In my early-20s, I went camping in Florida with a couple of cobbers from my old Bible school for the usual harmless fun: cheap beer, quick tans, sunny conversation and ineffectual flirting.
But things took an ugly turn one morning after we'd crawled from our tents. We passed around the Wonder Bread. One of my mates asked for the peanut-butter knife. When he received it, he suddenly thrust it toward the chest of his friend and snarled, "I could cut-choo into a t'ousan pieces, mang!"
His friend looked at him with large, doe-like eyes and said, "And every piece would say I love you!" Giggles erupted, and we went on with our dopey day.
Nearly everyone admits there is a bounty of kitsch to be harvested from the history of comic books, but the vein is just that much richer in the all-but-unexplored field of Christian comic books - and this little exchange is just one delicious example. Young lads nurtured in the fold of 1970s Christendom could expect their collection of "secular" comics to be duly leavened by the work of Al Hartley, a former girly-artist divinely re-commissioned to chronicle the adventures of a born-again Archie. Not only was the Riverdale Gang subject to an Evangelical make-over, but many real-life sin-to-salvation autobiographies (we called these "testimonies"; our unsaved neighbors called them "human interest stories") were given the Hartley treatment as well: heroes with rugged good looks, and heroines with long straight hair (or a healthy afro), lush lips, and a rack that defied gravity.
One such testimony is David Wilkerson's The Cross & The Switchblade. I'd be curious to hear what Wilkerson made of this comic and the ham-fisted movie that followed (starring Pat Boone and Eric Estrada): the book they were based on remains an affecting first-person account of a young Pentecostal minister in the late 1950s called by God to preach salvation to the youth of the ghettos. My hunch is Wilkerson endorsed the spin-offs as sincere attempts to present the larger gospel message to as wide an audience as possible. Fair enough: Hartley possessed no lack of sincerity either, and hormonally-charged boys of every congregational stripe were the happy benefactors of the buxom Hartley Vixen that lay between their copies of Spider-Man and The Justice League of America.
Here, for your edification, is the Al Hartley cover of The Cross & The Switchblade, from which today's title is taken (as ever, click to enlarge):
If you find yourself wanting more, Kliph Nesteroff deconstructs the Hartley Template over here.