What did a comic book artist know about spreading the good news? Plenty, as it turns out.
- Posted on Oct 17, 2012
Comics fans are a colorful bunch. Looking out at the crowd at the Dallas convention where I sat on a panel, I recognized many of the superhero outfits I’d drawn over the years: Batman, The Flash, Captain America.
Fans had come dressed as their favorite character to hear me talk about my latest graphic novel, The Lost Battalion. I’d done a lot of research on the story of the 36th Infantry Division, trapped and surrounded in the mountains of northeast France during World War II, and reworked it as a vehicle for DC Comics’ hero Sgt. Rock.
“Sergeant Rock is a great character,” I told the crowd, “but this man next to me is a real-life hero.” I introduced them to Lt. Colonel Eliel “Arch” Archilla of the 405th Fighter Squadron, a living, breathing veteran of the Battle of the Lost Battalion. “He’s the one you should be listening to.”
Arch regaled the crowd with stories of flying fighter planes in WWII, the Lost Battalion’s rescue by Japanese-American soldiers, even meeting Babe Ruth. I was as enthralled as the audience by Arch’s stories.
No matter how many superheroes I’ve written and illustrated as an artist, my biggest heroes were all real-life people like Arch, or the men of the 141st. Real life and real heroes. They’d always interested me. I suppose that’s why I’d wanted to do The Lost Battalion.
After the conference Arch introduced me to his grandson, Evan. He invited me out for dinner. “How did you get into writing comic books?” he asked as we ate.
“It wasn’t my original plan,” I admitted. I told Evan how I’d gone to FIT in New York to study fashion illustration. Many of my friends at school were into comic books. The more I looked at them, the more I wanted to do them too.
I submitted my work to the “big two” publishers, DC and Marvel Comics, but I always got rejected. “They said my work wasn’t their style,” I said. “So I decided to publish myself.”
In my classes at FIT we’d studied woodblocks from medieval Japan. I got interested in the country’s history and read everything I could about Japan. That research inspired me to create a new character.
A modern woman with a Japanese father and an American mother, “Shi” was drafted into a shadow war between the descendents of the warrior monks of medieval Japan. She sought vengeance on the people who killed her father, but has been taught by her Christian mother to forgive.
There was plenty of adventure and excitement to be had in Shi, but to me it was really a story about faith. “To my surprise, the book was a huge hit,” I told Evan. “Suddenly everyone wanted to work with me. They let me write whatever I wanted. Almost.”
“So it looks like you created your own magnum opus,” said Evan.
I hesitated. Shi would always be close to my heart. I loved creating it, and its unexpected success had been a blessing for me and Deborah and our two sons, William and Matthew. But truth be told, it wasn’t the story I dreamed of telling.
I’d never told anyone about the project I secretly longed to do, but for some reason I suddenly wanted to confide in Evan. “Actually,” I said, “what I really want to do is spread the Gospel.”
Evan’s eyebrows rose.
“I’d love to tell the Christmas story,” I said. “Just like it happens in the Bible, in graphic novel form. I could never sell a publisher on it, I know. But if I could pick anything in the world to do, that would be it.”
I returned home to New York the following day. I hoped Evan didn’t think I was nuts, telling him my idea about the Christmas story. Drawing Batman comics was one thing, but illustrating the Bible?
A week later, Evan called me with a proposal: “How would you like a partner on that Christmas story book you wanted to do?” He and a friend from his church, Jason Peet, flew me back to Texas to discuss the details.
“I picture it looking almost like a film,” I said. “Very realistic. Sweeping vistas, long, horizontal panels. Like a movie in cinemascope.”
Evan and Jason loved all my ideas and agreed right then and there to finance the project. Flying home on the plane, I couldn’t believe this was happening. Real life, real heroes. Just like I’d always wanted. Yet instead of being thrilled, I was scared!
“Is this the right time to do this?” I asked Deborah when I got home.
“When isn’t the right time to focus on the Christmas story?” she said.
I threw myself into sketching, plotting out storyboards. I drafted Deborah, the boys, and many of our friends for artist’s models.
I cleared all the furniture out of the living room and arranged a tableau: Deborah stood in for the innkeeper. William and Matthew took up their hockey sticks to play shepherds leading a herd of stuffed dinosaurs.
Little by little, it all came together. But would anyone buy it? Not my usual comic book audience, I figured. But somebody sure liked it. A Child Is Born was the most reordered graphic novel in both December 2011 and January 2012.
A few months after publication I attended another comics conference, back in the world of capes and spandex. I signed a lot of copies of The Lost Battalion and Shi. Just after lunch I was approached by a young man in a Batman t-shirt who handed me a book to sign: A Child Is Born.
He wasn’t the last person—or even the last Batman—to bring me that book to sign that day. A lot of those people stayed to talk a while about their faith, and Christmas, and what it meant to them.
I’d thought my usual comics audience wouldn’t be interested in a Christmas story. But it turns out many of them agree: Jesus really is the greatest superhero of them all.
View images from Billy's A Child Is Born.