Thursday, September 18, 2008

The "Vulture" Has Landed

Before anything else, the nation's religion writers are meeting in DC this weekend for their annual conference. The shebang runs through Sunday, and a liveblog and twitter feed are up and off.

The photo above, however, isn't of an RNA veteran who mistakenly landed at the Star Trek convention... but Archbishop John Myers of Newark, who (as longtimers will recall) penned a sci-fi novel, Space Vulture, alongside his boyhood best-friend Gary Wolf (better known as the scribe behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)... and, yep, that's Myers' coat-of-arms on the helmet.

With the book now on the shelves, Jersey's metropolitan -- recently named by B16 to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts -- got his close-up courtesy of local God-scribe Jeff Diamant of the Star-Ledger:

"You have to admit, I'm being a good sport about this," says the archbishop of Newark.

John J. Myers, the spiritual leader of 1.3 million Catholics, a man who wears well the stateliness of his high church office, who goes through life addressed as "Your Excellency," who is revered in Catholic circles as a canon lawyer and a proud, conservative rock of his church, is, at this moment, speaking through the face hole of a costume space helmet he has donned at the request of his guests. In a few minutes, standing in the grassy yard of his summer residence in Hunterdon County, he will even don pointy Spock ears and a pair of alien antennae.

The bespectacled archbishop is doing this to promote and discuss a fun and uncanonic part of his life -- his love of science fiction and, specifically, Space Vulture, a sci-fi novel he published in March with childhood friend Gary Wolf, who decades ago went off to his own kind of fame as a novelist and creative mind behind long-eared 'toon Roger Rabbit. Their book, a fastpaced 333-page tale of intergalactic fantasy, is colored with invented species (lizardos, bulbos and Bictosian arthropods) and fictional planets (Verlinap and Medusker) that provide the setting for a heroic marshal, Victor Corsaire, to team up with a widow, her two sons and a con man to battle the notorious Space Vulture. "Obviously it's an image-changer," said Myers, who is better known for writing pastoral letters against abortion. "People think of archbishops as always super- serious, and all the burdens-of the- world type stuff. The fact that we could come up with stuff like that just is not what people would expect."

It's hard to argue with John J. Myers. He is being a good sport. Now, the space helmet is off, the Spock ears and antennae are on, the camera is clicking, and the photographer, taking these things seriously as photographers are paid to do, is pondering the scene. "I'm going to try a couple without the ears," he says. "With the antennae." The archbishop obliges, with the same type of aplomb that impressed Wolf six years ago when the pair decided to write the book. "I had a number of conversations with him," Wolf recalled. " 'Are you sure you really want to this?' Because writing a book like this ... for John, this could've been a career-ender. John could have opened himself up for horrendous criticism for doing this, both in the lay Catholic community and certainly in the Catholic hierarchy. 'I asked John, 'What's the pope going to say when this comes out?' John said, 'I don't know. I guess we'll find out.' "...

Unfortunately, at least for readers looking for what might lurk in the inner depths of the archbishop's mind, neither author said he could recall much about who came up with what. Myers said Wolf did most of the writing, and that he pitched in with plot, themes and character development. Wolf remembered that at one point, "John was talking about how neat it would be to have some really horrific kind of space alien. He didn't come up with the flesh-eating monster, but John was the one who got me thinking in that direction.... We both had a really good time with that one."

The book has sold decently, according to the publisher, though its ranking is low. Reader reviews online are almost all positive. Myers said he plans to use his share of money from the book deal, probably tens of thousands of dollars, for college funds for his nieces and nephews.

The publisher, Tor Books, loved the idea of promoting a book written by an archbishop and a 'toon creator. And in what somehow seems fitting for this eclectic project, the editor was a guy named Moshe. That's Moshe Feder, who enjoyed editing a Catholic honcho almost as much as Myers enjoyed writing the book. "There's a slight incongruity: 'Moshe Feder, graduate of yeshiva for 12 years, editing the archbishop,' " Feder joked. "It's like if I went to Notre Dame and was editing a famous rabbi."

Pope Benedict XVI has been predictably silent on "Space Vulture". The closest thing to a response from Rome? A Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, quoted on the book jacket, called the book a "rollicking good time with a spice of high camp and a moral underpinning far more sophisticated than the original space operas were ever capable of attaining."

PHOTOS: The Star-Ledger