Holy Calamity: Bear Witness To The Saints [Interview]

Image Comics: SAINTS #1 starts with a concert and ends with a bloody prayer. How do you describe this series to people? What do the fans need to know?

Sean Lewis: I think it's an exploration of belief in a non believing age. People often see the word SAINT and think inherently good—there is a stereotype of the type of story you're going to get. However, religion and the Bible—these are complicated things, man! What is good, what is right? It's always in question—we've made them fables in an Aesop's sense, like, "God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac. It's a test of loyalty." We erase the humanity of it, if it is real, if people are taking it as real—what is the psyche of Abraham and Isaac. How do you become so obsessed as to kill your own? That's the reverence of the book.

That being said, I also love irreverence. I think human beings survive most of life by being irreverent. By taking the piss out of serious things, by forcing themselves to be free of it. That's all a joke is—it's a way of saying "I know this shit is all horrible, or all serious, or all confining, but my joke breaks me free from it, even if it's just for the length of a punchline."

A lot of what we believe ends up enslaving us. I think we mock those things to maintain our freedom.

IC: What was the development of this series like? Did it start with a vague idea sketched onto a bar napkin, or did you two talk until you found some common ground?

SL: Ha! Closer to the former. Ben and I were working on a play together (I run a theater company as my day job). And he had done some drawings for us. I asked Ben if he ever thought about doing a comic book and he said, "Yeah, I got this crazy idea about if Saints could use their martyrdoms as super powers." Now, I'm first generation Irish Catholic and went to Catholic School until 6th grade. I know that world. I got really excited and offered to get together and talk story structure if he was going to do it on his own. I think we had a marathon meeting at a coffee shop after that and that was it. We were gonna make this book.

Benjamin Mackey: SAINTS is a beautiful union of Sean and my ideas working together. I had been kicking around the idea for Super Saints for some time, but they had never moved beyond character sketches and a few dumpy pages here and there. Sean brought the story into a contemporary setting with our main hero Blaise acting as the focal point. He also brought in the death metal...which I can no longer imagine being absent from the series. We banged out our ideas for the forthcoming issues and milieu of characters. We found common ground quite fast and keep exciting each other with new ideas and concepts.

IC: Going by the end of issue #1, the Saints have no idea what they're in for, and the journey may not be as simple as they suspect. I know you can't tell us much about where it's going, but what can you tell us about Gabriel, Michael, and their Father?

BM: You are right, indeed! Unbeknownst to our blessed heroes, many celestial machinations move and whir behind the golden curtain. Michael and Gabriel have come from the Golden Realm. God has fallen silent, and in his silence, his sons have needed to act. They are based on the archangels from traditional religious lore, but at present, find themselves housed in the bodies of humans.

SL: I think the Saints are in for a lot of discovery. Blaise is a non-believer who suddenly finds himself thrown into a holy world. How he balances that with who he is and what he believes will be a challenge. Conversely, Lucy is a full-on believer—the lives of Saints were brutal and she is going to see and be asked to deal with some horribleness—how does that change her.

Michael, I love. In the Bible he is the trumpet, he is the great warrior of Heaven, in the end times he shall ride down and battle. If God abandons a being like that, leaves him to his own devices, what can he do? You've killed for this entity, you've led wars, and now you're just left? He gets attention through murder, through the building of armies, through the slaying of enemies. He is my favorite sort of villain because as the book goes on he makes so much sense and what he wants and why are so crystalline. Gabriel is in such a thankless role. He is the messenger, the one who tells Joseph and Mary they will give birth to Christ, in this he has the talent to commune that sadly makes him useful to Michael.

And their Father...God. What is God in a world like this? What is God in each of our lives (believers or non believers)? Is he a fairy tale man in a white beard who meets you at pearled gates? Is He or It an abstraction completely unfathomable to human understanding? We exist, we all agree on that—so GOD, the big G, in this world how does HE manifest?

IC: Tell me about Sainting your fans and talking on Twitter. What prompted that idea?

SL: Haha. Trial and error. Ben and I are new! Our first comic book for each of us. I felt social media would be useful, but kept searching for how to make an impression. As I was going through research I kept seeing how the Saints were like early Greek gods, where every action basically had a Saint connected to it. Most people on Twitter post something in their profile about it and I was like, wouldn't it be funny if you suddenly were the Saint of your Twitter interest? People really responded and so we went from there. The fans of the book, I have to say, have been so amazing.

BM: From the beginning we knew we wanted to make our mark on Twitter. It's a great way to connect and engage with fans, as well as promote your book in a personal (but not overbearing) sort of way. SAINTS is all about everyday people (like you and me) receiving divine essence. The sainting of people on Twitter reflects this mentality. Everyone has what it takes to be a Saint!

IC: SAINTS plays on modern American culture and Christian dogma. How are you approaching being faithful to the dogma? Is it crucial that the personality and style of the new saints matches up with the real-life ones?

BM: In a catch-all sense, I feel as though modern American culture has stripped religion of its history and strangeness (and thusly its beauty and oft terrible history). Christianity is this vastly complex entity that has changed and morphed throughout the centuries. When you dive into the medieval mystic philosophical conception of God or the Cathars' belief in the continued resurrection of souls, you realize how much of this is missing and often criticized by the big evangelical churches and watered down "feel good" TV faiths. To me, SAINTS stands as an homage to the stranger manifestations of Christianity. Sort of a hodge-podge of ancient Christian Mysticism going up against the fear-mongering evangelism of today. It is crucial that the Saints are like their historical counterparts in the sense that they were flawed humans that, at their end, managed to find some form of grace.

SL: Well, the personality of the former Saints is mostly hearsay. There are some records, but few that are very elaborate and a lot of times the more you read on a Saint the more stories will even start to conflict. I've been more interested in where Saints and Apostles in the Bible came to God from—many were actually not very holy before they turned to Christ. This is why we start with Blaise in a den of sin. Metal is funny because it uses so much Christian influence—like the Bizarro Superman of Christianity—that is metal. So we meet Blaise around these guys being absurdly decadent: pissing in cups, bringing groupies backstage, etc. He's like my Saul, he's gonna have to come from that world to be an agent of God. Lucy, for me, uses more modern influence. She is from a family that is ultra-religious, she can't curse, she wears clothes that are buttoned to the hilt, she has been bred in an American view of Christianity. It's a very nice and clean view, "love thy neighbor, and let's stop reading there!" The Bible is brutal. She is going to have to confront that.

Sebastian, we worked from the fact that he has for a long time always been seen as a gay icon. Hence we made him gay, which was important to me anyway in a book that dealt with religion. How does he follow orders so effortlessly for an institution that would normally try to keep him out?

IC: Benjamin, you've got a nicely cartoony style that manages to balance the humor with the creepier scenes really well. What's your background as an artist?

BM: I've been drawing ever since I was a wee tot. I got into the world of comic book drawing in the sixth grade when I spent all my hard earned allowance money on one of those "How to Draw Comics The Marvel Way" books and quickly became obsessed through middle school and high school. Lots of drawing of friends as superheroes and sending them off on various harebrained adventures. In college, I drew and painted in a much more classical style, attempting to break myself of old drawing habits and resting on my laurels. I also picked up an art history minor and fell in love with the world of Catholic mythology/philosophy. Towards the end and post-college, I started to infuse my early love of illustration with a more classical hand. That's the balance that I try to strike with SAINTS. Something modern with an underlying feeling of history.

IC: What else do people who are into SAINTS need to be reading? Can you share some of your research, or even just things that you're into that had some influence on the series?

SL: Lives of the Saints books are great, Motley Crue's biography The Dirt and the great book on the Netherland's Black Metal scene Lords of Chaos will give an entry into that part of the book, the way Junot Diaz writes humorously and compassionately about characters wanting to be good in The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao has been a big influence to the narration of the book...uhm the Bible books of Leviticus, Revelations, Genesis, and Exodus are all good. Oh and quotes from Oscar Wilde have helped inform Sebastian.

BM: For the religious nerds, I can't recommend enough the writings of St. Augustine, St. Hildegard von Bingen, and my personal favorite, Meister Eckhart. Also, if you are looking for powerful contemporary writings on religion, no one beats Elaine Pagels. Works of the Christian mystics and gnostics are very important to me in the sense that they open your eyes to the vast complexities and esoteric wonder of Christianity through the years.

SAINTS #1-3 are available now. SAINTS #4 arrives 1/6.