A few years ago, award-winning illustrator John Hendrix, member of Grace and Peace Fellowship (PCA) in St. Louis, took a detour away from picture books so he could introduce teenagers to the courageous story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer via the graphic novel.  

Released in 2018, “The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler” dramatizes the short life of Bonhoeffer alongside the rise and fall of Hitler’s Germany. ByFaith’s Zoe Erler spoke with Hendrix about what he hopes to accomplish with this fresh retelling of one of the 20th century’s most respected martyrs’ story.   

Q Who is the primary audience for this book?

Middle-grade and senior high young people. Particularly, non-Christian young people who know nothing about Bonhoeffer or about theology and its role in opposing the Third Reich.

I want them to understand that Bonhoeffer’s brave acts were not brave in a vacuum. They were motivated by conclusions that he drew from his theological life. The secular world can easily acknowledge that Bonhoeffer did some brave and self-sacrificial things. Any school should teach about his idea of civil courage. But if you’re going to learn about him and be intellectually honest, you’re going to have to understand the things that motivated him.

The narrative that many young people often hear about religion is that it’s basically a divisive force in the world, and it is a root of endless conflict and if we could just minimize its presence we would all be better. It is certainly true that religion is part of global conflict,  just like a lot of factors and institutions. But faith is not always divisive and problematic. And Bonhoeffer is an example of someone who, to a secular audience, is a religious figure who was motivated to do something brave and courageous.

Q And why a graphic novel instead of a traditional young adult novel?

I had imagined it early on as a journal or sketchbook that had come to life. I really wanted to immerse people in the story, partially because I’m a visual learner. In trying to tell the dual stories of Hitler and Bonhoeffer together — this massive grand narrative of the rise and fall of the Third Reich alongside this very small story of this one, single theologian —  the pictures really give people an establishing shot for the whole world. I could use maps and color, all in service of clarity of storytelling.

“If there’s a lesson for the American church now, it’s the danger of becoming a creature of the state in any form. Even if we think our goals are aligning with the state actions, the church is meant to be a prophetic voice to the state — we must never become creatures of the state.”

Explaining to a 12-year-old what the Third Reich is, how it came to power, why that’s relevant, how Germany existed before World War I, and why World War II was such an astonishing event — all of these things are incredibly complicated. The pictures were a natural extension of how I think and learn.

Q You picked a two-tone red-and-teal color scheme. Why?

These two colors vibrate against each other; they’re unsettling. Dietrich has the teal, and Hitler has the red. As their stories come together, the colors overlap. The colors tell the story alongside the text and the images.

Q We know that Hitler used “Christianity” to achieve his own ends. How did he convince the majority of Germany’s churches to back him?

What you have to understand when you think about Germany at this time is that the German church was basically synonymous with German identity. Hitler was very aware of this connection. He understood that the identity politics of the country were wrapped around the church. He was not going to be able to bend the country without bending the church first.

Germans were desperate for a return to their prominence on the world stage. They were at the height of cultural power before World War I. They were at the height of theology, the arts, and the sciences. They had an elite army; they had everything. The population was eager for someone to help them return to their former glory, after the humiliation of losing World War I and the Treaty of Versailles. When Hitler began his rise, he did it within the bounds of polite society … initially. He created the “Reich Church.” He wanted to bring the church back to prominence and power. Many of the church leaders were seduced by this courtship.

But Hitler said privately how much he hated the values of Christianity — meekness, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. But he put on the hat of a Christian because he knew he needed to say the right things to get the church leaders into his pocket. Once the church leaders acquiesced to the Reich Church and Hitler’s demand that no Jewish people be in the church, then it became so costly for the theological leaders to oppose him. It would be seen as going against this incredibly popular leader who was bringing Germany back to power. They were stuck.

The story of the church’s capitulation to a state leader is really the actual lesson from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yes, he fought the Third Reich and joined an assassination plot. But I think if there’s a lesson for the American church now, it’s the danger of becoming a creature of the state in any form. Even if we think our goals are aligning with the state actions, the church is meant to be a prophetic voice to the state — we must never become creatures of the state. Because once that happens, the very unique role the church occupies gets compromised.

Q You choose to portray Hitler as a wolf in many of the scenes in the book. Talk about that choice.

Hitler loved wolves. “Adolf” means “noble wolf” in German. He would sometimes go by the nickname “Herr Wolf,” and his secret hideout was called the “Wolf’s Lair.” The image of a wolf connected to Hitler conceptually, but also metaphorically. He was very much a predator lying in wait for the church. He was also a predator toward his own men. On one page, I show him eating some of his generals and stormtroopers. He had dozens of his own men executed. So, Hitler was not even a loyal German, really. … Hitler was a man who had no loyalties other than to his own power and desires.

Q A big part of the story you tell is Bonhoeffer’s internal conflict. He pondered what he would do if forced to enlist in the German army — flee the country or resist. And then ultimately he faced the conflict between violating his moral code not to murder and what he deemed to be the greatest good, which was to help eliminate an evil tyrant. Talk about this struggle and how you portrayed this.

He was convicted on every front, really. First of all, he had become a pacifist after his time in New York. If he was drafted into the army, he was not going to pick up arms and fight for the Nazis, which would mean he would have to be shot or hanged for sedition. It was either that, or run away. These were terrible choices.

Even once he makes the choice to return to Germany from America, having basically escaped enlistment by taking a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary, he was basically returning to a land where, once he joined the plot, he was joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler. He decided that he was forced to sin in one way or another. To kill was sin. To not act was also sin in his mind.

All of this was very difficult to capture visually. If there’s anything difficult to illustrate, it’s a character thinking or his internal state of mind. There’s nothing there to draw! Throughout the book, I used prayer as a way to visualize his anxiety. I put these distressed bubbles of thought around him. There is, of course, him writing as well. There’s him peering at this weird Third Reich serpent character that’s coming after him. He’s surrounded on all sides by these metaphorical ambiguities. 

Q Eventually, Bonhoeffer made the decision to serve in the Abwehr, a German intelligence organization, as a double agent so that he could contribute to the conspiracy to kill Hitler. How did he arrive at this decision, and how did he handle being misunderstood?

After all of this internal wrestling, he ultimately chose to act by joining the Abwehr. Once he made the decision, he was confident in that. He had doubt and fear like anyone would, but ultimately he was convinced that this was the only action left to him. 

“When people do things that are just, we want them to win. But Jesus says we will be persecuted, that we will bear a cross. That is a difficult lesson, because no one likes it. We want Bonhoeffer to win, because he was right.”

Imagine what his friends must have thought. He couldn’t tell them he was a double agent, so now he also had to endure all of this anxiety about lying to those close to him. One scene I illustrate is a time when he and his best friend, Eberhard, were eating at a restaurant, and the announcement of Hitler’s victory in Paris comes in over the radio. And Dietrich immediately stood and gave the “Heil Hitler” salute. Eberhard thought he was crazy. But Bonhoeffer believed that it was very important to play the game once he committed to being a part of the conspiracy. Why draw suspicion at this point?

Q In the end, Bonhoeffer’s mission failed. But we still consider him a hero. What do you want young readers to take away from Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom?

This is a bummer in our Marvel Universe world. When people do things that are just, we want them to win. But obedience does not always lead to success. Jesus does not call us to success. He says that we will be persecuted, that we will bear a cross. That is a difficult lesson, because no one likes it. We want Bonhoeffer to win, because he was right. 

What I say in the end is that though he was captured by the Nazis, he was never really their prisoner. In some ways, his martyrdom gives us a much more poignant story than if he had survived. If the Allies had liberated the camp before he was executed and if he had lived to be 100, that would have just been 10 years ago. It’s fascinating to think about what his life would have been if he had survived. It’s a tough story to tell because of the ending.

Q You spent some time in Germany, which included a visit to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer was hanged. What was it like being there?

The place was haunting, and I encourage everyone to visit a concentration camp at some point in their life. While in Berlin, I was able to access his personal letter archive. As I was holding his letters, I realized that I will never really know him. There’s no way I can know him in any significant way. There’s no one I could talk to that knew him. It reminded me that all biographies are editorial to some extent. This is hard, and I hope I’m doing him and his life and his ideas justice.

I always tell people to read his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” They are so revealing and heartbreaking. He’s totally unguarded. That portrait of him is very beautiful and worth the read.

From the Illustrator’s Desk

In many ways, John Hendrix stumbled into the world of illustration. While studying at the University of Kansas, he focused on becoming a comic artist, but an illustration professor opened the world beyond comics, and illustration soon became Hendrix’s passion.

Out of college, the St. Louis native took an internship with The New York Times, and soon became known as the go-to guy for “calamity illustrations.”

“I really love drawing small things and lots of explosions,” he says. “I think my rosy outlook and whimsical drawings can undercut some of the horror of disaster.”

Promoted to assistant art director of The New York Times op-ed page, Hendrix’s eye-grabbing drawings were in high demand across the editorial landscape, including outlets like Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Nickelodeon.

Hendrix began to explore the world of picture-book illustrating and writing, a craft he says he also found through hard work and a bit of luck. His first picture book, “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek,” was named an American Library Association’s Notable Book of 2009. “Miracle Man,” his 2016 depiction of the ministry of Jesus, even received kudos from The Times, which wrote, “ … even nonbelievers will enjoy this powerfully told and visually dazzling book.”

But Hendrix doesn’t view things along the sacred/secular divide. In his opinion, all art is God’s art, whether he’s working on a rendering of Isaiah 64 or of Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook empire. 

“I certainly make my faith very visible in my content, and sometimes it is very challenging to be a Christian in the art field,” says Hendrix. “At the same time, I don’t think I’m particularly persecuted. But there are certain moments where it does feel complicated. At times, I make choices that others wouldn’t make. By foregrounding Christian themes, that occasionally makes my work less desirable for a more secular award, or secular marketplace sales, for example.”

Still, he admits that his favorite illustrations are those that spill from his pen while he is sitting in the pew on Sunday morning at Grace and Peace Fellowship. 

“I’ve always drawn whenever I’m seated somewhere and someone is speaking to me, whether it’s a meeting or a lecture or church. But it was about 10 or 15 years ago that I realized my church sketchbook was almost a prophetic voice for me,” he explains. “It was a way that I could practice a kind of worship within my craft. In many ways, I could reconnect with what I love about drawing. There’s no assignment; it’s just for the act of play and creating joy. The drawing-in-church thing helps me meditate on Scripture, a kind of visual theology. There’s so much rich image-based language
in the Bible.”

Also a family man, Hendrix frequently solicits the opinion of his kids — Jack, 13, and Annie, 10 — in the creative process.

“They are wonderful test audiences — their range in age and different personalities offer a wide array of opinions,” he says. “But their favorite part of the book process is when I get the first big box of a new book and we celebrate.”

JOHN HENDRIX is the illustrator of “Nurse, Soldier, Spy” and author/illustrator of “Shooting at the Stars,” among others. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.