Comics and Cartoons as Vehicles of Religious Values

Interview with Journalist and Researcher Carlo Climati

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ROME, OCT. 8, 2002 ( “Romics 2002,” a comics fair that was held here from Oct. 3-6, organized a round table to discuss religion and comics.

ZENIT interviewed one of the speakers, Carlo Climati, a journalist who specializes in research related to communication and the young. His latest book, “Youth and Esotericism,” has been a best seller in Italy for months. It has already been translated into several languages.

Q: Comics and religion — a contradiction in terms?

Climati: Not at all. Comics can be an excellent means of religious communication. Every means of communication can be used for good or evil. Think of a scalpel. It can kill in the hands of a murderer, but in those of a good surgeon, it can save millions of human lives.

Comics are a means of communication that can be used to do good. They can transmit those values imprinted in the heart of every man: love, respect for life, friendship, truth.

Q: Are comics’ heroes like the saints?

Climati: Some are. Personally, some have made me reflect on the idea of holiness. They are the superheroes of the American Marvel publishing house — Spider-Man, the Four Fantastics, the X-Men, Devil, Thor and Silver Surfer.

They tell their problems and doubts in their stories. In his ordinary life, Spider-Man is a student who experiences love problems and is concerned about his sick aunt’s health. Devil is blind. The X-Men live the drama of loneliness and exclusion.

These superheroes are men like us — human beings who suffer and stumble. In a word, they have “super powers” but also “super problems.” The saints might seem like supermen, but in reality they have doubts and problems, like all of us. The saint, however, have always found the strength and constancy to get up and start again.

This fact calms me: Each one of us, despite our defects, can commit himself to the daily struggle to attain holiness.

Q: Are men of religion lacking some of the humor and freshness of the comics?

Climati: Religion should be constantly renewed in its language and manner of communicating. A bit of joy is important. We are taught this by John Paul II himself, who often shares amusing jokes with the faithful.

At the same time, however, religion must not lose its identity. It must not be watered down, imitating passing fads or allowing itself to be influenced by the prevailing thought. There is no need to invent strange things to attract people.

Suffice it to recall what happened during the World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000. Thousands of young men queued up to go to confession. Confession is something simple, yet it has fascinated thousands of people.

Q: Which are the comic strips that have made you reflect the most?

Climati: In addition to the superheroes, those of Charles M. Shultz, the author of “Peanuts.” His strips always give very beautiful messages, using very simple language.

Another very nice comic is that of the “Pitufos,” a population of little blue dwarfs who solve problems peacefully. The message of the “Pitufos,” created by Belgian Peyo, is a sincere love for nature, without falling into ecological fanaticism, and then, never allowing oneself to be overcome by the adversities of life.

The hierarchical structure of their little country is very interesting, led by a more elderly little dwarf. He is the one who makes the decisions, paying attention to the relation with each Pitufo. The Pitufos all seem to be the same, but in reality, each one has his character and style: from a Pitufo who is an inventor to one who is a poet, and from one with eyeglasses to one who is a lazy sort.

The grumpy Pitufo is an emblematic figure, who is always complaining and constantly looks ridiculous. It is a way of reminding us that we must not be dramatic in life; every obstacle can be overcome.

Lastly, I would like to mention Kriminal, an Italian comic strip of the ’60s created by Max Bunker and Magnus, authors of the famous Alan Ford.

Kriminal robs and kills, dressed in a suit with the design of a skeleton; he is, of course, a negative personage, who must not be imitated. However, one of his stories made me reflect: “The Way of Destiny.” In this adventure, Kriminal has a son. His eyes shine when he contemplates him. He expresses tenderness and love. However, the story has a tragic end, because the little one dies, murdered, and Kriminal continues as a killer.

I cannot avoid thinking about how Kriminal looked at his son. No one is totally evil. Even a criminal is capable of finding the strength to start a new life.

Q: In what way can Japanese comics, often criticized, help to transmit religious values?

Climati: It is important to make a distinction. There are Japanese cartoons that are very violent and disagreeable, but there are also those with the capacity to transmit values, such as the Cyborg 009 series. The actors are robot-men created to do evil, but they rebel against their fate and decide on the way of goodness.

The adventures of the special pirate Captain Harlock are particularly interesting. He is a positive hero who combats nihilism. It is a metaphor of our society. It is not accidental that his principal enemies are women vegetables who live in Mazone, who have succeeded in infiltrating themselves in earthly society and controlling its government.

The message is obvious: It is necessary to reject the insensitivity of a life of vegetables and rediscover the “strong” values of another time.

Another good Japanese comic is Maison Ikkoku, of Rumiko Takahashi. It tells the story of Yusaku, a young student who goes to a boardinghouse in Tokyo. The youth falls in love with Kyoko, the beautiful manager. She, a widow and older, still feels attached to her deceased husband, and is very prudent in her relation with the youth.

The poetry of this comic lies in the relation born between the two of them, made up of glances, tenderness, modesty, enthusiasm, rethinking.

Maison Ikkoku is a gentle and delicate comic, in which love is experienced as something important. This is very beautiful and goes very much against the current. In a world like ours, where the logic of easy sex often prevails, this comic gives a positive message and teaches a much deeper love, to be experienced little by little. And it is in this way, with little steps, that the two actors arrived at their happy end.

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