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Religion in the News

May 14, 1999

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ At first glance, the good vs. evil struggle depicted in Lifequest comics appears similar to the plot of any other fantasy tale.

But there’s something different behind the story of 12-year-old Sarah and her quest to defeat the Scarlet Dragon. Creator Matt VanderPol says he’s inspired by the parables of Jesus Christ.

``He was a great storyteller. He spoke truth, and his philosophy came through in his stories,″ says the 26-year-old artist. ``I want to be a Christian artist, and I believe this can reach kids without being preachy.″

In fact, he adds, ``I didn’t want to come across as too Christian because it might turn someone off.″

Lifequest does not mention Christianity directly and is not being marketed as a religious comic book, but the story begins in ``End Times,″ the chaotic period that some Christians believe will precede Jesus’ return, and characters sometimes pray.

The story follows Sarah and Ridge, an apelike giant who is her friend and protector, in their quest to defeat the Scarlet Dragon, although the reasons for their efforts have yet to be fully explained.

Maurice O’Connor of Annapolis, Md., who regularly reads the comics to his 18-month-old daughter, says he didn’t even realize the story was Christian-inspired until he read the author’s note at the end of one of the books.

``Anybody from any particular faith can read these,″ says O’Connor, who wrote VanderPol to thank him for the way Lifequest avoids violence and portrays girls as capable and intelligent.

Lifequest has none of the scantily clad women that populate many comic books, and the series’ tone diverges from that of many other comics. ``So many are so dark and violent,″ VanderPol says.

Still, teen readers of Lifequest find much that’s familiar, including suspenseful action and occasional bathroom humor.

Learning how to balance his ideology with mainstream tastes has been tricky, VanderPol says.

``I talked to folks at my church. They said, `Hey don’t be so uptight, don’t worry about it,‴ he says. ``My pastor told me not to worry.″

VanderPol says he turned to God after the painful breakup of a college romance. Around the same time, he began drawing Sarah and Ridge. Religion, he says, has helped him stay focused. He says he hopes his comics bring readers a little pleasure in a world he describes as ``gritty.″

``If my book helps someone, an abused kid, feel some hope, that would be wonderful,″ he says.

The Lifequest series has not been without controversy.

VanderPol got some complaints for anti-abortion dedication in his third issue. An accompanying illustration of moaning babies upset some readers, and one woman wrote to complain the imagery was inappropriate for children.

VanderPol says he does not regret expressing his views.

Jim Pruett, VanderPol’s editor at Caliber Comics who approved the dedication before the issue was published, said, ``Frankly, there are a lot worse things in comic books.″

Pruett, who also describes himself as a Christian, says there is no consensus on just what a Christian comic book should look like. About 1,000 copies of each of the four Lifequest books released so far have been sold, mainly through secular book stores.

Pruett expects the market for VanderPol’s work to grow, especially as more parents conclude that many other comics are simply too violent for their children.

At one store, Grand Rapids’ Apparitions Comics and Books, manager Dave Pirkola says the series’ first issue sold out.

``For a small press, Lifequest’s selling phenomenally well,″ he says. ``It’s just a well-drawn, fun comic book with an interesting story.″

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