I was influenced to do this cartoon after reading some graphic novels that some friends have asked me to read. For several years now I’ve struggled to reconcile the feelings of anger and sadness over some church conflicts that I had a few years ago. Creating these cartoons in some ways helps. I’ve notices how cartoonists are using the graphic novel format for personal expression that is not necessarily purely humorous or about superheroes. As usual I struggle a bit with my writing, but I enjoy drawing the pictures. This is a fictionalized account of my time at a church, so it loosely depicts my experiences. I’m a bit too cowardly to confront people the way the main character does in my cartoon, but it’s what I wish I did. My cartoon is not really political, but I remember reading how feminists in the 1970s said that the personal is political. So maybe in that sense, it is a political cartoon.
I went to an evangelical church for 8 years, first at a Chinese American church in San Jose and later at an Asian American church in Los Altos, from around 1993 to 2001. And in the beginning it was a wonderful experience. I made friends, was a part of the community, and generally felt happy. People were sincerely trying to get a relationship with God.
Those beginning years were wonderful, but even then I saw things that bothered me. I saw individuals harassed for not conforming to the strictest biblical teachings. In the mid 1990s I watched a woman named Christina get pressured by a group of Christians because she was dating someone who was Catholic. I remember that he was a filipino guy who attended Our Lady of Peace, the same church my parents went to. At around the same time, a teenage girl went out of the closet in the San Jose Chinese Alliance Church. A few church people stayed close friends with her and tried to shield her from any negative gossip or harassment. But there were quite a few people who said the cruelest things about this girl behind her back because of her homosexuality. And a few just shunned her and gave her dirty looks whenever she was around.
This happened periodically towards any individual who didn’t totally conform to their ideas of living a biblically correct life. During that time, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t help these individuals out when they were being harassed. I made quite a few friendships at that church and didn’t want to lose those friendships. So I learned to keep quiet about my opinions.
My own estrangement from the evangelical church began when I got caught up in a few personal conflicts. At first, I thought these conflicts were relatively minor, but when I started asking questions about things going on in the church that were affecting me, that’s when people started talking about me behind my back.
I still had friends at church, so I stayed at Grace Community Covenant Church for two more years. But a place that I once had fond feelings for became a place that I felt miserable being at. The things that I witnessed happen to other individuals started happening to me. People were saying things behind my back and when I found out some of the things being said against me, I found myself trying to defend myself from things I never said or things I never did. People began to criticize my politics and the friends I associated with. It was impossible to try to pinpoint who originated saying all these things and why.
When I started dating my wife Lisa, some church members began telling me that I should not be dating Lisa. There’s this idea that a Christian should not be unequally yoked, meaning that a Christian should not get into a romantic relationship with a nonChristian. By this time, I had gotten fed up with the way people were telling me what to think and who to date, so I left the church.
In all this time, I still don’t know all the answers to the conflicts I got involved with at that church. I just got tired being around a group of people who thought they could tell me what to think and who to love and not to love. Those conflicts made me realize to what extent was I allowing other people to do my thinking for me.
It’s been 7 years since I attended that church and I still get occassionally contacted by members of that church asking me to return. I still have a lot of anger and sadness about those experiences but I also realize that many Christians are not like the Christians that I had conflicts with. Scratch the surface of the Evangelical churches I attended and there is actually quite a diversity of opinions. Even among conservative Christians, there is a wide variance on how they treat people. The conflicts that I went through taught me, though, to be more cautious.
For a long time, I stopped attending any kind of church. Eventually though, I decided to try exploring different denominations and seeing what they were like. I dropped by a Lutheran church one week, a Quaker meeting the next week. For a few months, I attended a Unitarian Universalist church. For the past 2 years now I’ve attended the Episcopalian church and have enjoyed the freedom to explore and learn new things.
I channeled the anger and sadness from that particular experience into this cartoon. Many cartoonists have used their own personal experiences as fodder for their comics and graphic novels. In sharing of their experiences, it helps me to realize than I’m not alone in my own struggles with life.
American Splendor (http://www.amazon.com/American-Splendor-Times-Harvey-Pekar/dp/0345468309/ref=pd_bbs_sr_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1234041755&sr=8-2) is a graphic novel about the life of its writer Harvey Pekar. I first heard about this from the movie American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. American Spendor takes vignettes of Harvey’s life, sort of like how Seinfeld depicts the mundane aspects of life. In many ways American Splendor is like Grace Paley’s short stories in that both show how heroic are the struggles of average everyday people. Several different cartoonists illustrate Harvey Pekar’s stories, but my favorite is Robert Crumb. I never really appreciated Crumb’s work until I started reading American Splendor. But in seeing his work on American Splendor, I see how good a storyteller he is. I love his scratchy pen and ink style of cartooning. Before I was always put off by his sometimes violent depictions of women, but I look at his work now and appreciate his skills as a writer who’s willing to write about his own neurosis and about things that other people do not want to admit that they think about. Many cartoonists today appreciate Crumb for opening up the subject matter that comics can deal with.
If you like Robert Crumb’s artwork you may be interested in looking at the cartoons of Harold Gray (http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Little-Orphan-Annie-v/dp/1600104061/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1234042631&sr=1-3). Harold Gray is the creator of Little Orphan Annie, a popular comic strip that started in the 1920s. I don’t much care for Gray’s conservative politics, but I overlook it because he’s a wonderful storyteller and he has such a wonderful way of inking his cartoons. If you compare Harold Gray’s comics in the 1930s and 1940s to Robert Crumb’s artwork, you will see the same scratchy ink work. I think that Gray’s art was a big influence on Crumb, and it’s a big influence on me as well.
Persepolis (http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Persepolis-Marjane-Satrapi/dp/0375714839/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1247235826&sr=8-2) is the creation of Marjane Sartrapi. It chronicles her childhood in Iran as the Shah fell and Islamic revolutionaries take over the Iranian government and forces its religious doctrines on their countrymen. Sartrapi is from a family of leftist Iranians and the family looks on in horror as their lives become more circumscribed by the fundamentalist doctrines of the Iranian rulers. Sartrapi’s independence and outspokeness increasingly becomes a danger to herself and her family in a country that tries to stamp out those qualities from Iranian women.
I haven’t read this graphic novel yet, but I hear that Maus (http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Maus-Survivors-Tale-No/dp/0679406417/ref=pd_sim_b_3) is a great graphic novel to read. It came out during my time in college and it concerns Art Spiegelman’s parents experiences in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The Jews, Germans and other characters are depicted as mice, cats and dogs, and it is universally acknowleded as one of the great literary accomplishments of the graphic novel medium.
A last recommendation is Ethel and Ernest (http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Maus-Survivors-Tale-No/dp/0679406417/ref=pd_sim_b_3) a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. Raymond Briggs is the creator of the children’s book The Snowman. Ethel and Ernest is a wonderful novel about Raymond Brigg’s parents and their marriage of over 30 years. It’s a sweet marriage, depicting the joys and arguments and forgiveness that come with a long marriage of two people who deeply love one another. The artwork is wonderful. It looks like Brigg’s art is a combination of pen and ink and watercolor. After reading the book, I began to appreciate my own parents more.