Sunday, September 14, 2014

Serenity: That One Really Good Christian Comic

I love Christian storytelling, but I'm also one of the first to be critical of it. 99 times out of 100, Christian fiction has fallen into one of three embarrassing categories:

1. Sanitized rip-offs of secular stories, which the church endorses far too openly seeing how stealing ideas is still stealing.
2. Attempts at making a film or novel length Chick tract which nobody who actually needs the message can stomach the cheesiness of.
3. Self-righteous "SUPER Christian vs HORRIBLE atheist" combat that conveniently forgets Christians also have trouble with sin and that Satan, not other people, is the enemy.

But then there's the 1 time out of 100 where somebody gets it right. Veggietales did it by creating a cast of funny characters that give a unique spin to biblical history. Sherwood Films, creators of works such as Facing the Giants and Fireproof does it by showing Christians as the flawed human beings we are and injecting genuine heart into its stories. But as I was organizing my room to prepare for moving to my college campus, I found another example of great Christian storytelling that isn't talked about nearly as much as either of the above examples and really should be: Serenity.

No, I'm not talking about that film based on Firefly. I'm talking about a 10 issue graphic novel series that came out in the late 2000s. During this time, there was a big fad in Christian bookstores: manga. Several companies were trying to appeal to today's Christian teen by making comics in the popular style of Japanese comics. The biggest seller was Realbuzz Studios, who specialized in Christian manga. By 2008, the fad had passed and Realbuzz Studios died off after a short 3 years. The problem had been twofold: Christian bookstores thought that manga was synonymous with hentai. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Buzz Dixon of Realbuzz said, '

“We had to fight tooth and nail to get it into the stores because people would assume it was hentai [porn]. [...] We had a radio interview cancel on us five minutes before we went on the air, because they said, ‘We went to the bookstore and looked at the manga section and it’s all witch girls and samurai chopping each other in half.’ ”

This isn't hard to believe as I remember having trouble finding Couplers, a space opera manga Realbuzz put out.

The other problem, in my opinion, was that some of Realbuzz' work wasn't sure what it wanted to be. Goofyfoot Girl, a story about a surfer and her friends at the beach, while receiving some of the best reviews of Realbuzz' works, felt like it wasn't trying to be Christian at all. Characters gossiped meanly behind other character's backs and this was never addressed as a bad thing; in fact, it was played for laughs. The idea of God was played rather tongue and cheek with the main character being agnostic and any miracles turning out to be acts by another character. It had the opposite problem most comics have of being too preachy: it apparently was afraid to be Christian at all because that wasn't "cool enough" for the story.

Serenity wasn't free of the identity crisis either, but its problems lied in the artwork. One word: backgrounds. At first glance, Serenity lacks the detail and eye-candy manga screen tones usually add, opting for plain gradient backgrounds. It does what is otherwise a cute looking manga a major disservice, giving many pages an empty feel.

Don't get me wrong: this article is about what makes Serenity a great read that I think everyone should give a look, but I have to admit that Goofyfoot Girl smoked it in the art department with its watercolor look.

In fact, what makes Serenity special isn't clear for the first few volumes of the work, which is probably why it didn't sell well enough to keep Realbuzz afloat. But by the time you get to the third volume of the series, there's a review quote on the back by Stan Lee.

Yeah, that Stan Lee. The Stan Lee, in fact, who had originally asked Dixon to create a Christian comic centered around Spider-Man, but Dixon had wanted to create Serenity instead. The quote reads:

"...a clean, inspiring Christian comic done in a hip, contemporary way. I think you've got a real winner."

Of course, the positive quote by one of the biggest people in comics is on the back of the book, while the review quote on the front is by Melody Carlson, who strictly creates Christian teen fiction - a genre that doesn't have the best track record. Oops.

So, what makes Serenity good enough for Lee to give it a nod of approval? Like I said, it's not clear at first. Serenity is a story about a teenage girl of the same name who has spent most of her life with the wrong crowds. She's crude, loud, promiscuous, and really - really - hates Christians. As the story progresses, Serenity learns that Christianity is really about and starts to see things differently.

A lot of you are already rolling your eyes, as did I at first. "Oh, no, not the story of the perfect Christians versus the horrible atheist again."

But this is where it gets good, in two ways. First off: the antagonist, if one had to be picked, is a Christian.

Kimberly, Serenity's classmate, is a part of the Bible study group that wants to connect with Serenity, but winds up foaming at the mouth because of Serenity's interest in her boyfriend, Derek. Eventually, she flat out says that she hates Serenity, and spends much of the series wishing bad upon her even though she knows better. As the series goes on, we learned that Kimberly, despite living in a Christian home with a pastor as a father, has plenty of her own problems.

Other characters, Christian and non, are uniquely colorful and have their own issues to face. One member of the Bible group has issues with drugs. At a 12-step meeting, another girl, also Christian, talks about her continuing struggle and admits that sometimes she wonders if God can really help her more than another hit would. In another scene, Serenity gets frustrated with a broken soda machine and starts kicking it, unleashing a slew of (censored, of course) profanities in all the colors of the rainbow. Another member of the Bible group mentions that cussing won't help, and Serenity retorts that "Christians are too moldy for anything stronger than 'God Bless!'" Irritated, the Bible group member responds with a random string of (also censored, but strong bad enough to shock Serenity) profanes. Turns out, her uncle is a drill instructor. She finishes saying Christians don't cuss because "it isn't on deck" and leaves Serenity to get over her shock.

Second, and more importantly, getting saved isn't where the story of Serenity ends. Not even close. It's the set-up for the real story.

At one point in later volumes, Serenity begins to feel conscious because she doesn't "look the part" of the other teens in her church. Worried she's doing something wrong, she dies her hair from its iconic blue back to a natural brown, puts on a skirt, and starts speaking more softly. Her peers may find this Serenity less obnoxious at times, but they know it's not who Serenity really is. They set up an intervention, letting her know that you don't have to be stereotypically feminine to be Christian. She realizes that getting the sin out of her life doesn't mean throwing away the good parts of what makes her unique. In the end, her friends present her with a new tube of blue hair dye.

When I read this as a teen, I found myself crying. I'd always been the "weird kid" in my church who was more of a tomboy than the other girls and louder than everyone else. I'd never really felt I fit in either.

That's when it fully hit me: Serenity isn't about some messed-up atheist that Christians are expected to mentally preach to as they read. Serenity is a representation Christian who didn't grow up in the church. Serenity is a stand-in for every insecurity I've felt and every question I've had since I was saved at age 14.

That's what makes Serenity such a special series: it's about Christians. Real Christians with problems and insecurities. It asks the questions real Christian teens ask and answers them without judgement or patronization. It shows teenagers who are smart but still struggle. It shows parents who mean well but aren't perfectly in tune with the times. It's the kind of Christian story we need more of: a story that feels real and complex and doesn't fear imperfection. It's a story that readers from all walks of life can see themselves in, good and bad. And I hope this article has made you want to give Serenity the chance it deserves.