NEW YORK — What do Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Wolverine and St. Francis of Assisi all have in common? They’re all Marvel comic book superheroes.
Francis: Brother of the Universe was first published in 1980 and went out of print in 2006. According to its author, Roy Gasnick, OFM, it has sold over one million copies in English and been translated into eight different languages, including French, Chinese, Japanese, Swahili and two Spanish Versions.
The latest Paulist Press sale catalog lists Francesco, Hermano del Universo, the Colombian translation of the comic, for $.40 a copy.
Marvel estimates the comic has reached at least 15 million readers.
The comic book project began with a phone call by Campion Lally, OFM, who was serving in Tokyo in the late 1970s, to Gene Pelc, corporate head of Marvel Comics in Japan and frequent attendee to Mass at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo.
In his article “Saint Francis of Assisi … Superhero,” published in The Tokyo Weekender in November 1979, Pelc recalled some of his initial thoughts upon hearing Campion’s suggestion of how to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Francis’ birth in 1982.
“Church … comics … Saint Francis … Superheroes?” He wrote, “Well, why not? If we can call Superman and Captain America superheroes in our magazines, then how much more so is Saint Francis! He has shaped events and influenced millions of people’s minds, particularly the young, for centuries.”
Pelc was then introduced to Flavian Walsh, OFM, William DeBiase, OFM, and Conrad Harkins, OFM, director of St. Bonaventure’s Franciscan Institute at the time.
The friars were excited at the possibility of reaching a new audience with the project. With New York’s Marvel Comics on board and willing to illustrate, publish and distribute its first religious comic book, all they needed was an author.
Flavian and Campion suggested Roy, then the Province’s director of communications. An avid reader and trader of comic books in his youth, Roy said he “jumped at the chance of doing a comic book.”
According to Roy, Pelc informally gave the comic to Pope John Paul II during a private audience with him in 1980, emphasizing that this was the first about a saint ever to be published by a major comic book publisher. Roy said the Pope asked Pelc in English, “So, why cannot John Paul II be number two?” Shortly thereafter, Marvel published The Life of Pope John Paul II.
Roy also worked on a biography of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a dual publication of Marvel Comics and Holy Name Province’s Franciscan Communications Office, earning the title of Catholic Book of the Year — Youth Division from the Catholic Press Association. He said he received “a lovely letter of appreciation from Mother Teresa after she had read my comic book biography.”
Roy also worked with Paramount Pictures in publicizing Brother Sun, Sister Moon, with NBC on an hour-long documentary about St. Francis, and with the off-Broadway musical Francis. In 1980, Macmillan Publishing Co. published The Francis Book, a collection of articles and images about the saint compiled and edited by Roy.
Pelc closed his article with these words: “So comics and the Church have joined hands. An unlikely couple? Maybe, but made possible by a few people who believe … and a man whose spirit continues to touch all of mankind 800 years after his birth. A man who truly can be called … Francis — Brother of the Universe!”
Roy said, “Since Holy Name Province has become so much more involved in Hispanic ministry, the bargain price for Francesco, Hermano del Universo might be just the right price in these troubled economic times.”
—Rebecca Doel is coordinator of communications for Holy Name Province.