His comic books convey God’s story
    July 23 2010 by Joni B. Hannigan, Baptist Press

    LEESBURG, Fla. — In 1872, baby boy John Harper is born in the dark of night in the Scottish village of Houston.

    “Father, he is a gift from You, thus we will dedicate him to You. His name will be John,” his mustached, middle-aged, working-class father declares, looking toward the heavens, clutching the baby to his chest.

    “Yes, a good Bible name,” John’s mother says, drops of sweat pouring from her otherwise serene face as she reclines against a rumpled pillow, a midwife looking on.

    On a glossy comic book’s opening page, bright graphic artwork in four blocks introduces the engrossing biography of a Baptist preacher who survived three close brushes with drowning before finally perishing with the Titanic.

    “The Last Convert of John Harper” is one of a new line of comic books which encompasses five genres — adventure, biography, sci-fi, biblical epic and historical fiction — and the creative passion of Art Ayris, who is both the executive pastor of First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., and CEO of Kingstone Media.

    Ayris has long been part of the inventive leadership at First Baptist, a congregation which ministers through a Christian school and through a Christian Care Center encompassing a men’s shelter with drug and alcohol rehabilitation, shelters for women and children, a pregnancy care center, medical help for the unemployed and other benevolence aid and a counseling center.

    Like John Harper, who in the comic book climbs to the top of a well and looks over before falling in, Ayris has had a few close calls with death himself.

    Relating his “God story,” Ayris told the Florida Baptist Witness he was in a near fatal accident at the age of 5 when he was struck in the abdomen by blade thrown from a lawn mower his father was driving.

    “I came very close to dying,” Ayris recounted. A call was placed to the local jail for prisoners to give blood. Ayris said his father, who owned a construction company, and his mother, a teacher, were overwhelmed when prisoners responded to the call.

    At age 18, Ayris almost died again and was hospitalized for 30 days when gangrene set in because of scar tissue from the previous injury.

    “In that time in the hospital, I really realized there was something else out there and I was not prepared for that,” Ayris said. “A little later after that I became a Christian.”

    After earning a degree in criminology at Florida State University, Ayris said he first set his sights on working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Drug Enforcement Administration, but finally decided to go back to school for certification to teach special education.

    “God just really redirected my path,” said Ayris, who put his passion for children and teens to work at First Baptist Leesburg, building “Saturday-Sunday Schools” and what at one time was one of the largest Vacation Bible Schools in the nation. “Throughout that, God just really burdened my heart for kids, especially through the media,” he said.

    BP photo by Joni B. Hannigan

    Art Ayris is both a minister and, through Kingstone Media, a comic book entrepreneur.


    On stage in front of a large group of unchurched kids, Ayris said he had an “epiphany” about communicating more creatively. Soon planning large-scale productions like an annual walk-through Nativity at Christmastime, Ayris befriended J.B. Jones, a man from Miami who worked on James Bond films as well as 60 others.

    Ayris said Jones encouraged him in media. “All of that was really a context for the whole comic thing we are doing,” he said.

    It didn’t hurt that his mother, who had an earned doctorate in education, read a picture Bible to Ayris when he was growing up — and paid him a nickel for every page he wrote. “My father gave me my work ethic and my mom gave me my creativity,” he said.

    With a heart for evangelism, but a pragmatic side that understands how people respond to creative media, Ayris felt that something was missing, so he began a 40-day fast.

    “Either I need to hear from You on this or I am dropping it and won’t ever pick it up again,” he told God.

    Five days later, walking through a supermarket parking lot, Ayris began weeping as God gave him an “overwhelming, precise, to-the-second answer.” Drawing on his years in ministry — and using the wealth of Bible knowledge he’s stored in his heart through memorizing Scripture — he let God lead the way in showing him the stories which might appeal to an 18-25-year-old target audience.

    Aboard the Titanic
    John Harper, the Baptist preacher in Ayris’ comic book, also had an unusual start to his visionary ministry. After his early brush with death, the young minister is shown preaching in the streets and in the ghettos, handing out clothes and blankets with compassion, while warning passersby: “The wages of sin is death ... but the gift of God is eternal life!”

    Harper was declared an “angel God has sent to the slums” — and in 1892 he undertook studies at the Baptist Pioneer Mission in London to “refine his gift.” In establishing the Paisley Street Baptist Mission, which today is known as Harper Memorial Church in London, Harper became a visionary in finding ways to meet needs while sharing the gospel.

    Invited twice to preach at the Moody Church in Chicago, it was while attempting to travel there for a second time that he ended up on the Titanic in 1912.

    In comic book-style graphic art depicting Harper’s actions after the dramatic few hours when an iceberg struck the massive ship — “SCRRRUNCH!” — until it sank, the 39-year-old widowed preacher is shown placing his 6-year-old daughter “Nana” on a lifeboat before he goes through the ship, extending his arm in invitation — “women, children, and the unsaved to the LIFEBOATS!”

    Thrusting one of the few remaining life vests toward someone who tells Harper he is not “saved,” Harper jumps overboard as the ship splits and sinks.

    “Believe in Christ, He can and will save you,” Harper says to one floundering man before he is shown grasping a wooden plank and attempting to speak to others floating around him. “Christ D—D—Died for your sin,” he stutters. “A—A—Ask for His forgiveness!” an immersed Harper says in another frame, puffing bluish-white frigid air while water drips from his face.

    Four years later at a survivor’s meeting in Canada, one of those Harper spoke to that night, and presumably the last person who saw him alive, declares: “I am the last convert of John Harper.”

    Ayris’ first movie
    Ayris produced a movie in 2005, titled “The Touch,” a true story of a woman’s journey to homelessness, which won first place honors at a number of Christian film festivals and became popular in the Middle East where it was translated into Arabic and Farsi. It also was translated into the Chinese sub-language known as Hakka Chinese.

    “God also gave a lot of confirmations along the way,” Ayris said of his broadening media interests. “I began seeing God could reach and touch a lot of people through media and it’s just come out in different forms.”

    One of the extras in The Touch was a female officer who realized on the last day of shooting the film that she needed Christ. “She started bawling and said, ‘My life is totally a mess.’ It was like picking a ripe peach off a tree,” Ayris said.

    The comics followed, when market research revealed a void for comics and graphic novels with a Christian worldview. And Ayris didn’t skimp on quality.

    Talented artists better known for their work with Marvel, DC and other comics use their skills for Kingstone Media to pencil, sketch, ink and color the comics, Ayris said. The gospel message virtually leaps from the pages of comics named for books and characters of the Bible — The Revelation, Elijah and Exodus.

    “I have discovered a lot of believers out there,” Ayris said of the artists and printers who produce the comics. As for those who are not believers, he said it provides an opportunity to witness through solid business practices like paying on time; being “gracious”; and exposing them to Christian truths through the content of his products.

    The quality is not lost on kids and teens either. Ayris tells pastors to go to a Borders or Barnes & Noble Bookstore and look at the number of kids and teens camped out in front of the comic book section. “With big biblical illiteracy in the U.S.,” he said, “we feel like our biblical epic line can help readers.”

    Even at church, given the choice between a Bible or a comic book, Ayris said he tells pastors that kids will look at a table where there’s both a Bible and a comic book and “probably nine times out of 10, they are going to pick up the comics and read them.”

    Libraries also have bought comics and graphic novels to attract “reluctant readers,” Ayris said. “With the world being about 50 percent illiterate or semi-literate, we see comics as an effective bridge to both reading and understanding God’s Word.”

    The comics are also a natural bridge to the film industry. Ayris said major film companies in Hollywood and Los Angeles have expressed interest in at least two of Kingstone Media’s stories.

    “Comics are also a great way to tell an epic story without the zillions cost of film,” Ayris said. “You have already story-boarded out what the film could look like.”

    Amassing an impressive collection of the comics — 15 — which Ayris hopes will grow to 30 by the end of the year, and to 80 by 2011, he manages a growing staff of 19 ranging from full-time to freelance writers, artists and a chief operating officer.

    Christian comics sell
    “Some of our comics are designed clearly for the faith market, but others are specifically designed to be able to go into the general trade to engage readers ... and elicit conversation,” Ayris said. “This has opened up many corridors to share the gospel with people other than in church ministry situations.”

    Nationally, Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis area was one of the first to buy in. Then came other independent outlets. Kingstone is in negotiations with Family Christian Stores, a chain of 330 stores throughout the country, and is talking with other, larger chains. Kingstone’s comics have put in an appearance at MegaCon, the Southeast’s largest comic book convention, and already have a following overseas.

    Ayris said he is “stunned” by the international response. The comics are going into 18 countries through a Spanish distributor and a Brazilian distributor is planning translation into Portuguese for some titles. The Revelation has been produced in Arabic, with other titles forthcoming in that language, while a Bible society in the Middle East covering five Arabic countries has placed their first order.

    Keeping in step with the digital age, Ayris said Kingstone Media currently is negotiating with the largest cell phone comic book distributor in Japan and possibly the world. Kingstone has also budgeted a “good part” of its funds for digital translation and distribution through iPad, e-book (electronic) and cell phone applications.

    Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of WORLD magazine, is the writer for some of the comic books, including a futuristic series “2048: A story of America’s Future” which explores ethical dilemmas caused by human-animal hybrid embryo stem cell research resulting in chimeras, what the comics call “bumans.”

    Another Kingstone comic to debut soon is “Hope Amid Horror” about modern-day martyrdom produced with The Voice of the Martyrs ministry. Coming this summer is “The Book of God (How We Got the Bible).”

    In 2009, Ayris completed a novel, Sudan, with career journalist Ninie Hammon. Based on a true story, Hammon said it explores “the horror of rape, mass murder, kidnapped children and human bondage of everyday life in Sudan.”

    Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote an endorsement of the novel as did Mike Huckabee, a FOX television host and former Arkansas governor.

    Actively sharing his ideas and expertise, Ayris served on the faculty of the Gideon Media Arts Conference and Film Festival in early June at Ridgecrest in North Carolina, along with other noted leaders in the film industry like David Nixon, one of the producers of Sherwood Baptists’ “Fireproof” and “Facing the Giants.” More recently, Nixon worked on “Letters to God.”

    Ayris’ wife Kelly is a television producer who now works in the church’s television ministry and for Kingstone. They have two sons, Ben, who will enter law school in the fall, and Alex, who is heading to Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.

    “They love the comics; they think they’re cool,” Ayris said of his sons.

    With an active board of directors and investors and a capable chief operating officer at Kingstone, Ayris said he is able to spend his days overseeing the financial and personnel aspects of the church’s various ministries, while devoting himself to Kingstone’s creative side on nights and weekends.

    Passionate men of faith
    “This is my heart and soul,” Ayris said of First Baptist Leesburg, where he has served in various positions the past 21 years — a church which he described as his “greenhouse.”

    “I feel like God’s given me this ability to just continue to open these doors and to be faithful when He gives me these opportunities — and He’s given me a calling and passion,” Ayris said. First Baptist’s senior pastor Cliff Lea, following in the church’s tradition, has been willing to take “God risks,” such as buying a hotel to assist homeless families.

    “My former pastor, Charles Roesel (who retired in 2006), used to joke and say I was a Peter, always ready to jump out of the boat,” Ayris said. “Hanging with men of faith like that only fuels me to be more prayerful as well as more creative in communicating God’s truth through imaginative venues and always seeking out ways to connect with spiritually lost people.”

    (EDITOR’S NOTE — Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. For more information, go to www.kingstonemedia.com.)
    7/23/2010 3:18:00 AM by Joni B. Hannigan, Baptist Press | with 0 comments




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