After his wife spent more than a year struggling against breast cancer, artist Billy Tucci knew what his next project would be.
A retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ.
A Child Is Born, a graphic novel featuring Tucci's highly detailed art, will come out in December and will culminate years of painstaking research by the artist as he tried to create an accurate picture of Christ's birth. The book will be released by Apostle Arts, a self-publishing company Tucci formed just for this project.
This isn't the first time Tucci has poured himself into researching a historical project, having the same type of passion for accuracy and details in his 2008 DC comic series, Sgt. Rock — The Lost Battalion. In order to prepare for that series, Tucci spent time at war reenactments and battlegrounds with veterans.
Now the artist is calling A Child Is Born "the most important work of my career," citing not only his passion for the work itself but his Christian beliefs. Newsarama talked with Tucci to find out more about the project, how he researched the details of the story, and how the graphic novel's publication came together.
Newsarama: Billy, what motivated you to do this story?
Billy Tucci: To have the opportunity to tell the Nativity story in comic book form has always been the dream project for me, but what really motivated me to finally answer the calling was my wife’s year-and-a-half struggle with breast cancer. She has endured so much with three major surgeries, an aggressive chemotherapy regiment and now all the follow-up medication. Even though it was the hardest eighteen months of our lives, a lot of good came out of it. We’ve found a greater appreciation for family, friends and life in general. It’s a scare that makes you put your priorities in order and to follow your heart. For over a decade, Deborah has lived with my passion to bring A Child Is Born to fruition. When this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came about, she told me to “go for it”!
Nrama: This story is so meaningful to so many people. Was it intimidating to approach it?
Tucci: This project has been pulling me for so long, telling me that I can do it, telling me it will be important to so many people on so many levels. So that said, I was, and still am, incredibly intimidated by the whole thing. But then again, it all comes down to faith. I am a Christian and know in my heart that I am the one to do this, and that my love for A Child Is Born will show on every page.
Nrama: What's the story behind Apostle Arts, the company that's publishing the book?
Tucci: While doing Sgt. Rock – The Lost Battalion, I had the opportunity to befriend many of the real life heroes depicted in the series. One of them was Lt. Col. Eliel “Arch” Archilla of the 405th Fighter Squadron. The weather was so bad during the week of the battle for the Lost Battalion in October 1944 that the entire U.S. Army Air Force was grounded save for eight volunteer pilots who flew to support, supply and act as “angels on the shoulders” of the besieged infantrymen. Col. Archilla was one of them and a true hero of mine.
Well, last year, I had the opportunity to have dinner with his grandson, Evan Archilla in Texas. Over dinner he asked if Sgt. Rock was my “magnum opus,” and I replied that I had another in A Child Is Born. Afterward, I thought nothing of it, but then received a call from Evan about a week later asking if I was interested in having any partners to see my dream project come true.
It wasn’t long after that I was back down in San Antonio, spending the weekend with Evan, his friend Dr. Jason Peet and their families – and it was magic! Evan, Jason and I were firing on the same cylinders in regards to the project and from that Apostle Arts, LLC was born!
Nrama: You're well known for really immersing yourself into the stories behind the comics you draw. How did you immerse yourself in this story?
Tucci: I haven’t gotten a haircut, and have worn only sandals and eaten only kosher food for almost a year now! No seriously, unlike Sgt. Rock, with my visiting the battlefields or interviewing those that fought on them, my immersion was primarily spiritual. This is the most beautiful story ever told, and I am not taking it lightly. Of course, I’ve also researched the era like there’s no tomorrow and was really surprised by what I found.
Nrama: Can you give an example of how your research influenced some of the artwork we'll see in the book?
Tucci: I literally started and ended with the Bible, primarily the books of Matthew and Luke. But I’ve also researched many writings by experts on the Nativity Narratives. I became a stickler to detail on just how an ancient Israelite would wear their hair and clothing, what the homes in Jerusalem and Nazareth would look like 2,000 years ago, how an olive tree grows — even what type of pottery would be in Bethlehem. I’m approaching it as not just a spiritual document, but a historical one as well.Many people don’t realize how much of the “commercial Christmas” is just plain wrong – for instance, when the Magi finally found the baby Jesus, he wasn’t in a manger or cave, but rather a house. This was months after his birth. I wanted to be specific and explain just how the Magi came to know of Jesus’ birth, and what exactly the “Star of Bethlehem” was.
Nrama: It's a story most people know, but how are you approaching the story that makes it unique?
Tucci: Obviously, this was the hardest part. The Christmas story is the most printed story of all time, covered by just about every Western artist and writer, great and small for more than 2,000 years. I mean, how many versions have we all seen of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem? So I needed to find more, to make A Child Is Born unique – perhaps more for myself than anything else.What about the Magi? What of the date of Christmas being the 25th of December, how do I find out all of this? Those questions were all answered by the research of a man named Rick Larson and his masterpiece, The Star of Bethlehem. Through mathematics, science, and astronomy, Mr. Larson was able to discern just what led the Magi to the baby Jesus.
Even though Mary and Joseph are the story’s central characters, we find ourselves going on our own journey alongside “these three kings” and learn as they do.
There have been some wonderful collected Bible adaptations (particularly, the amazing Action Bible by the great Sergio Cariello), but as far as I know, there has never been a comic book that focused purely on the birth of Jesus. There’s so much intrigue, challenge, fear, awe, love and hope smashed into just a few short New Testament verses that it became quite a challenge to fit it all in, but at the same time to fill in many of the blanks in between.
Nrama: How did you approach the artwork? And what's the resulting visual experience?
Tucci: One of my great struggles was how to depict the Angels of the Lord – but it also led to one of the most interesting and enjoyable conversations I’ve ever had with a fellow comics pro – my great friend Bill Sienkiewicz! I mean, if anyone can depict an angel uniquely, it would be Bill. We spoke for hours one night on the multitude of incarnations and representations in both art and film. In my opinion, Bill is nothing short of a genius, and he really inspired me.This led to another wonderful and in-depth conversation with A Child Is Born’s colorist Paul Mounts. For hours we batted around ideas, until finally settling on the fact that our depiction will simply be a leap of faith by us and that we should just go with what’s in our hearts.
Such an amazing cluster of positive energy in regards to all my friends who helped me by posing for me holding hockey sticks and stuffed dinosaurs (in place of staffs and lambs), to my pal Mark Sparacio’s astonishing cover painting that really stirred my soul.
Nrama: What is the format of the published work? How long is it? Are there extras?
Tucci: The 32-page book holds 25 pages of colored story and art. Mr. Larson was kind enough to contribute an essay on how he deduced just what the real “Star of Bethlehem” was. We’ll also have some other extras, including many roughs, character designs and a look into the creation process.
Perhaps most importantly, since many who will be buying the book have never stepped into a comic shop or haven’t in years, we’re using the best quality cover and interior paper stock for a great first impression. I feel this is the perfect Christmas present from a comics fan to a friend who might never purchase one, or a family member who thinks comics are nothing more than silly “funny books.”
Nrama: Will Apostle Arts be releasing more comic work?
Tucci: We are already planning a graphic novel adaptation of the Easter Story, with Seven Days, and we’re also in discussion with Mr. Larson on another Christmas project he’d like to do. I can’t give away the details at the moment, but I’m already obsessing over it and the opportunity to adapt it to comic book form!
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell people about A Child is Born?
Tucci: When I first started researching the book, I met with the priest of the local Greek Orthodox Church here in my hometown. He was very generous with his time, answering my questions and lending me many books and DVDs from the Nativity scholars. One thing he said to me that really struck me after our first meeting was not to “lose your faith over this.” He meant that the more research I did trying to tie all the ends together, might raise as many questions as answers.
But I must be honest that once I started this journey, I was never alone. It’s been quite epic, really, regarding the many challenges and failures I’ve come up against. But for every fall there was always someone to raise me up, to befriend me, to encourage me as they too came along on the road to Bethlehem. Because of A Child Is Born, I’ve seen, felt and learned so much…and my faith has never been stronger.
Fans who are interested in the project should visit the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/achildisborn.com, that will offer daily updates and sneak peaks if they click “like.” For further details on buying the graphic novel, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-888-COMIC-BOOK to locate a comic book store near you. Billy Tucci’s A Child is Born is featured on Page 226 in the September 2011 edition of Previews from Diamond Comic Distributors. Its product code is SEP110740, and the ISBN-13 # is 9780983835202.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!