St. Francis and Marvel Comics

HNP Communications In the Headlines

NEW YORK — As the year commemorating the 800th anniversary of the Franciscan Order comes to a close, one of the best-selling biographies of St. Francis has come back to life.

The December 2009 issue of Back Issue Retro Comics Experience magazine offers a detailed article on the religious comic books published by Marvel Comics in the 1980s. Much of this work features the recollections of Roy Gasnick, OFM, who was integral in creating an illustrated biography of St. Francis of Assisi titled Francis: Brother of the Universe.

The bimonthly publication’s current “Comics Go to War Issue” offers an eight-page article by Mark Di Fruscio titled “Saints and Superheroes: the Brief Union of Marvel Comics and the Catholic Church.” It describes the development and the success of the St. Francis project and two similar Marvel Comics ventures:The Life of Pope John Paul II, published in 1982, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta(1984). 

The Divine Irony
The article describes “the divine irony” that connected Roy, then director of the Province’s Communications Office, with the comic book publisher. Fellow HNP friar Campion Lally, OFM, met Gene Pelc, a Marvel Comics representative, at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Japan and suggested that a comic book be written about Francis, who in 1982 was being commemorated on the 800th anniversary of his birth. Pelc liked the idea and suggested that a Franciscan friar collaborate on the comic book. Pelc turned to Roy, who had worked with Paramount pictures on publicizing Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” and had edited The Francis Book: 800 Years with the Saint from Assisi in 1980.

Roy provided the biographical storyline for the Francis comic book, a project he enjoyed very much.

“Collaborating with the writers and artists at Marvel Comics was one of the high points of my life,” said Roy, who since 1993 has lived in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he is on staff at St. Anthony Friary. “The first few steps though were humbling. I thought I would have to talk down to those people who create comic books. But I soon was overwhelmed by the professionalism and creativity that smacked me in the face.”

The Francis project was scripted by Marvel editor Mary Jo Duffy and illustrated by John Buscema and Marie Severin. It was distributed by Marvel Comics and Paulist Press.

Wide Audience of Many Languages
“Interestingly, amongst all of Marvel’s religious-themed biographies, it was the biography of St. Francis that found the widest audience,” Back Issue magazine reported.

“According to the figures given to me, over 1 million copies have been sold (15 million readers, according to Marvel’s statistics) and the comic book has been translated into French, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish (two different editions), Portuguese, Afrikaans, Swahili. The last copies of the English version finally went out of print last year, having had a great run from 1980 to 2007,” Roy said in the article. 

Franciscan scholar Raphael Brown, in a late review of the Francis comic book, wrote, “Already more people have been introduced to the life of St. Francis through this publication than through any other book since the time of Francis,” according to Roy.

Marvel editor Tom DeFalco credits Roy with the success of the three books, according to the article, which contains several photos from “Francis: Brother of the Universe” and a photo of Roy that appeared in a November 1984Catholic Digest article titled, “The Comic Book Priest.”

DiFalco also recognized Roy’s work on Marvel’s Mother Teresa book, which “did not match the robust sales” of the earlier religious comic book but “earned a greater share of critical acclaim and mainstream media attention,” according to Back Issue.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta won the Catholic Press Association’s Best Book of the Year Award (1984) Youth Book category.

Gasnick, RoyMother Teresa of Calcutta
DeFalco said: “Father Roy did all the research for Mother Teresa and supplied us with a prose history that was used as the basis of the script.” When Mother Teresa was published, “we were informed that our comic was the most definitive biography ever written about her … all thanks to Father Roy’s research.”

Roy recently complimented author DiFuscio on his article. He was pleased with its title and its placement in the “Comics Go to War” issue.

In an e-mail, Roy said, “What a perfectly ironic and evangelizing place for St. Francis, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa to be in. It has always been my goal as a Franciscan friar to bring the Church to the people. I marveled at the depth and insights of your treatment of the three comic books.” 

DeFruscio told Roy he suggested the “war” issue because he was “struck by the parallels between Mother Teresa, St. Francis and Pope John Paul II, particularly how all three had their lives so deeply affected by war, and perhaps even found their way to God in response to the war-torn circumstance of their lives. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us all, especially in today’s world.”

Roy said he is proud of his work on the Marvel Comics projects. “I still get amazed that of so many projects I was involved in, the one that keeps popping up for attention is the comic books.”

Copies of Back Issue can be obtained through publisher TwoMorrows Publishing in Raleigh, N.C.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.