The problem with Christian comics is that too often they are Christian first and comics second. Longtime comics producer Buzz Dixon and his partner, Marlon Schulman, the principals in Realbuzz Studios, are challenging that stereotype with a line of manga-influenced comics that promote Judeo-Christian values without hitting the reader over the head with a Bible.
“We want to create a brand identity,” said Dixon. “If you say ‘a Pixar movie,’ you know this style—smart enough for adults to enjoy, and at the same time family-friendly enough for kids. When someone sees a Realbuzz book [http://www.realbuzzstudios.com/], they will know they are getting something in that category.”
So far, Realbuzz has produced two series: Serenity, a high school drama about a bad girl who slowly changes her ways, and Goofyfoot Gurl, a teenage surfing story. Its third series, which will launch in June, is Couplers, a sci-fi speculative romance about space travelers who pilot giant robots to fight alien attackers. The twist: for maximum efficiency, each robot must be controlled by both a male and a female, so their strengths and weaknesses can balance each other. Only Serenity features overt religious content, and all three are being published under a copublishing venture with the Nashville, Tenn., Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson, which initially marketed them in Christian bookstores, but has recently expanded its marketing and promotion to mainstream bookstores.
Thomas Nelson has launched a broad comics publishing program that includes comics with and without overt religious content. Over the next two years, the house will publish about 24 manga-style titles under the Realbuzz imprint (about 10 have already been published) in addition to about 20 nonreligious graphic novels including adaptations of bestselling prose Christian author Ted Dekker.
Dixon and Schulman create the initial concept for each Realbuzz series and hire a writer and artist to produce it. “We bring pretty well-developed themes and ideas to the people we choose,” Schulman said. “We definitely allow the scripter to flesh it out and put in his or her own ideas, but we have loaded them up with a lot of research and background.”
With several more series in various stages of development, Dixon and Schulman are looking for investors to expand their reach into movies, television and merchandise. “The key to our business is that we own all our intellectual property,” Schulman said; the artists and writers all work for hire—and, Dixon is quick to point out, they get paid first.
Dixon was v-p of creative affairs for Stan Lee Media when someone suggested producing a Christian comic. Lee wanted to do a superhero comic, but Dixon sensed that the future was in comics for teen and tween girls—hence their decision to go with a manga-influenced art style. He was trying to sell Serenity as a magazine project when he met Schulman, who had been a producer for the anime company Bandai America. Together, they founded Realbuzz Studios.
Serenity was originally published by Barbour Publishing, also a religious publisher, in early 2006, but received a chilly reception in the marketplace, mostly because, Dixon explained, buyers for Christian bookstores regarded “Christian manga” as an oxymoron. “We had to fight tooth and nail to get it into the stores because people would assume it was hentai [porn],” Dixon said. “We had a radio interview cancel on us five minutes before we went on the air, because they said, ‘We went to the bookstore and looked at the manga section and it’s all witch girls and samurai chopping each other in half.’ ”
Under Barbour, Serenity’s initial marketing was aimed at persuading Christian bookstores to carry the series, and it paid off: The first six volumes sold over 100,000 copies, according to Dixon. While Bookscan doesn’t track Christian bookstores, Schulman said Serenity’s sales numbers would have put it in the top 10% of Bookscan sales for all graphic novels. Nevertheless, in the fall of 2006, Barbour asked to sell off the Realbuzz contract for internal reasons, and Dixon and Schulman signed a contract with Thomas Nelson that gives Nelson the first look at all Realbuzz projects. Nelson has republished Serenity in a new format and brought out the first four volumes of Goofyfoot Gurl.
While Serenity is populated with Bible-quoting Christians, Dixon describes Goofyfoot Gurl as “as Christian as the Jan Karon Mitford series, or Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion series.” Dixon said the characters’ Christianity is expressed in a general love-thy-neighbor attitude and through allusions to scripture that non-Christians probably won’t catch. While the story is suffused with Christian values, Dixon explained, they are never made explicit. The series—scripted by Allison Barrows, creator of the newspaper and online comics strip Preteena, and drawn by Tony Weinstock—has drawn praise from secular reviewers.
Couplers stretches the envelope even farther, because it is not explicitly set on Earth. “The points we are trying to make have nothing to do specifically with our human, terrestrial culture,” Dixon said. “It really is higher values that we are talking about, so we are talking about them in the context of a science fiction setting where values can be looked at a little more dispassionately, with no cultural baggage.” The artwork for the series will incorporate photographs from the Hubble telescope for the outdoor shots, and science fiction writers Christy Marx and Jack Skillingstead have signed on to write episodes.
“Too many people get into Christian entertainment thinking their demands aren’t very high,” Dixon explained. He is convinced there is a place in the world for entertaining, well-produced comics that just happen to be written from a Christian point of view. “You don’t have to pound people over the head,” Schulman said. “It’s not our intention to tell people what to think. If we excite people’s imagination, we are very happy.”