Charlie Baber is a United Methodist Deacon, serving as minister to youth and families in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s also the creator of the wonderful weekly comic Wesley Bros, featuring an updated version of John and Charles and a large cast of characters from church history and today. The comic explores both contemporary Christianity and church history in an engaging visual style. I was very pleased to get to ask Charlie about what role comics can play in our work of spiritual formation.
In your bio on your website, you talk about how you have been inspired by comics and drawing comics for much of your life. What do you like about that form?
I have always been attracted to the beauty of simplicity in certain black-and-white comics. A good artist can convey dimension and bring life to the page...you may not even notice how much time and effort they put into it. Comics usually offer a caricature of reality, intentionally pushing personalities to extremes, but they can also capture nuance with simple gestures and placing. I love that versatility.
Who are some of the comic artists that have inspired you, and what do you like about them?
I still remember the first Calvin and Hobbes comic I read in 2nd grade. Bill Watterson is an inspiration to loads of cartoonists, I know, but I just couldn’t get enough of his creativity. He always took my imagination to another world, and I thought everything he did was hilarious.
I began reading Jeff Smith’s ‘Bone’ series in Middle School. His art was so clean, as opposed to Watterson’s, and he conveyed a deep and even dark story with fantastic humor and comedic pacing.
As an adult I fell in love with Craig Thompson’s artwork, rough like Watterson, but incredibly elaborate and intentional. His novel ‘Blankets’ significantly impacted my career in youth ministry. It’s a coming of age story about an abused and outcast teenage boy who doesn’t fit in with the Young Life-style youth ministry, and eventually leaves the faith. It haunts me because I know those kids, and I want to offer them something different.
I’m also a HUGE fan of Mike Mignola’s ‘Hellboy’ series. The art is magnificent, the storytelling is unique (paranormal investigation tales based on obscure folklore from around the world), and it is ultimately a tale of faith and choice.
For those of us new to comics, who do you think we should read and why?
My two favorite online comics are ‘Hark A Vagrant’ by Kate Beaton (harkavagrant.com) and ‘Poorly Drawn Lines’ by Reza Farazmond (poorlydrawnlines.com)--both make me laugh out loud almost every comic. Beaton’s work actually inspired me to start Wesley Bros. She uses mostly historical and literary characters in ridiculously anachronistic situations. I had toyed with the idea of doing what I’m doing about 5 years ago, but it wasn’t until my brother introduced me to Beaton’s comic that I believed I could have an audience.
Also, read ‘Tom the Dancing Bug’ by Ruben Bolling. It’s been around forever...great editorial comic that introduced us to God-Man! Coffee With Jesus is usually pretty spot on. Download the Go Comics app and you can discover all sorts of great comics you didn’t know were out there. Keep in mind, none of these comics are suitable for Christian Bookstores.
I’m downloading that app now.
On to the Wesley Bros: what does a comic about these historical church figures allow you to do that you couldn’t do in, say, a blog? Or in fictional form?
Jeez, so much. Mostly, I started this as an editorial comic. I thought if I used reformers and figures that the church looks to and admires, I could allow them to challenge issues I see in the church today. Blogs don’t usually tell stories, and a comic is nothing if not a story. The fictional form doesn’t provide the brevity that I’m looking for in a comic strip. There is certainly a challenge for me to compact a lot of history or theology into a few panels, but I think the caricature provided in a comic allows for quick, memorable lessons. I’m ultimately a youth minister so that’s what I have to be good at!
One of the things that we try to do with the Confirm not Conform program is make church history come alive, and that’s certainly something the Wesley Bros comic has done for me. What have you learned about the Wesleys or these other figures from putting them in comic form? How has it changed your relationship to them?
Ha. Well, honestly, it has humanized them and made them more like people I work with rather than untouchable saints of the past. I’ve definitely made these my own characters...my wife says she likes that the real John Wesley would probably hate my comic strip. I always have a lingering desire to be true to the historical figures, but my characters are really mine, just based on the personalities, sayings, and situations of actual people.
We’re also really serious in CnC about not presenting church history with the high gloss and soft focus of perfection, but trying to keep things as honest as possible. Again, I think you do an admirable job of that. How do you approach church history when you know it may not present the church in the best light?
I don’t think I would have actually liked John Wesley at all if I met him in real life, so I don’t try to make him a lovable character. I believe God’s kingdom is breaking into the world, and until God comes in final victory, the church is always going to have its share of successes and failures. It is a false reality to idolize some sort of ‘glory days’ in the church, whether it be major reformations or when your youth choir had 500 kids in 1973. We need to own up to the failures of the past, repent of them, be different because of them...and then realize that we are not going to be the ones to get it 100% right either. Not in a fatalist sort of way, but with a ‘hopeful realism’ (great term from author Andrew Byers).
You’re a minister for youth and families at your church in Raleigh; does your youth group read your comic? What do they think?
About that. I tried to keep my comic a secret from my church for a long time. Most of my High School youth knew about it early on and were annoyed because of how much I used my social media to promote it. I have been using the comic more with my Confirmation class in the past few months. I make my own handouts for lessons and usually cut single panels from my strip into lessons on the same point. I just did my first comic specifically as a teaching tool for Confirmation. It’s called “The Kingdom of God is Like...” and has no words in it. After teaching kids about prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, I gave them the comic and asked them to explain it to their mentors using the historic terms we had just taught them. It was very well received, thought the youth some of my youth didn’t believe I actually did it.
How can youth ministers use comics or other visuals in their ministries? What about using comics for adults?
I think that the best communicators of the Gospel know what culturally speaks to their audience. If everyone in your congregation is retired, you probably shouldn’t be using a lot of Arrested Development and U2 quotes in your sermon. The opposite is also true...if you only use sermon illustrations that were culturally relevant in the 70‘s, you are not speaking to me or anyone younger than me. It seems like most comics used in Christian settings are too...I don’t know...sugary sweet. I know a few youth ministers who have capitalized on the superhero movies to communicate the Gospel because so many youth and families have seen those movies. But I find that a lot of my kids read comics, often the same obscure ones I read through Reddit. I only use stuff with my youth and parents that I know will resonate with them. I think the use of comics or any other media can be very effective, we ministers should always be aware of where our personal interests and congregational interests intersect...and where they don’t.
I developed a 6 week bible study on the Gospel of Mark for my youth, based solely on Steve Ross' graphic novel "Marked." The kids LOVED it, and it was a great way to get them to read an entire Gospel, talk about literary genre, and compare Ross' interpretation of the Gospel of Mark with the scripture itself.
I also love "The Book of Genesis" illustrated by R. Crumb. For a non-believer, he put a huge amount of research into his work, and it actually helped me to see patterns in Genesis that I had never noticed before. I would love to use this as a study with college age through middle aged adults...but they would have to be forewarned that Crumb's artwork is not shy on National Geographic-style nudity.
Finally, there is a fine little comic of Jonah, Esther, and Amos called "The Unlikely Chosen," by Earnest and Shirley Smith Graham. It could very easily be used as a straight-up Bible study with youth or adults. I would just always have the Bible out next to these comics to ask the question: Is this how you visualized the scripture? What insights does the comic add?
Do you have other suggestions for how Christian educators can approach church history in a way that will open people up to how the lives of people of faith in the past can affect and inform us today?
I’m a HUGE fan of history, but I wasn’t until I had my first excellent history professor in undergrad. It’s really about that sweet spot where knowledge combines with passion. Even if people don’t join you in your enthusiasm, they’ll remember, “Jeez, Pastor So-and-So never stopped talking about Martin Luther.” And then I guarantee they’ll remember something important about Luther, too. If it matters to you, teach it like it matters to you. Don’t just spout off facts or bore people with, “Wesley said this...” Who cares what Wesley said? He wasn’t Jesus! It’s not the Bible. Make me care by showing me that what Wesley said has profoundly shaped the way YOU follow Christ.
Finally, of course I have to ask, in the Lent Madness match-up of John vs. Charles, who are you rooting for? Any words of wisdom for those voting?
OMG. I am like. So. Totally. Voting 4 Charles. #Underdog #YOLO #JohnIsAJerk #Seriously #DontVoteForJohn #O41000Tongues2Sing
PS. I seriously was watching Troll Hunter on Netflix this whole interview, and it changed my life.
I’ll take your word on that.