There are a lot of comics you’re probably not reading for one reason or another. Saints by Ben Mackey and Sean Lewis might be one of those books. “What happens when a group of non-believers and outcasts discover they are the super powered reincarnation of patron Saints?” Lewis asks. “With no God to guide and a rogue angel on the loose, these four are about to find out!”
You might recognize Mackey’s name because of his kick-ass Twin Peaks tarot cards everyone’s passing around. Lewis is famous for his work on This American Life. But how the hell did these two guys meet? How do you deal with your crippling catholic guilt while reading this book? We’re about to find out.
Henry Barajas: How did you two band together to create Saints?
Sean Lewis: So much luck. I work primarily as a playwright and theatre director. Ben was recommended to me by a puppeteer as a visual artist for a piece I was working on and he was drawing these amazing silver age Supermans. We started talking about comics and he told me this nugget of an idea he had about a comic featuring super powered Saints. I went to Catholic School and I got first generation Irish Catholic scars, so I was all in.
Barajas: Both of you are gifted storytellers outside of comics. You’ve told stories through radio, film, and theater. Ben has worked on a play and an award-winning student film. How did you both prepare yourselves to tell this particular story with pictures and words?
Lewis: It has been hard and fascinating to tell a story through sequential art — one that was serialized on top of that. In a play you have three and five act structures. The rises and falls of that can be pretty clear. In a comic you have 24 pages each month to hook an audience in. It’s faster and more succinct. I actually find it like really close to writing poetry, in terms of dialogue, you only have so much room per panel to get the most meaning, plot and character across. In a play I have the actors natural personalities, their costuming, the staging and a lot more writing room to create a world. Here I need to dive in.
That being said, you can do anything in a comic (as I think we are generally pushing). Heavy metal band sequence to fight scene to torture of an angel–TOTALLY DOABLE. That is amazing. And freeing.
In prep, me and Ben mainly sat down and talked for hours about who these people are, what they want, who and what stands in their way. We still do this multiple times a month. Then I’d write a short story from these conversations. From the short story Ben developed pages and we worked from there.
Barajas: You write screenplays, but you’re going with the Marvel method?
Lewis: Ha. To be honest I didn’t know there were different script methods. When Ben and I first discussed doing the book we talked about the best way to make a book and the idea of adaptation seemed to appeal to Ben (me writing longer short stories that he then adapted to panels, as opposed to a more screenplay based script). He felt it gave him more freedom and also allowed for deeper description on my part which could influence facial response, body position and more in helpful ways.
That shit was basically an accident. I probably should have googled “comic book scripts.” To be honest going forward it’s become kind of a mix of both.
Barajas: I understand both of you are Catholic. I was baptized in a Catholic Church my family helped build in a Indian reservation. I completed my holy communion and then my parents didn’t want to go back to church at some point, but they believed they were very religious people. What was your religious upbringing like?
Lewis: I had six years of Catholic School and then was kicked out at the end of fifth grade (St. Joseph’s in Middletown, NY thank you, thank you). I wish I had a good and not embarrassing sorry about it. I basically got caught giving the middle finger to a teacher when her back was turned. It was me trying to show off for a friend or a girl and I got busted and immediately freaked out at the realization of how much trouble I would be back home. My mom and grandparents ARE VERY RELIGIOUS. Old school Irish, you didn’t mess with disrespecting an elder, let alone a church related elder. So I ran out of the room screaming. It was then decided maybe I should go to public school the next year.
This isn’t to say I haven’t moved in and out of being faithful. I have. There have been many years when I have worn rosary beads and gone to Sunday mass. I also have had periods of heavy atheism. It’s a complete seesaw for me. At times I read stories about the church or Saints and it seems amazing in a comic book way, unbelievable, an escape…but yet there are weird moments that without irony I will find myself praying. I have a very healthy amount of Catholic guilt so either way I usually end up hating myself.
Barajas: Are you afraid of going to hell for making this book?
Barajas: What has been the research process for the comic? Are you talking to any priest or scholars about the source material?
Lewis: My life I had an Uncle who went to seminary, a grandmother who has gone to Church every day for her whole life and my own experiences of eight years in Catholic school. I have a number of books and histories on the Saints and Ben is actually really well versed in Catholicism as well. It’s actually weird how innate and ingrained a lot of these stories and histories are in me (Blaise is my confirmation name and his whole history I had to know for that ritual).
Barajas: I remember going to comics to build my moral compass because I didn’t connect with what the priest was babbling about during Sunday mass. A family member even gave me a picture bible hoping that this would be a good way to get me closer to God. I assume your religious family members have seen this or at least know you’re publishing a comic that tackles this sensitive subject.
Lewis: I had a similar Bible; totally, I think I still have it. Yes. My family is aware. My grandmother has bought the book, but is not allowed by other family members to read it. My uncle is a militant atheist. I grew up in the same house with both of them. I’ve often said this book is like a weird interpretation of their religious conversations over dinner.
I think they trust me. I mean I do know the Bible pretty well. In the first issue, some people mentioned the death metal and the sacrilege, but the truth is if you look as far back as the Apostles they came from seedy backgrounds, a number of them. We just have simplified things so much that someone mentions a Saint and its assumed “oh that’s like absolute good,” and that’s not really true. Some saints were greatly problematic, now the ones we focus on were martyred for God. So even if they were sinners they made an ultimate sacrifice. I think the book wrestles with that. BLAISE is a non-believer and kind of a hipster dick at points. He’ll make wise cracks like “Pimp Jesus” when referring to those 70’s style paintings of Christ where he is always surrounded by numbers of attractive young women. But he still has to deal with the fact that he has powers, he’s surrounded by people with powers and those powers seem to be coming from a higher power. He has to answer to that.
I’m way more interested in how someone comes to believing or not believing than just simply “do they believe?” I feel like people often just declare things- “I believe in God. I don’t. I’m a Republican. I’m a Democrat.” And so on and so on without true examination of all the good and the bad that go with those things. Instead we say I’m that because I think it’s right. I don’t really believe in”right.” So I don’t care if you believe in something because of that, but how you wrestled with and came to the decision, when you doubted and overcame, or when you strove to believe but still couldn’t- that’s what I am interested in.
Barajas: Are you atheist? Is Saints a weird way to find peace with years of religious upbringing?
Lewis: Oh the big one. I would say I am not an atheist. But instead a person who believes in God maybe despite themselves? What does that mean, right? Logic and rationality argue me to not hold onto faith, but I think there is something beautiful in faith (not even in God, necessarily, but in the actual act in “believing,” believing in something whether it be a child or spouse or friend is powerful and in my mind a higher state of humanity). Religion for me is where I have more problems. If God does exist, then the whole existence of that would be such an abstraction how could we ever understand it or even try to interpret it?
All very heady. The short answer is when I try to be an atheist, I fail at it. When I try to be a Catholic I fail it. How do I be me? How do I overcome my own narcissism and strive for more and yet still keep my freedom? I wrestle with that more than I wrestle with God.
Barajas: Are any of the characters based on any family members? How’s Uncle Mark and Ha doing?
Lewis: I have a cousin who is Hispanic/Irish and has his wild child moments. His dad was a big metal dude in the 90’s. I’d say they probably influence Blaise. Not too many others that I can think of really inform the others- Lucy has elements of my wife in her for sure.
Ah Mark and Ha! Oh they are great. Still married and continuing their love story.
Saints #3 is now available everywhere comics are sold. Click here to get your copy digitally.