Marvel’s Pope Comic

March 11, 2008

“I’m a newspaper man—and the Pope is my beat!”

Pope Comics cover

A relic from an odd union of the Holy See and Stan Lee, The Life of Pope John Paul II makes for a curious footnote in American comics history. Published in 1982, I remember quite clearly being perplexed, even as a child, by a four-color Pontiff next to Spider-Man on the drugstore rack. John Paul II must have seemed unusual enough to warrant such treatment: a young, vibrant Pope from a Communist country instead of Italy. Interesting how he turned out, more superhuman than almost anyone in recent memory, more of a world leader than those actually elected, and more polarizing than he had to be.

As far as the comic goes, it somehow fits the man’s life into just 64 pages. The writer and artists who made it, Steven Grant and John Tartaglione inked by Joe Sinnott, made interesting choices in adapting the comics form to factual journalism. And it is journalism—the story comes through a reporter covering the Pope’s appearance at Yankee Stadium in 1979. By using a reporter, the artists emphasize that they take no liberties. I assume the restrictions of working directly with the Church and Father Mieczyslaw Malinski, John Paul II’s long-time friend, nipped any artistic license in the bud. They get some nice one-liners in, but omit the struggles and doubt.


Such sanitizing comes with the territory.  Compared to the gold standard of comics journalists, Joe Sacco, these artists seem constrained by their subject. In the art, Tartaglione does well enough, but seems stiff at times.  Compare Sacco, whose expressive, distorted cartooning that somehow seems more realistic.  Likewise, the story is as clipped as Palestine is detailed.  It covers everything, quickly.  Karol Wojtyla’s youth takes less than seven pages. His mother appears in six panels, then passes away. A few pages later, World War II has erupted. Dispatched this quickly, these events lack the magnitude they deserve. Even Wojtyla’s personal struggle to choose between the priesthood and the theater never seems in doubt. One feels almost sorry for Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, the thespian who apparently never had a chance of stealing Wojtyla from the Church.

In those days, mainstream American comics struggled to tell self-contained stories. The short idiom favored bombast; only serialization let complexity intrude. In the Pope comic, 64 pages just can’t hold it all. Poland’s dramatic history and this boy’s transformation into one of the most powerful men in the world are too much.  I enjoy the book for the tensions between its idiom and its subject, a craft curiously applied.  As a didactic work, it says more about the idiom than its subject.

So the comic amounts to a study guide, an abstract of the real life.  Its audience of children would do well to learn more.  So would the American media, whose obituaries did no better, offering glib encomia instead of detailed biographies. They lavished praise for political triumphs. Some linked Ronald Reagan with the Pope, as though they “teamed up” to defeat Communism. Others just noted the fact that he was universally loved, despite his rigidly traditional stance on women, sexuality, and worst of all, the fight against HIV. Broad strokes for a long pontificate. Unfortunately, in order to get a rundown of his work as an administrator, an analysis of his increasing distance from the reforms of Vatican II, or much detail at all, one had to go all the way to England to read Peter and Margaret Hebblethwaite and Peter Stanford’s obituary in The Guardian. One can chide the Americans, I suppose, for interpreting papal infallibility as meaning the man could do no wrong. We like our superheroes.

In a way, the universal praise might work as consolation for the obvious pain he felt in his last years.   The Marvel biography ended with his recovery from being shot; years later, Parkinson’s disease erased this happy ending. He was reported to be as alert and witty as ever, yet his frail image overwhelmed any hopeful news. My yearly habit of watching his midnight mass at St. Peter’s became painful in the three or four years before his death. Out with Pope as symbol of youth and vigor; in with Pope as the accident of our bodies.

That he maintained a certain humanity is remarkable: my favorite “comic” of the pope is a recent four-picture sequence of AP photos, in which he tries to shoo a pesky dove of peace out the window.  It is one of his only lovable, rather than pitiable, recent images. Of course, many observers have noted Wojtyla’s youth as an actor, and attribute his appeal to the craft he learned then. Perhaps that was the case. Certainly, the gap between a public face and a private human being covers about the same distance as the gap between art and life. Fortunately, all four things are real, the actor’s performance no less than the rigidity of the biographies. And for a comic biography of a Pope, Marvel’s 1982 comic has no peers, literally. Nor should it anytime soon—who wants to read about former Cardinal Ratzinger, crushing opposition? About Germany overtaking Poland?

(written soon after John Paul II’s death in 2005; previously unpublished)

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