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Cristobal SpielmannAugust 31, 2022
Masterson, the creator of “The Catholic Cartoon,” works on a tablet, drawing his comic strip’s main character Father Otto. Some of “The Catholic Cartoon” strips, like this one, are drawn traditionally with pen on paper. (Images courtesy of Joshua Masterson.)

If you have been scrolling Instagram lately, you may have stumbled upon a comic making the rounds on social media, and possibly soon at your local parish.

“The Catholic Cartoon” is an online comic strip written and illustrated by 19-year-old Joshua Masterson of Volo, Ill. A product of Catholic homeschooling, part-time produce clerk and the fifth of 10 children, Mr. Masterson has attracted tens of thousands of followers on Instagram since his first comic in April, with each post regularly getting hundreds of likes.

The strip is a slice-of-life humor comic that follows Father Otto, a blond-haired, big-nosed priest encountering the various stresses and joys of service. Originally a silent protagonist who passively absorbed the chaos around him, Father Otto has become an active, playful character in his own right. He will try to grow a beard for a whole week, listen to two altar servers’ suggestion of a holy water balloon fight and make a spicy pasta for Pentecost to create literal tongues of fire.

"The Catholic Cartoon" is a slice-of-life humor comic that follows Father Otto, a blond-haired, big-nosed priest encountering the various stresses and joys of service.

“It is just good, wholesome humor, which is something we do not have a lot of,” said Mr. Masterson in an interview with America, explaining his reasoning behind the strip. “[Nowadays] it is just a lot of crass, inappropriate, impure humor.”

Father Otto is occasionally joined by Deacon Bob, the straight man to Father Otto’s more comedic antics, and Father Val, the elder member of the clergy trio. He also has a spotted dog named Domino and a black cat named Hippo.

There is also occasional commentary on current events of interest to Catholics. Mr. Masterson had Father Otto in one single-panel weekday comic celebrating the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a Sunday strip where Father Otto expresses concern over an altar server’s joke about a gun in church. One recent strip shows Father Otto decked out in Rambo-esque attire before going to pray the rosary, a jab at a controversial article in The Atlantic about the rosary’s association with gun culture among some online communities.

However, the strip is not always trying to make a point of its own based on the daily news. Sometimes the strip will go silent, with Father Otto praying at the Crucifix or honoring the Feast of Corpus Christi, allowing readers to contemplate in a moment to themselves.

“Every once in a while, I try to do a more spiritual and serious one,” explains Mr. Masterson, “with a meditation or a prayer, and it is a very nice, serious picture. And it kind of draws people into it, slowly.”

With his daily black-and-white strips and “Sunday Funnies” full-color strips, Mr. Masterson aims to hark back to an older tradition of comics. One of his clearest influences both in style and faith is Bil Keane, the creator of the similarly wholesome Catholic comic strip “The Family Circus.”

With his daily black-and-white strips and “Sunday Funnies” full-color strips, Mr. Masterson aims to hark back to an older tradition of comics.

“Bil Keane was one of the few,” says Mr. Masterson, “that did spiritual comic strips. He mentioned church; he was not afraid to mention his faith in his comic strips, and he would do these more—not very exclusive to Catholicism—but very wholesome, prayerful moments.”

“There is one very significant one,” Mr. Masterson continued, “where I think it is Jeffy—he has got the red hair—and he is praying, and it is a thinking bubble, and in that thinking bubble is the world. So he is praying for the whole world. It is a very wholesome thing to see, very clean and pure. There is something about the wholesomeness that people kind of miss [but they] want. Bil Keane was really awesome with that.”

The widespread closure of newspapers—or their transition to website-only publications—has affected Catholic media as well as the industry as a whole, including many comics that traditionally depend on newspaper syndication. The 2014 documentary “Stripped,” which features Jeff Keane, Bil Keane’s son and the current force behind “Family Circus,” goes into more detail about this.

In a media environment normally hostile to print storytelling, Mr. Masterson thinks he may have found an underexplored avenue to share his strip. “Churches still do bulletins [in] print, so I thought it would be cool to have my comic strip be in those bulletins, and it can be something a little special,” said Mr. Masterson.

Mr. Masterson advertises at the end of his Instagram posts directly to parishes that may want his strip to be put into their church bulletins. So far, he is in talks with his local parish of St. Peter’s Church in Volo, Ill., and two others across the country to test the waters in having the strip appear once a month.

“You gotta start somewhere, right?” said Mr. Masterson. “There is a lot of people there, and I think it is just a very unique thing to have. I think it will make the bulletin that much more special and draw people to read the bulletin, actually.”

“I had followed him on Instagram and liked his work,” said Suzanna Linton, parish secretary of St. Anthony Church in Florence, S.C., in an email to America. The church had used a strip of Mr. Masterson’s in the bulletin on July 24, after Ms. Linton reached out to Mr. Masterson.

“We use a bulletin service that provides things like cartoon strips but I liked Joshua’s work better. It felt like it had more heart and the humor was not trite,” said Ms. Linton.

“I want to bring joy to the world with the gifts God has given me,” said Mr. Masterson.

However, that does not mean going from digital to print is an easy process. Busy seasons for a parish might leave less room for a strip, Ms. Linton stressed, and multi-paneled comics that look great on Instagram might leave details lost when translated to the page.

“We have to keep in mind our older readers who might not see detail very easily,” explained Ms. Linton.

Still, Mr. Masterson is hopeful of the jump from digital to print. He highlighted colleague Matt Fradd of the podcast Pints with Aquinas and the YouTube channel Catholic Lofi—the latter for whom Mr. Masterson has done freelance art and animation—for Mr. Fradd’s efforts to start a print newsletter as a way for Catholic media to support the community.

Even while recognizing the ease and access of online comics, Mr. Masterson emphasized the need to step out of technology and read physical media, which he associates with a nostalgia understood by everyone. Mr. Masterson considers that feeling to be a merging of the nostalgia for the artwork of pre-Y2K comics with the nostalgia for the medium in which we read them.

When I asked whether Mr. Masterson considered “The Catholic Cartoon” a form of evangelization, he agreed without question, highlighting the strip’s ability to reach Catholic and non-Catholic audiences.

“I want to bring joy to the world with the gifts God has given me,” said Mr. Masterson, “but also to build up his kingdom, to raise the hearts and minds of his people to him using my gifts. Art has a very special way of doing that, raising your heart and mind to a higher plane of thinking.”

“It might sound really ridiculous and silly, but even [with] my comic strips, people have come to me and they have told me some of these have meant a lot to them [and] have really touched them,” said Mr. Masterson. “When I hear that, I am like, that is exactly what I want. That is exactly what I want for this.”

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