NEW YORK – He rides in a bulletproof car, wears a cape, a big hat and has dedicated his life to fighting evil.
The new Superman? No. The movie-version Spider-Man? Think again.
It's the pope.
The Vatican has given the nod to publishing groups in London and Boston to bring the English-language story of John Paul II, the man once known as Karol Wojtyla, to comic-book life. The comics will also be printed in French, Polish and Korean.
"The main character of these comics is a hero of witness and he hasn't superpowers such as Batman's or Superman's," Father Antonio Tarzia, the director of Italian children's magazine Il Giornalino, wrote in an e-mail. "His strength is the ability to talk to the heart of young people, to interact with their fantasy and cleverness, [to use eloquent] dialogue, to introspect and explore consciousness."
The publishers of Il Giornalino, which first printed the story in Italian in December 2000, and has also made comic-book bios of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, saw in the life story of Pope John Paul II the makings of a comic as strong as the Incredible Hulk, as stirring as the Cyclone. And inspiring enough to get younger audiences interested in the Catholic Church, Tarzia added.
"This pope is really loved by young people," he wrote in Italian translated into English. "He is able to communicate with them. So we chose to use a typical youthful form of communication, the comics, because it is easier, more direct, the language of the bubble-dialogue and boxed images. But it also has the characteristic of exalting and elevating its figures as heroes."
The comic starts with the young Wojtyla about the same age as its readers, a boy who excels at schoolwork and adores playing soccer in his hometown of Wadowice, Poland.
"The authors, Toni Pagot and Sergio Toppi, didn't want to create a hagiography of the pope, so they emphasized his childhood in Poland, including his escapades on the school football team where he played as goalkeeper, at school, with his family and skiing," Tarzia said.
Things quickly turn grimmer when the Nazis invade Poland while Wojtyla is at college in Krakow. Surviving as a quarry laborer, Wojtyla is eventually given shelter by Krakow's cardinal, who helps the young man live through the rest of World War II by disguising him as a priest.
Things don't improve once Hitler is defeated and Poland is occupied by the Soviets. Now a priest defying communist edicts against religion, Wojtyla replaces his onetime guardian as cardinal of Krakow and, in 1978, surprises the world by becoming the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
For the next 23 years, the pope reigns over the Vatican in a rapidly changing world: The comic flits over the Solidarity movement, his Cuba trip, spends a page or two on his shooting in 1981, covers the end of apartheid and the Soviet Union and ends triumphantly with the Papal Mass at the Millennial Jubilee.
"The language is simple but not banal, open to readers of various ages," Tarzia said.
That, and a compelling story, are what make the idea of a comic about the pope work, said Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, which published a John Paul II comic at the beginning of his papacy.
"It works on a number of different levels," he said. "A comic about the pope's life, I believe, would be a welcomed way to give an in-depth view at the life and times of this great man in a way that no other medium can.
"Like Spider-Man, the pope has incredible compassion for the human spirit," he said. "It's no secret that this pope has been in frail health for the last few years, yet much like Spider-Man, he perseveres through great adversity. It is the calling and trademark of the great hero!"
Quesada was just as certain the pope would succeed when it came to another question – who would win if the pope and Superman battled.
"The pope, of course!" he proclaimed. "Now Spider-Man is a whole different story. Besides, it's the trademark of the Marvel heroes that the good guys don't beat up on each other."
Tarzia was Zen on the big pope-Superman debate.
"Curious question," he said. "What burns better, a rose or a cloud? Which is more silent, a tree or a boulder?"