Whether it's fanciful tales of jewel-colored angels battling demons for a man's soul or retellings of familiar stories from the Bible, Christian comic books are taking wing.
"Christians have the best stories to tell," said Christian comic book artist and graphic designer Sherwin Schwartzrock. "The world is full of hurting people, with drug abuse and with all types of problems that we have as human beings. Jesus Christ is an answer."
Using comics is a delicate balance for artists and writers trying to spread a religious message through a medium sometimes viewed as frivolous or tawdry. But to Schwartzrock, comics are just like movies.
"You can produce `The Passion (of the Christ)' or you can produce porn," he said.
The number of Christian comic books has grown rapidly in the past few years, as creators have teamed up to make distribution easier. There are now dozens of ongoing series, although they're still vastly outnumbered by traditional superhero titles.
Such comics are not new. Spire Christian Comics told inspirational stories of Jesus and Johnny Cash in the 1970s, with cartoonist Al Hartley illustrating such titles as "The Cross and the Switchblade" and a line of Christian-themed Archie comics. Marvel Comics published biographies of Pope John Paul II in 1983 and Mother Teresa in 1984. In 2002, DC Comics' Vertigo line published Kyle Baker's graphic novel about King David.
While sales figures for Christian comic books are hard to come by, the number of titles has at least doubled, if not tripled, in the past year, said Steve MacDonald, who runs the Web site www.christiancomicbooks.net, which lists upcoming Christian-created comic books and graphic novels and where to get them.
MacDonald estimates there are about 40 to 50 ongoing series created by Christians, with more issues being produced and more titles lasting beyond a single issue.
Schwartzrock has adapted and illustrated for comics such Old Testament stories as Korah's rebellion against Moses and Absalom's revenge against his half brother. Other comics might feature a contemporary tale wrapped around the Passion or use superheroes like the PowerMark series, published by PowerMark Productions, whose hero wears a suit emblazoned with a cross.
Schwartzrock, who spends four of five workdays on comics at his studio in suburban Minnetonka, says Christian comics don't get a pass with fans just because of their content.
"We have to create professional quality stories that will stand on their own two feet and not be labeled, `Well, it's Christian and God will bless it, even though it looks like crap," he said.
Schwartzrock, 35, is a member of Community Comics, a cooperative formed to unite Christian comic book artists and distribute their work. Among the group's recent titles is "David's Mighty Men," an adventure of King David and his three warrior companions created, written and drawn by Javier Saltares, who has worked for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse Comics.
Coming in June is "David: The Shepherd's Song," a retelling of the early life of the boy who became king of Israel, by Royden Lepp. "ArmorQuest," written by Ben Avery and illustrated by Schwartzrock, is an allegorical tale of a boy putting on the "full armor of God" from Ephesians to battle the Dragon Prince. It's scheduled for publication in July.
"Archangels: The Saga," produced by Cahaba Productions of Houston, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The nine-book series, featuring colorful, sword-wielding, armored angels battling grotesque demons for a man's salvation, has sold 729,000 copies worldwide in 10 years.
The slick-looking, sharply drawn series features plenty of sound effects and action along with the message.
"Your time is short, demon. The Almighty God has prepared a place for you and your kind," a muscular angel declares as he punches a helmeted, winged demon with a mighty "KRAK."
A new three-part series, "Archangels: The Fall," co-authored by Christian fantasy writer Theodore Beale, is on the stands and available in a collector's tin. The first installment of the next trilogy, "Archangels: Legacy," comes out next March.
"It's definitely a ministry tool," said "Archangels" creator and writer Patrick Scott, 36. "It's really meant to evangelize and to plant a seed of hope in the minds of people that have no hope."
Comics can help reach preteen boys, who are attracted to the bright images and action, Schwartzrock said.
"Most boys learn to read by reading comics. I was reading comics in the newspaper before I could read," said Schwartzrock, who learned to draw while herding goats on his family's small farm near Rollag in western Minnesota.
But kids don't want to be preached to, Schwartzrock said. "If you're going to spend three dollars on a comic book and you're a kid, you don't want to be educated--you want to be entertained."
Ten-year-old Lewis Tuck of Eden Prairie said he's "crazy" about comic books, including Christian comics.
"I think that comic books is the clever way to give messages," said Lewis, who met Schwartzrock at a comic-book convention at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in April.
And while people might turn to the Bible or church for help, Lewis said, "I just think it's a cool, different way to read comics, because that's what I like doing."
His father, Mike, said he's glad his son discovered Christian comics as an alternative to the violence of superhero comics.
"When he found these, it was like, `these, keep buyin' 'em,' " Mike Tuck said.
Cindy Fischer, manager of Wooddale Community Bookstore at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, said she carries a small assortment of Christian comics. Boys are the biggest buyers, she said.
"There are so many other things that are bad for them that they could be reading out there," Fischer said. "And if they're reading these, then they are getting exposed and they're planting a seed."