LEESBURG, Fla. — In 1872,
baby boy John Harper is born in the dark of night in the Scottish village of
“Father, he is a gift from You, thus we will dedicate him to You. His name will
be John,” his mustached, middle-aged, working-class father declares, looking
toward the heavens, clutching the baby to his chest.
“Yes, a good Bible name,” John’s mother says, drops of sweat pouring from her
otherwise serene face as she reclines against a rumpled pillow, a midwife looking
On a glossy comic book’s opening page, bright graphic artwork in four blocks
introduces the engrossing biography of a Baptist preacher who survived three
close brushes with drowning before finally perishing with the Titanic.
“The Last Convert of John Harper” is one of a new line of comic books which
encompasses five genres — adventure, biography, sci-fi, biblical epic and
historical fiction — and the creative passion of Art Ayris, who is both the
executive pastor of First Baptist Church in Leesburg, Fla., and CEO of
Ayris has long been part of the inventive leadership at First Baptist, a
congregation which ministers through a Christian school and through a Christian
Care Center encompassing a men’s shelter with drug and alcohol rehabilitation,
shelters for women and children, a pregnancy care center, medical help for the
unemployed and other benevolence aid and a counseling center.
Like John Harper, who in the comic book climbs to the top of a well and looks
over before falling in, Ayris has had a few close calls with death himself.
Relating his “God story,” Ayris told the Florida Baptist Witness he was in a
near fatal accident at the age of 5 when he was struck in the abdomen by blade
thrown from a lawn mower his father was driving.
“I came very close to dying,” Ayris recounted. A call was placed to the local
jail for prisoners to give blood. Ayris said his father, who owned a
construction company, and his mother, a teacher, were overwhelmed when
prisoners responded to the call.
At age 18, Ayris almost died again and was hospitalized for 30 days when
gangrene set in because of scar tissue from the previous injury.
“In that time in the hospital, I really realized there was something else out
there and I was not prepared for that,” Ayris said. “A little later after that
I became a Christian.”
After earning a degree in criminology at Florida State University, Ayris said
he first set his sights on working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or
the Drug Enforcement Administration, but finally decided to go back to school
for certification to teach special education.
“God just really redirected my path,” said Ayris, who put his passion for
children and teens to work at First Baptist Leesburg, building “Saturday-Sunday
Schools” and what at one time was one of the largest Vacation Bible Schools in
the nation. “Throughout that, God just really burdened my heart for kids,
especially through the media,” he said.
On stage in front of a large group of unchurched kids, Ayris said he had an “epiphany”
about communicating more creatively. Soon planning large-scale productions like
an annual walk-through Nativity at Christmastime, Ayris befriended J.B. Jones,
a man from Miami who worked on James Bond films as well as 60 others.
Ayris said Jones encouraged him in media. “All of that was really a context for
the whole comic thing we are doing,” he said.
It didn’t hurt that his mother, who had an earned doctorate in education, read
a picture Bible to Ayris when he was growing up — and paid him a nickel for
every page he wrote. “My father gave me my work ethic and my mom gave me my
creativity,” he said.
With a heart for evangelism, but a pragmatic side that understands how people
respond to creative media, Ayris felt that something was missing, so he began a
“Either I need to hear from You on this or I am dropping it and won’t ever pick
it up again,” he told God.
Five days later, walking through a supermarket parking lot, Ayris began weeping
as God gave him an “overwhelming, precise, to-the-second answer.” Drawing on
his years in ministry — and using the wealth of Bible knowledge he’s stored in
his heart through memorizing Scripture — he let God lead the way in showing him
the stories which might appeal to an 18-25-year-old target audience.
Aboard the Titanic
John Harper, the Baptist preacher in Ayris’ comic book, also had an unusual
start to his visionary ministry. After his early brush with death, the young
minister is shown preaching in the streets and in the ghettos, handing out
clothes and blankets with compassion, while warning passersby: “The wages of
sin is death … but the gift of God is eternal life!”
Harper was declared an “angel God has sent to the slums” — and in 1892 he
undertook studies at the Baptist Pioneer Mission in London to “refine his gift.”
In establishing the Paisley Street Baptist Mission, which today is known as
Harper Memorial Church in London, Harper became a visionary in finding ways to
meet needs while sharing the gospel.
Invited twice to preach at the Moody Church in Chicago, it was while attempting
to travel there for a second time that he ended up on the Titanic in 1912.
In comic book-style graphic art depicting Harper’s actions after the dramatic
few hours when an iceberg struck the massive ship — “SCRRRUNCH!” — until it
sank, the 39-year-old widowed preacher is shown placing his 6-year-old daughter
“Nana” on a lifeboat before he goes through the ship, extending his arm in
invitation — “women, children, and the unsaved to the LIFEBOATS!”
Thrusting one of the few remaining life vests toward someone who tells Harper
he is not “saved,” Harper jumps overboard as the ship splits and sinks.
“Believe in Christ, He can and will save you,” Harper says to one floundering
man before he is shown grasping a wooden plank and attempting to speak to
others floating around him. “Christ D—D—Died for your sin,” he stutters. “A—A—Ask
for His forgiveness!” an immersed Harper says in another frame, puffing
bluish-white frigid air while water drips from his face.
Four years later at a survivor’s meeting in Canada, one of those Harper spoke
to that night, and presumably the last person who saw him alive, declares: “I
am the last convert of John Harper.”
Ayris’ first movie
Ayris produced a movie in 2005, titled “The Touch,” a true story of a woman’s
journey to homelessness, which won first place honors at a number of Christian
film festivals and became popular in the Middle East where it was translated
into Arabic and Farsi. It also was translated into the Chinese sub-language
known as Hakka Chinese.
“God also gave a lot of confirmations along the way,” Ayris said of his
broadening media interests. “I began seeing God could reach and touch a lot of
people through media and it’s just come out in different forms.”
One of the extras in The Touch was a female officer who realized on the last
day of shooting the film that she needed Christ. “She started bawling and said,
‘My life is totally a mess.’ It was like picking a ripe peach off a tree,”
The comics followed, when market research revealed a void for comics and
graphic novels with a Christian worldview. And Ayris didn’t skimp on quality.
Talented artists better known for their work with Marvel, DC and other comics
use their skills for Kingstone Media to pencil, sketch, ink and color the
comics, Ayris said. The gospel message virtually leaps from the pages of comics
named for books and characters of the Bible — The Revelation, Elijah and
“I have discovered a lot of believers out there,” Ayris said of the artists and
printers who produce the comics. As for those who are not believers, he said it
provides an opportunity to witness through solid business practices like paying
on time; being “gracious”; and exposing them to Christian truths through the
content of his products.
The quality is not lost on kids and teens either. Ayris tells pastors to go to
a Borders or Barnes & Noble Bookstore and look at the number of kids and
teens camped out in front of the comic book section. “With big biblical
illiteracy in the U.S.,” he said, “we feel like our biblical epic line can help
Even at church, given the choice between a Bible or a comic book, Ayris said he
tells pastors that kids will look at a table where there’s both a Bible and a
comic book and “probably nine times out of 10, they are going to pick up the
comics and read them.”
Libraries also have bought comics and graphic novels to attract “reluctant
readers,” Ayris said. “With the world being about 50 percent illiterate or
semi-literate, we see comics as an effective bridge to both reading and
understanding God’s Word.”
The comics are also a natural bridge to the film industry. Ayris said major
film companies in Hollywood and Los Angeles have expressed interest in at least
two of Kingstone Media’s stories.
“Comics are also a great way to tell an epic story without the zillions cost of
film,” Ayris said. “You have already story-boarded out what the film could look
Amassing an impressive collection of the comics — 15 — which Ayris hopes will
grow to 30 by the end of the year, and to 80 by 2011, he manages a growing
staff of 19 ranging from full-time to freelance writers, artists and a chief
Christian comics sell
“Some of our comics are designed clearly for the faith market, but others are
specifically designed to be able to go into the general trade to engage readers
… and elicit conversation,” Ayris said. “This has opened up many corridors to
share the gospel with people other than in church ministry situations.”
Nationally, Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis area was one of the first to
buy in. Then came other independent outlets. Kingstone is in negotiations with
Family Christian Stores, a chain of 330 stores throughout the country, and is
talking with other, larger chains. Kingstone’s comics have put in an appearance
at MegaCon, the Southeast’s largest comic book convention, and already have a
Ayris said he is “stunned” by the international response. The comics are going
into 18 countries through a Spanish distributor and a Brazilian distributor is
planning translation into Portuguese for some titles. The Revelation has been
produced in Arabic, with other titles forthcoming in that language, while a
Bible society in the Middle East covering five Arabic countries has placed
their first order.
Keeping in step with the digital age, Ayris said Kingstone Media currently is
negotiating with the largest cell phone comic book distributor in Japan and
possibly the world. Kingstone has also budgeted a “good part” of its funds for
digital translation and distribution through iPad, e-book (electronic) and cell
Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of WORLD magazine, is the writer for some of the
comic books, including a futuristic series “2048: A story of America’s Future”
which explores ethical dilemmas caused by human-animal hybrid embryo stem cell
research resulting in chimeras, what the comics call “bumans.”
Another Kingstone comic to debut soon is “Hope Amid Horror” about modern-day
martyrdom produced with The Voice of the Martyrs ministry. Coming this summer
is “The Book of God (How We Got the Bible).”
In 2009, Ayris completed a novel, Sudan, with career journalist Ninie Hammon.
Based on a true story, Hammon said it explores “the horror of rape, mass
murder, kidnapped children and human bondage of everyday life in Sudan.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics &
Religious Liberty Commission, wrote an endorsement of the novel as did Mike
Huckabee, a FOX television host and former Arkansas governor.
Actively sharing his ideas and expertise, Ayris served on the faculty of the
Gideon Media Arts Conference and Film Festival in early June at Ridgecrest in
North Carolina, along with other noted leaders in the film industry like David
Nixon, one of the producers of Sherwood Baptists’ “Fireproof” and “Facing the
Giants.” More recently, Nixon worked on “Letters to God.”
Ayris’ wife Kelly is a television producer who now works in the church’s
television ministry and for Kingstone. They have two sons, Ben, who will enter
law school in the fall, and Alex, who is heading to Beeson Divinity School in
“They love the comics; they think they’re cool,” Ayris said of his sons.
With an active board of directors and investors and a capable chief operating
officer at Kingstone, Ayris said he is able to spend his days overseeing the
financial and personnel aspects of the church’s various ministries, while
devoting himself to Kingstone’s creative side on nights and weekends.
Passionate men of faith
“This is my heart and soul,” Ayris said of First Baptist Leesburg, where he has
served in various positions the past 21 years — a church which he described as
“I feel like God’s given me this ability to just continue to open these doors
and to be faithful when He gives me these opportunities — and He’s given me a
calling and passion,” Ayris said.
First Baptist’s senior pastor Cliff Lea, following in the church’s tradition,
has been willing to take “God risks,” such as buying a hotel to assist homeless
“My former pastor, Charles Roesel (who retired in 2006), used to joke and say I
was a Peter, always ready to jump out of the boat,” Ayris said. “Hanging with
men of faith like that only fuels me to be more prayerful as well as more
creative in communicating God’s truth through imaginative venues and always
seeking out ways to connect with spiritually lost people.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness,
newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention. For more information, go