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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, we listen to you talk about what we've been saying. But first, for thousands of years, the Bible has been produced and reproduced, translated and illustrated in new efforts to increase interest across age groups and ethnicities. The latest approach along these lines is "The Manga Bible."

Its author and illustrator is multi-ethnic and multi-faceted himself. Ajinbayo Akinsuku, who goes by Siku, was born in Nigeria, raised in England and creates art in a style called Japanese Manga.

He joins us from London for this week's Faith Matters conversation. Welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

AJINBAYO AKINSUKU: Thank you.

MARTIN: Can you describe Manga for those who are not already fans?

AKINSUKU: Well actually, I think most people actually know what Manga is. They may not be sure of what it is or not aware, but they've seen it. They see it in daytime TV, and they call - really, animated Manga is called amine, and they've probably seen it in like Michael Jackson's video where Akira kind of shouts - and this is a song where Michael Jackson sings with Janet Jackson, and in the opening cut, you've got this character that shouts aww, and that's actually Akira, one of the most famous Manga characters, turned into anime.

So most people know what it is, and they've probably...

MARTIN: So they've seen it, even if they don't know what it's called.

AKINSUKU: Yes, you've seen it, even though you don't know what it's called. In the States, a recent anime film called "Spirit of the Way," it's quite massive all over the world. Lots of people actually saw that, and I think maybe for the first time, anime really went mainstream.

With Manga, like I've mentioned Akira for example, besides that there's lots of daytime TV shows, many of them actually influenced by Manga and anime. A very good example would be "Gigantor" from the '70s, for example. It's something that has now permeated much of what we see in Western media.

MARTIN: So why Manga Bible?

AKINSUKU: Ha, why Manga Bible? It's a way of making a relevant message contemporary, for every decade passes, and we tend to need to reinterpret the Bible, and I think this is probably just the latest incarnation.

Right now in the comic-books industry, I think the Manga medium is the only growing genre. Every other genre's idle, static or in free-fall. So it seemed like it was time for us to update the biblical message.

MARTIN: Which version did you use, or which translation did you use as your base? I understand that your version is quite a bit shorter than the one many of us grew up on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKINSUKU: Yes. I'd hate to call it a version of the Bible. I'll probably call it an interpretation. And you've asked what based I used. I pretty much used virtually any translation you can actually think of, including looking at the text in the original language.

So pretty much anything. The text itself - if you look at the book, we actually have a printout from the Bible itself, and in that one, we're using a TNIV, but for the work itself, we pretty much used anything and everything, including original languages.

MARTIN: But you left out some of my favorites, and the story of the loaves and fishes didn't make the cut. What's going on here?

AKINSUKU: No, it didn't. Too much talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Okay.

AKINSUKU: You probably noticed that we left out the sermon on the plains and the sermon on the mount.

MARTIN: Uh, yeah.

AKINSUKU: Yes.

MARTIN: Some people would consider that kind of a key...

AKINSUKU: Sacrilege.

MARTIN: ...message there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKINSUKU: I know. Obviously, there are several key messages, so we have to pick and choose. For the New Testament, I think we had just about 70 pages to play with, not much, and we did something novel, which I don't think anyone else had done previously. We included the letters of Paul. I don't think anyone else has ever done that before.

So you're probably seeing for the first time the letters of Paul, done in a graphic novel, (unintelligible) actually seen it in Manga. So we have to pick. With the narratives of the gospels, we had 30 pages. For the Old Testament, we had a little over 100 pages, I think 130 or so.

So there isn't very much. So we had to pick and choose, and we had to pick stories that flowed. So you'd have narrative flowing into the next so you more or less had one solid, grand narrative rather than narratives that are all broken up in pieces and unconnected or disconnected.

MARTIN: And if I can say this, it's kind of fun. There's some fun in it, like for example in the story of Noah and the ark.

AKINSUKU: Yes.

MARTIN: Noah loses count of the animals. How did you come up with that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKINSUKU: That was my brother's idea. My brother was the script writer. I'm the concepts person. So what we did was I'd draw up the storyboards with notes and sketchy dialogue, and then he would write up a fully scripted dialogue to the storyboards. So that was - I'm not going to claim credit on that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Now, you clearly know your Bible.

AKINSUKU: Hopefully.

MARTIN: Do you - well, do you see this book as a tool of spreading the gospel?

AKINSUKU: Yes I do. I mean, you can see it two ways. I think in the West, especially in Western Europe, biblical narratives are no longer the narratives we actually use now. Lots of kids actually don't know what the Moses story is about. So it's a way of making those grand narratives familiar again, especially in Western Europe. I mean, that's one way of looking at it.

Another way of looking at it is it gives Christians who think they know the Bible a spin on that you have to see the Bible differently. I have presented Christ and God, and in fact all the other main characters, I've presented them a little different from what people are used to.

So on two fronts, I'm making a generation of people who have lost those narratives kind of familiar with them again, and then those - well that generation that are familiar, churchgoers for example, a fresh interpretation.

MARTIN: You studied theology yourself?

AKINSUKU: I'm a theologian, yes.

MARTIN: Did you consider this work part of your calling?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKINSUKU: That is a very interesting question, which I'm not quite sure I know how to answer because if I didn't study theology, I still would've done it as a Christian anyway. I would've done it. Being a theologian helps me do the work better, and in some instances, yes you could call it a calling. I mean, if I'm trying to make biblical again the grand narratives of Western Europe, yes you can call that a calling. But regardless of whether it's a calling or not, I would've done it. Let's just say I'm just being myself.

MARTIN: Have you heard from any clergy about your work, and what are they saying? And I'm sure there are a wide range of opinions, but...

AKINSUKU: Well, I think most actually are in awe. Should I say that, in awe of what we have done? Yes, I think I can say that. The Arch-bishop, for example, things that what we've done is pretty much up to the minute.

MARTIN: Wait a minute, you mean the Archbishop of Canterbury?

AKINSUKU: Yes, he read it.

MARTIN: The Most Reverend Rowan Williams?

AKINSUKU: Yes, surprise, surprise. I don't know how he found time to read it, but he did.

MARTIN: Well maybe because it's so short. It's the abbreviated version.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKINSUKU: A few-hundred pages. Yes, he can read it in a weekend, and I think it's designed for that. If it were to do it the Manga way - I want to say do it the Manga way, do it the traditional Manga way, which is like 600 pages, 1,000 pages, 2,000 pages even, that would be the way to go. But it had to be brief to do something that short enough for someone to read maybe in two or three sittings. To do something else, that's another brief, and that's what we're actually doing right now. We're doing a 300-page Jesus Christ story, for example, 300 pages just on the life of Jesus Christ. Now, that's going to be more in-depth and more decompressed and more Manga-ish than what we've done so far.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the artist Siku about his newest graphic novel, "The Manga Bible." What do you think is the appeal of Manga, and specifically what do you think it brings to the Bible?

AKINSUKU: It is cinematic in a way that Western comic books are not. One example I can give you is Frank Miller's - I don't know if you've ever read any of Frank Miller's book, whether it's "Sin City," whether it's "Ronin," whether it's "Batman," whether it's "The 300." They're more cinematic, and the reason why they're more cinematic is he's been influenced by Manga.

What Manga does, and which some comics don't do, is it reads as though you're actually watching a film, and I think that's one of its main appeals to the new generation. Secondly, I think it's very expressive.

It's expressive, emotionally expressive, in a way Western comic books are not. So I think these two factors kind of like endear the genre to the younger generation. Besides those two factors, there are other factors, like for example you have a massive girl-Manga genre. This is a genre dedicated just to girls. We don't seem to have that in the West. It's pretty much broad-based. You think of any kind of genre, and you've got it in Manga.

MARTIN: I know you're a parent yourself, and so you're probably past the point of worrying about what your parents think or whether they approve of your work...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But it's my recollection that your folks were not that thrilled at your decision to study art.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Like many parents around the world, wondering how is this man going to support himself? What do they think now of your latest work? What do they think of "The Manga Bible?"

AKINSUKU: Well like every African boy, we never grow out of being concerned of what our parents think. We seem to think that they have a right to voice an opinion, and they do. My mum is proud of what we've done so far, I mean my brother and I. She's proud of it. I think it's not something 30, 20 years ago she thought could happen. They viewed art as the profession of drop-outs, those who couldn't hack it anywhere else. Art was a last refuge for the lazy. That's how she saw it. That's how my father, who is dead now, that's how he saw it.

Unfortunately, he's not seeing what we've achieved so far, which (unintelligible) a shame. My dad actually chose my subjects when I was 13, and what he - he wanted me to become an accountant, and my mother wanted me to be a doctor. So there I was choosing science and business subjects, which wasn't actually my bag at all.

I wanted to do the arts, that's history and literature, you know, and art. So I had to drop those subjects, which I was very good at, to do subjects which I was very bad at.

My art teacher kind of like encouraged me to pick up art in secret. So you can imagine at the end of year, my dad seeing my report card, and he sees arts, which I was supposed to have dropped, and right there an A-1, which I always got anyway in those days.

Things are changing. Africans are changing the way they think about art, whether it's performing arts or the visual arts. That's changing. It's no longer exactly the same as it was 30 years ago.

MARTIN: And what does your mom think of the Bible, of your Manga Bible?

AKINSUKU: She loves it. She wants to give it to her pastor, to her friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AKINSUKU: She loves it. If I remember, when I showed her the first publication and the little dedication to here there, I'm sure I saw a tear from her eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: When will we see the next work, the life of Jesus?

AKINSUKU: The life of Jesus should be out I think at the end of the year, Christmas, here in the U.K. I'm not sure about anywhere else, but we're aiming for Christmas. It's darker and edgier than any Jesus graphic novel you've ever seen.

MARTIN: Since I've never seen any Jesus graphic novels, I'm sure that that is the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you.

AKINSUKU: Thank you.

MARTIN: Siku is the author and illustrator of "The Manga Bible." He joined us from London. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

AKINSUKU: Thank you.

MARTIN: For a peek into the pages of Siku's Manga Bible, you can go to our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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