Alex Yarde’s exclusive interview with New Yorker cartoonist & two-time Eisner winner Shannon Wheeler & Mark Russell’s follow up to GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, APOCRYPHA NOW!
Alex Yarde (AY): How did a project that started as a 3-month gag concept turned into a 4-year labor of love?
Mark Russell (MR): Well, originally, we thought we would knock out God Is Disappointed in You as a quick book about the stories of the Bible told in a funny way. But once I got to writing, I discovered not only how deep and rich my source material was in the Bible, but also how many fascinating stories DIDN’T make it into the Bible. Those stories became the basis for our new book, Apocrypha Now. At first, I imagined this process was going to be easy because I knew all the popular stories and the uplifting seagull-poster verses of the Bible, but it turns out that very little of the Bible is actually like that. I only knew the tiny bits they were comfortable teaching me in Sunday School. To me, the fact that I had been raised in the Bible and yet knew almost nothing about it to me really underscored the need for books like God Is Disappointed in You and Apocrypha Now.
Shannon Wheeler (SW): We did the first story, Job, and it was easy. In quick and out quick in a tight 3 paragraphs with an easy gag. I originally thought we could apply the same formula to the rest of the Bible. In quick and out quick. Unfortunately, the book got progressively harder as we went. The apostles, writing from prison, are not nearly as fun as the minor prophets talking about UFOs.
AY: How did you guys start collaborating? Skill sets of a DC Comics writer and a New Yorker cartoonist.
MR: Shannon and I knew each other long before I worked for DC Comics and he drew cartoons for The New Yorker. Portland is like a warm primordial ooze. A good place for still-evolving protozoa and amoebas to find each other. We were both active in the sort of underground comics and zine movements in Portland and sharing a beer or two, Shannon came up with the idea that we should do a book on the Bible together.
SW: I have had a deep respect for Mark’s writing since I first met him at a zine convention years and years ago. I bugged him about his projects because I wanted to work with him. One night at a bar we started talking about the Bible and one thing led to another.
AY: Like its predecessor GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU. APOCRYPHA NOW is a pretty irreverent (but hilarious) take on the lost books of Bible. With the rise of the Militant Christian Right in America, What kind of backlash are you expecting if any?
MR: I was expecting a lot of backlash, actually, not so much because of any coordinated political movement to destroy my work (I’m not very important), but because for a lot of people, their religion is a deeply important part of their identity. So it’s hard to talk about without making people feel like it’s a referendum on their quality as a human being. There wasn’t really any backlash, though, and I think part of that was because even people who are really invested in the Bible understood that we weren’t trying to mock or denigrate the Bible. That we were honestly trying to make sense of it. I think that went a long way toward disarming people who otherwise might have been really upset about someone doing an irreverent recreation of the Bible.
SW: We counted on some backlash as a way to jumpstart our PR but it never came. We didn’t actually want backlash, nor did we seek it out. We thought it was inevitable that closed minded people wouldn’t understand that we weren’t mocking the Bible but working to understand it. It turns out we were the closed minded ones. We’ve had great experiences with religious people. Several Sunday school teacher bought copies, as well as reverends, preachers, and ministers. Once a nun bought a copy and 30 minutes later 10 more nuns came to buy copies. They stood around reading our book and laughing. I was so shocked that I didn’t take a picture.
AY: How has the climate (evangelicals ) changed since GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU?
MR: I don’t know that it has. One thing that does seem to have changed, though, is that the name-it-and-claim-it megachurch Christians no longer seem to have a corner on the market of Christianity in the US. They probably never did, they were just the first thing people thought of when they imagined Christians. But it seems like more progressive and unorthodox Christian groups have done a better job of showing up and entering the conversation about religion in America.
SW: I’m too far from that culture to get a read on the temperature of current Christian goings on. I’ve just been surprised at the positive interactions I’ve had with Christians. I hope it continues.
AY: APOCRYPHA NOW, seems destined for the nightstand drawers of hipster hotels worldwide-Why you think Millennials are so into biblical stories?
MR: I don’t know. Maybe because they’re less religious than previous generations of Americans? It’s funny how that works. We think least about the things we’re most sure of. Maybe now that people are less sure of these stories, they’re finally able to really think about them. I’m guessing here.
SW: Biblical stories are a blast. Some bible stories are crazy, some are deep, some are sad. It’s a great well to draw from for any generation.
AY: Biblical stories have seeped into American Popular culture, comics and shows like Lucifer & Preacher tap into Judaeo Christian dogma. Why do you think this is?
MR: Whether you’re a believer or not, they permeate the very fabric of our society. It’s on our money. It’s in our schools. In some places, it’s on our courthouse steps. It’s what gives the neighbors that smug sense of superiority they seem to exert over you. And we’re a very smug society. There’s almost nothing in the Bible about Hell, and yet, it’s something we all seem to know about and we never fail to populate it with people we disapprove of. Hell wasn’t created to punish the wicked but to reward the smug.
SW: You can say that Bible stories have seeped into American Pop culture but really they’ve permeated it. Before Preacher and Lucifer we had Supernatural, Buffy, X-Files. You can go back to any era and find Biblical appropriation. The very first underground comic book is Jack Jaxon’s God Nose which is about God and Jesus satirically examining then-modern, ’60s life.
AY: The books are very well researched and instructive on biblical texts, how much research did you have to do to write them?
MR: I did a lot of research for God Is Disappointed in You because the authors of the Bible didn’t bother to explain things to readers in the future that would have been obvious to people living in ancient Israel. So the Bible is missing a lot of context needed to make sense of it. I tried to include that context in God Is Disappointed in You whenever necessary. I did less research for Apocrypha Now because I had already done a lot of that research the first time around and because I selfishly chose to adapt texts that made really great narrative stories. There’s a lot less navel-gazing in Apocrypha Now.
SW: I let Mark do the heavy lifting. When there were passages I thought were too crazy to not to be exaggerations I’d read other translations. Every time I was blown away by Mark’s accuracy. The Psalms needed special attention – but they’re poetry. It’s almost impossible to summarize poetry.
AY: Is there a strange schism writing “The Flintstones” a book about cavemen and books about the Bible who deny the existence of Cavemen?
MR: Religious belief is for the benefit of the believer, not the believed. It’s okay that your religious beliefs don’t conform to scientific or historic reality, because religious belief in an age of modern science is not about filling in the gaps of our knowledge about the exterior world, but about filling in the gaps in our internal world. The Bible doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate to have value, and conversely, it’s okay to be a believer without trying to bend science and history to the limitations of the Bible.
Once people make this realization, both science and religion will be better for it.
AY: If you were invited to a costumed cocktail party where the theme was “Your favorite biblical character” who would you come as and why?
MR: I would come as Elijah, if I got to leave the party naked in a chariot Studio 54 style the way Elijah left the Earth.
SW: Moses would be an easy one because you’d have a prop (the 10 commandments) and you wouldn’t have to spend the party explaining
that you’re John the Baptist and that’s why you’re holding crickets. Explaining an obscure costume only to get polite laughter is the bane of costume parties. If people knew their Bibles, and I wouldn’t have to explain myself, I’d go as Metatron because he has a lot of wings and eyeballs.
ABOUT MARK RUSSELL
Mark Russell lives in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of God Is Disappointed in You, Apocrypha Now and writes the comic book series Prez and The Flintstones for DC Comics.
ABOUT SHANNON WHEELER
Shannon Wheeler is known for creating Too Much Coffee Man. The NewYorker magazine occasionally runs his cartoons. Shannon keeps bees, raises chickens, herds cats, and has children in Portland, Oregon. Follow Shannon on Twitter: @MuchCoffee. His website is www.TMCM.com.
APOCRYPHA NOW! from Top Shelf Productions, an imprint of IDW Publishing, features a foil-stamped cover, gilded edges, and a satin ribbon avaliable everywhere books are sold!