- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

VATICAN CITY

SHA-ZAM … or AMEN? Pope John Paul II has joined Captain Marvel and Spider-Man in the legion of comic-book heroes.

Now on Italian newsstands, the new Vatican-approved serial depicts the real life and true adventures of "Karol Wojtyla: Pope of the Third Millennium."

"He really wasn't a geek!" the series' narrator, Grandpa, assures children at the outset.

The Little Paper, an illustrated magazine for Italian young people by the publisher of the Roman Catholic Church's Famiglia Christiana, tells the story in four parts opening with the pontiff's 1978 election, showing a massive, smiling John Paul looming over St. Peter's Square with white smoke rising behind him.

"Our commitment is rather grandiose, dear children: Telling the life of no one less than the pope," the Little Paper tells its readers in an introduction for the first installment.

"It is an adventurous life, full of change, of interest, of tragedy, of missions, of travel," the foreword promises.

The plot device is Superman simple: Grandpa has a long, flashback-filled talk with his grandchildren when they ask why he isn't pope himself since he's getting along in years.

Installment 1: The small-town Polish boyhood of John Paul, then young Karol.

A key theme seems to be assuring children that the 80-year-old pope "Look how old and tired he is!" a child exclaims in one segment was once all boy.

"I got it!" a bony-kneed Karol exclaims in one bubble-dialogued box, blocking a goal in a game of soccer.

"Outa my way!" a teen-age Karol shouts in another, careening down a snowy slope on skis. "Crazy fanatic!" a bystander downslope shouts at the future pope.

John Paul's teen-age years as an amateur actor are also featured prominently, showing a dashingly mustachioed Karol on stage alongside a beautiful girl in an overwrought costume drama.

"Whattttt? You want me to believe that he acted with girls?" a girl wearing a T-shirt asks Grandpa.

"Certainly. And danced the waltz, the mazurka and even the tango," Grandpa says.

The papal comics have their serious side as well, showing Karol's anguish at losing his mother at 9 and then his only brother two years later.

Morals are there, too. Grandpa points out Karol never felt the need to prove himself by smoking, drinking beer and staying out late as he grew up "as some boys do."

The serial's overseers describe sales in the first days as strong, with versions in languages other than Italian perhaps ahead for the series.

The comics are far from the first time the pope's message has gone out in an unconventional medium.

Previous innovations in John Paul's 23-year tenure have put the Vatican on the Internet and John Paul himself on a CD.

This new medium speaks to what clearly has been one of John Paul's favorite audiences: children.

"We have to preach the Gospel to all the people … so we have to use all the media," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Ciro Benedettini said.

"The comics are a good medium for the children."

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