It sits right in the middle of the middle rows of Comic-Con’s ground floor, lining one of the main thoroughfares for costumed attendees and avid shoppers, and right across from a concession stand always packed with Hungry Deadpools and Harley Quinns. But it’s relatively quiet at the booth of the Christian Comic Art Society, whose banners for Bibleman: The Animated Adventures and tabletop displays from The Holy Bible for Minecrafters are losing the ruthless war for attention that dominates the floor at San Diego Comic-Con.
And yet, Ralph Miley Ellis, founding member of the group and chief geek-missionary of the stand, is all smiles. He is happy to spread the good word both on CCAS and on Jesus.
âOur mission is basically to be a light,â said Miley, a tall, jovial man with a grizzled beard. Reverse Friday. âPeople talk about alternative comics and were an alternative. Because we’re comic book geeks, we love the medium. We thought, what better place to shine the light at Comic-Con? “
The organization was founded in 1985, when a comic book designer named Don Ensign placed an ad in the print newspaper Comic book buying guide seeking to connect with other religiously minded creators and fans. Miley, who spent 33 years teaching art and math at a middle school in Los Angeles, answered Ensign’s call and has been actively involved ever since. This is the group’s 20th year at Comic-Con, which gives them a much longer track record than most Hollywood studios and toy makers that have been parachuted from Los Angeles over the past decade to make the biggest gathering of geeks in the world.
When Ensign passed away in 2014, the leadership of CCAS passed to Miley, who praised her predecessor on the CCAS website. CCAS has approximately 1,500 online members and several dozen additional active participants, who volunteer at events such as Comic-Con and WonderCon, another Southern California geek festival.
Miley started going to Comic-Con in the early ’80s, long before helping launch the CCAS booth here, so he’s not so much a fish out of water as a true fan mixing his two passions: superheroes and Jesus.
âI was a big Marvel geek at the time; I loved Fantastic Four and Iron Man, âhe says. âThen I started to like some of the independents like Dark Horse. Then when we did little edition in the press, I liked doing that too, because you get a lot of different flavors. “
CCAS’s offerings to the convention include many serious religious books, but the goal in San Diego is not so much to confront and convert as to create a dialogue with casual Christian attendees and curious atheists. The humble table stands in stark contrast to the flashy large booth set up by Scientologists flogging the Battlefield land.
“That’s why I think we’ve developed such a favor with the Lord for being here, we’re not going to blow horns or carry signs, we just have comics,” Miley says. âThe comics that we have on the freebie table are definitely evangelical, they share the good news of Jesus Christ. But if a person wants to get them back, that’s fine; if they don’t want to pick them up, they don’t have to.
More recently, he remembers a skeptic who came to read a tract titled Are you descended from monkeys? and laughing, then coming back the next day to pick up more books on offer. This is a success in a convention where CCAS members are often seen as strange intruders, despite their long history as exhibitors.
“Once a girl picked up a leaflet and she was reading it and her friends said, ‘You know it’s a Christian leaflet’, and she dropped it like it was on fire,” recalls Miley laughing.
For the most part, he says, even the skeptics come in peace. âI can count on one hand the number of adversarial encounters we’ve had with people,â he said. âFor the most part, they ask questions, they are respectful. Only maybe five in about 20 years are antagonistic.
Whether they convince someone to be born again or even buy a few editions of the Legofied Brick bible is almost irrelevant at Comic-Con. When Miley says they want to create a dialogue, he doesn’t do it the way stubborn and often fanatic politicians use the word to cover the hateful and narrow beliefs they espouse. This year, they are hosting a panel on Sunday morning (a sermon will be given because everyone should be in church); an even bigger event happened about five years ago, when Miley decided to get to know the folks who ran the booth at Prism Comics, which promotes LGBTQ creators and comics.
âWe went over there and started talking to them, and at first they were wondering why are you talking to us? Miley remembers. âBut their booth is amazing, their organization is amazing and it’s just admirable the way they have organized their comic book moment. So we just started talking to them.
The conversation led to an invitation in 2013 to Prism’s own convention, Bent Con, to present a panel on spirituality in comics. Accepting the offer was obvious.
âIt went really well,â he says. âThere weren’t a lot of people there, but they appreciated it and said, ‘We don’t usually get a chance to talk about spiritual topics, so thank you for coming and allowing us to explore this place that we don’t usually talk about during our convention.
Likewise, CCAS tries to incorporate a wide range of comics into both what it promotes and what it disseminates as a small newspaper publisher that puts out a book or two a year.
âWe have people who make allegories, we have Christians who work in the entertainment industry, like Mike Miller, who works for DC, and Sergio Cariello, who has worked for Marvel and DC,â says Miley. “These are people who are professionals and if they have a book, we will push it because they are Christians.”
One of CCAS’s greatest successes, as a publisher, has been a book called Proverbs and parables, which features graphic representations of biblical wisdom, drawn by professional comic artists who are members of the group. It isn’t economical to print more than a book or two a year, but this has long been one of their bestsellers. This is important to Miley not only because it is her favorite book to publish, but also because it has helped attract more conservative and cautious Christians to a medium often known for its gratuitous violence and women. with big breasts.
âOne thing you learn is that when you deal with a conservative Christian market, they see Comic-Con and they say, ‘I don’t know about thatâ¦â, âMiley laughs. âThere is reluctance. It’s a bit like ‘Eww, what is this?’ It is often the elderly. If you are dealing with a lot of younger kids, because they grew up in a culture where comics are now the thing, they are much more tolerant.
And so, looking for a way to convince this older demographic that comics weren’t bad, and inspired by Bent-Con’s overwhelming success, CCAS launched Alpha Omega Con, a small comic convention focused on the Christian in a church in the suburbs of LA.
Alpha Omega Con is scheduled to hold its third annual meeting in September. Miley says the convention provides a sort of boarding ramp into the comic book world for religious Christians still reluctant to accept the art form – and introduces non-religious types to religion in a safe and visually appealing way. .
âThe Alpha Omega convention is more like an awareness campaign, because we also invite vendors who are not Christians, but who have material suitable for families,â he explains. âWe want them to come and get a feel for what Christianity is. During the last two conventions, some people have simply marveled at the kindness of Christians to them. “
About 300 people came to the last Alpha Omega, making it a small but not insignificant event, and very unique even in a world saturated with comic book conventions. And as with her booth at Comic-Con, Miley isn’t all that concerned with hitting big numbers; he’s been doing it for two decades, slowly but surely spreading the word about his favorite superhero.