Author Mario DeMatteo says he was inspired to write a graphic novel about Paul the Apostle for young people after he survived a horrific accident at age 20 that left him permanently paralyzed.
DeMatteo, the founder of Bear Truth Collective, was a fan of “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” growing up, but it wasn’t until after he broke his neck in a freak accident in Costa Rica that he felt called to create similar kinds of stories. While recovering from the accident his faith in God was strengthened and DeMatteo felt led to create a children’s ministry tool about Paul the Apostle, and that’s what he did.
In his new graphic novel Paul, The Apostle, DeMatteo created a colorful adventure that journeys through the book of Acts. Set in a futuristic world with cartoon characters, DeMatteo uses biblical values to share “the transforming power of redemption, Christ’s example of compassion and love,” and how “persecution of faith brings blessings.” He also encourages younger generations to “pursue their life calling,” similar to what he did after his accident by learning how to capitalize on his God-given passion to tell stories.
The following is an edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with DeMatteo where he describes how his faith brought him through his accident, accepting his paralysis, and inspired his graphic novel.
Christian Post: Why did you decide to create a futuristic graphic novel based on the life of Paul?
DeMatteo: Comic books and graphic novels became an important part of my life after my accident. I fell in love with them. They took me on these beautiful journeys and gave me moments of rest from life on wheels. The writing, the art, the way you could freeze time in the middle of a moment and live in that space with the characters, it was extraordinary.
I quickly learned that comic books were way more sophisticated than I might have thought. All I really knew before then was "X-Men" and "Batman" and big fight scenes trying to save the world. I still love that stuff too, but I was learning it was a more important literary medium, with stories examining the human condition and the way people deal with suffering. There were love stories, sci-fi fantasy adventures, and hilarious romps. I devoured it all and slowly started to play with the idea that I might one day make comic books or graphic novels.
About six years after my accident and many comics devoured, I had a vision of Saul of Tarsus on a futuristic motorcycle hunting down Christians. At the time, I was reading NT Wright’s book, Paul: In Fresh Perspective. It was one of the first times I really saw Paul’s life and the crazy historical context of the moment. I saw the fire in young Saul’s eyes on Damascus road riding on his beefy sci-fi machine, smoke and fire billowing from the engine. The vision just wouldn’t leave me.
I started researching Bible comic books and found a bunch of amazing books already created with realistic locations, humans and real animals — the Action Bible, the Kingstone Bible, and others. Those books are incredible ministry tools and I recommend them to this day, but I wanted something different, something that might grab the attention of a 10-year-old me. I was a child of the ’80s. I grew up with "Star Wars," "He-Man," "ET," and the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." I think a lifetime of 80s pop culture started to develop the vision even further in my mind. I started to pray about the vision and the crazy journey it might be to bring it to life.
With the wise counsel of a few pastor friends of mine and many more hours of prayer, it soon became clear that making this vision a reality was going to be part of my life’s journey. And it’s amazing to say this, but as soon as I made the decision to go for it, God started opening up the doors. First was Brett Burner who became my production manager and mentor. He brought in a Christian comic book legend named Ben Avery and an up-and-coming illustrator named Mark Harmon. It really took a village to make this book. Without those super cool and creative men of God, I’m not sure if the book would have been made.
CP: What went into the choices of animals you chose for each Bible character?
DeMatteo: It was really difficult coming up with the many characters for the Paul book. For one, we were experimenting with a concept that hadn’t really been done yet. So that was pretty scary. A lot of the characters from the book of Acts are my heroes — Paul, Peter, Stephen. What would they say if they saw themselves in cartoon creature form? Will people be offended by this new depiction of Bible heroes? Would people think it’s a joke? These and many other questions were rambling around in my head.
I wanted the characters to be creatures, but I also wanted them to be taken seriously and I wanted children to be able to look up to them and to learn from their actions. I definitely had "Veggie Tales" and "Star Wars" playing in the background during much of the development process.
We essentially worked on hundreds and hundreds of creatures. I worked with an artist friend for almost six months before I even told anyone about the project. Both of us just drew tons of creatures in many different styles. It was almost like casting for a movie.
When Ben Avery started working on the script with me, he brought his love for "Star Wars" and film into the character design. Then Mark Harmon came on board, bringing his own design style and sensibility that all really meshed with my own. Many characters didn’t make it and the ones that did were worked on and revised many, many times before landing on the final designs.
CP: You had a tragic accident at a young age that altered your life. Instead of giving up your dream to be an artist, you trusted God and allowed Him to direct your path. We are living at a time when depression and suicide are at an all-time high. What helped you keep going and what advice do you have for others?
DeMatteo: I get asked this question a lot. People hear my story or see the suffering I’ve gone through and wonder what secret I might possess that helped me through the dark. The first thing I always tell them is that the suffering is still there. I still battle with sadness, loneliness, physical pain, and anxiety. I still question if what I’m doing is valuable to the world. I still struggle with anger and arrogance.
Life can be really hard no matter what situation you are in. But alas, there is hope. Huge hope. I always tell people that without God, I’m not sure I could have gotten this far. I’m really blessed that I knew Jesus before I got hurt. Though there were many moments that I was angry at myself, I was never angry at God. I always felt, from day one, that God was going to use this moment to make me a better person and an example of God‘s glory. I think having the trust that God was going to move through my broken neck really helped me through those first few years.
The next really important thing I tell people who are suffering is to ask God to show you unique and creative ways to glorify Him. God is the greatest artist and He loves when His children are creating. When I’ve said that prayer, He has always answered in ways I was not expecting. More times than not, He has guided me to the service and the compassion of other people who are also suffering. This is not always the answer people are looking for.
Whenever I am loving on other people and suffering alongside them, I feel God brings more clarity to all other parts of my life, including my creativity. Serving other people and investing in other people’s lives is so important in the fight against depression and anxiety.
The third thing I always tell people is to continue praying and keep your eyes and ears open for His voice. We all have unique gifts and creative passions, passions we might not even be aware of at this moment. Before I got hurt, comic books and the idea of creating comic books was not even in my universe. But now, my passion for creating Christian comic books and graphic novels is a driving force in my life. Having a passion and a calling can do wonders on mental health.
CP: Christians say all the time, all things work together for good. Have you come to that conclusion with all that's happened to you?
DeMatteo: I am a firm believer that God can do amazing work through our suffering and in our darkest moments. I know it can be hard to hear from someone else that it’s all gonna work out, especially in the midst of our pain. Suffering and pain can often times infect our ability to imagine God performing miracles in our lives. My story is not over, but I truly believe God is moving through my life and guiding me along the way.
CP: The Apostle Paul is one of the greatest examples of rejoicing in hardships, what have you learned about that practice during this process?
DeMatteo: I don’t think I really understood where Paul was coming from before my accident. I had never really experienced pain or suffering yet. Saul thought he had it all figured out and then in a split-second his whole life is shattered on Damascus Road.
Jesus saved him from himself, rebuilt him, and gave Paul a new mission in life that makes everything before seem like dust. I try to find myself in that story, but I don’t think I’m as brave. I often pray to be as strong and faithful as Paul.
CP: What are some of the spiritual lessons kids will learn from your book?
DeMatteo: Our number one goal with the Graphic Story Bible has been to inspire children to read the Bible and get pumped up on following Jesus. I think kids can learn a great deal from the life of Paul and his friends. We are living in a time in which the world is constantly fighting for our children’s hearts and minds. This is nothing new. Paul faced it with stones and a death sentence. The world will always be offended by Jesus. It is critical that we equip our children with Christ-centered tools — books, apps, movies, TV shows, and video games — to help them face the difficult battle in front of them.
CP: What are you hoping children gain from your graphic novel?
DeMatteo: My biggest hope and prayer is that our books inspire children to learn more about their Christian faith and they can find Bible heroes they can look up to in their own lives.