I am not, as my more graphically astute friends and relatives can tell you, someone deeply immersed in comic books, graphic novels, or manga (the Japanese comic book genre). I've read a few classics like Maus, which every so often I find Eleanor having taken off the shelf and advise her that, "I know that's a comic book, honey, but it's actually for older people." And I've read the manga versions of some favorite anime series, such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Hikaru No Go. But if you're looking for a comic expert, I'm not your guy. Still, when we got an email asking if we'd be interesting in reviewing a manga for young teens based on the life of St. Paul, I was curious. (And, of course, there's always the lure of free books.) Though even as a kid I was always more of a prose guy than a comic reader (with the exception of having every Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side comic memorized) there were actually two Catholic comics that I had as a kid (I think a gift from one of my godparents) which I read enough times that I still have images from them bubble up in my mind when I read about the life of St. Francis or of John Paul II (the wonders of the internet: I haven't seen them in decades but herethey are.) So I'm conscious of how a well-done comic on a religious topic can be surprisingly formative even for a kid who's quite willing to read prose as well.
Paul: Tarsus to Redemption (Volume 1) is definitely written with a manga artistic influence, even sporting some Japanese characters on the front cover. Indeed, at first I flipped to the back assuming this would read back to front like traditional manga, but in this case manga is an influence, not a mimic. I'd put the art style as somewhat in between an American and a Japanese one.
The story picks up Paul as a young firebrand, the protege of a wise rabbi, but unwilling to listen to the rabbi's words of caution and peace. Paul's best friend is a converted Roman soldier, and the two of them are committed to protecting God's Truth from the perversions of the sect of the carpenter, by the sword if necessary.
We see Paul and his young firebrand friends taking it to the Christians, and in the early pages they have a violent altercation with a Christian man in front of his family which sets up the stage for regret and character conflict later in the story.
Soon enough, Paul and his droogies are tearing off towards Damascus for a bit more ultraviolence, when he's struck from his horse and hears the voice of God, thus beginning a journey of conversion and repentance.
After his conversion, we see Paul struggle with the knowledge of his own past violence, the feelings of betrayal that his firebrand friends have, the suspicion of the Christian community, and even what looks like a potential love interest.
Tarsus to Redemption works hard at making Paul's conflicts immediate and emotional, and fleshing out the story of his conversion into something that will be compelling to young readers. (I'd put the intended readership at perhaps 11-14, though our eight-year-old sat engrossed in it for some time, and I don't think it's inappropriate for young readers.)
The storytelling is a times rather telegraphic; I had a hard time reconciling the timeframe in some of the Jerusalem to Damascus and back again storyline. This is definitely not an overly talky comic, and Paul (like many a sensitive male anime character) spends his share of time staring darkly into the middle distance.
One story choice that struck me as a little surprising was the invention of an entirely fictional incident involving killing a Christian man rather than using the actual story of St. Stephen, at whose stoning Acts places Paul. That struck me as a bit of a missed opportunity in regards to helping kids reading this learn the Biblical story of Paul.
However, the story is definitely fast paced, and will keep a young reader riveted for an hour or two. The creators are planning at least two more volumes to complete the story of Paul, and are also launching a manga series about Judith.
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