Artist on a Quest
Matt VanderPol í95 Gains National Attention for Faith-Directed Comic Book Series
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale í85
In a world of Superman vs. Sarah, Batman vs. Ridge and Spiderman vs. Maurice, it might come as a surprise that the underdogs won.
Since Matt VanderPolís comic book message is not typical of almost all other comic books, he was surprised to be the recipient of the Russ Manning Award as the Most Promising Newcomer in the comic book arena. VanderPol was up against nominees from the two largest comic book companies, DC and Marvel. Sarah, Ridge and Maurice are some of the characters from his series Life Quest.
"I was surprised because everything seemed to be working against me," he said. "My first book came out on Christmas Eve in 1997 so we barely made the deadline for the year. Most of the other nominees had a few issues they could send in for judging; I only had one. And my first book had pages eight and nine reversed." Not to mention, the book has a Christian message.
It didnít seem likely that VanderPol would win the award. "I see it as God working to have this series out there," he said.
Itís a realization that VanderPol could never get away from. It had become his "life quest" from early on.
"When I was in third grade I started reading Garfield and drawing Garfield," he said. "Before that I loved drawing dinosaurs, but I was the only one doing that because dinosaurs werenít a big thing back then. I always loved drawing."
When VanderPol decided to pursue art as a career at Calvin, he tried to channel his talent into more realistic art. "I always ended up morphing a nose or something," he said. "I remember one time Professor Overvoorde asked me, ĎWhy do you draw heads so big? Why do you draw these people with only three fingers?í"
Chris Overvoorde, Calvin art professor emeritus, remembers VanderPolís work in class. "Cartooning was not frowned upon," he said. "Itís just that you were not to do cartoons when we were looking for something else. I remember Matt rode a fine line between the two."
VanderPol was given some flexibility and much encouragement in the art department, he said. In fact, his idea for a comic series first started in an advanced drawing class with Professor Robin Jensen.
"The professors at Calvin accepted me and allowed me to explore in different directions," Vander Pol said. "Iím really thankful for that."
His original comic book Life Quest featured different characters than the ones he currently works with, but it had some of the same Christian themes in the story line.
"The biggest thing in all of this is being plugged into Godís heart and just doing what comes out," said VanderPol. "That has been my guide."
Following Godís leading guided VanderPol to his first comic book convention in March of 1996.
"I was encouraged by a friend of mine to take some of my drawings with me and see what happens," he said.
What happened is VanderPol was given a contract by Caliber Comics for six issues of Life Quest, a comic book series about the end times.
"I wanted to give something to kids that is solid," said VanderPol. "I also wanted to be in the mainstream. I wanted to make a difference there, not in a separate world."
He knew he was up against a big challenge because much of the comic book world is about "dark stuff," he said.
"Comic book artists like to deal with the spiritual realm" he said, "with demons especially. The spiritual battle realm is a big playground for them to use."
VanderPolís series is completely different. A brief review of the plot reads: "It has been revealed to Samuel Meriy that his daughter, little 12-year-old Sarah, is to be the bearer of the seed that will bring about the restoration of mankind. A hard calling though, for Sarah must carry this seed into the heart of one of the most dreaded lands on this ravaged end-times earth.
The first three issues of Life Quest deal with Sarah and her gentle giant of a friend, Ridge, getting ready for the journey. Life Quest #4 , which was due out in November, begins the tale of the journey and the obstacles along the way, especially temptation.
While VanderPol doesnít claim to have great theological wisdom, he does get his inspiration from the Bible. "I love the book of Revelation; it has so much imagination with all of those creatures," he said. "I also have studied the Gospels and their look at the last days," he said. "I try not to be contrived but I do try to be a witness."
VanderPol leaves no doubt about the central message of his story. In issue three, Sarah prays with her dad about her trip into the core. In true comic book form the dialogue ends with "Yeha!" from both father and daughter.
In issue #2, Sarah is discussing the end of the quest, "The seed is finally coming back!" she says. "Someday is no longer just a wish or a hope. Somedayís here! I mean take a look around us. Everything we know is going to fade away. No longer will this world we made punish us. No longer will rot and rust destroy us. No longer will we feel the sting of death. No longer will we live in fear. No more wrong. The seed is coming back to restore us. And heís going to put the final, crushing blow to the head of the scarlet dragon."
But donít get the wrong idea-- the comic book is not a Bible story. The issues are filled with silly comic book quips and fun as well. In issue #3 with a few main characters hiding from bad guys, one character tells another to keep his ears down. "The last thing we need to do is get killed because of them things," he says. "íDied on account of Rundleís freaked out earsí ainít exactly the heroic phrase I want engraved on my tombstone."
The combination of adventure, fun and true message is what VanderPol hopes will attract kids.
"My biggest hope is that kids will pick up these books and that God will speak to them and move their heart and they will begin to see that Jesus is the seed," he said. "It would be just one of the many ways that God uses to bring someone to him."
This was a lesson VanderPol learned while studying art at Calvin. "Both Professor (Charles) Young and Professor Overvoorde really helped me in dealing with art as a Christian," he said.
"What we always try to instill in students is that our work should be confessional," said Overvoorde. "Weíre not preachers, so we donít have to preach. But we can witness. We can tell His story through our story."
With four issues currently in circulation and two left on his contract, VanderPol is unsure of where Life Quest will go.
"I hope itís something that will catch on and I continue to do this," he said. "The industry in general is having a hard time, though. Comics are being replaced by video games. Kids want to be Superman and throw a rock, not just see Superman throwing a rock."
VanderPol is hoping his black and white images will have their own following. "I know I canít compete with the color and excitement of video games, but with black and white drawings I donít think thatís what Iím trying to do."
He also understands that it takes time to create a following. "People go for what they know," he said. "My characters arenít known to most people yet. I think itís interesting that this desire as humans to know someone is also the central message of my books. We all truly desire to know Christ. My books have given me a voice to get this message out and God has been opening all of the doors for me."
Lynn Bolt Rosendale is Calvinís publications coordinator.