Comic Relief: What Began in 1938 as an Unassuming 13-Page Book about a Hero Named Superman Has Evolved into a Mix of Art and Literature. (Culture)

Article excerpt

Seated at a restaurant table, Nate Baxter arranges stacks of brightly colored comic books by nationality: India, Hungary, France, Thailand, Germany, Malaysia, Japan and Croatia. A passing waitress comes to a quick stop, her widening eyes scanning the colorful spreads: One cover features Mindy, a zoologist surrounded by elephants, alligators and monkeys; another shows a Canadian Indian using his lassoing abilities to save an endangered boat; and a third presents red-caped Chinese superhero Mark Chen.

"Comics are the most widely read literature in the world," says Baxter, a New Mexico cartoonist and founder of Rox35 Media Inc. "Every time the Chinese government wants to reach their people, they use comics. Mao used comics to propagandize in the 1940s. When they wanted to discredit the Falun Gong, they used comics. Now they have a comic-book character, Soccer Boy, who combats Western influences and promotes Patriotism."

The United States alone has 375 new comic-book titles a month, according to the New York City Comic Book Museum. An estimated 3,500 comic-book shops nationwide generate annual sales of $260 million. The average cost is $2.60; the average reader age is 24 (95 percent of all comic-book readers are male).

Yet interest in the states is puny compared with Japan, where an entire populace consumes the art form. "Whereas we produced hundreds of thousands of comics in this country, Japan publishes millions," says David Gabriel, executive director for the Comic Book Museum. "They use them for everything: teaching, subway reading, you name it."

Baxter uses comics for missionary purposes -- the only way to reach the Christianity-resistant Japanese. He travels the world training foreign artists how to preach the Gospel through comic-book art and word balloons in their own languages.

"A lot of churchgoers say the medium is not worth the message, that people won't take a comic-book Gospel seriously," says Baxter. "They also say comics are used for pornography and the occult, so we can't use them. But how about movies? They get used for pornographic and occult purposes, too, yet we make the `Jesus film,'" referring to a popular movie filmed by Campus Crusade for Christ. "Even airline-safety brochures use cartoons to communicate life-and-death information. I tell people in the church we have the most important life-and-death information possible. …