When I was I kid I would always sit down to “read the newspaper,” like I was a little man. But what I was really doing was going straight to the comics section. I couldn’t wait to see what Charlie Brown or Garfield was up to. Who doesn’t like the comics?
And who doesn’t like John Wesley?
Okay, well, maybe not as much as we like comics. But my buddy Charlie Baber has found a way to make the Wesley Brothers something we can’t wait to catch up on. Charlie does a weekly comic strip called Wesley Bros. He takes the historical figures of John and Charles Wesley, the famed founding brothers of the Methodist movement, and puts them in modern situations.
Before he felt a call to full-time ministry, Charlie had always wanted to be a cartoonist. “In High School,” he recalled, “I drew monthly comics that were published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and I made comic books that I would print and share with my friends at school.” He would then do editorial comics for his college paper. “And then I began full-time ministry and stopped doing art entirely for almost 10 years,” he remembers. He goes on to say:
As I was anticipating getting ordained last summer, I sensed that something was deeply missing from my life. It seems dumb to say there was a comic-shaped hole in my life, but I really have found great joy restored in my life and in my ministry just because I’ve picked an old passion back up into my regular life.
Charlie first had the thought of using historical church figures in modern situations in a comic while he was a student at Duke Divinity School. “I doodled in class,” he said, “when I should have been taking notes, but never made time to pursue it.”
Last April, Charlie decided to start Wesley Bros. And it’s perfect! He is able to introduce an amazing number of historical church figures while still maintaining two primary characters. And it doesn’t hurt that as an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church, Charlie just happens to know a lot about John and Charles.
I was curious about Charlie’s process. When you read the comics, you will notice that he is able to include a lot of historical and theological details, while keeping the characters in a modern-day setting. I asked him where he gets his inspiration every week:
I usually jot down ideas when they come to me. I do a lot more research into church history and John and Charles Wesley now that I do this comic. I read Wesley’s sermons, I read histories of Methodism, Wesley’s journals, Charles’ hymns and the stories behind them. If I can find irony or humor in what I read, I scribble out ideas and get started.
But sometimes, something crazy will happen at church and the comic strip becomes a way to address it – or make fun of it, whichever comes first. A historical story or reading a commentary on something modern can be other triggers to what Wesley did or said. Charlie shares one example:
For instance, I read a commentary on the myth of redemptive violence in Star Wars and it reminded me of Wesley’s “Calm Address to the American Colonies,” so I made a comic where that tract was paraphrased into a Star Wars scene. Yes, I am a nerd.
Charlie always begins his creative process with a handful of ideas. He begins his process by typing out a preliminary script early in a week. “If there’s a lot of history or theology to convey,” he told me, “I’ve got books open all around me and I research very closely to make sure I’m not grossly misrepresenting history.” If there is a cultural anachronism, he will do some research on that (and he thanks Google and Wikipedia!)
He then will sketch out any new characters he might have until he has a look that works. This is followed by going to the drawing board where he pencils out the whole thing: boxes, text, and pictures. “Sometimes I ink a few panels before penciling the last ones just to get a better feel for the balance of the whole,” he says of the process. It will take him up to six hours of drawing time a week. This is usually done during his kids’ nap time. Charlie says he takes the time he does because he wants the pictures to be interesting, and that includes adding backgrounds and textures.
When he first started he had no direction. He was inventing characters that were based on actual people and forming their personalities based on his own reading of history and what he thought might be funny. As a result, John Wesley is a little bit hipster, “because,” as Charlie says, “those guys are so persnickety and particular.” Charles Wesley, on the other hand, is a little bit more sloppy and fun because he is the creative poet.
“My first few strips tried to tell major Methodist story lines in one strip,” he recalls. The comic strips covered things that Charlie thought most Methodists would know or needed to know. This included the First, Second, and Third Rise of Methodism, the Aldersgate Experience, and the fire in the Wesley home.
And if you read Wesley Bros you will notice that Charlie runs a few series of extended plot lines. He knew when he started that he wanted to do an extended series on Sophy Hopkey, because well, there is all that ridiculousness. “It’s actually a lot easier for me,” Charlie says, “to do a long series like that because one idea flows out of the next.”
That may be why the George Whitefield series lasted for two months. “I thought the Whitefield series was important to tell because it conveys the beginning of field preaching and evangelical revival, as well as an important split in early Methodism,” says Charlie. He goes on to say:
It’s filled with tons of theology, America’s first celebrity (George), and sermons and hymns were used to tear each other down. That series really allowed me to go to creative places to visually tell stories in ways I had never thought of doing when I first started out.
Wesley was heavily influenced by so many historical figures, Charlie has made a point of casting some of those characters in the comic, putting them into dialogue and debate with Wesley. He does the same with those whom Wesley has influenced.
And what’s next for Wesley Bros?
“I am hoping to do my next series (maybe beginning in mid-February),” he tells me, “on racism in the church, using Wesley’s tracts against slavery and several key African-American Methodist figures to tell that story.”