An Atheist Interview with Heaven’s Metal Editor Doug Van Pelt

For awhile now, I’ve been wanting to interview Doug Van Pelt, the editor of Heaven’s Metal Magazine (now simply called HM Magazine). I grew up reading DVP’s publication as a young Christian getting into the Christian music scene and, while I am now an atheist, I still have fond memories of reading news and reviews of my favorite bands. Heaven’s Metal was the premier magazine at the time for finding out about bands that were not covered in any other magazine due to being Christian. I’m even a subscriber now to the Heaven’s Metal Fanzine (read below on my confusion of which ‘zine is which). For some freethinkers, they may not want to have anything to do with Christian music. Freethunk is about exploring pop culture within religion and faith–and within freethinking. For me, while I will still debate the lyrics, there is undeniable talent in the genre and I’m still admittedly a fan of several bands I still listen to like Tourniquet and newer bands like Demon Hunter. Art is art and to me it is no different than enjoying the religiously themed paintings of Michelangelo–and also it is no worse than listening to devil metal bands like Dio (love the album Holy Diver) who used religious or mythological themes.

These bands do mean gospel business, I’m not denying  that. And there is a fine line between art and propaganda (a line I believe I’ve crossed myself) so atheists, freethinkers and other unbelievers may find some Christian metal bands are lyrically hard to swallow while others are poetic enough not to be a problem. I guess I’m saying to be careful not to deny yourself the opportunity to listen to some of the talent that is out there just because it is labeled as “white metal”. Plus, why not engage the lyrics? We should all look for challenges to our beliefs or even lack of beliefs, keeps the mind fresh.

FREETHUNK : Heaven’s Metal started when? What prompted it and was it intended to go as far as it did? I believe you were one of many early Christian Metal ‘zines in the eighties, but HM survived the fallout. Were you actually the first to do this?

DOUG VAN PELT: Heaven’s Metal Magazine started as a black and white photocopied fanzine of sorts back in June of 1985. The idea or vision for the publication was always to be a “full-fledged magazine” and sit alongside the newsstand shelf next to Rolling Stone, Metal Edge, Spin, etc. (by the way, Metal Edge, Spin and Alternative Press all started in 1985 as well). So, in light of the original vision for the magazine, yes it was intended to go as far as it did. I started with zero startup capital and only grew as I could afford to grow. Subscription revenue was the first little bit of money that came in that allowed the publication to expand.
Heaven’s Metal was the first exclusively “metal” zine in the Christian music world. Shortly after our start, maybe a year to two years later, several others popped up (White Throne, Pendragon, Gospel Metal, Take A Stand, to name a few). Not sure why Heaven’s Metal survived and those others did not. One guy at Frontline Records, a business guy named Kent Songer, told me years later that one of the reasons why they supported Heaven’s Metal with advertising and were impressed, yada yada, was that I had “a good business mind.” I wasn’t really that smart, but I guess enough common sense and a willingness to learn went a long way.
Two of the major moments for Heaven’s Metal back in the day were similar: In the spring of 1986 I got a package from Pure Metal Records, along with a letter from their leader, Gavin Morkel, who promised to advertise in Heaven’s Metal. Those first few issues afterwards (#5, 6 and so on) had ads that I designed for Pure Metal Records. In leiu of cash I took recorded product in exchange for the ads, which I sold through mail-order in the zine. The second moment was when Frontline Records (and their metal subsidiary, Intense Records) contacted me and said they were going to throw their advertising support behind one Christian metal publication and they chose Heaven’s Metal. Those were both two boosts in the arm.
One similar moment came when a national wholesaler with Tower Records contacted me after I’d sent him a sample. He said, “Out of all the goddamn Christian metal zines, we’re going to carry yours.” I was flattered at the choice and kind of chuckled at the irony of his language in the context of our business.

FREETHUNK: Since this interview will be read by atheists and other unbelievers who may not be familiar with Christian metal, when did that scene really start? Was anyone covering it or how did people get news about their favorite bands without the Internet?

DOUG VAN PELT: The Christian metal scene, as one would guess, had its start in Christian rock. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a revival historians called “the Jesus Movement.” For lack of a better explanation, basically a bunch of hippies started getting saved and became Christians by large numbers all over the country. The West Coast was certainly a hotbed and possibly where the “spark” first lit.
Anyway, a lot of these hippies wanted to reach out and share this exciting experience and “truth” with their counter-culture friends. The most natural way to communicate to these friends was by using the music they were familiar with – rock and roll. The common ingredient behind rock & roll and metal is the electric guitar (generally speaking).
Larry Norman was a pioneer on the West Coast; his Only Visiting This Planet album cited as one of the best Christian rock albums of all time. It was his second, after Upon This Rock. Darrell Mansfield was playing lots of high school assemblies and churches up and down the West Coast (in Calvary Chapel churches–a non-denominational church that’s kind of like a “franchise” with many connected Calvary Chapels all over the world now). A popular soft-rock group called Love Song was pioneering, too. A group of “Jesus freaks” that travelled around the country in a bus eventually broke down, got stuck in Chicago and put out albums under the name Resurrection Band. They were probably the first to really turn it up and get rowdier or edgier with their music. It was blues-based hard rock, mixing the guy/girl vocal delivery of Jefferson Airplane with the bombastic chords of Led Zeppelin. Petra was their contemporary in this early “Jesus rock” scene that kept growing in the mid-to-late ’70s. Over in Sweden another group was making some noise that was a bit more edgy (think Thin Lizzy). They were called Jerusalem. They had about three albums out by 1983. Rick Cua, the bass player for The Outlaws for a time, became a believer and he released some melodic hard rock albums. This set the stage for the original Christian metal band, which most people acknowledge was Stryper. They released their debut EP, The Yellow and Black Attack in the summer of 1984. I was out in LA working at the Olympics that summer and had a chance to see them and also go to their record-release event at a Maranatha Village event (it was a large independent Christian bookstore**).

 

 

FREETHUNK: From what I understand, I was surprised to find out that HM ceased printing but then relaunched? Did you regret closing it down and then decided you missed it too much? I’m sure relaunching wasn’t easy in the face of just providing a website with all of the material for anyone to read. Why go with print again?

DOUG VAN PELT: This one is a bit off. We have yet to ever cease publishing in print. Heaven’s Metal started in 1985, changed to the shorter abbreviation of HM in 1995 and has kept on printing as HM (with a logo change in 2003). In 2004, though, I started printing a small, 24-page fanzine on the side, calling it “Heaven’s Metal Fanzine.” Prior to that, our coverage in HM of “old school” metal bands (Bride, Stryper, Guardian, etc) were allocated to a one-page regular feature, called “Heaven’s Metal.” Then on Labor Day weekend of 2004 I woke up at 2am with an 11-point outline in my head of bringing the name Heaven’s Metal back as a side publication. The idea was to make a purposefully limited fanzine style – all black & white, 24 pages at the most, try to get a limited amount of subscribers and advertisers that would keep it breaking even financially and with only a single ad in HM we had 600+ subscribers in only two months. I have to type out an email notice to 5 to 10 advertisers, who mostly say yes and the ad revenue equals the print bill and postage expenses and so we have a “sister publication” now called Heaven’s Metal Fanzine. Maybe the details on that are what caused the confusion. It’s understandable.

FREETHUNK: So generally speaking, what qualifies as Christian metal? I know there was a lot of heated debate early on when I was following the scene and it seems that some fans wanted to rule out bands like Trouble or Extreme because they swore. Trouble also was Catholic as I recall. Is there ecumenical metal?

DOUG VAN PELT:
The Christian metal scene is quite ecumenical–much more so than typical “church stuff.” There are four popular definitions that I’ve seen:
1) Each and every song (pretty much) mentions the message of Christianity: man was created by God, was born out of fellowship with God, God made peace with man through the blood sacrifice/death of Jesus. Belief is all that’s required to be forgiven and receive that peace. This message is told in some form or fashion on each song or the most songs on an album to be considered “Christian” (whether rock or metal, pop, etc).
2. The songs may not mention the story so explicitly like the above example, but the lyrics are formed by a Christian worldview. Like a CS Lewis novel, the basic tenets or structure of the story or “created world/universe” in which the story is being told has its foundations in a Judeo/Christian framework. Common topics might be hope and redemption. It might look at sin from a blunt and harsh angle, but there is some measure of redemption (or not, in some cases). This music, because it was created with a Christian worldview in mind, defines it as “Christian music.”
3. The lyrics of the music might not “tell the story” nor reflect a Christian worldview, but because the artists that write and create the music are Christian by faith, thus the music is “Christian.”
4. If the music is considered Christian by a large number of Christians or is “of interest” to Christians, then it is considered “Christian music.”
This last definition is probably the one I’ve used the most. This might seem contradictory and not “simple” and “clear” enough, but it seems to work, allowing for a broad definition of Christian rock and metal.
Your art (if you’re still doing comics) would be of some interest to Christians. Even a person that does not avow the tenets or creeds of Christianity could be seen by some as “either running towards God or away from him.” I’ve heard (read, actually) Bono quoting: “…there are only two types of music that interest me…” and he listed that definition or phrase (“…either running towards God or away from Him…”). I assume that some people might view such art (like your comics or the music and lyrics of David Bazan, for example) that show someone–especially a somewhat vulnerable artist like Bazan–that is on a journey. They may be far from the path at the moment, but stepping back from the perspective of time might be seen as a “wandering portion” of the journey. Even if it doesn’t have the promise or possibly the event of a so-called “happy ending” (of this or that person coming back to faith), it is still of great interest to a Christian.
I kind of applaud this kind of thinking, because it is just that–thinking. It is not so much a narrow-minded rejection of all things not clearly defined by their pet dogma.
Those involved in the “Christian music industry” (whether labels, retail and/or radio) usually have to use one of the top two or three definitions, because if they offend some of their audience or cliental due to using a broader definition than their audience/cliental uses, then it could have negative reactions of the financial nature. Their “support” might reject such a move and then “dry up” or slow down. Sometimes dealing with large crowds (no matter the context) a communicator or leader has to “water down” or “dumb down” the message due to the potential (and fear of) offending members of a diverse audience.

FREETHUNK: As a follow up to the previous question, while most bands I’m sure agree on salvation, are there theological differences much like different denominations/nondenominations? Is it possible that most bands in this genre agree on Biblical interpretation?

DOUG VAN PELT:
If you look far enough, you can certainly find groups that have probably separated themselves from others over doctrine, but I think by and large there is that “greater good” mentality that brings unity. Many bands see “Christian metal” as being the simple part of the message. The clear-cut and “black and white” stuff most believers can agree on. It’s the finer points of “non-essential” doctrines, like what day of the week to worship on, how or when women take leadership roles (if at all), speaking in tongues and other miracles in the modern age… These are the things that can divide folks, but Christian metal does a pretty good job of not fighting amongst its members.
The bands mostly get along real well. Part of that might be the “persecution” or “martyr” complex that is shared. There are minor degrees of being shunned, blacklisted or treated with a negative bias by the world, mainstream media and even non-believing friends, associates, etc. If a metal guitarist faces this kind of friction in his circle of activity, he might gravitate towards other believers who have faced and resisted the same sort of friction. This might help bring unity when others might end up in conflict over minor issues. That’s a possible theory, at least.

FREETHUNK: Has there been any concern or attention given to bands that now appear to have disbanded or lost members due to, frankly, rejecting their previous faith. Gary Lenaire of Tourniquet comes to mind or King’s X now seems to find the Christian labeling disagreeable with Doug Pinnick coming out of the closet as a gay man.

DOUG VAN PELT:
Sure. I came across this recently as I was writing and editing the cover story of our latest issue (Apr/May/June), which chronicles the history of the band Haste The Day, who just called it quits at the end of March. A few years ago they had a member change his take on faith. They basically kicked him out of the band and caught some flak for it from outsiders (and probably insiders, too), who thought the decision/action was too harsh. Even now they don’t say with certainty that it was 100% the right decision. They have, though, much to the credit of their genuine friendship with the guy, reconciled and maintain a fairly tight friendship with the guy.
It’s sad for some to see fellow Christian metal musicians walk away from the faith that they still hold. And you’ll see a wide range of reaction from fans and whatnot – especially on internet message boards, etc.
This brings up an interesting subject: the nature of message board posts are often thoughtless, reactionary, raw and quite rude, judgmental and harsh. I think there is a certain personality type that even reads and writes on message boards. And the anonymity and “instant expression” factors make it simpler for people to just vent without thinking of the long-term or personal ramifications such posts can create. We’ve given attention to it from time to time. Sometimes it is shocking, because a Christian metal musician becoming an atheist is such an extreme swing, at least in the minds of some.

FREETHUNK SIDENOTE: I have to agree on the message boards observation being a victim of multiple comments that I don’t think would be said to my face. Reactionary is the correct word here because usually the comments have so many misspellings and no reasonable argument you have to wonder if the person is sober. “Good” critical comments are hard to come by and most artists I think value them if they’re thoughtful even when the criticism hurts.

FREETHUNK: The reverse is true too though. Who are the band members who have gone from secular metal to Christian metal that you’re aware of? While I don’t want to label everyone, I know certain musicians have made some clear distinctions and lifestyle changes.

DOUG VAN PELT:
Kirk Martin is the latest that I’ve come across. I’m told his video interview from the 700Club posted online has had more hits/views than any other interview they’ve posted. I guess he was part of the Florida death metal scene back in the early ’90s. I can’t remember the name of his band, but that’s his name. I bet a google search will turn up more info. (http://www.cbn.com/700club/features/amazing/kirk_martin091508.aspx )
Brian “Head” Welchmade a dramatic and surprise announcement when he came of faith. Even the bassist from Korn, Fieldy, recently converted to Christianity. Both have written books about their stories.

FREETHUNK: One of the flaws I now feel was present in the coverage of Christian metal is that a lot of stuff seemed to be swept under the rug. I remember dismissing much of it as idle gossip but later on, as I read on the net, many of the concerns were valid. One example is Stryper’s Tim Gaines drinking. Has the Christian media ever found a balance because it seems to me that not reporting these concerns may do as much damage as exposing them. “White Metal” wants to present an image but behind that image at times there is no difference between that and secular metal? This actually isn’t so much a criticism by nonChristians as it is by fellow Christians (Jesus-is-Savior.com, as an extreme example to make the point)?

DOUG VAN PELT:
That’s a good point and I don’t feel like my point completely counters it, but I do believe that followers of Christ are called to a higher standard than the simple “expose and magnify” approach to sin, problems, etc.
Here’s my take: I don’t think Jesus espoused ignoring sin or “sweeping it under the rug,” but He also didn’t advocate public exposure as His priority. Take for example His teaching on “What to do if a brother offends you…” He handed out a 3-step approach. First, go to the brother one-on-one. If you win him over by that simple, behind-closed-doors approach, then that’s great. If that doesn’t work, bring a friend and make it a two-on-one confrontation (again, behind closed doors). If this doesn’t work, then bring this guy before the whole church and “turn him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.” To me this shows a priority. God doesn’t wink at sin or sweep it under the carpet, so to speak, but His priority involves keeping the person’s dignity intact. His first step isn’t “BLAM! Exposed sin for all to see.” I guess you could say God has class.
There’s another story that reinforces this. When Noah was back on dry ground, he soon got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. I guess it was his youngest son that saw this and ran to tell his two older brothers. They came to the tent and walked in backwards, covering their naked, passed-out dad. When Noah woke up, he commended his older sons and kinda spoke negatively towards the actions of the younger one. It once again shows a value in keeping a person’s dignity – even in the context of “moral failure.” And, of course, the Bible teaches about God forgiving sin, covering sin and in that sense it is not swept under the rug, but swept into the “sea of forgetfulness.”
Seeing open moral failure or contradictory behavior, like a Christian metal musician being addicted or given to too much wine, etc, and ignoring it is a weak response and that certainly doesn’t help anybody. Stepping up and confronting someone (in private is best, of course) can be seen as mean, but it’s really nice and shows a long-term concern and love for that person. In that sense, you make a fantastic point. Certain problems going “unchecked” lead to more problems. It’s usually not just the perpetrator that gets hurt, but many others also.

FREETHUNK: In the beginning of the scene, I know it was hard for bands to make a living with their music fulltime. The band Mad at the World working as postal employees comes to mind. Has that changed? Are there more opportunities for Christian Metal bands due to POD, Demon Hunter, Creed and so forth?

DOUG VAN PELT:
I think there is. It’s not easy street, so to say, but there are more bands doing it. I think these young musicians starve and live off of almost nothing, but they are on the road, in a van and playing pretty consistently. You’ve got to hand it to them.
While there is a bit of a romantic side to the road life, it is not glamorous. This helps create another layer of camaraderie between Christian metal musicians and between musicians in general. It’s hard and the musicians find a common struggle as a unifying force. So, the money still isn’t there, but the opportunity to get out and do it full-time is. Not sure how or if a lot of these guys pay rent back home. If they do, they probably have multiple roommates, I’m guessing, to keep that going.
And the success of bands making it big, particularly the ones you mentioned and others (like As I Lay Dying, Underoath) make it easier for Christian metal bands to do what they do. Another factor that doesn’t get noticed enough is how Christian metal has its own circuit. There’s certain venues around the country that’ll book these bands. Usually, by the time a band like POD gets signed, they’ve been able to hone their craft in an underground circuit (kinda like how a minor league ballplayer gets valuable experience in the farm leagues, which helps him once/if he makes it to the major leagues…)

DVP in his office –Notice that real men know how to use duct tape

FREETHUNK: If you read the Wikipedia on Christian Metal, you would think that Christian Metal has overtaken secular metal. Do you think that’s the case? I mean Kerry King of Slayer is complaining…

DOUG VAN PELT:
Christian metal has made a huge impact on metal in general (secular, the world). Bands like Zao and As I Lay Dying have taken a no-excuses approach to making music (I can’t truly speak for their attitude, I’m just speculating) and have just let their music/art do the talking for them. It is excellent and it has been ground-breaking. If you looked, you could probably find bands that would cite Zao as an influence. Their style of aggressive “metalcore” has been slightly pioneering and just darn impressive. Then bands like Underoath and The Devil Wears Prada just take off and the last ten years has seen a lot of Chrsitian metal bands just do what they do and get recognized for it. It’s probably not been this great Christian conspiracy or thought-out plan. It’s just happened as one artist/band after another has simply “taken their art to the marketplace of ideas” and let their art/music stand or fall based upon its artistic merit alone (and not some pious “because it’s ministry we like it” kind of attitude. That sort of attitude is too close to propaganda and not nearly enough leaning on art alone …. and it squelches true creativity, because it takes away the motivation to create. It’s like a star player staying in the minor leagues because he like standing out from the crowd (instead of moving up to the next level and competing with “the big boys” where the talent level is greater. I think many Christian metal bands have done that and they’re popular – not just with Christian kids, but fans of music, period.

I haven’t seen the Kerry King complaint you reference, but I would guess he’s kinda joking around. Some people might feel like Christians making metal is “invading their territory” or something like that, but if people are embracing that art, it’s saying something and it’s probably because it’s good musically. Non-believers, by and large, would not accept or sing the praises of a Christian metal band because of the message … if the music sucked. At least that makes sense to me.

It is like a dream and a prayer come true, though. CS Lewis is credited with saying something like, “The world doesn’t need more Christian books. It needs more books on science, on medicine, on math, on this and that … written by Christians. If believers can excel at their craft it offers a tiny bit of credence to their message or belief system. Not an overwhelming “oh i have to believe now” sort of way, but a subtle and respectable influence on the culture around it.

FREETHUNK: Do you think Christian Metal, throughout its history, overall has promoted the message of Christ or is simply preaching to the choir? One could make the accusation that it is a product for a chosen demographic if we were to be cynical. Steve Rowe of Mortification seems to suggest the primary role of the genre is not to evangelize but confirm the spirituality of existing believers (preach to the choir)?

DOUG VAN PELT:
My repeating quote on this which feels “original” to me is that the greatest gift Christian rock and metal is to the body of Christ is pastoral, not evangelism. If you remember what those high school years are like … For many people a song or two at the right time really helped some of us get through some hard times. Christian rock and metal, with its encouraging “sermons put to music” pastoral themes really help the believer stay encouraged, energized and filled with hope. So yeah, preaching to the choir (which has a negative and “waste of time” connotation ) is actually a very positive and blessed thing.

FREETHUNK: How do you separate sacred music from popular music? Or do you? Should metal music be played in church? Especially considering the heavier styles have less to do with worship than with dark lyrics about the apocalypse, social issues and a retaliation against Satan and/or Hell.

DOUG VAN PELT:
Depends on the makeup of the congregation. If they’re into hip-hop and country or just lots of old people that don’t like rock or metal, then no. It wouldn’t fly.
Metal is often spectator music and not sing-along participatory like good worship music should be so it doesn’t always cater to that congregational use too well. But that can be remedied with a good chorus hook, ya know?
Secular means non-sacred so the intent and the theme are qualities to look at in making the sacred/secular tag. To the even half mature person it shouldn’t matter. If you are an atheist or a Christian that wants to hold on to the belief / conclusions and conviction of truth/doctrine you have no problem listening to a Christian metal or conversely atheistic metal message and not feel all beat down and suddenly abandon your belief system. That’s ridiculous. We all have brains and can realize “oh, I don’t agree with that sentiment” and not be “hurt” by it. Regular repeated listening of a large frequency might be a different story. All things in moderation is a good helpful motto.

FREETHUNK: You recently did an issue on the “100 Best Christian Metal Albums.” Which notable bands have kept their act together all this time and why do you think that is? It seems rare for any band to stay together past 2 albums.

DOUG VAN PELT: Stryper has and done an impressive job in their genre. Project 86 not bad. Switchfoot has had a nice long career too. The Choir have managed to keep it together. It takes a good business mind to have longevity There are others.

FREETHUNK: If you were to list a primer for the nonChristian to have an introduction to Christian Metal as a whole can you name at least 5 albums (more if you want) they should start with? I’m not necessarily referring to “best-of” but also if you as a Christian wanted to say something to an atheist through a selection of albums?

DOUG VAN PELT:

This is a great question. Thanks for asking it!
Vengeance Rising – “Human Sacrifice”
A classic

The Crucified – “Pillars of Humanity”
This is more a reference to the greatness of the band more so than the album. “Mindbender” is a must-hear.

Extol – “Burial”
Ditto on the band over the album tho.

Barren Cross – “Atomic Arena”
A credible power metal album

Slechtvalk –  “At the Dawn of War”
Another ditto on band over album.

For Today – “Breaker”
A great recent release to include.

Stryper – “To Hell With the Devil”
Too good of an early classic to not include.

Believer – “Sanity Obscure”
Great technical metal.

FREETHUNK: What is your favorite secular band-I know you must have one (and it can’t be semi-Christian like U2)? Is there a black metal band you would love to listen to if only they would convert and change their lyrics?

DOUG VAN PELT: Two of my favorite bands are HIM and Type O Negative, both of which have fairly “blasphemous” lyrics, save for the “Dead Again” album by Type O.

FREETHUNK: Lastly, thank you for taking time to answer our questions for the Freethunk site. Is there site information you want to provide or any other information that interested readers can find out more about what you and your staff do?

DOUG VAN PELT: Thank YOU for the honor and for having the open mind to interview a Christian metal mag. The website HMmag.com has all the resources anyone could want to find out what HM does and is.

The original logo I remember growing up

And then I do have to add my own primer for freethinkers interested in learning more about Christian metal, but mine is based more on talent as well as an intro to some of the forerunners of the more successful bands on the scene today. I’m almost in agreement with Doug and would recommend listening to the following bands: Tourniquet, Believer, Vengeance Rising, Barren Cross and The Crucified. For a newer band, I have to admit I’m still hooked on Demon Hunter. I’m planning to go through some of the lyrics of these bands in the coming months if not sooner. If you feel overwhelmed by too much Christian metal you can always pop in some Bad Religion or even Disturbed.

Interview with Atheist Cartoons Creator Bill Mutranowski

I (that troublemaker Jeff Swenson) was finally able to catch up with busy man cartoonist Bill Mutranowski who is the creator behind Atheist Cartoons at AtheistCartoons.com. Bill generously let Freethunk rotate a best-of selection of his cartoons back in February on our homepage and has a huge archive of opinionated toons full of irony–including some animated cartoons–on his site. I don’t care what you believe, you should read them just to get a different take on a multitude of subjects (not just atheism). As always, I’m fascinated by the mind of other cartoonists and especially those who don’t mind calling themselves atheists so Bill was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

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FREETHUNK: It appears on the site that Atheist Cartoons goes all the way back to January 2009. We’re you putting these opinions into cartoons prior to that and how did you decide to actually start “Atheist Cartoons”?

BILL: I guess in terms of the Internet, January of 2009 qualifies as way back when. I’d done a little editorial cartooning, but outlets for that were becoming increasingly scarce. So I blogged a little, but soon latched onto the idea of atheist cartoons. It seemed like something no one was doing (present company excluded). By the way, the cartoons are mainly about the religious notions that other people have. I play on the attendant contradictions, irony, hypocrisy and silliness.

FREETHUNK: What is your background with atheism? Everyone seems to have a story to tell or was it pretty straightforward with no dramatic ditching of religious faith?

BILL: I was raised Catholic. (When I was 6 or 7 and being groomed to receive my first communion, the nun who was my teacher wanted to instill in us a proper reverence for the holy wafer, in particular that we should never ever touch it. So she told us about this nasty little boy who, one Sunday after receiving the body of Christ, secretly spit it into a handkerchief and rushed home. He went into the kitchen and placed the host on a cutting board, took out a sharp knife and stabbed it. Blood gushed out. That was the end of the lesson. It was very effective. Fortunately, most of the nuns who taught me later didn’t weave such macabre tales.) In my mid 20s (I’m 53 now) religious dogma began to ring hollow. After that it just became less and less relevant. For a long time I thought of myself as “spiritual,” but the more I read and the more experiences I had, particularly with non-Christians and people who were born and raised outside the United States, the more nebulous that notion became. Now I’m a skeptic.

FREETHUNK: I’ve noticed you pull no punches with your cartoons. I’ve often done the same with my own cartoon work, but I think to your credit you’ve been clearer in pointing out hypocrisy not just amongst religionists but also unbelievers. I’m thinking as an example of the cartoon showing the person trying to dive into two pools and remain an agnostic. Are you looking to upset everyone with the goal of what? Getting everyone to debate what they believe?

BILL: I prefer “no sacred cows.” You can be an atheist and narrow-minded. If you value skepticism the first thing that should go under the microscope is yourself. Also, I notice that when a lot of people argue–whether it’s about atheism or something else–it seems very personal to them. But who you turn out to be is a cosmic roll of the dice. No one chooses the culture into which they’re born or how they’ll be educated, what their personality or brain chemistry will be, who their parents are or the sort of formative experiences they’ll have. Is there really any thought that arises outside the realm of causality? Choices–about religion and belief, for example–are based on one’s ability to choose. And that ability is determined by, among other things, every experience that did–or didn’t–come before. Anyway, to me it’s not personal, since the idea of free will is itself an iffy proposition, which is why I try to stay focused on ideas rather than individuals.

FREETHUNK: I’ve seen many of your cartoons make reference to the Phelps Clan or “God Hates Fags.” You seem to give them the high ground, if you will, on Biblical Literalism in comparison to their fellow brethren who are also literalists, but criticize Phelps for saying “God Hates.” Do you think Westboro Baptist Church is truer to the Bible than other literalists?

BILL: I always think twice before referencing the “God Hates Fags” crowd because it’s cliche and I want to avoid the cheap joke. I also try not to be gratuitous. But as you suggest, it’s useful to juxtapose them with, say, moderates, who spin the Bible for their own purposes. Does god hate the sinner or the sin? It’s like asking whether Santa Claus wears boxers or briefs.

FREETHUNK: Some of the cartoons deal with cultural relativity—my morals and standards are better than yours. Is this a fair assumption, whether it is an ancient tribal religion, Islam or even Christian versus Christian? All morals and values are not equal? It still seems to be a shocking concept in America where we’re always trying to be “fair” to everyone.

BILL: I think it would be great if people, A: stopped pretending to rely on ancient myths as the source of their morality, B: recognized that qualities like empathy have evolved as part of the evolutionary process and are not exclusive to humans, and C: actively did more of what we’ve probably already been doing for ages, i.e., cultivating values based on our experiences as social beings who need to get along with one another.

FREETHUNK: On that same note, I noticed one cartoon about Sam Harris. Any opinions on Harris’ idea of using the scientific method for the sake of examining morality?

BILL: More power to him. I haven’t read his book on the subject or all of the counter arguments, but my impression is that he’s saying science can inform ethics and morality by giving us empirical insight into what well-being means for most people most of the time. That’s different from saying that science can or should dictate what is moral behavior for all people all of the time. Maybe you can’t get “ought” from “is,” but I’m guessing science is at least partly responsible for the fact that there are no hospitals for rocks, insects or oysters.

FREETHUNK: As you point out numerous times, Christians adopt modern sensibilities but only to a certain point. What do you think the future holds as this trend progresses? Aren’t they all bound to become deists as they run out of traditions usurped by science or updated moral values?

BILL: Who knows? But if you want to do something to diminish religious superstition and promote critical thinking, I think it’s useful to take a long-term view and not be wedded to results. It’s about changing the climate. Jokes and cartoons about faith, religion and god can help break down taboos that encourage ignorance. Hopefully, faith-based thinking will become less and less a part of public discourse, especially in the United States. I suppose the other part of the equation is supplanting some of the more touchy-feely aspects of religion. I’ve discovered that not only can you be good without god, but you can also be awe-inspired. I don’t know if it’s possible to persuade other people of that. I just do my bit and hope for the best.

FREETHUNK: Some artist geek talk—do you create your cartoons digitally or hand draw? Or a mixture of both? Cartoonists like myself are always interested in what methods other cartoonist use.

BILL: I do a draft on paper with a soft pencil, then scan that and trace over it in Illustrator with a Wacom pen and tablet, often rearranging and resizing elements. I transfer that to Photoshop for coloring and lettering. Unfortunately, I work slowly. I think I read somewhere that editorial cartoonists typically spend 90 percent of their time coming up with an idea and 10 percent of their time rendering it. I don’t know if that’s true, but for me it’s the opposite. Drawing is hard.

FREETHUNK: Is Atheist Cartoons going to continue in the same direction of posting regularly or do you have any other projects you plan to work on for the future?

BILL: I’d like to keep posting. I might experiment with a different style so that I can post cartoons more quickly. Of course, I’d welcome an offer from a book publisher, or an offer to illustrate someone else’s project and get payed. It would be nice if the cartoons could somehow reach an audience that included theists. I’ve done some animation, but putting out something that is well done and remotely original is a huge job, especially when you’re working alone. Plus there’s so much competition for attention now. Anyway, I’m doing the cartoons for whatever educational value they might have.

FREETHUNK: Thanks for answering all our questions here. Any other comments?

BILL: My site’s name is atheistcartoons.com. I don’t much care for labels, but when you’re pitching something it helps to name it, especially when you’re in opposition to something as entrenched and powerful as religious lunacy. But the cartoons are not always about atheism, per se. They’re cartoons by an atheist.

And with that said, Bill is looking for interested publishers to work with in creating cartoon collections. If you are a creative publisher or work with a media company and have some ideas, drop him an email. His contact page is one click away…


Interview with ‘Ape, Not Monkey’ Comic Creator Jeffrey Weston

Ape Not Monkey creator Jeffrey Weston was nice enough to let us rotate his comic strip on the Freethunk homepage for the month of March. He also granted us an interview below. If you enjoyed some of the highlighted comic strips visit his site to read through all of his archives.

FREETHUNK: What prompted you to start “Ape, Not Monkey” and what do you mean by “Ape, Not Monkey”?

WESTON: My first online comic strip was called “The Adventures of Noam Chomsky” (www.postmodernhaircut.com). I found it an interesting that an old Linguistic professor who always spoke calmly and in long endless sentences had such a huge following of college students. So I wrote up a comic strip about him, to satirize his ideas and the public image of him. However, doing an entire strip about one person was pretty limiting. So eventually began looking for another topic to tackle. Ape, Not Monkey came about as a less constricting way to express my opinions about Atheism, Skepticism and Politics. It’s form took more shape after I discovered Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip. A strip that satirized politics (Such as Joseph McCarthy) using a bunch of animals all living in a Florida swamp.

“Ape, not monkey” is taken from the fact that people are always mistaking Apes for Monkeys. For example, “We all descended from Monkeys.” When the animal was probably closer to an Ape. Or in the news when there is yet another chimpanzee attack. Someone will undoubtedly call it a Monkey. And someone else will comment. “Ape, not monkey!”.

FREETHUNK: How do you get a strip from idea to the web? So much is done digitally these days, but is this a hand-inked strip or are you using software to do most of it? And I noticed the comic strip started out in black and white and then went to color.

WESTON: Once I’ve got a script written, I used to sketch it out on a piece of paper (with rulers and all) and then scan that sketch in to the computer. I would then import those scanned pics into Adobe illustrator and draw over them to ink them. However, now everything is done in Illustator (digitally) from sketch to final product. Some people say that digital ink can’t replace the “nuance” of pencil on paper but those are probably the same people who think their Records sounds better than their CDs or that a Car would never replace the “nuance” of a horse and buggy.

The black and white to color transition had to do with figuring out a way to color quickly in Illustrator.  I first started out with the idea that the strip would be a weekly one page color strip (like old comic strips from the 1920’s). But I learned that I could attrack more visitors if I posted more often. So I broke the strip into 2 color 4 panel comics a week. Then I switched to 3 black and white strips a week. Now, that I’ve found an quick way to do coloring in Illustator, I can do 3 Color comics a week.

FREETHUNK: Who are the characters? I noticed they seem to vary in their beliefs and nonbelief.

WESTON: Yes, there is a growing list of characters each with their own personalities and goals in life. A description of each of them can be found the New Readers page (http://www.apenotmonkey.com/new-readers/). Toby the scientist Ape was the first, along with Pastor Bear to represent Religion. Wilbur the dog believes in all the lefty organic food, environmentalism mushy stuff in between. Other characters like Dee-Quack Chopra (the spiritualist) and Arlen (the conspiracy theorist) are based on real people (Deepak Chopra and Alex Jones respectively.)

FREETHUNK: Do you have a scientific background or are you simply a fan of the scientific method like myself?

WESTON: I am a Computer Scientist, but I wouldn’t call that science. So like you I’m more of a fan. I didn’t actually truly realize what the scientific method was until I read Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. That really got into skepticism, logical fallacies and other subjects that you can really apply to everyday work. Once you understand science, society becomes a lot more frustrating because you realize few people actually understand it or apply it in their daily lives.

FREETHUNK: On the same question of science, I noticed one strip that parodied those who essentially idolize scientific icons like Carl Sagan. Do you think freethinking atheists sometimes go too far in their adoration of certain historical figures in the field?

WESTON: I am skeptical of Atheists. Atheists tend to be right, but usually for the wrong reasons. They’ll go with you against religion, but turn the topic to alternative medicine or organic foods and you’ve lost them.

FREETHUNK: I believe, as far as I’ve read, Ape Not Monkey has to be one of the few freethinking comic strips to anthropomorphize animals to speak about gods, science, theology and heavier topics. I know there’s a Christian comic strip called “Church Mice” which has mice talk about religion and how God loves us and yet I think about pest control when I read it. Have you squelched any ideas because your characters are animals? Have you ever thought about challenging Christian mice to a debate?

WESTON: Wow, I haven’t checked that strip out in while. A cross-over strip would be quite interesting (^_^). Setting everything in a zoo with animals, can make things difficult. Particularly if you want to refer to technology or current events. However, it does force you to bend the topic to shove it into your Universe. Usually that can actually help the comedy. Bloom County was particularly good at that.

FREETHUNK: Do you have any personal history with religion? What was your upbringing like in regards to science and religion?

WESTON: I actually can say that I was some kind of “born again” Christian. When I was 11 or 12 I saw an early Simpson’s episode (the one where Homer steals cable TV) and one scene depicted Lisa’s nightmare of the entire family going to Hell. That scared me straight! ‘Luckily’ I had two friends who were pretty hardcore Christians, and they taught me a lot about the 10 commandments. However, I also had a friend who was an Atheist. Over the next couple of years, it really got to me how a loving God would send my nice Atheist friend to Hell for eternity, or even why God would allow such a place to exist. That was the wedge, that eventually convinced me that an Atheist world not only made more sense but a nicer place to live in.

FREETHUNK: I assume with your recent storyline on creationism that you think the earth is older than 6000 years? Your comic strip indicates there might just be a conflict between creationism and history?

WESTON: There certainly is a conflict. As Sam Harris has said “[Creationists] place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer.”

FREETHUNK: On a touchier subject, you also have had your main character react to an earthquake with what I find to be a hilarious if not simple rebuttal to all of the Christian explanations for God allowing for disasters. My philosophy is that humor is found in tragedy and I would guess you were compelled to comment on it amongst all the media noise?

WESTON: Yeah, every time there is a gigantic disaster the “Why bad things happen to good people?” question comes up and every time our top Religious leaders fail to answer that question to anyone’s satisfaction. If they did, we wouldn’t keep asking it.

FREETHUNK: Do you have any future plans for Ape Not Monkey?

WESTON: Well, I’d like to make Pastor Bear the official mascot for the Catholic Church, that is, if they ever get rid of the sad guy on the stick. But aside from that, the game is to the just keep going and keep trying to get better at my craft.

I’d like to do more “Graphic Novel” type stories like the Debunking of Scientology (http://www.apenotmonkey.com/2011/02/28/birth-of-scientology-part-1/). I do enjoy the research part of it and wish I had more time to devote to full fledged debunking.

Again, thanks to Jeffrey Weston for his guest appearance on Freethunk. That Scientology parody he mentions is one of my favorites out of the material he’s done so far for 2011. Check out Ape, Not Monkey and feel free to comment on what his characters are saying.

‘Slimed’ Movie Interview with Eric Manche and Jeff Nitzberg

Producers and Directors Eric Manche and Jeff Nitzberg agreed to an interview on what is a low budget gem in the rough AND features an atheist character, although in a bumbling, comical form (for our amusement, lighten up!) It’s Slimed, The Movie, and we’ve already reviewed it here on Freethunk, but we wanted to know more. Prepare yourselves for…

SLIMED! The Interview…(cue ominous music)


FREETHUNK: Who started this? Who thought it was a good idea to make a movie about a man-made ecological terror featuring an atheist park ranger, a Bible salesman, a cat, and a rat puppet?

ERIC: I may have had the first idea for the movie, probably just being about the adventures of an atheist and a Bible salesman, however, after I realized what I was getting myself into, I quickly recognized that I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. I needed a partner in crime. A good friend from childhood, Jeff, agreed to collaborate with me. Over the course of the next few months, Jeff and I developed the rest of the story equally.

JEFF: Originally it was a park ranger and a priest, then the priest became a Bible salesman. The cat and the rat were both Eric’s idea. When we were trying to come up with a way of personifying the slime, I really wanted a demented scientist who strove for the ultimate cleaning product but Eric hated the cliché of the “evil scientist.” After much mental turmoil he said, “what if it’s an evil scientist rat puppet?” In hindsight of course it totally had to be an evil rat puppet with whom the entire cast including the puppet never acknowledges is a rat, nor a puppet. Eric built and operated the puppet… in fact we even showed some of the rat footage to Jim Henson’s daughter while we were editing the rough cut. She just happened to be visiting RISD at the time, and she was blown away by the footage… I don’t know how we didn’t make something more come from that.

FREETHUNK: How long did this project take? I know from talking to other filmmakers it can be years with all the “extra” stuff you have to do even if the shooting only took a month? Was there an actual budget?

ERIC: In all, the project took almost 3 years. Because Jeff and I were pretty much in charge of every aspect of the filmmaking (writing, directing, editing, special effects) it took a lot longer than it would have had we had a larger crew. We wrote and rehearsed for 4 months, filmed for 30 days and had a rough cut with temporary effects a few months after that. The remaining 2 years were filled with color correcting, sound design, finessing the visual effects, finding a composer to do our score, all this in addition to our full-time jobs.

JEFF: No one got paid at all… except our composer, who made out with a small sum. But essentially we had no money. Does it show?

FREETHUNK: To be honest, it doesn’t show as far as the no-budget. I watched the movie on my flat widescreen TV and it was big and beautiful. And was there a script? Were you improvising on set as ideas might have popped up. Were there ideas you had to discard due to being too complicated?

Making films can be exhausting - See more at SlimedTheMovie.com

ERIC: We did have a script and we actually stuck very close to it. While there was the occasional moment of improvising (usually with the more physical jokes) almost all the dialogue is exactly as it appears in the script. We removed a number of ideas (and musical numbers) due to complexity but the one I was the most disappointed in was the removal of the opening scene, in which we were going to show the killer toxic slime claiming a female victim in the woods. We just ran out of time… and I really feel the scene would have helped grab the audience’s attention.

JEFF: We stuck to the script like glue… everything was scripted…we made the actors redo takes if they forgot an “AND.”

FREETHUNK: Are you guys actually atheists on some level or were you inspired somehow to create the atheist park ranger, Rock Rockerson? I wouldn’t exactly call him an atheist role model, more of a parody.

ERIC: I’m an atheist and I definitely wanted to infuse the movie with some of my feelings on religion, religious people and my non-religious beliefs. We both felt that the realm of religious debate would be a perfect fit with an action/sci-fi movie motif and knew that it hadn’t been done yet. Rock Rockerson isn’t necessarily a role-model, but I do think he’s probably the first out-of-the-closet atheist to star in an action/sci-fi/comedy. I felt it would be awesome to have a stereotypical action-figure as an atheist – both funny and accessible to younger viewers.

JEFF: I am not an atheist. I’m Jewish though non-practicing, and I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious way. Making a movie that featured nature vs religion as a backdrop totally excited me because I’m very neutral on the subject. It was very important not to demonize any one side. Rockerson is a total parody of a human let alone an atheist, and the same goes for Pepe, and there is nothing more satisfying, at least for me, than creating a structure that allows for these two radically different characters to grow a friendship by the end of the movie… even if everything just gets destroyed by lasers afterwards.

FREETHUNK: Where did you find Jordan Lee? As I mentioned in my movie review he sounds like he voices cartoons.

ERIC: Jordan was a local comedian in Clearwater, FLA (where Jeff and I grew up and where the movie was filmed) who responded to our Craigslist posting seeking actors. He was the 3rd person who auditioned and I knew right out of the gate we had found our man. During the rehearsal he did one of Rock’s angry speeches and got so into character that he was screaming and spitting in my face. I knew with that kind of dedication and willingness to go off the deep end he’d be perfect for the role.

FREETHUNK: And Dustin Triplett as Pepe, the Bible salesman?

ERIC: Dustin is a good friend of mine from high-school and a budding actor. He was always the most outgoing and hilarious of my friends and I told him the year before we madethis movie that I wanted to film something with him and asked if he was down for it. He really went out of his way to make the movie; balancing 3 jobs, the death of a parent, the suspension of his driver’s license and a 45 mile trip from his home to where we were shooting every day.

FREETHUNK: That is dedication! Lastly Jessica Borusky as Sally—did you physically stretch her face into those wonderful expressions?

ERIC: It’s all her, she has a comic gift and a willingness to put herself on the line and be as ridiculous as she can. She is also 100% responsible for Sally’s physical appearance as she did her own makeup and even came up with the idea that Sally is a hunch-back. You can’t really see it too often in the movie but she does have a prominent hump extruding from her shoulder.

FREETHUNK: Since Freethunk is a site that caters to freethinkers and attracts religious curiosity seekers, have you gotten any feedback on using an atheist character and a Bible pusher? Negative? Positive?

ERIC: I only had one case of a negative response – we were actually in talks with a skilled composer who basically didn’t want to be associated with the movie. He didn’t want to do it because he said he wouldn’t be able to show his work (and the movie) to his friends/family. He thought we were too hard on Christians… which really surprised me because I always felt both sides were fairly and equally skewered. I also questioned whether he watched the whole movie because it certainly ends on a note of being open minded and promoting discussion instead of blind hatred. Anytime you make a movie featuring religion you’re going to turn someone off, but my family (who are religious) loved the movie and didn’t find it offensive at all.

JEFF: Other than the composer thing Eric mentioned, no one ever objected to anything either religiously or otherwise while we made the movie. I was constantly surprised actually… I anticipated at least SOME opposition. We were blowing up children and the parents were very happy to have their kids in a movie… we sent the people in charge of the local Florida film commission the script to make sure we were in the clear to film in nature and no one ever said a word or asked us to change anything. This wonderful, generous man let us film in a real park station at a park in Florida, and the one day he walks onto set to check things out Rock is angrily stomping around slapping Sally in the face. He just said, “Wow! I can’t believe how professional this all is!” We were very lucky.

FREETHUNK: Who provided the special effects, for a low budget film they were plentiful?

ERIC: Plentiful indeed – they were done by myself over the course of 9 months and a lot of headaches. I love old-school practical effects and have a bit of disdain for computer generated imagery so I did everything I could to do the effects as they would have been done in the 80s, except that I was using a computer to composite instead of an optical printer. What’s funny is that the actual slime tidal wave is made out of oatmeal and was meticulously placed in the scenes as a miniature optical effect. Despite all my efforts, the majority of responses to the scene have been people who asked me how I did the CGI slime! People have come to expect that every visual effect they see nowadays is made on a computer, which is a shame.

JEFF: Eric did all the effects. He built most of the props, miniatures, and then sat at his computer for months and months doing all the compositing work. He started a tall youthful fellow. He finished a crippled, mold-covered gnome.

FREETHUNK: And speaking of special effects, who provided all the kids you blew up? Any injuries?

ERIC: Craigslist really came to the rescue with the kids. Jeff and I both thought that finding kids would be one of the hardest tasks in making Slimed but when we put up our posting we received no less than 40 responses by parents BEGGING us to let their kids be in our movie.

JEFF: After our huge response from Craig’s List we lucked out by running into this amazing woman, Amy Lynn Howell, who became our official child casting director of sorts, and she just bent over backwards to get us as many kids as possible… all of whom either were shot with lasers or blown up. No one was injured of course. The kids loved getting blown up… we’d just scream “LASERS EVERYWHERE! DIE! You’RE FALLING! You’re DYING!” They loved it.

FREETHUNK: Slimed reminds me of many of the movies I found as a kid when ma and pa video stores still existed. I’m thinking of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles (featuring puppets with problems) as well as Evil Dead 1 and 2. Now where are you coming from influence-wise in relation to good “bad” films?

JEFF: Oh no question, we love all those movies. You can also add South Park, Monty Python, the Zucker Bros, Jim Abrahams and The Marx Bros to the list.

ERIC: Peter Jackson was definitely a big influence, as well as an inspiration. The story of him making Bad Taste on the weekends with his friends over the course of 4 years definitely gave Jeff and I the impetus to carry through with our movie. Otherwise, I just have to mention my favorite movie of all time – Ghostbusters.

FREETHUNK: I know this gets more “geek” then some readers care for, but, as an artist myself, who did the cover art for the DVD/Movie Poster? It’s old-school painted, like all the great movie posters from the eighties. Admittedly, often the painted movie poster was better than the actual movie itself, but still…

Slimed Movie Poster Painting

JEFF: Thanks! Both Eric and myself actually met in art class in middle school, and we both went to art school for painting and drawing afterwards. When it was time to do the poster there was no question it was going to be an epic painting. So I did the illustration by hand, and Eric did the logo and layout design. It’s supposed to be exactly as you’ve described it. There was a time when movie posters were about making you WANT to see the movie, and what better way to do that then to make the movie look AMAZING with an awesome poster painting? Even if a movie is crap, shouldn’t the poster art’s job be to make you want to see it? Why have a great movie with awful Photoshopped crap fart terribly fake looking airbushed poop!? It makes no sense! I will fight to the bitter end to have every movie I ever make have a hand painted poster. Whew, I could rant for awhile… Frank Darabont has great things to say on the subject if anyone wants to hear that rant. Reynold Brown, Bob Peak, Drew Struzan and a lot of poster artists out there are all my heroes.

FREETHUNK: Finally, after this effort you must have a taste for more? Any thoughts on new projects?

ERIC: I’m really hoping to do a short puppet animation next, but I also have a script going about a killer giant flying shark that terrorizes a small beach town.

JEFF: Oh definitely, there are a ton of projects in the pipes. There is no question we want to make movies forever. I have a kung-fu movie that takes place in a diner, a relationship drama that evolves in a physical war between a couple, and a killer cockroach movie with a great twist… and then there is a short Eric and myself made when he was in college about these two guys who mutate thorough the entire film… I really want to convince him to make that one into a feature… those are just a few so it’s only a question of which one will happen first. Stay tuned!