Graphic novels, big questions

Doug TenNapel isn’t your ordinary guy who doodles on a church bulletin when the sermon gets boring.

Instead, the Eisner Award-winning cartoonist scribbles in his daily calendar — creating a bridge from the pew to his studio. The result is a pocket universe of character sketches, strange movie ideas and graphic “plot wheels” in which he works out the twists and turns in his stories.

These days, swarms of Kid Elves on flying logs bump into sketches of Bigfoot, next to rough ideas for a violent, at times profane graphic novel that TenNapel is creating about crime bosses, invading aliens and an inquisitive priest.

“I can write 10 of these stories a year, but I only have time to draw one,” he said. “When I see these things in my head, it’s like I’m watching movies. … But in the past they’ve been too far out for Hollywood.”

TenNapel is a cult figure with online fanboys who admire his work in cartoons, video games, television and, especially, his book-length graphic novels with complex plots and images that resemble movie storyboards. But things will change if his “Creature Tech” reaches movie theaters.

What is the graphic novel about? Publishers Weekly said: “It’s the story of the battle between the abrasive good-guy scientist Dr. Ong and the resurrected Dr. Jameson, a malevolent 19th-century occultist-mad scientist who sought to rule the world. Ong … returns to his hometown after being appointed to direct a research facility locals call Creature Tech. There, he opens a crate housing the Shroud of Turin. Things get complicated when the ghost of Jameson … steals the shroud, resurrects his own body and resumes trying to take over the world with the help of an army of conjured hellcats and a gigantic space eel.”

Wait, there’s more. Ong is also a seminary dropout and his father is a pastor who used to be a scientist. Then there’s the 7-foot mantis the U.S. government sends as a security team and the symbiotic alien parasite that clamps onto the hero’s chest and, strangely enough, makes him a better person.

This is a normal TenNapel plot.

It helps to understand that he grew up in rural Turlock, Calif., in a home that, during his childhood years, contained many religious influences — from atheism to evangelicalism. He studied art at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and eventually took a TV animation job with “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.”

Then he moved into video games, leading to his 1994 hit “Earthworm Jim.” Two years later, Steven Spielberg hired him to create the “Neverhood” games for Dreamworks. TenNapel was a digital success, but he also spiraled into burnout. Then, in 2002, he created “Creature Tech.”

The key moment came when the blogger called “Moriarty” posted the following at the Ain’t It Cool (aintitcool.com) site for film insiders.

“There’s no doubt. It’s weird. … It’s also very funny, profoundly sweet and heartfelt, touching in a strange way, and serious about concepts like faith and family without being in any way preachy or corny,” he wrote. “Simply put, Creature Tech is the best American animated film since The Iron Giant. … Better than anything from any studio. … It’s a movie that just happens to be in print.”

Within minutes, studios started calling his agent. Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox won the bidding war and early work began on a live-action movie.

Part of the challenge, admitted TenNapel, is capturing his blend of fantasy and Christian faith. Some critics wish he would quit weaving sin, redemption, politics and science into his plots. Then there are church people who think he should be drawing evangelistic, “Christian comics” and avoiding his occasional blasts of sci-fi potty humor.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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