Saturday, October 24, 2015
The Cross and the Switchblade, Barbour Christian Comics, 1972.
Written, drawn & inked by Al Hartley. Cover by Al Hartley.
This is a comic based on Pastor David Wilkerson’s account of his ministry work among the gangs of New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These efforts were chronicled in Wilkerson’s 1963 book (written with John & Elizabeth Sherrill) of the same name.
The young minister feels called to New York City, specifically seeking out the toughest of the gangs. He eventually is able to befriend Nicky Cruz, the leader of the Mau Mau gang, who becomes a Christian and begins his own ministry. Although not part of this comic, Cruz tells the story of his life, including his interactions with Wilkerson, in his own memoir Run Baby Run.
Al Hartley is a longtime comic book professional, so the technical aspect of the book are competently done. I mention this, because professional competence is not always the case with Christian comics. The biggest problem that this comic has is that even with a full 32 pages of story, there are necessary shortcuts taken in the storytelling. But that is always the case in adapting a 200-page book into a single issue of a comic.
Hartley is most famous for drawing Archie comics, and there were moments in reading that I noted how similar some character looked to characters I’ve seen in Archie comics. But that was a minor issue. One of the oddest aspects is that the book’s most famous scene is on the cover of the comics, but does not take place inside the comic. This is when Wilkerson tells Cruz that even if the gang member cut him into a million pieces, each one would continue to love Cruz. This again speaks to Hartley’s struggle fitting all the material from the book into one issue of a comic, that he has to use the cover to portray the book’s most dramatic scene.
As a comic, the fast pace and Archie-style drawings don’t necessarily age well. Writers of non-fiction also face the burden of their storytelling choices being limited by the actual events being told. But as a 40+ year-old adaptation of a 50+ year-old book, it’s actually … not bad.