DRAWN & QUARTERED
Christian manga is a heavy hitter
Regardless of whether you're religious, you can partake of a fair amount of manga out there with Christianity as its main basis. Granted, such books and stories are not often kind on the subject -- usually taking the harder-line stance of the church and God as forces to be feared, with sins coalescing as tangible demons of hell -- but then, you shouldn't really expect to learn all that much from dramatized tales.
The heavily historical series "Pilgrim Jäger" takes place during turbulent 16th-century Europe, mainly in Italy and the heart of Catholicism, Rome. Our heroines, Karin Atlantic and Adele Nahashid, are first seen locked in a fiery face-off with two men whose purposes are unclear. The story then shifts to a series of prequels focusing on other events and characters that somehow tie in to the two women.
Karin and Adele have traits that would be considered heretical in this ultrasensitive era of strict control by the church: Karin's hands excrete objects such as nails, coins and blades, while Adele's village practiced an agrarian faith that was quashed by Rome -- and she seems to have multiple personalities.
The women are now on a pilgrimage to visit seven churches to pay for seven Catholic indulgences. Part of their wage-earning is giving "performances" -- exorcisms in reality, undertaken without church officials' knowledge.
Elsewhere in Italy, the prophecies of executed priest Girolamo Savonarola are stirring fear among religious officials. His final foretelling as he burned to death was the naming of seven great sinners who would destroy Rome and 30 "silver coins" destined to protect it. Years later, about half of the silver coins have been identified, gathered, and are being sent on missions aimed at uncovering these great sinners, as church cardinals and more covert organizations work to decipher Savonarola's prophecies for their own purposes.
Publisher Media Blasters canceled "Pilgrim Jäger" due to poor sales after only three of its five volumes were released in English. A painful struggle through the first volume sheds light on why. It takes several careful readings -- and much reference to the books' end notes -- to get the characters' names and code names down. The chronological mix-up of events had me flipping back and forth in the pages to figure out how and when one event related to another.
After the third book, everyone's stories are stumbling along, and so many people are introduced that it's too easy to get lost and tired of everything. The multiple threads of political and religious intrigue tie up the reader's patience and quickly choke it off.
Save yourself from one certain type of hell and avoid this series.
For some lighter Christian fare (but not by much), there's "Cross," by Sumiko Amakawa. Takara Amakusa and his father are priests of the Catholic Stella Cross Church in Japan. Not only is he a priest at the age of 17, he is also a powerful exorcist, taking on a responsibility that the Amakusa family has borne for generations.
One day after battling yet another demon, Takara returns to the church to find a woman, Shizuha Matsuri, waiting in a pew. She shows him a mystical religious symbol imprinted on her skin. Takara, without seeking further explanation, offers the woman sanctuary.
Soon the woman's parents and a man named Hajime Bansho arrive at the church, looking for Shizuha. It's quickly apparent that something evil is afoot: Shizuha is meant to be a sacrifice for Bansho's cult.
The young man saves Shizuha by employing a special power, in the form of a cross that bursts from his forehead. Freed from Bansho's influence, the Matsuris flee to the Vatican for safety.
Takara goes on to take other supernatural commissions in the course of his exorcism duties, but the mystery with Shizuha is far from over. She returns to teach at Takara's Catholic school and unwittingly gets mixed up in several cases that hint at secret, possibly divine, abilities in the process.
"Cross" has as much blood, gore and religious references as "Pilgrim Jäger." The action is also hard to follow at times, and some story aspects could be completely lost for those who don't know much about Christian ritual. But the more human element of Takara helping others with his exorcisms and the promise of redemption -- and the lack of Christian zealotry -- elevate the story from the dismal background that "Pilgrim Jäger" is set against.