variant covers too," the pontiff went on. "I tried to get all the 3D covers for Villain's Month, but the shop was shorted on a lot of them. I really wanted the Joker's Daughter because I heard it goes for a lot on ebay. I'm considering getting the 2D version and blessing it so it turns into a 3D cover through transubstantiation."
He likened his weakness for taking part in the self-destructive shenanigans of the comics industry to the famous painting, The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio.
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, a classic painting.
"That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew," he explained. It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his comics, amongst them, according to legend, all six variant covers for 1990's X-Men #1, as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, these comics are mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff."
Recognizing too many marketing gimmicks as a sin is a bold new stance for the annointed leader of the Catholic Church. Church leadership has traditionally taken a very dogmatic approach to comics. The Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 AD decided that comics should have a major, universe-spanning crossover event per publisher roughly every Summer, with smaller, family-book events in X-Men or Batman titles thrown in to boost sales in the Spring and Fall. Not much has really changed in the Church's views since then, until now.
As shocking as it may be, It's not surprising that Pope Francis would be so candid and outspoken about this matter. A man of the people, the pope has been known to post on comic book message boards and in the comments sections of some notable comic book blogs.
"And then a thing that is really important for me: community..." he explained in the interview, "I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community."
Pope Francis told us that he began posting on "the Old Rama," back before it "got Plucked." Since then, he mostly checks in with a few sites like Bleeding Cool and The Beat, preferring smaller, more honest blogs to giant corporate megasites that just "shill for the Big Two."
"I've been banned from CBR," the pope admitted. "Twice."
CBR Forum Manager Hitler Teapot declined to comment on the claims.
Pope Francis also described how he came to change his views on crossovers and events, which he once felt were an important part of the industry that bring a sense of oneness to the entire fictional Universe and also help to boost sales on struggling titles.
"My outspoken support of event comics led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being a speculator," he told us, speaking of his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in the 1990s, when the comic book industry almost imploded under the weight of gimmick covers, out of control crossover events like The Clone Saga, and Rob Liefeld artwork. "I lived a time of great interior crisis."
But after Marvel Comics was brought to the brink of bankruptcy, Francis learned from his mistakes. "I say these things from life experience and because I want to make clear what the dangers are. Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of publishing through my faults and my sins."
Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, over a decade before becoming Pope Francis, supporting irresponsible nineties comics at Argentina's second largic comic convention, El Festival de los Nerds Desagradable Picante.
Pope Francis believes that it is the myopic business strategies of the nineties which, though successful in the short term, led to the aged and dwindling readership today. While the direct market is profitable for Diamond and for major publishers, it isn't bringing in new readers, which the pope believes are essential to the growth and future of the industry.
"We should be thinking [this industry] is the home of all, not a small shop that can hold only a small group of selected people," he said. "We must not reduce the bosom of the universal industry to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the comics industry is Mother; the comics industry is fruitful. It must be."
The most controversial statements the Pope made, the ones being quoted all over the media, soon followed, as the Pope expressed a need to focus on solid storytelling, letting creators build up the characters in their books without having to stop every couple of months to shoehorn in a special event tie-in issue. Francis believes that management can be a positive force in comics.
"The industry sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: tell good stories. And the executives must be ministers of mercy above all. The editor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the comic."
"The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the editorial mandate, and you end up with guys like Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld writing 50% of the books because they don't care what kind of dreck they put out as long as they're cashing a paycheck, or you get what amounts to a twelve issue love letter to Wolverine at the expense of the reputation of decent, respectable characters like Cyclops because the writers are working to create a new status quo for the next event rather than letting the characters evolve and the creators tell a story," the pontiff mused.
But, according to Pope Francis, an editor should also refrain from telling the creators to do whatever they want, only to take it back later when some corporate higher-up decides that the intellectual property has to be kept within a certain framework of cross-branded marketing synergy. "The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘sure you can do that story’ or something like that. Then, six months later, a week before the comic is going to be published, he changes his mind and asks for a rewrite."
Pope Francis kisses bald comic writer "The Great One" Brian Bendis on the forehead, thanking him "on behalf of Jesus Christ for restoring dignity to the beloved character Scott Summers" after "the attrocity that was Avengers vs. X-Men."
Pope Francis went on to speak highly of great creators like J.H. Williams III who have become so frustrated with editorial interference that he would announce his exit from Batwoman on his blog, embarassing DC Comics. He suggested that editors work with creators to help them focus their talent and maintain a sense of continuity within the entire line of books, but, at the same time, hire the right creators for the right books, decide in conjunction with those creators where they want the story to go, and then let them tell their story, without interruption by crossovers, and without last minute editorial meddling. Is that so hard?
"How are we treating the people of God?" the pope wondered. "I dream of a comic book industry that is a mother and shepherdess. The publishers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor at reasonable prices for a 22 page story that isn't just "written for the trade" or as a potential movie storyboard. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude."
But what if a creator is trying to do something like have the characters in a book get married after the company recently decided on a policy to keep its characters free of such entanglements so that they can be more x-treme and marketable to 12 year old boys, which is somewhat ironic considering the industry considers 45 year olds to be its prime demographic?
"During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a married character is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge," he told us. "By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Editorial has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a character."
"If it makes sense within the story, just fucking do it," he elaborated, putting the matter to rest once and for all. "I mean, Jesus Christ almighty."
Pope Francis then excused himself, saying that he had to "hit up a couple of other shops in the area" to see if he could find a copy of Joker's Daughter #1. It's a bold new direction for the Church, and we can only hope that the executives at Marvel and DC are feeling the divine inspiration.