Mormon comics have been around for a while. For the sake of time and space, I’m not going to attempt a complete history here, but I will direct you to Theric’s excellent chapter on Mormon comics in J. Michael Hunter’s two-volume Mormons and Popular Culture. It’s a history I’ve been unaware of for most of my life, despite my long interest in both Mormon literature and comics. Like most members of the church, the only Mormon “comics” I had access to were the church-produced scripture readers. But I never really thought of them as comics.
Lately I’ve been trying to make up for lost time, familiarizing myself with the Mormon comics scene and trying my best to follow Theric’s “five easy steps” to becoming a “Mormon-Comics Snob.” I’m still early in my snobbery, but I’m enjoying it immensely. As I’ve written about elsewhere, comics were a major part of my childhood and teenage years. While I quit collecting comics when I was fourteen, I cartooned throughout high school (including a year as the editorial cartoonist for the school newspaper), my first year of college, and my mission. After I got back from Brazil and became an English major, though, I made a choice to walk away from drawing to focus on poetry, fiction, and literary criticism. Looking back, I probably needed the distance. It had been a huge part of my life, but I was getting bored with it.
Then kids came along. I started watching cartoons again. Lot of cartoons. One thing led to another and, after more than a decade away, I got back into comics and drawing.
So far, Mormon comics have not been a huge part of my return to comics, but this year I’ve been taking steps to fix that. The other day I downloaded Stephen Carter and Jett Atwood’s iPlates, Volume 1 for my Kindle. One of my daughters has really taken to comic books lately, and, wanting to feed her habit, I decided to push iPlates her way. I hadn’t read it yet, but what I had seen of it impressed me. Besides, as a fan of Stephen Carter’s writing and a wannabe fan of Jett Atwood’s art, I figured it had to be good.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, iPlates is an ongoing comic book adaptation of the Book of Mormon. Like others before it, such as Phil Dalby’s beautifully-drawn Stories of the Book of Mormon (recently serialized on Keepapitchinin) and Mike Allred’s equally-stunning The Golden Plates, it pairs the Book of Mormon narrative with visually-arresting illustrations and episodes. However, unlike these works, iPlates takes significant liberties with the scriptural accounts, creatively expanding the backstories of familiar figures like King Noah, Abinadi, Alma the Elder, and Gideon. The result is something akin to George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels—or, to be fairer and more precise, something akin to what George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels could have been if George Lucas had actually tried to do justice to his imagination. Which is to say: part of the charm of iPlates has much to do with the numerous a-ha moments that occur when you discover how certain characters become the people you know from the Book of Mormon. These moments excite because they create a reading experience that changes the way you revisit familiar scripture stories.
Another charm of iPlates is its humor. Compared to other Book of Mormon adaptations—in any genre—iPlates is unmatched in its ability to make readers laugh. Carter’s Nephites use slang, crack witty jokes, and pick their noses. They’re also irreverent in goofy, non-offensive ways, like when Abinadi sports a crazy wig to disguise his true identity from King Noah’s guards. It’s possible that this “light” approach might upset recently-returned missionaries and older people in the ward, but such is to be expected, I suppose, with any kind of scriptural adaptation. I’m pretty sure, though, that most Mormons will get a kick out of iPlates. Especially kids. Kids will love iPlates.
For example: When I first downloaded the book to my Kindle, I had to do the dishes, so I passed it off to my comics-reading seven-year-old and asked her to read it and tell me if it was any good. About five minutes later, this conversation happened:
7YO: Oh, GROSS!
Me (glancing over her shoulder): Yeah, the part where Ammon cuts off the arms is kind of gross.
7YO: Gross…and kinda funny!
She was giggling for the rest of the evening, completely absorbed in the story. At one point, she looked up and said, “Dad, I think this boy is King Noah.” Later, when he finally became king, she gasped in horror. I half-expected her to let loose a dramatic Hollywood style, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
I read the comic the next morning, wholly taken in by Carter’s creative storytelling and Atwood’s dynamic, expressive artwork. When it ended, just as King Noah’s kingdom was beginning to unravel, I was ready for the next volume.
With all works of Mormon literature, iPlates is not without its faults. As an ebook, I felt that the comic did not work as well on my iPad Kindle app as it did on my older and lower-tech Kindle Touch. Maybe I have been spoiled by the comics interface on my DC and Marvel Comics app, but I wished iPlates on the iPad were more fluid and user friendly. (Personally, I’d like to get my hands on a hard copy of iPlates to see how the reading experience changes.) Also, I think a full-color iPlates would also improve the reading experience. As much as I like the black-and-white portion of the comic, I get the sense that it is not really what Carter and Atwood were going for. In fact, the portion of the volume that is in color seems to confirm this. Overall, it feels more more complete.
Also, as a father of four daughters, I’m glad to hear that the second volume will feature more female characters. After all, despite the first volume’s significant liberties with the original text, it did not really add any new characters to the narrative—which meant the male-centric Book of Mormon narrative essentially stayed that way in the adaptation. This is one drawback that I’m glad will be corrected in the follow-up volume.
Aside from these minor points, I can’t say enough good things about iPlates. It’s great stuff.