2014-01-16 / Front Page

‘Jesus Island’ offends critics despite following Bible stories

By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

Biddeford resident Jakk Blood holds up a special edition copy of the first issue of “Escape from Jesus Island.” (Courtesy photo) Biddeford resident Jakk Blood holds up a special edition copy of the first issue of “Escape from Jesus Island.” (Courtesy photo) SOUTHERN MAINE – A storyline that came to the mind of Maine writer Shawn French more than 20 years ago is now being sold internationally – in comic book form – and causing controversy for its use of religious content.

A variant of the first issue of “Escape from Jesus Island” – a version of the issue with different cover art than the issue that will soon be released – has been available since December at comic retailers that belong to the Phantom Group. Coast City Comics in Portland is the only Phantom retailer in Maine.

The plot involves scientists working for ReGen Corporation who attempt to clone Jesus using DNA they have obtained. The experiments occur at Malsum Island Research Facility. After producing hundreds of mutant humanoids in multiple attempts to clone him, they finally succeed in producing a set of twins that both have all the powers that Jesus was said to have – except one twin is an evil incarnation, an Antichrist.

This cover of the preview issue of “Escape from Jesus Island” depicts the Antichrist being crucified. The artwork by illustrator Mortimer Glum has caused some comic retailers to leave the Phantom Group, a collective of stores that release special edition issues. (Courtesy photo) This cover of the preview issue of “Escape from Jesus Island” depicts the Antichrist being crucified. The artwork by illustrator Mortimer Glum has caused some comic retailers to leave the Phantom Group, a collective of stores that release special edition issues. (Courtesy photo) “He’s a murderous psychopath, bent on revenge,” French said.

Upon finding out that Jesus has been cloned, the Vatican sends in a special operations military unit to try and extract him from the facility.

French, who grew up in South Portland and now lives in Limerick, said he first got the idea in 1993 after watching the first Jurassic Park movie.

“I literally knocked out the rough outline in the parking lot of the movie theater,” French said. “I saw it as a Jurassic Park of mutant Jesuses.”

As a standup comic, he sometimes used the material in his comedy routines, but never thought it would one day be a comic book – until he met illustrator Mortimer Glum. In 2008, French was directing a horror movie he wrote, “The Wrong House.” Glum was on the film set as part of the Shoggoth Assembly, a team of southern Maine artists who provide special effects and props design.

“I grew up reading comics; it’s a medium that always appealed to me,” said French. “But I have absolutely no artistic ability.”

French said the first issue jumps in with the action already going on. The twins are aging quickly through artificial means – because they are clones – and are already adults, and the background story gets told along the way.

The story starts with protestors who believe animal abuse is taking place inside the facility. They break in and discover that there is a lot more going on than animal abuse.

French said he knew the series would be controversial, but he didn’t shy away from it. When the Phantom variant was released, some retailers decided to leave the Phantom collective altogether rather than sell the issue, which features the image of the Antichrist on a crucifix. There were 3,000 copies of the preview issue distributed to Phantom retailers across the U.S., Canada and the U.K., and eight stores in the U.K. sold out on the first day. Another 3,000 copies of the first issue will be released for sale to other retailers on Jan. 20.

French said he is a “huge mythology geek” and that he studies the Judeo-Christian religions in the same way he studies Greek mythologies. He said he borrowed heavily from the Book of Revelations, which features monsters, demons, the four horsemen and an apocalypse.

“A lot of the stuff people are offended about is taken right from the Bible,” French said. “People who are informed about the Bible or who are religious or formerly religious will enjoy it more, because they will get the references.”

French said he thought it was ironic that some retailers were offended by a fictional work that featured an image of a crucified Antichrist.

“The crucifixion image is everywhere. For some reason you can show images of Christ being crucified, but if it’s the Antichrist, it’s offensive,” French said. “Some people are offended by the notion of an evil Jesus clone.”

French said the story line fits in with modern cloning technology in that it takes many tries before getting the clone right.

“It took 300 tries to come up with the first cloned sheep,” said French, “and even with pet cloning, it can take them about 40 times before they get it right.”

In “Escape from Jesus Island,” the mutant humanoids are the results of many failed attempts at cloning Jesus.

French said that Jesus himself however, “is a fair representation of the character.”

The series will consist of five acts, with eight issues in each act. After the public release of the first issue on Jan. 20, French said new issues will be released about every six weeks.

Glum, who has been illustrating professionally for 22 years, said the controversy has been “good advertising.”

“The more you ban things, the more people want it,” Glum said. “We were expecting more hate mail than we actually received. It’s kind of disappointing.”

Glum said they had only received two letters complaining about the series.

“When I first heard of the idea (from French), I thought it would be right up my alley,” Glum said. “I’m a pretty irreverent guy.”

In order to successfully pull off getting “Escape from Jesus Island” written, illustrated, lettered, laid out, published and distributed, both French and Glum said it takes a lot of time, hard work and dedication.

“There’s a ton to it,” French said. “The business side is 95 percent of what I do. Just figuring out printing alone was a giant nightmare.”

For the first run, French said they used TC Transcontinental Printing, a Canadian company.

French, who works as a bookkeeper for National Distributors, said he will consider himself a success if he realizes his goal of working full time writing.

Glum, who got his professional start illustrating for TSR’s Dragon Magazine, now works for Bath Iron Works by day and as an independent graphic designer by night. He said after working 40 hours a week and spending 15 hours commuting, he crams an additional 30 hours of his remaining time into illustrating “Escape from Jesus Island.”

Spare time? “I don’t have any,” Glum said.

Biddeford resident Jakk Blood, who worked with French on the set of Damien Zygote’s film, “The Amish Devil,” said of French, “Seeing his dedication and strength for doing what he loves, (‘Escape from Jesus Island’) is going to be huge. The comic book does not hold back.”

French said the series’ kickoff would not have been possible without the support of their fans. A fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com, a site that helps artists and entrepreneurs fund creative projects, successfully raised nearly $16,000, which French said basically covers the first four issues. French said more than 200 people from more than a dozen different countries funded the effort, many of them will appear as characters in the series.

“One of the rewards we offered was to appear as a character who gets killed off,” French said.

At least 40 fans will be killed in the storyline in the first eight issues.

Glum said, “We invite fan interaction that does augment the story.”

“How much fans have interaction with the comic is what really makes it special. If you really like it and want to get in the comics, there is probably a way. There might be some hoops we’ll put you through, but we can get you in there.”

Glum said Blood, who has been supportive of the project by promoting it to others, will probably appear as a character in the series.

French said the final creative product is really a collaboration between himself as the writer, Glum as illustrator, letterer Peeter Parkker and editor Shawn Greenleaf. The group plans to appear on Feb. 7 at Coast City Comics for a Grindhouse art show.

French said his hope is that “Escape from Jesus Island,” which is an entirely independent production, will develop a large enough audience after the first eight issues that it may attract a distributor that will take the series on. French said they decided not to pursue signing with a distributor from the onset because they wanted to establish enough of a fan base first, and not sacrifice any creative control.

Horror icon Clive Barker endorsed the series last year, and French said they have managed to get the first copy into Stephen King’s hands and hope that he will like it.

“This is a good time for comics,” said French, “and a lot of ideas are being snatched up for movies.”

For more information on “Escape from Jesus Island,” visit jesusisland.com.

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