Writer Sean Christopher Lewis and artist Benjamin Mackey — each of whom has contributed to the Iowa City arts scene in a variety of ways and settings — are now the co-creators of Saints, a new comic series that imagines the Catholic saints as reluctant superheroes in what may well be the Last Days.
The first issue, released on Oct. 7, reveals the dark humor and beautiful art that will drive what the publisher describes as a crime-horror series. The book is decidedly adult and for those who aren’t afraid to delve into an alternative take on longstanding spiritual traditions.
In this interview, Lewis and Mackey reflect on the creation of the story, selling the story to Image, and their goals for the narrative and the art. Mackey will sign copies of the new book at Daydreams Comics in downtown Iowa City from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17.
Tell me about the origin of the comic. What sparked this particular idea?
Benjamin Mackey: The idea for Saints first came about when I was studying abroad in Florence for a semester. I had already developed an ardent, bordering on the unhealthy, love for all things Renaissance. Italy only served to push that romance to new levels. While there, Christian saints began to take on this monolithic presence. They were everywhere! Museums, gift shops, restaurants, statuary in public squares, decorating the sides of churches. You couldn’t escape their presence. They were truly iconic, as popular and prevalent as Batman and Iron Man are today.
Historically, saints were made to be easily identified by believers through the use of symbols, often tied into their miracles or martyrdoms. I got to thinking, what if you took these symbols and martyrdoms and used those to create a league of Super Saints. Saint Erasmus, whose intestines were pulled out of him, he can now use his intestines like a lasso. Saint Lawrence, who was burned alive on a grill, he can now generate and manipulate flame. It was a lot of fun playing this mental/artistic game.
Upon getting back to the States, the saints stayed rattling around in my head for some time. My final BFA Painting Show at the University of Iowa was called Temptation, and featured large 4 foot by 4 foot drawings/paintings of saints wrestling with demons. For a final honors project, I created the first few pages of a prospective Super Saints comic. At this point the story it was decidedly different. The saints were the actual historical figures, chilling up in Heaven, when Mary comes to plead for their help and tells them that a second Harrowing of Hell has gone terribly wrong and her son (Jesus Christ) has been trapped by Satan. Classic rescue mission storyline. It wasn’t until meeting Sean that Saints really evolved into the amazing beast that is today.
Sean Christopher Lewis: The true origin came from Ben. We were working together on a theater piece, and one day while painting the floor he told me this crazy idea he had for a comic book where the patron saints were a superhero team and the way in which they were martyred was their superpower. I went to Catholic school growing up. I was intrigued immediately. We then had a marathon meeting a few days later at Prairie Lights’ coffee shop, and afterwards it was like, let’s write this.
During that meeting I suggested St. Blaise as a guiding character. He was my confirmation namesake and I liked that he had (in a superhero realm) an underwhelming pedigree (he blesses the throats) but a cool name. I imagined a guy who wanted to surround himself with cool things — heavy metal, drugs, the occult — but does not realize that his superpower is divine and not satanic. It’s a shock when he finds out. I then worked to flesh out the basic idea through short stories I would write for each issue. So before any dialogue was written I would pass Ben a 2000-5000 word short story. We’d then go from there.
Tell me about selling the comic. How did you get a distribution deal?
SCL: The least exciting story possible. When we first started working on it we were like “Huh, it’d so cool to do something like this at Image.” Image publishes Walking Dead and Saga and Wicked and Divine and a host of other mega books.
Well, once we had the first issue together I went to the Image website, got a few staff emails, and sent the CEO a copy of what we made. And that was it. He read it, sent me an email saying let’s talk, and by February we had a signed contract. The process from starting the book to getting the contract was about six months. I don’t imagine anything in my life will ever be that lucky again.
What can you tell me about the arc of the plot?
SCL: The basic plot follows the story of a group of everyday people who find themselves suddenly ordained through dreams as the reincarnation of saints. God has walked away from heaven (similar to in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America) and so these holy souls have been cast off, sent down, and reborn. Our main villain for the first two arcs is the Archangel Michael. The warrior of heaven. His goal is to fend off the apocalypse, and with no God to tell him how to do that, he chooses to murder the saints one by one, thus counteracting a passage from Revelation that notes that during the end times the saints will rise again and walk the earth.
Blaise will narrate the first six issues. We will see his growth from being a hanger on for a heavy metal band to becoming a full-fledged warrior in the middle of a holy war. The book starts with him in his lowest dregs: drugs, groupies, a metal band excited by their own degradation and filth (kind of like if a bunch of GG Allin’s fans started a Norwegian black metal group). Blaise in this context is the last person you would assume for sainthood, though, anyone who went to Catholic school would say that goes for many of the apostles — humble, sometimes criminal or debased beginnings with a path towards righteousness.
He is contrasted by St. Lucy, a feisty and religiously devout supermarket cashier and St. Sebastian, our version of Captain America.
As the book moves from the first arc to the second, the narrator will change much like in the Bible. You will get separate books of the saints.
Tell me about your goals and ideas for the art.
BM: One of my biggest and longstanding inspirations is the Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo. He is often lumped into the Rococo movement, but I tend to believe that label does a disservice to his style of art. He’s no Fragonard, that’s for sure! Whatever the case may be, he was a master ceiling painter, and his works are filled with an effervescent lightness and rhythm that, in my opinion, is surpassed by none. His figures have such a dynamism to them! There’s a lot of subtle nods (and not so subtle) to his works in Saints. Other classical artists that I look to are Sargent, Doré, Poussin, Fischl, and Pontormo. I don’t how much they actually get themselves into Saints, but they are always there in my head, quietly guiding my hand. The saints in the comic find themselves housing the souls of reincarnated divinity. In some ways I want the art to have a bit of that feeling.
A big goal is to have the style of the art really match the tone of the book and writing. It has to be funny, dark, gross, real, and stupid. Like real life. I don’t know if my intent matches my execution. I’m still so, so new to this world that I have a long way to go. But I hope it will resonate with readers in some way.
Who among comics creators do you admire and how, if at all, are they influencing the work?
SCL: When I was growing up I used to steal my uncle’s comic books. A lot of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Garth Ennis’ Preacher was another one I would steal from him (Sorry, Emmet!).
Other comics? I love Locke and Key that Joe Hill is writing. It’s a complex story and plot but it never gets bogged down in its own story. It moves and grows and changes in wonderful ways. I think what Brian Vaughan is doing with Saga is really fantastic. And I love Jeff Lemire. His graphic novel stuff especially. I had left comics completely when I read Essex County, and that book was just amazing. Weirdly, Junot Diaz (who is not a comic book writer) has been a bit of an influence on the book as well.
BM: As for comic artists influencing my work, I would have to say the heavy hitters include Mike Mignola, for pacing and saying so much with so little. Paul Grist, for his dynamic storytelling and deceptively clean and simple style of drawing. Daniel Clowes, for his deadpan expressions and glorious character interactions. Also his color palettes. Scrumptious. Oh, and Jae Lee, for outside the box panel work.
Delving into religious topics is always an interesting adventure. How, if at all, do your religious backgrounds/beliefs/etc. play into the creation of Saints?
BM: For me, I grew up an apathetic Lutheran. My family went to church on Sundays, but religion didn’t really exist in our home. No prayers before dinner, no thanking God for daily blessings, etc. Church was something very much confined to Sundays, and then as the years passed, just the religious holidays, and eventually just Christmas. I fell away from it entirely in high school. You know the story: boy meets existentialist literature.
However, entering into college and taking western art history classes, I fell back in deep with religion. The history of Western civilization is so steeped in Judeo-Christian theology and mythology, I couldn’t really escape it.
At present, my fascination lies at the intersection of “traditional Christian” beliefs and some of the more esoteric aspects of the faith that have been ignored: apocryphal texts (Enoch, Nicodemus) and literature, gnostic practices, Zoroastrianism and its early influences on the Bible, and Christian occultism. I try and bring some of these ideas and concepts into the world of Saints.
SCL: Well, as a first generation Irish Catholic, my main fear is that my family thinks this is going to get taught in Sunday School. I grew up heavily around religion. Catholic school, Sunday Mass, observed holidays, I even played Joseph in many Christmas pageants. I have a constant and evolving relationship with faith that comes from all of this. I respect it, but am also irreverent. The Bible has influenced almost everything in modern literature to some degree, so from personal relationship to church and God to even my deep love of literature, it is all very present.
What are your long-term goals for Saints?
SCL: I’d like people to read it! We’ve planned a 36 issue arc for the book. And I think we’d really love to take people on that ride. We know we are going to be pretty bold and surprising as it goes on. Maybe not always commercially safe, but we are bent on making something we are both incredibly proud of. I hope for that. I hope to make a book that people discover and love.
BM: No. 1 goal: Get a quote about the comic from the Pope that we can put on the back of the book. If ever there was a pope to read a comic, Pope Francis seems like a strong contender.
As Sean mentioned, we have 36 issues planned out for series. Having the series do well enough to see that through to the end would be truly amazing. We also have a lot of side characters that are lots of fun, but don’t get a lot of page time. It would be really cool, if we came to the end of Saints, to see some of those minor characters on adventures of their own.
On a personal level, I’m also really hoping to further hone my craft of visual storytelling. I’ve entered onto a playing field with a lot of artistic giants who have garnered so much of my respect for years. It’s incredibly humbling, exciting, terrifying, and inspiring all at once.
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 185.