Jonathan Pageau is one of the most interesting Christian artists on the internet. He’s managed to build a small career for himself as a YouTuber, in addition to his work as a carver of Orthodox Christian icons. His YouTube channel has 131,000 subscribers and he’s been able to collaborate and speak with several of the largest voices in online Christian thought including Paul Vanderklay, Pints with Aquinas, The Babylon Bee, Tom Holland, Bishop Barren, and Jordan Peterson.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend his October 2019 lecture at St. John Cantius Catholic Cathedral in Chicago where he gave an hour lecture on the symbolism of Kanye West’s new gospel album Jesus is King. Anyone familiar with his YouTube channel would know what to expect. He spoke extensively about the nature of order and chaos, the role of foolish characters in turning the world upside down, and the state of the chaotic modern world. His analysis brought a lot of light to complex issues that still resonate two years later.
He’s worked for decades as an artist and stone carver, using his same talent for symbolism and analysis to create works of art. His newest project is God’s Dog, a graphic novel adaptation of the life of the Catholic/Orthodox saint known as St. Christopher. It was originally created as a film pitch but eventually reworked into a multi-volume graphic novel. Jonathan and his brother launched the IndieGogo to fund its distribution and have already hit 382% of the fundraising goal with 1884 backers as of the time of writing.
Jonathan was kind enough to correspond with us and answer questions about his career and new graphic novel which is still fundraising on IndieGogo through the end of December.
I’m sure this is a deep question, but could you tell us quickly about how you came to join the Orthodox church and why?
I grew up in an association of Baptist churches. These churches were mostly the result of a mass conversion from Catholicism which happened through American missionaries here in French-speaking Quebec during the 1970s. Though I was always surrounded by authentic faith and wonderful people dedicated to God, in my twenties I began to feel there was something missing in the churches I was attending. In my search for a deeper and more integrated Faith, it was a mix of discoveries that ultimately led me to Orthodoxy. Of course, there was the richness of the Church Fathers, their insights into Christ and Scripture, but also the discovery of the ancient arts, poetry, and architecture developed by Christians in the first 1,400 years of Christianity.
How did you find yourself in a career as an icon carver?
I studied to be a painter but struggled both with the ambiguity of visual art in the protestant traditions as well as the schizophrenia of trying to be a Christian in a world of postmodern contemporary art. These inner conflicts were part of my general spiritual crisis in my twenties. In discovering medieval art and Orthodox icons, I felt I had discovered art that was both powerful and integrated while being theological. This art was ultimately Christologica, having developed as a direct result of God giving us an image of Himself in Christ, as well as restoring that image in man which had been tarnished in the Fall. Becoming a carver of icons rather than a painter was mostly due to providence, as it happened through a series of surprising circumstances and opportunities.
Could you explain to our mostly Evangelical and Calvinist readers who Saint Christopher is and what makes his story important?
Saint Christopher is one of those saints who modern scholars say is just a legend. He is represented as either a giant in the Biblical sense, a Canaanite, or else he is a Cynocephalus, a dog-headed man from the edge of the world. Both my brother, who wrote this graphic novel with me, and I wanted precisely to dive into the aspects of Christianity which modern scholars love to mock and discount. So, the story of St-Christopher is one thread of a much larger story which includes dragons, giants, Eden, the flaming sword, the Leviathan, Angels, and many other elements from Scripture which modern people are often embarrassed about because they do not fit our worldview. We wanted to celebrate all of these Biblical elements while also including somewhat surprising and extreme saints like St. George who is a dragon killer and St. Symeon the stylite who spent most of his life standing on a 60-foot pole.
Today we live in a world of monsters, from Sesame Street to a general cultural fascination with zombies, aliens, monsters, and shapeshifting in all its forms. We also live in a breakdown of the rationalism of modernity, where the relationships between history and legend, and neutral factuality and narrative, are breaking down and causing polarization and suffering, but also creating new opportunities to view the world in a manner closer to one the ancient Israelites or the Apostles would have shared. We believe the story and character of St. Christopher can help us understand our time for all its opportunities and dangers.
St. Christopher is usually depicted with a dog head. Is that intended to be literal or symbolic of some aspect of his life story?
These questions are not the kind of questions ancient people would have asked. We do not see any contradiction between “literal” and “symbolic”; in fact, we think all aspects of reality, even in their most immediate and direct experience, contain a seed of what one would call symbolic meaning because all of creation is full of meaning, purpose, and ultimately of the glory of God. The descriptions of dog-headed men in ancient sources contain both something of a real experience people were having, but this real experience was definitely meaningful of how we encounter strangeness, the alien, mixture, monsters, and so many other categories of the sort. Now if you are wondering if we are suggesting ancient races that were genetic mixtures between men and dogs existed, it would be highly doubtful. But it is important to understand there is also no need, for example, of a genetic relationship between a horse and a hippopotamus (Greek for river horses) for us to continue to think that hippopotami exist.
Dog-headed men are a common thing throughout history, from the Greeks to John Mandeville to Marco Polo to the modern concept of the werewolf. Could you explain in a few words why? Are wolf-men real, or is this a common archetype?
Human-animal hybrids are common in the ancient world, such as centaurs and satyrs, but in the medieval period, these became especially dog-men in all their forms. We can understand the dog-man as a manifestation of strangeness, the unknown, the wild, the passionate, or the barbarian who, “bar-bar-bar,” sounds like a dog to us. You will find this imagery more subtlety in Scripture, from Goliath the giant who asks David if he takes him for a dog, to Caleb the Kenizzite who receives the edge of the camp and whose name means dog, all the way to the Canaanite woman, who as a dog, receives the crumbs which fall off the edge of the table.
The dog-headed men are social or cosmic versions of this relationship of center to the periphery, meaning strange, and are therefore represented visually far more immediately like “dog-men” in their appearance by those who encounter them. But they also appear wherever people encounter complete strangeness, and so to Alexander and Marco Polo, these monsters are in Asia, but for Charlemagne, they come from the North in Scandinavia, and for Christopher Columbus, he had encountered them briefly on his first day in the Americas. These examples can help us understand their meaning as they appear when we encounter something which we yet cannot name or identify. They are an image and a small experience of chaos. For more on this, I have written a few articles on the subject which might interest people.
Why are you so fascinated personally by his story to the point where you’ve developed a film pitch about him?
I have felt, from the very first time I encountered it, that this story and the notion of a “monster-saint” was crucial for our times because we live both constantly provoked, but also fascinated by monstrosity. Across this, it is also crucial to understand that the graphic novel series is not just about St. Christopher, but couches a very loose version of his legend into a massive epic story with cosmic stakes in the vein of Tolkien. We mostly wanted to tell a story set in the cosmic world of Scripture and Christian legends in the same way Tolkien set his story in an imaginary cosmos.
We had noticed when we started working on the story around 2007 that there were many movies, comics, and other IPs that were set in a “Christian Mythological Universe”: movies like Stigmata and books like DaVinci Code. But this was especially true in some famous comics. Alan Moore’s Constantine and general use of Christian Esotericism is a good example, and so is Gaiman’s use of Paradise Lost in Sandman: Season of Mists or of a basic Christian myth in the recent Amazon Prime adapted Good Omens. Hellboy is another example. In all these versions, we find the Christian world twisted and contrived into a subversive and dark version of itself. For God’s Dog, we wanted to put in all kinds of elements that would appear to people as strange in a similar manner to the examples I just gave, but would ultimately surprise them, and tell a story that is not subversive at all. It would tell a story that participates in a return to traditional epic storytelling and a celebration of our stories and legends.
How did the film pitch for God’s Dog come about? Was there serious interest in it?
We finished the story as a screenplay in 2009 and submitted it to a pretty strict and professional script scouting agency. After a few modifications on our part, the script got a “recommend” rating, which is rare and so it was requested by several Hollywood executives. But of course, although it ended up being a testimony for us at how this story stood up to secular standards, we were naïve to think that an epic that culminates in the sieging of a Byzantine Jerusalem by an army of Giants would be made as a movie.
When did you decide to turn it into a comic?
Already in 2010, we knew this was not going to fly as a movie, and so we thought of a graphic novel. At that time, I was setting up my icon carving practice and my brother Matthieu was also very busy. It stayed on the shelf for a while. It was only when I met our artist Cord Nielson in 2018 that we started thinking about it more seriously, deciding to collaborate and work towards a first book.
How many volumes do you plan to produce in your God’s Dog series? When can fans expect them to be released?
The series will be a minimum of four books, but that will also depend on reaction and enthusiasm. In whittling this massive story down to a two-hour movie, we were forced to streamline it wonderfully, but we also cut out many very interesting arcs and details which we might add back in if fans want more. The first 115-page book is nearly done, with just six pages to ink and color, and so it will be ready to print soon. If the crowdfunding continues like it is going, our artist Cord will do this full time from now on and future books will be delivered about two a year.
Do we live in a time when the story of St. Christopher feels maybe more relevant than before?
Yes, I sometimes joke that St. Christopher is the patron saint of the End of World, and with so many aspects of Western Civilization being rattled these days, the story will resonate much more than it even would have when we wrote it more than 10 years ago. But in general, I think when we wrote this, many people would have not been able to perceive its relevance. But since then, the popularity of protestant authors like Michael Heiser, James Jordan, and some Orthodox writers like Fr. Stephen DeYoung, makes us feel like the weird elements of Scripture are becoming more accessible.
Is there significance to the title God’s Dog being a palindrome?
Certainly and readers will hopefully discern that themselves in the story as it develops.
Readers who want their own copy of God’s Dog can support you on Indiegogo. When can fans expect to get copies of the book?
We see this project set within a bigger frame; that is, we want this to demonstrate that an adventure story set in a Christian worldview, one which is completely available to secular people, is not only possible but will generate excitement if done well. We are hoping people will back the project in that light as well! We are planning on sending the books out in February at this time.
Those who would like to support Jonathan Pageau’s Indiegogo can do so here.