Title: From The Dust: #1- The Last King of Judah
Author: Michael Mercer
Publisher: Spider Comics, P.O. Box 71, Springville, UT 84663-0071
Genre: Serial Graphic Novel
Year Published: 2013
Number of Pages: 110
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Reviewed by Tabb Clements for the Association for Mormon Letters
In July of 1977, "The Ensign" magazine carried the First Presidency Message entitled "The Gospel Vision of the Arts" by then Church President Spencer W. Kimball. This First Presidency message was adapted from an address that President Kimball had given ten years earlier, as a Member of the Quorum of the Twelve, when he addressed the faculty and staff of Brigham Young University.
In the article printed in "The Ensign," President Kimball shared his prophetic vision of the future of the Gospel and the Arts. He said:
"For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth...
"We are proud of the artistic heritage that the Church has brought to us from its earliest beginnings, but the full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken. It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves...." (The Ensign, July 1977, First Presidency Message, “The Gospel Vision of the Arts”.)
Michael Mercer, as both writer and illustrator of "From The Dust (The Serial Graphic Novel) #1-The Last King of Judah," invites all of us to witness how he is trying to use his artistic gifts and talents to help fulfill the vision to share the Gospel in a new way. Mercer has taken a story with which we are all familiar – the Book of Mormon - and has cast it in a new light as a serial graphic novel. (A very high end comic book series that is so much more.)
As an LDS people, we are not accustomed to using the words "serial graphic novel" and scriptures in the same sentence. Allowing the term serial graphic novel to limit your thinking that this is merely a comic book similar to the ones we grew up with would lead to a mis-drawn conclusion . This is a high gloss, high artistic, visually stimulating adventure for the eyes and a creative work that challenges the mind.
"The Last King of Judah” is divided into eleven sections. The first section is the Introduction. Mercer realizes that he needs to win over his audience from the very first pages of his work. He is quick to lead off by educating his readers regarding the history of prophets and their relationship to the fall of Jerusalem. He is also quick to confirm that his serial novel is based on history and recognizes the strong place of the House of Israel.
In his own words Michael Mercer tell us:
"From the Dust is where the ancient and modern worlds meet. Ancient scripture blends with modern art and technology to deliver a creative interpretation that not only entertains, but educates and edifies concerning the beautiful, awe-inspiring yet sorrowful tale of the fall of a chosen people." (page 12)
Writing specifically of the days of Jeremiah and Lehi, writer/illustrator Michael Mercer has stated the driving purpose of what he is trying to accomplish with regards to bringing us closer to the people in the story:
"If fictional exploration into their personalities is valuable, it would be because it may help us to come to know them in a way that a doctrinal analysis of their writings cannot. These men literally gave their lives to bring our scriptures to us. Should we not consider putting forth similar efforts to bring that story to life?
"It is a story that is without a doubt one of the greatest true-life epics ever recorded, if not the greatest. We should not only consider putting forth that effort, we should maintain it as a privileged duty." (page 11)
In explaining the series further in section 2, Mercer states:
"The 'From the Dust' series takes you on an epic journey that starts in Jerusalem's darkest hour and leads readers progressively through the journeys of prophets that lived at the time of Jerusalem's destruction. The series will last for years with new chapters released regularly. Each issue consists of a complete story, or 'chapter,' consisting of 24-36 pages of full-color story. In addition, each issue contains supplementary educational material." (page 14)
Inherent in the call from President Kimball in the July 1977 "Ensign" for those with artistic talents to come forward and share the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is the echo to the rest of us to open our minds and hearts to be receptive to their interpretation through the arts of that very message of the Restoration. After all, what good is a master craftsman if no one takes the time to learn of their work and to be inspired and uplifted by it?
In my own personal library, amidst all of the books and magazines I have pertaining to the Book of Mormon, I have approximately 15 multi-volume commentaries on the Book of Mormon. Why so many? (My wife asks me that a lot!) Each of the commentaries comes from a different perspective with different emphases that help me to see the Book of Mormon from a new perspective and, in doing so, increase my love for and closeness to that sacred book of scripture.
Think of a task that you do quite often, perhaps without even thinking about it. Try to do that same task now with your less dominant (left) hand. You have to concentrate and think so much harder about what you are doing. You might notice things about the task that you had not noticed before. You may come away with a new perspective of the task itself. This is the value that "From The Dust (The Serial Graphic Novel) #1-The Last King of Judah" brings to the Book of Mormon.
Mercer understands how this perspective can work to our advantage in getting us to move out of our comfort zones and into a new light of seeing scripture and history. He explains:
"Instead of being a replacement to the Holy Scriptures, this carefully designed entertainment is a supplement that promotes interest and intrigue in the scriptures. Readers will be inspired to seek answers to questions and to learn even 'by study and also by faith.'" (page 12)
As with all commentaries, we can fairly ask are they all suited for everyone? The answer of course is, no. Every commentary targets a different group of people, on different points/places on the path towards fuller appreciation of the Book of Mormon. And so with "From the Dust" the question must be asked, "Who will appreciate this book the most?" I selected a potential marketing target group of my own. (Okay, I showed the book to three of my six kids!) The reaction of my kids was both similar and amazing.
When I asked my oldest son, who is 29, to look at it, I did not get the book back for several days. When it did come back we had a great discussion regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, all prompted by my son having read through the book.
My 16 year old son, realizing that this was about the Book of Mormon, initially stated that he would pass! When I told him to have an open mind and that this was NOT like my other books on the Book of Mormon, he consented to look at it. When I returned each time at intervals of about 20 minutes to check on him to see if he had finished looking at it, I found that he was still engaged with the book! It was only on the fourth check that he was somewhat ready to relinquish the book to me. We had a great discussion about the Prophet Lehi regarding his age and why “From the Dust” presented Lehi as being so young and yet we always think of him as being so old! Imagine that! My son was so visually impressed by the artistry of the graphics that he noticed how Lehi was not the age that he expected him to be, leading to a gospel discussion.
As Michael Mercer has plans for this work to come out in digital format, it is helpful to note that my 16 year old son told me, "I cannot wait for this to come out in a format so that I can download it on my phone and spend more time with it." No thoughts of more texting or mindless games, but rather an interest in spending more time with something that was drawing him towards the scriptures.
The final focus of my marketing experience was my 14 year old daughter. In order to touch base with the potential female demographics of "From the Dust," I asked her to look through the book. My daughter, like her brothers, spent quite some time with the book. It held her interest. She was engaged by the story and the graphics. She read through bits and pieces of the history chapters. When my daughter finally gave the book back to me she wanted to know more about the Prophet Jeremiah. She told me she was not familiar with him as being part of Lehi's family!
Each of my three children were impressed enough that their attention was held beyond just a causal two minute flip through. Each of the children was drawn into thought and compared their own understanding of the Book of Mormon against what they were seeing in "From the Dust." And perhaps, most exciting of all, each of my children had questions that allowed us to have yet another meaningful father-child discussion regarding the Book of Mormon.
As with any work based on the scriptures, the first question to be asked is "How accurate is the work doctrinally?" Mercer wants us to know that this work "...does not define doctrine..but rather provides additional insights on non-doctrinal subjects which may prove helpful in understanding the stories and characters of the scriptures." (page 15). Again, his work “From the Dust” helps us with our perspective of sacred scripture.
The third section, "The Cast," contained a few character descriptions that do not match my own understanding from the scriptures. For example, Lehi is described as "...a poor child who led a rough, desert life." (pg.19). Sam, about whom not much is written in the Book of Mormon, has his family relationships summed up as "Sam's only significant bond in the family is with his mother--in the kitchen." (pg. 27) In a work covering a story of this magnitude some creative license would be expected. Consider the Church produced movie "The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd." At the very beginning of the movie we are told that some fictional characters have been created to help tell the story of The Book of Mormon and the coming of Christ to America. The addition of these people into the greater story in no way detracts from the power of the message in the scriptures themselves. To the extent that we are drawn into the scriptures as a result of our experience, it is something to be pursued.
Section 4, "The World," helps to educate the reader on the major empires of the time, i.e., Babylon, Egypt, Arabia, and Judah. To fully appreciate the story that Mercer is unfolding through his serial novel you have to appreciate the setting. The more you understand the influences of one empire upon another, the greater you can appreciate the calling of the prophets to foretell of the fall of Jerusalem. Michael Mercer does an excellent job of setting up the story he is about to tell. There is an excitement that runs through the work that inevitably pulls you into the story and into the scriptures upon which they are based.
The actual serial novel begins on page 52 and ends on page 70. It is in this section that Mercer especially challenges the mind to utilize all that has been learned by the use of words in the first fifty pages of the work to now fully appreciate that part of the story that will be told through graphics. This is where the next section on "Scriptures" brings in the interesting insight into the scriptures that inspired the sections of the serial novel just presented. Several scriptures from the Old Testament KJV are shown next to smaller cutouts of the novel presented in the previous 18 pages. This allows for a closer connection to the exact scriptures that inspired the drawings. In addition, the writer/illustrator adds additional boxes of knowledge pertaining to the event being described. I especially enjoyed seeing how the written word had been the catalyst for the depiction of certain scenes and events.
Included also is an additional education section entitled "Hebrew," a brief journey through what historians know about the Hebrew language.
Mercer has a big vision for "From the Dust." In this first issue of the series, he combines powerful writing with visually stunning illustrations to bring us into the world of the prophets Jeremiah and Lehi in a way that the written word alone in other commentaries cannot quite do. Mercer himself states, "'From the Dust' will assuredly help anyone to build a foundation of faith grounded in scriptural knowledge and experience." (pg. 15) This was true for my target marketing group - my kids. As I was sitting at the table finishing this review, my 14 year old daughter passed by and wanted to know if I was going to purchase the next book in the serial graphic novel. She said she wanted to be able to see more of it.
I know that I was both educated and inspired by what I read and saw. Michael Mercer quoted Elder M. Russell Ballard, “Divinely inspired art speaks in the language of eternity, teaching things to the heart that the eyes and ears can never understand” (pg. 87, as quoted from “The Ensign”, July 1996, p.10) Get a copy of "From the Dust: The Serial Graphic Novel" and see what Michael Mercer has done to present the Restoration in a new light. Open yourself and your family to be stretched in a way never before possible and see how your perspective is changed as you are pulled into the history and times of The Book of Mormon.
Take a very brief look at "From the Dust" book trailer # 1 on YouTube: