None of Zondervan’s previous entries into the graphic novel market suggested they were on the verge of something as ambitious as The Book of Revelation, a 192-page graphic adaptation of the final book of the Bible that is aimed at adults, not the juvenile market. Translated by Mark Arey and Philermon Sevastiades, adapted by Matt Dorff, illustrated by Chris Koelle, and produced by Chris Diamantopoulos, Revelation released in late 2012.
The book’s adult focus is a departure from the previous six titles from Harper’s Z Graphic Novels imprint, aimed at reaching young readers with manga-style comics featuring superheroes, martial arts, and sci-fi, and including such titles as Hand of the Morningstar, Tomo, and TimeFlyz. Prior biblical adaptions, such as Kingdoms, The Manga Bible, and Son of Sam, were for juvenile readers—a reasonable but limited strategy in a crowded Christian children’s marketplace. Zondervan is now a part of the HarperCollins Christian Publishing Group, and this Book of Revelation is unquestionably aimed at an adult marketplace that is both Christian and multimedia, for a generation raised in the visual languages of film, TV, and the Internet.
Book of Revelation art director Matt Dorff says that this is just the first in a new line of graphic novels from Zondervan. “We will be launching a graphic novel series in October, titled The Last Adam, and volume one is Firstborn, a narrative-driven arrangement of Matthew Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels,” as fashioned by Revelation translator Father Mark Arey, a Greek Orthodox priest. “Then in 2014, we'll be releasing The Last Adam: Witness, a continuation of the Gospel narrative.” With new artists for each book, a new and compelling visual style is meant to attract readers to the illustrated scripture “in a way that brings biblical art back into the cultural foreground, as it hasn't been since the 17th or 18th century,” says Dorff.
Illustrator Chris Koelle and translator Fr. Mark Arey were both on hand at the New York Comic-Con last October, handing out glossy samplers of their full-length visualization of John’s sacred sights. They weren’t just targeting comics fans; they were linking markets and navigating between media, their work having already been released as a third-quarter 2011 mobile phone app for iPad and iPhone. “From a gaining knowledge perspective and in terms of a ‘focus group’ response, it was very successful,” notes Dorff. “But due to circumstances, the main one being we had not finished production on the book and were quite a bit over schedule, we decided to pull the app down and regroup.”
For all of the pedigree and solemnity that Father Arey and his late colleague Father Philemon Sevastiades brought to the project, this graphic novel had its roots more in motion pictures than in comics. Their sampler described producer Chris Diamantopoulos envisaging Revelation as “a thrilling fantasy epic, the ultimate good-versus-evil saga, ‘Lord of the Rings’ on steroids.” (It no doubt helped that Diamantopoulos is a movie and television actor, seen on The Office, 24, and even starring in The Three Stooges.)
Father Arey himself sees it “a bit like traveling back to the 1st century in a time machine” via what he regards as“immersive visual narrative. If we can bring eyes to scripture in the form of a page-turner, we'll have achieved something special.” Dorff's Adapter’s Note in the final product, a full-color, 190-page softcover epic, explained that the advantage their adaptation had was a “language of cinema” shared with their potential readers. This graphic novel is less sequential art than cuts and transitions between literalized imaginings of the centuries-old text.
Arey says that more than 40,000 copies have already been sold, though, says Dorff, “crossing over has been a challenge. Barnes & Noble stocks the book in the Christian section of its stores, often at the opposite end from where the graphic novel section is.” The crisp, spare layout and full, literal depiction of the scripture makes for an aesthetic and shocking experience, no matter the audience.
The only less-than-literal license taken by the creative team is the frequent view of John reacting to what he must witness, both its glory and its horror. As the closest thing readers have to a relatable common man, even one as extraordinary as the biblical revelator, John provides a vital touchstone for a visceral experience of Revelation’s prophecy. What the adaptation sacrifices in interpretive nuance or comic book purity, it makes up for in raw impact. For the first time in centuries, audiences can feel the awesomeness of John’s vision of a world to end and one to come.