A Graphic Novel That Takes Families on a Biblical Adventure Meet Paul the Apostle Creator Mario DeMatteo
For a kid who grew up loving Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, he never thought he would end up in a career telling a powerful story through creatures of his own. A story filled with bravery, adventure, miracles, faith and salvation. And he certainly didn’t think it would be one that would come straight from Scripture. In fact, it wasn’t until Mario DeMatteo broke his neck in a freak accident and became paralyzed that he discovered his true passion; a desire to use a visual language to make the Bible more accessible to families. DeMatteo, along with his writer Ben Avery, and illustrator Mark Harmon, dove into the Book of Acts. By using unique cartoon creatures, and setting the story in a futuristic science-fiction universe, they showcase the amazing life of the Apostle Paul in a 144-page, full color, graphic novel that is sure to captivate the attention of any age reader. DeMatto invited Risen into his home to share more about his incredible personal journey, his commitment to teaching kids through comics, and his green thumb.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: What influence did graphic novels or comic books have on you as a kid?
Mario DeMatteo: I grew up loving comic book films and the characters – Thunder Cats, Ninja Turtles, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars – but I never really was a big comic book nerd. It wasn’t until after I got hurt that I started to really fall in love with comic books.
RM: Share with us about your injury and how it became the catalyst for what you are doing now.
MD: Before my injury, I was in college in business and I was probably going to be a salesman for Monster Energy. That was my direction. My dad had a job there and that’s what I thought I was going to do with my life. However, I was on a surf trip in Costa Rica and on the last day of the trip, I went on this big hike up to a waterfall. We drove ten hours and came back. It was late at night and I dove into a shallow swimming pool in this hotel where we were staying. I hit the bottom of the pool and I knew immediately that I was paralyzed. I [actually] drowned in the pool right then and my friend luckily saw that I was bleeding and jumped in and saved me. Thank God two weeks before the trip, he learned CPR.
He was yelling out, “Does anybody know CPR?” No, he knew it, he didn’t want to do it because he was just terrified of it. He revived me. I was in the ambulance thinking, “This is the end of my life.” I thought I was pretty much over. I got to the hospital and my dad flew down right away. He was there within a day-and-a-half. I had broken my neck. I could barely move my arms. Luckily my arms came back. My hands don’t work super well, but I’m considered a quadriplegic. It was a pretty strange experience to be in a foreign country being paralyzed.
When I got back to America, I had a pretty intensive surgery and I’m like Terminator. Within that first, probably two weeks, a friend of mine brought me a comic book, probably my first Silver Surfer. Then I got a Bible, and this book by Viktor Frankl called, Man’s Search for Meaning. Those were the three books that I lived by for three months in the hospital.
RM: Were you already a Christian, or was that your first introduction to the Bible?
MD: I was already a Christian and I think that was a huge part of knowing that there is a plan involved in this [accident] or that there was going to be something greater that was going to arise from it. I was never really mad at God for it. I was mostly just mad at myself for being irresponsible. But I started reading comics every day. I think it was just an escape from the reality. I would watch TV, but I was just having more fun reading.
Parents telling me how their kids don’t like to read, but they gave them this book and they read the whole book in one night. Really amazing stuff.
RM: It seems like maybe your faith took a different kind of level of commitment after the injury. What did your faith journey look like before and now?
MD: Yes. Before I got hurt, I was about to go to San Diego State. I had started at Point Loma Nazarene University. God was kind of on the back burner. I had this whole vision of becoming this super successful businessman and having a house in Costa Rica and funding all my surf trips. It was all about material and kind of like, “Oh, well, when I get a wife and a kid then I’ll start going to church or then I’ll start following Jesus again.” I never lost my faith, but it was definitely not a big part of my decision-making. After I got hurt, I think it was more out of desperation that I really relied on God to help me get through this ridiculously tragic and depressing event. I was just like, “What a’m I supposed to do now?” That was kind of the moment of just desperation where I’m calling on God to help me through. That was me saying that cliché prayer, “If you let me walk again, I’ll do whatever you say?” He got me through it and I had a really supportive family and friends. It was I think, harder on my family than it was on me.
I know I wouldn’t have been able to have a positive outlook without my faith for sure. Right from the beginning, I knew that there was something at work that was going to make my life a lot better than probably it would have been without getting hurt. I think I was maybe on the wrong path and I don’t think God punished me. There’s this thing I wrote a long time ago where we’re all like ants headed toward this little feast. Ants get distracted and will wander off path. If you just put your hand down, an ant will hit your hand and go back and just redirect toward the main path. That was going to feel like maybe I was off path and God was pushing me back. Along that time, I started gardening.
RM: Let’s fast forward a few years after the injury to when you started a graphic design company with a friend.
MD: I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life and I started drawing a lot and messing with Illustrator and Photoshop. I thought, “I need to learn how to do it.” I went to art school for about a year-and-a-half and learned a lot about graphic design. My friend had a T-shirt company and we started a graphic design screen printing company and did it for about five years. By our third year, we were doing pretty well with half a million dollars in sales, but I still was falling more and more in love with comic books and I wanted to get into that. My partner was getting better and better at graphic design and he was getting opportunities to work for bigger marketing companies. It was either going to be like, we need to dedicate our whole life to this graphic design thing or split up and do what we really are passionate about.
He got a huge job and then I went back to school to learn how to write better. I was writing, but I wasn’t good enough. I went to Cal State University San Marcos, got my bachelors degree, then got my master’s degree. It was during that time when I really started studying comic books a lot and fell in love with how, from a storytelling perspective, they’re almost like making a film. I love reading books and I’d like to write a book someday, but I’m a little scared of that.
RM: So, the first spark was going back to school to better understand how you could actually make your own. How then did you land on picking Paul’s story to turn into a graphic novel?
MD: I was reading every comic I could get my hands on, every graphic novel. That’s when graphic novels started. I studied all these graphic novels and that’s when this weird vision came into my head. I was like, “I know I want to get into it. I don’t know what story I want to tell.” I have this other story, this little green monster that was a surfer and I was like, “That’s a super awesome story, but I don’t know how to write it.” Then I was reading a book, a theological book, by a guy named N. T. Wright. He’s a famous theologian. It’s a book about Paul the Apostle. He made Paul seem super radical and punk rock-ish. This guy was hunting Christians and was just this really radical dude and then everything completely changed on the Damascus road. I just saw Paul riding on a motorcycle and that image kept sticking in my head. I’m like, “What if I did some kind of Bible graphic novel?” That would be a good learning experience for me to make the story that was already written. The images kept sticking in my head. I was still drawing a lot and I loved characters. Thunder Cats was one of my favorite things in the world so I started drawing Paul in this weird creature world and then I started writing scenes of what it would look like. I wrote this 50 to 60-page document that I thought was a comic book and I was praying, “Is this what I should be doing? How am I going to make this? I need guidance, I need a mentor.”
A friend introduced me to a topical publisher for Christian comic books named Brett Berger. Brett saw what I was working on and he was like, “Your thing is awesome, but you really need a professional writer to write it or you need to learn how to write a comic book.” I was like, “Okay, can you connect me with a professional comic book writer? Will I have control of him or be able to tell him what to do?” He’s like, “No, he’ll adapt if that’s what you want. He’ll do whatever you want.” I met with him and that guy was awesome. His name’s Ben Avery. He’s a very published well-known comic book writer within the Christian world. He’s worked for Zondervan and all these big companies.
RM: So, you hire Ben to write the novel, you find an illustrator, and decide to self-publish.
MD: Yes, Ben loved the idea to do Paul the Apostle in a creature world. It would be really accurate to the story. He gave me a price on what it would cost. I was like, “Okay, that’s like a car payment for a year.” I’m like, “I think I can do that.” I sold my share of my graphic design business, and with that money I started working on this Paul book. I didn’t start a business yet, I knew it was going to take a long time. We got the script pretty dialed in. I worked with the writer on it for about a year-and-a-half, editing back and forth. Then I hired an artist.
I had drawn a bunch of images and had worked with another artist on concept art. I was reading a book by Walt Disney on how he would do his films and how he would storyboard everything. Sketching was the key. It was like learning as you go basically. I was just sketching all these different images and I pitched a couple of artists. I hired an artist while I was still in school getting my master’s degree. Over the next three years, this artist and I worked on illustrating the book. It was pretty crazy experience. It was like making a film. Every single image, “Oh, it should be a lower angle. Oh, the street needs to be dirtier. That character is not…” Every single image was art directed. By the end of it, he got way better. We had to go back and polish the whole front part.
We finished the book and then it was like, “Okay, now what do we do? Do we submit it to publishers or do I publish it?” A few opportunities came up where publishers were interested, but they wanted the full rights and control. I was going to end up barely even making my money back on it. It’s very expensive to make these things. That’s something I didn’t know. It’s like half way through. Every art, it just costs money.
I ended up self-publishing and the fruits have been pretty awesome. The experience has been amazing, the outcome from kids across the country writing little fan letters, telling me how much they love the book. Parents telling me how their kids don’t like to read, but they gave them this book and they read the whole book in one night. Really amazing stuff.
RM: You mentioned Disney as an influence and I feel like now more than ever, comic books have become mainstream with movies from Marvel and DC. Share about the style and feel of Paul The Apostle.
MD: Disney has been one of the biggest influences of my life. I love Disney films. They are a massive influence and even today, the movies that are still coming out are amazing. Moana is probably one of my favorite Disney films of all time. The thing that I take a little issue with, is the ultra-violence in a lot of the films, especially the DC franchise. But at the same time, I love Star Wars. I think violence has a place in film and in society. It’s a reality of our world, but sometimes it’s hard as a writer to write something that’s not violent. Like Jesus was so radical to not just magically destroy all the Romans. He laid down His life, like this non-violent resistor, which is the most radical thing. We never see that in film. It’s always ends up with the killing of the villain. I think that is kind of what we’re taught. That’s what I was taught as a young kid. If somebody messes with you, you fight back, you punch them first.
In our Paul book, Paul becomes a martyr and he also has the powers of Jesus and doesn’t use them. It’s kind of like this anti-climactic book and he ends up getting killed in the end, which is not your normal hero story. We’re working on the second book right now and it’s the Jesus story. Again, He’s amazing and then He gives up His own life. It’s a tricky way to end a story. It’s like the anti-climax, but it’s the ultimate climax.
For me when I was looking at Paul the Apostle, I thought it’s super high quality and the characters are fantastic looking. But then it’s able to have a story line alongside it that is universal to any age from kids to adults.
Like Jesus was so radical to not just magically destroy all the Romans. He laid down His life, like this non-violent resistor, which is the most radical thing.
RM: Obviously since it’s a Bible story it has that broad appeal, but when you were creating it, did you always want to target kids as the main audience?
MD: I definitely wanted to speak to today’s kids, to seven, eight, nine, ten-year-olds in a way that was different. There are already awesome Christian comic books out there. There’s this book called The Action Bible, which is amazing and super effective. It was an influence on me. I didn’t want to just make something like that. I wanted to shock a kid a little bit. Like, “Oh, what is this?” Then all of a sudden, they realize they’re reading the Bible.
We didn’t want to skirt away from the violence. There’s a lot of violence in Acts. Paul gets beaten up a bunch of times, almost gets killed. There’s the stoning of Stephen. These are super important moments that I think kids can learn from. It’s super hard being a kid and it’s super hard I think being a Christian kid when we’re taught to turn the other cheek. I’m still struggling with how you teach a kid how to deal with a bully without teaching them how to fight back.
I wanted the target to be kids and if parents were reading it with their kids and were entertained and learn from it, then that’s awesome too. One thing we’ve experienced is a lot of parents have been writing to me saying their kids will be quizzing them on the story of Paul like, “Did this happen? Did he face the sorcerer?” The mom’s like, “I don’t know if he faced the sorcerer.” They have to go back and read the book of Acts because when Paul faces the sorcerer, it’s like maybe three lines and we make it three or four pages. It’s one of Paul’s first miracles. It’s an important moment, but it’s this kind of fantastical thing where he just holds up his hand. A cloud comes over him and he goes blind. It’s been interesting to see parents have to also dig into the Scripture with their kids because it looks so fantastical in the book, but it actually happened. On each page, there’s a Bible reference to take kids back to the actual Scripture. We wanted it to have the ability for a parent to do a Bible study with the book. That was the ultimate goal.
Plus, for kids, Paul is an amazing role model. He boldly spoke out and was such an amazing missionary. I think for kids to see that there’s this superhero that had the powers, that had these miraculous gifts, it’s great for a kid to believe in something other than Spider-Man. A lot of what we see on TV and in film is violent, sexualized and scary. To be able to have a kid read the Bible and be entertained by it, I think is a really important thing. To get kids reading the Bibles, I think it’s super important.
RM: Ironically your injury also awakened another passion within your life. Share how you got into gardening?
MD: I’m a big gardener. I can show you my farm. There’s all these little passions that sprung up where I became really obsessed with comic books, I became obsessed with farming and gardening and teaching people about how amazing growing food is and how you can really take part in creation by growing a tomato.
RM: Why do you think that developed?
MD: I think my mom brought me over a tomato plant and she was like, “When you were little you used to like to garden. You used to like to grow food.” I did. She was like, “You might like it.” We have this pot and it grew a super tall tomato plant, but no tomatoes were growing. It was starting to die and it was just like this monster. My friend who’s a pastor came over and I’m like, “Hey man, I think you should prune this thing. Can you prune it for me?” He said, “I don’t know how to prune anything.” I’m like, “Just cut off all the dead stuff.” He just destroyed this plant, just cut the whole thing down to nothing.
Then a week later, he came back over and it was blooming and blossoming and there were little tomatoes already forming. We both looked at each other like, “Wow, that’s the best metaphor about life we’ve ever experienced.” We both at that same moment became super passionate about growing food. He was living in a community with a bunch of people. He built a community garden where he was living and started growing food. I built four, 24-foot long garden beds. We just started learning and getting better and making mistakes and killing tons of plants. Then we began harvesting hundreds of pounds of food.