Old Stories, New Telling: Mecha Manga Bible Heroes

Castiglia on Mecha Manga Bible Heroes

Ever wondered what the Biblical story of David and Goliath would have been like if only Goliath were a Giant Robot? JMG Comics’ Mecha Manga Bible Heroes is going to explore “The Greatest Stories Ever Told” with Science Fiction and Robots.

We caught up with JMG Comics’ Managing Editor, Paul Castiglia to chat about JMG’s first comic, Mecha Manga Bible Heroes, the company’s other new titles and upcoming DVDs.

Newsarama: Who is involved in JMG Comics?

Paul Castiglia: JMG Comics was founded by John-Marc Grob of JMG Studios. John-Marc serves as editor-in-chief on Mecha Manga Bible Heroes. He has worked for Joe Kubert’s studio where he colored comics for Marvel’s The Punisher and X-Men; as well as with the brothers Hildebrandt.

Co-writers Tom Hall and Joey Endres are editors of and contributing writers/artists to Megazeen, a small press comic anthology distributed to several comic shops.

Our colorist and letterer is Daniel Bradford. He is also an artist, and his collaborations with Tom Hall have caused quite a buzz with several publishers showing interest in their developing series, Enlightenment, King and Robot 13.

Thom "Kneon Transitt” Pratt is the penciler/inker for our first issue. He has colored for Gladstone Comics and provided various art and color for comics published by Christian comic book publishers. He is currently contributing art for a new Transformers project.

All our covers are beautifully painted by soon-to-be-fan-fave Jeff Slemons. Jeff has done wonderful work for both comics and advertising. I encourage everyone to check out more of his amazing work at his website www.slemonsillustration.com.

And me? Well, I’m the managing editor for JMG Comics and I’m sure the rest of this interview will reveal more for folks who may not be familiar with me.

NRAMA: The story of David vs. Goliath is exciting and compelling. However, most people have a basic understanding of the story. That is, unless you change things up and Goliath wins. How are you telling the story to make it compelling for the average comic fan?

PC: Well, actually, our take is that many people actually aren’t completely familiar with all the details. For example, how many people are aware that David’s brother was against him even being on the scene when Goliath challenged the Israelites? How many people remember that David relayed his exploits of protecting the sheep under his guard from ferocious bears and lions in an attempt to convince Saul to let him battle the giant? And most of all, how many people know that David not only cut off Goliath’s head, but walked around with it as a symbol of how faith in God can help someone overcome the biggest obstacles? Most children’s book and Sunday School versions of this story gloss over that last part, because they don’t want to get involved in the gruesome aspects. But with our science fiction setting and the fact that Goliath is a robot made of metal and machinery and not a man of flesh and blood, our David CAN walk around with that head and have it serve its purpose as a proclamation that a higher power is indeed in control – and much bigger and more powerful than a giant man-brute. Best of all, since we’re being faithful to the Biblical text, we are able to include David’s last bit of dialogue which references his lineage, the same genealogical line as Jesus.

NRAMA: With a title like Mecha Manga Bible Heroes should we expect to see all the heroes of the Bible as Giant Robots?

PC: No. In most cases, the heroes will not be robots. The robotic aspects will be handled on a case-by-case basis. The writers have several surprises up their sleeves which I won’t reveal now, save for one: Jonah will get swallowed up by a giant robotic space creature instead of a giant fish, while evangelizing different planets instead of different nations as in the original story. If you lock in on Goliath and the space creature, you can get an idea of where we’re going with this. Specifically remember that all the Philistines are robotic, not just Goliath, and they show up in the Bible a lot. A lot of the heroes will stay human. They’ll be the ones on the ground dealing with obstacles a la the human characters in the Transformers movie. They may find themselves wearing mecha-armor or even commandeering a mecha robot, but for the most part they will remain human.

NRAMA: Are the stories all from the Old Testament?

PC: Yes. We decided from the outset that the Old Testament stories were the most adaptable to the mecha-manga style. Old Testament stories tend to operate on several levels, and quite a few of them have that great action and derring-do adventure that a lot of the old myths have, so it seemed a natural. I like to tell people that even if they don’t believe in the Bible, if they like the ancient Greek and Roman myths they can probably enjoy our comic book. Particularly if they dig the Ray Harryhausen movies like Jason & the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans and the Sinbad movies. We just have a lot more of those Clash of the Titans mechanical owls flying around. And ours are much bigger!

NRAMA: What do Robots and Manga do for the Bible stories that an illustrated Bible doesn’t do?

PC: As I mentioned earlier, we get to include some Biblical details that others often have to skirt around because they’re worried about exposing children to adult content. Make no bones about it, we are making a true “all ages” comic book here – one we hope will appeal to ages 6 and up, we see no reason to put a cap on it. Because of our use of robots and other sci-fi trappings, we can get around the bloody violence that is found in some of the original stories. We can also convey complicated socio-political and spiritual matters in ways that are more easily understandable to anyone who has seen a Star Wars or Star Trek movie. When you know that the “red octopus-looking aliens” are the bad guys and the “blue fish-looking aliens” are the good guys, it’s easier to make those distinctions. Or as in the case of our first issue, armor-clad humans good; giant mechanized robots bad.

NRAMA: Do the Bible heroes have any special powers not seen in the Bible?

PC: The Bible heroes themselves are equipped with space-age technology. They will often be in mecha-infused armor.

NRAMA: Will all the stories be retellings of actual Bible stories, or will some just be morality plays?

PC: For our Mecha Manga Bible Heroes series, all of the stories will be from the Bible. No morality plays. The stories are rich and layered and we want to bring out the full flavors as much as possible. Of course, many of these stories inherently also happen to be morality plays. But our commitment to staying true to the text is of utmost importance. The characters, stories, and themes remain the same. The motivations of the characters and the content of their discussions and actions and the ramifications thereof remain the same. Only the setting has changed to a futuristic world of robots, aliens and advanced technology. However, we are planning other series that will be strictly morality plays.

NRAMA: What do you tell the readers about the actual Bible stories that inspire the comic?

PC: Right on the first page of our debut issue we include the message, “If you think this comic book is exciting, check out the real story in the Holy Bible! You’ll find it in the book of 1 Samuel, Chapter 17, verses 1-58.” This message is boxed to call attention to itself. We want to be absolutely clear from the outset that our comic book should never be considered a substitute for the Bible in any way. Our aim here is to encourage our readers to read the actual Bible. There are a lot of people out there who are victims of the “sound byte” age who think they know what’s in the Bible based only on what they’ve heard from others. For example, the platitudes “The Lord helps those who help themselves” and “To thine own self be true” are nowhere to be found in the Bible. And perhaps the most misquoted of all, “Money is the root of all evil.” The Bible doesn’t say that. Rather, it says “The love of money is the root of all evil.” So if our comic book inspires even one reader to pick up the real Bible and start digging in and finding out firsthand what’s really there, then we will consider our project a success. We’re doing this to help spread the Word, ultimately.

NRAMA: What are your goals for the company?

PC: JMG Comics is really an offshoot of JMG Studios. JMG Studios has already proven itself a viable entity in the Christian retail market, doing business for the past 12 years. From 1995 to 2001, the studio served as an independent contractor creating products for clients. From 2001 on, the part-time business grew to include marketing and selling its own product line throughout the United States and world-wide. JMG Studio characters and licensed products are currently marketed through numerous retail outlets, including Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, LifeWay Stores, and Amazon.com, along with countless smaller chains and “mom and pop” stores.

The company is currently looking to secure financing for animated movies, children’s DVD series and ancillary products. You can watch a promotional snippet, for which I wrote the script and theme song, of an animated series in development called FriendFish

Comics-wise, we hope to ultimately have several titles out. A short-term goal would be to have two or three regular series, and build from there.

NRAMA: What are the other comic series in development at JMG?

PC: We are putting together a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series called Beyond. It will feature horror, sci-fi and fantasy stories that are morality plays built on Christian and Biblical principles. Our first issue will feature the terrifying tale “Rude Awakening,” a story completely painted by our amazing Mecha Manga Bible Heroes cover artist, Jeff Slemons. This series will be aimed at an older audience than Mecha Manga Bible Heroes and will be printed in black & white. Beyond that, no pun intended, we are batting around various other ideas which we’ll reveal when they are further along in the development stage.

NRAMA: Who is the target audience for Mecha Manga Bible Heroes?

PC: It’s broad-based. As previously stated, we think children as young as 6 will enjoy it but we put no cap on the age after that and we welcome adults. We feel it will have great appeal to anyone currently enjoying Archie’s manga titles like Sonic and Sabrina, or DC and Marvel’s comic books based on their animated series such as JLA Unlimited and the like. Manga and anime fans in general may like it, and we think fans of old-school anime, specifically Astroboy, 8th Man, Gigantor, as well as the more modern shows like Mega Man will enjoy it. Also fans of both action-packed and light-hearted mangas may appreciate it. We think Kaiju and Godzilla fans will love the giant creatures; and of course we expect fans of all the iterations of Transformers, and its myriad of knock-offs, to take a peek. I already mentioned Harryhausen fans. Beyond that, pop culture fans, connoisseurs of camp and kitsch, and some sci-fi fans in general may get a kick out of it. If you scan our “friends” list on our MySpace page, you’ll find a variety of cool folks who dig and “get” what we’re doing with this series.

NRAMA: Does JMG publish Christian comics exclusively?

PC: That’s a tricky question. We hope to have a variety of series, and we hope those series have wide appeal. If we thought of what we do as strictly “Christian comics” we’d just relegate ourselves to Christian bookstores. Instead, we think of our comics as what they are: entertainment conceived by creative talents who have a Christian worldview. As such, we believe our series can go beyond the Christian bookstores to also thrive in comic shops, secular bookstores, department stores and more. It goes back to your question about “morality tales.” There are many, many comic books, novels, and movies in the mass market that are infused with a Christian worldview. The biggest example at the moment is Pixar’s Wall-E. That film was directed by Andrew Stanton, a professing Christian who has stated that the Bible’s messages of mankind’s stewardship of the planet and the marriage relationship being built on spouses being “helpmates” for one another, exemplified in the film by the proactive, caring love Wall-E and Eve demonstrate for one another, were inspiration for him, a springboard for the themes explored in the movie. And there are countless other examples over the years. Any work of art, work of fiction, is infused by a worldview. People have been getting fed new age-ism, humanism, eastern mysticism, even atheistic messages throughout the years in their entertainment. The discerning person picks up on those messages. My argument is that it is just as valid for a person with a Christian worldview to express their beliefs in whatever entertainment media they’re working in as it is for those other worldviews I mentioned. I mean, if you’re going to watch an HBO standup comedy special, you’re going to hear opinions formed by the comic’s worldview. Everyone’s entitled to express what they believe. So are we.

An additional aspect to consider with specific regards to the Old Testament stories we’re tapping for Mecha Manga Bible Heroes is that they not only appear in the Christian Bible, but of course are also in the Jewish Tanakh. And while not presented exactly as they are in the Bible and Tanakh, the Islamic Koran makes allusions to some of the Old Testament tales as well. So the appeal most certainly is not just to Christians alone. And as I previously stated, even people who think these are merely fairly tales may enjoy the comic from a mindset of mythology, on a Jason and the Argonauts level. We the creators believe the stories are real, but we know from firsthand discussions that there are some non-believers out there who, regardless of their stance think our concept is cool and will make a good read.

NRAMA: How has your previous experience in the comic book industry prepared you for the challenges of this latest project?"

PC: I spent over 9 years on staff at Archie Comics. There, I learned everything there is to know about comic books—from conception to completion and the promotion that follows, as well as dealing directly with freelance talent, printers, distributors and retailers. I wrote comics, edited comics, researched classic stories for the Archie Americana Series, promoted comics in every media and at distributor trade shows and comic conventions. It was invaluable experience that I would recommend to anyone. You really get an education at Archie. I used that education for some self-published projects in the ‘90s, and now I’m using it at JMG Comics. I believe everything I’ve learned up to now was preparing me for my involvement with JMG and Mecha Manga Bible Heroes.

NRAMA: As a Christian Publisher what type of reception have you received from Christian Book Stores?

PC: So far, the Christian Bookstore market has been receptive. It helps that the comic book is financially backed by one of the best Christian Bookstore distributors in the business, Anchor Distributors. We are blessed to be on board with Anchor not just from a proximity standpoint, but also because they provide both brick-and-mortar venues and an internet presence, through their www.deepershopping.com online store. Additionally, as an “independent” distributor, Anchor is committed to a wider spectrum of goods than some of its rivals. They are more inclined to take on projects that are challenging in nature or may seem off the beaten path creatively. They thrive on taking chances.

NRAMA: What feedback have you received from comic shops?

PC: My experience with comic shops, going back to my days on-staff with Archie Comics, has always been that there are more stores out there clamoring for all-ages material than is generally reported. Likewise, there are also retailers responsive to positive, inspirational and even faith-based projects. In this internet age, we’re blessed to have easy, direct contact with these stores, both through email and via tools like MySpace. In fact, we count a great number of comic shops as our friends on MySpace and have been using it as a tool to keep those shops abreast of our first issue’s imminent release.

NRAMA: There has been an awful lot of buzz around Mecha Manga Bible Heroes, especially on the Internet. How has the reaction been from both fans and the press?

PC: When we first announced the series in February, the response was unprecedented. Hits to our website increased an astonishing ten thousand percent after the announcement. Not only have we received nation-wide coverage, but the news has stretched across the globe to Europe, Latin America, South Africa and Eastern Europe… and is still going. In addition to traditional press, a lot of bloggers weighed in on the story. We obviously have an idea that has elicited strong reactions. And to be honest, those reactions have run the gamut. For example, we’ve encountered both Christians and non-Christians who love the idea as well as both Christians and non-Christians who hate the idea. Those who love it tend to latch onto the mixing of genres, with the added bonus for Christians of getting the Bible stories out to a new audience. Christians who don’t like the idea feel it may be too irreverent despite our adherence to the content and spirit of the original text, and many of the non-Christians who’ve objected come from a position of objecting anything with a Christian worldview to start with. And that’s only to be expected. I’m sure this interview will have its own share of negative responses. As people who passionately care about what we believe in, we expect no less passion from those who believe otherwise. After all, this is a day and age where an innocuous family film about a struggling high school football team Facing the Giants can receive a “PG” rating simply due to its religious content. Now there’s a decision made from passion if you ask me.

NRAMA: You mentioned the film Facing the Giants. That was a David vs. Goliath story, and their film inadvertently met with controversy. Do you see a parallel?

PC: Perhaps on an ironic level. It does seem if you tell a David vs. Goliath story like the folks behind Facing the Giants did and like we’re doing with our comic, you end up with life imitating art as you attempt to reach the masses. But I wouldn’t read too much into it. Every small project from a new company with a limited budget has speed bumps on its way to getting released. We’ve certainly met some hurdles along the way but they seem to be behind us now. Ultimately we don’t mind being an underdog. I guess that’s the real parallel when you’re talking about David vs. Goliath, it’s only fitting to be an underdog.

NRAMA: I know you and Mecha Manga Bible Heroes were recently featured on Catholic TV www.catholictv.org/Default.aspx?videoID=175. Were you expecting to get television and newspaper coverage for your debut comic?

PC: How do I answer this without sounding conceited? The answer pure and simple, and I mean this with all humbleness because I truly believe that God provided me with the experience I needed to achieve this, is “yes.” For two reasons: 1.) We believe we have a comic book with a hook, one that elicits responses in people. 2.) My background with Archie Comics included getting nation-wide coverage for the famous “Love Showdown” storyline. I helped conceive the concept and oversaw the promotion of what was Archie’s “Death of Superman” event, back in those halcyon days where the comic industry had gone through the roof in terms of popularity. Like the “Love Showdown,” I had a major hand in the conception of Mecha Manga Bible Heroes, including coining that name which is designed to have a certain ring. Like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, it consists of four words and eight syllables, meant to roll off the tongue and stick in people’s minds. Marrying marketing strategy to creative artistry is a skill that goes back to my tenure on staff at Archie. I feel blessed by that experience, which allowed me to keep one foot in the creative side of the company and the other in the business end. It’s that experience which enables me to approach Mecha Manga Bible Heroes not only as a creative and entertaining comic book series with spiritual overtones that we hope to impart to readers, but also as a highly-marketable entertainment property with big potential to go beyond comic books and have mass appeal.

NRAMA: You have talked about this a little, but I was a little surprised to see a Christian Comic have its own MySpace account www.myspace.com/mechamangabibleheroes. Why promote a Christian comic on MySpace, rather then the more family-friendly ComicSpace?

PC: First and foremost, we’re committed to spreading the Word, introducing readers to the stories of the Bible, and encouraging them to read the real Bible, in this unique way. Think of it as a “great commission” approach. Secondly, we believe we have a comic book concept whose appeal can go beyond both the Christian bookstore industry and the direct sales comic market. So if you’re going to reach the masses, you can’t confine yourself to things as specific and niche as Christian bookstores, comic shops and ComicSpace; you have to be out there in as broad a way as possible. That’s MySpace. Everyone is there, not just the obvious audience. Sure, we get the Christian audience and the comic book and manga fans there, but we also have atheists and agnostics who want to read our comic who may never have found us if wasn’t for our presence on MySpace.

The internet in general has been a great place for us. In addition to our MySpace page, several members of our creative team have blogs where they offer background information on Mecha Manga Bible Heroes among postings about their other projects, plus we have an official site web surfers can visit at www.mmbibleheroes.com.

NRAMA: If a retailer looks at this preview and wants to carry Mecha Manga Bible Heroes in their comic shop, do they have to open an account with Haven Distributors?

PC: We are encouraging comic book shops to order the comic from Haven Distributors www.havendistro.com or its partner company, Enemi Entertainment www.enemi-entertainment.com. We would consider direct orders under certain conditions but really would prefer that business be done through these distributors. We not only want to establish a good relationship with both Haven and Enemi, who have been gracious in their acceptance of our series. We feel that the future of the comic shop market will thrive if the distributors that deal in product from smaller publishers and orders of smaller increments can maintain successful businesses. The best way they can do that is with the support of retailers.

NRAMA: Between discounts and shipping is it viable for a comic shop to buy 3 copies for the shelf to see if there is any interest?

PC: This will depend upon the manpower resources and contingencies of our distributors. Certainly we are open to helping retailers try out our series at their limited risk and are discussing ways we may be able to do that within the parameters set by our distributors.

NRAMA: Can retailers get copies directly from JMG?

PC: Again, they can if absolutely necessary, but we really would prefer for our comic shop accounts to go through Haven and Enemi and our Christian bookstore accounts to go through Anchor Distributors www.anchordistribution.com.

NRAMA: Can consumers order the comic directly if the can’t find it?

PC: Yes. They can order directly from online retailer Deeper Shopping www.deepershopping.com. However, we would prefer readers try getting it from comic shops and Christian bookstores first, and to encourage the owners of their favorite shops to order copies through the appropriate distributor. Our offering through Deeper Shopping is designed for people who don’t have a nearby comic shop or Christian bookstore or otherwise can’t find the comic.

NRAMA: I notice that although issue #1 has shipped, I don’t see a solicitation for issue #2. What is the frequency on Mecha Manga Bible Heroes?

PC: Like many start-up publishers, we’ve hit some speed bumps along the way related to production, distribution, printing… you name it. Thankfully, one of the advantages to having Haven and Enemi as our distributors is that we don’t need as much lead time to solicit our comics. Once we feel an issue is ready, the solicitation goes into their catalogs and onto their websites. It isn’t contingent upon meeting a target date. Having said all that, our goal will be to have issue #2 out in November or December.

Frequency-wise, our initial goal is a quarterly schedule. We may go bi-monthly at some point as sales dictate, but that really is a future consideration. For now, due to the nature of our comic, which is likely to be an “impulse buy” for many, and the fact that the Christian bookstore market is such a big part of it, the idea of extending the shelf life by starting off quarterly makes sense.

One possibility is to have three quarterly titles that ship on alternating months, so that each month of the year there is some JMG title on store shelves.

NRAMA: What can readers expect from future issues of Mecha Manga Bible Heroes?

PC: Our immediate plan is to follow-up our debut with the story of the rise of King David in issues #2 through #4. It’s a fascinating, epic tale that would really make a great movie. The masses embrace David, and even write a song about him with these lyrics: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands." Of course, this angers the sitting King, Saul. The story then takes on the tone of The Fugitive with David on the run from the incensed King Saul. As for future issues, the Bible is filled with intriguing, action-packed tales starring the likes of Joseph, Daniel, Joshua, Jonah, Elijah and others. These stories are thrilling indeed, and rife with possibilities when set in a futuristic sci-fi universe! We hope readers will join us for the ride.

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