RefToons: An Interview with Paul Cox | Ep. 52

If you spend much time on social media, you’ve likely come across RefToons – cartoons depicting figures from church history such as Calvin, Owen, Spurgeon, and many more.

RefToons exists to preserve the legacy of theologians of the past by producing humorous and thought-provoking comic strips that bring clarity to various biblical teachings through visual storytelling.

On this episode of the podcast we talk with Paul Cox, the artist behind RefToons, to learn about how his love for deep theology inspires his creative work.

Along the way we’ll also talk about the importance of church history, the value of catechisms, and which person is Paul’s favorite one to draw.

On this Episode We’ll Discuss:

  • How Paul became a cartoonist
  • How RefToons got its start
  • The impact older works from pastors and theologians have had
  • The process of creating a RefToon comic
  • Why merging humor and theology is helpful in our social media age
  • The importance of catechisms and how Paul’s illustrated Baptist and Westminster Catechisms came to be
  • Paul’s favorite person to draw and what he hopes to create in the future


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About Our Guest

Paul CoxPaul Cox is a full-time freelance cartoonist and is the artist behind the popular RefToons drawings, where he depicts figures from church history in fun, thought-provoking ways.

Additionally, he has several books including The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Poetic Journey, the Illustrated Baptist Catechism and the Illustrated Westminster Catechism. You can see his work at RefToons.com.

Illustrated Catechisms

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Transcript

Clay Kraby: Well, thanks for joining us. We are going to be talking with Paul Cox. He’s a full time freelance cartoonist. He’s the artist behind the popular RefToons drawings, where he depicts figures from church history in fun and thought provoking ways.

Additionally, he has several books, including Pilgrim’s Progress: A Poetic Journey, as well as An Illustrated Baptist Catechism. And now he has the Illustrated Westminster Shorter Catechism. You can check out his work at RefToons.com and, of course, on social media. So, Paul, thank you so much for joining us.

Paul Cox: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Clay Kraby: Now, as we start, could you share a little bit about yourself and your family and how you got into your work as a professional cartoonist?

Paul Cox: Yeah. So I live in Wisconsin with my wife, Stephanie. We’ve been married for 16 years, going on 17 in July. We have four kids: ages six, eight, nine, and twelve. It’s hard to keep those straight.

Clay Kraby: I know how that goes.

Paul Cox: So my path to becoming a cartoonist, is that what you want to ask?

Clay Kraby: Yeah – How did you get into that line of work?

Paul Cox: So it’s a long process and it’s a long story, so I’ll try to shorten it as best I can. So I graduated from college in 2006. I went to a private university that was affiliated with the denomination I was a part of at the time, and they had a good art program. So I went there. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my art. I just knew I wanted to do art ever since I was a kid. I said I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grow up. And so I graduated in 2006 with a general art degree. Didn’t really know what to do with it, what I could do with it. One of my professors was encouraging me not to go the route of being a cartoonist.

So he told me that I would be living in a garbage can or living out of a garbage can or a dumpster if I went that route. And he really wanted to push me towards like, well, the focus of that art Department was really to push out graphic designers and art teachers of which I didn’t really want to be either.

So after college, we were married in college and then after college, we moved to Wisconsin and I found whatever job I could find to support my family at the time, which was working at a deli dog house making Italian beef sandwiches. So that moved into getting a job as a screen printer at a screen print shop, printing t-shirts. And then I finally, in 2009, I landed an actual art job doing technical drawings for scrollsaw woodworking patterns that lasted about three or four months. And then I got laid off from that job because their customer base was dwindling and I think they just ended up shutting down the company.

So I got laid off, couldn’t find any more work and so scouring the internet on job boards and all that stuff. I came across Craigslist and I saw that they had this little section called Creative Gigs and I was like, what’s that? So I clicked on it. There are all kinds of jobs for like freelance illustration, freelance arts, all kinds of different things. And this kind of opened up a world of possibilities and opportunities for me to explore.

So I ended up landing a few jobs through Craigslist, actually just doing freelance illustration from home and I’ve been able to build that up. I no longer work through Craigslist, but I have some clients that I work for as a cartoonist, doing what I love and I’ve been doing that for about twelve years now, working as a full time freelancer.

Clay Kraby: So you do a variety of things as a cartoonist. I think those will be watching this are going to be most familiar with your work with RefToons. So how would you describe what RefToons is and how did it begin to be kind of its own thing that you were focused on?

Paul Cox: Yeah. So with RefToons, I was going through a crisis of theology, you might say my theology was shifting into more Calvinistic Reformed and I didn’t want to just keep it to myself. I thought like all these old dead guys that I’m reading, they have such rich stuff that everybody needs to be reading it.

So I had this idea of kind of merging my love of theology and my love of comics and kind of sharing what I’m learning through this process of my theological shift.

I actually had the idea for it like one or two years before I started. I started in 2017; the first post I posted on Facebook. But I had the idea a couple of years before that, just kind of tossing around in my head, did a couple of sketches and wasn’t sure what to do with it and decided in 2017 just to go for it.

So I had done a few other side projects. Aside from my freelancing work, I had my own personal comics. Like probably the more popular one was Dad Versus Nature, which was about my adventures in fatherhood. So I had previously been trying to put out some comic strips out there. And this idea for RefToons just kind of merged that level of doing the comic strips. Plus the added benefit of sharing solid biblical foundations.

Clay Kraby: Do you remember, was there a particular post that you put out there, was it right from the start that you realized that this kind of really resonated with people online?

Paul Cox: Yeah, I think so. The very first two RefToons comics were a little more comedic in nature and so it wasn’t really like the serious, in depth stuff that you see from me now, but it was more like the first one was just a joke about Martin Luther pounding on the door of Wittenberg with his nail and hammer and then a line of kids behind him trick or treating.

And then the next one was Charles Spurgeon and his pancake breakfast. But the one after that was sure where I started getting into a more serious subject matter, which was John Owen with a bunch of fresh graves, burying his sins, basically mortifying his sins. And the quote was, “Kill sin or sin will be killing you.”

And then I think that there’s kind of a shift in the direction that I wanted to go with RefToons. And I feel like that one really saw the reaction to that one and I just felt like I needed to go a little more serious and less joking. Although I still throw in some more joking. But just to share that deep theology, it can be very deep. And I think using these images, these comic images kind of help bring it to life.

Clay Kraby: Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned little bit that you went through this theological shift that kind of coincided with the birth of refuges. And you’re often drawing these figures from church history, Calvin and Spurgeon and Luther and a number of Puritans and others. So what draws you personally to these men and how have you benefited from the work of these Reformers and these pastors and Puritans and other theologians?

Paul Cox: So I guess what draws me to them is their theology and how they articulate the doctrines of the faith. It really helps just the way that they write in the depth of how they write about the doctrines found in scripture is almost like they’re just mining for gold and presenting the jewels for us to see. So I guess it really draws me into the Scriptures and pushes me to mine each passage for the riches that are contained in them.

Clay Kraby: So what does the process look like for you? Are you reading these works and then when you highlight something, you’re thinking in terms of what you can illustrate and cartoons you can make how do you come up with the ideas for what it is you’re going to draw?

Paul Cox: Yeah, what I draw is based on what I’m reading at the time. So if you see a lot of JC Ryle in like one month, then I’m probably reading a lot of JC Ryle at that time or same with Spurgeon.

A lot of it comes from things that I’m reading and I’ll underline quotes as I’m reading and think, oh, that might make a good toon. That would be a good truth to illustrate. And other times I just scour the interwebs, looking for quotes that may work well as an illustration. And then I have to try to make sure I vet each quote, make sure it was actually quoted by the person.

Clay Kraby: There’s a lot of things attributed to Spurgeon out there.

Paul Cox: I know. Yeah, I had to go back and put on one of my Spurgeon ones, I actually wrote “commonly attributed to Spurgeon” because I couldn’t actually find where it was. So, yeah, that takes a lot more work than just picking up one of these guy’s books and reading through it, because you know where it’s coming from then. But finding quotes online can be pretty hazardous sometimes.

Clay Kraby: Now, I’ve seen some of the videos that you put on Instagram where you’re kind of showing yourself drawing these things on screen live. Are you purely a digital cartoonist, or are you sketching these things out on a notebook first to get your ideas down? Or how does that look for you?

Paul Cox: I do both. So when I first started all of the toons were drawn on paper, inked on paper, and colored on paper. Well, actually, I take that back. The first ones weren’t colored on paper. It was after I got some special markers that I started coloring some. But excuse me, it was kind of a break from my full-time freelance work, where I am completely digital all the time for everything I do for my freelance work.

So, RefToons when I started, it was kind of a break from being digital all the time and staring at a screen all the time. So it was nice to get that raw material, paper and pen and pencil and just draw on that. But then I kind of morphed into doing both, so digital and traditional. So it really depends on how I’m feeling at the time. If I think I can draw something without having to sketch too much, then I’ll do it on the paper, because erasing takes a lot out of the paper and takes a lot of the drawing. With digital I can just do layers and remove the layers. So, yeah, I do both.

Clay Kraby: And are there a number of drafts that happen between your first idea to kind of a finished cartoon?

Paul Cox: Yeah, I have sketchbooks full of, like, 1st, 2nd, 3rd drafts of some of the early comics. And even when I’m sketching on the computer, I’ll go through a rough draft, change it, and then I’ll maybe scrap the whole thing, try a different layout, different things like that.

So, yeah, there’s a number of changes and revisions that go on throughout the whole process. I start with a very rough sketch with basically just shapes, scribbled shapes. And then I slowly add the detail as I get it to where I want it to be as far as composition goes and things like that.

Clay Kraby: So all the people that you draw and again, those that are familiar with following you on Instagram or anything else, you draw lots of different people, a lot of Reformers, a lot of Puritans.

Do you have a figure that’s the most fun to draw that you really enjoy and kind of come back to again and again?

Paul Cox: Yes. And it is Charles Spurgeon.

Clay Kraby: I figured that was going to be the answer.

Paul Cox: Right. He’s definitely my favorite to draw. He has probably some of the most illustratable quotes. He’s funny he’s insightful and he’s a hard edge when he needs to be.

He also is one of those preachers who kind of fills…not fills the gaps, but bridges the gaps between all different denominations. And so he’s kind of like a lot of people use them and they don’t realize it’s Calvinist and all that. But he’s very illustratable and I especially love his John Plowman’s Pictures book, which is, I think its subtitled Plain Talk or Plain Speech for Plain Folk or something like that.

Clay Kraby: Yeah, something like that. Yeah. I was just introducing that to my kids the other day and they got to come out of some of those. It’s very humorous and very vivid illustrations.

Paul Cox: Right. It’s almost like Aesop’s Fables a little bit.

Clay Kraby: Yeah. Right. Moral lessons in there and some good sketches. He’s got John Plowman’s talking and John Plowman’s Pictures are both worth checking out if people aren’t familiar with those. So you’ve got RefToons. And as you said, it started at least right out the gate of being probably leaning more towards the fun and funny side. And now you try to give it enough attention to kind of – not serious, that they’re not fun – but you’re giving some deeper truths in these good quotes and illustrating concepts. What value do you see in merging sound theology with fun and humor, particularly in the social media age that we live in?

Paul Cox: Right. I really think that humor and um, comics especially, they’re a little bit satirical in nature, like using satire. And I feel like that really brings out the truth in a lot of things because it contrasts like something so exaggerated with what the truth is.

And I don’t know if I explained that understandably or not, but I think that comics and illustrations juxtaposed with words especially really helps drive the concept behind what is trying to be said in the words. And I’m a very visual person. So for me personally, it helps me understand concepts better when I have imagery to go along with it.

Clay Kraby: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s great. They’re eye catching. So if people are scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, whatever and come across this, I think it’s going to stop them a little bit longer than just a quote on a nature background or something.

And I think these are wonderful ways to introduce people to some really solid names that they ought to know. They ought to be familiar with, if not regular reading. Thomas Watson, for example, or Calvin or Zwingli or whoever else. And I think it’s just a wonderful merging of just the fun of a comic and really introducing these sound theological writers and pastors and theologians, as well as the concepts that they teach. So it seems to be a really good merging of both of those things.

Paul Cox: Yeah.

Clay Kraby: Now, one of the things that you have, I want to talk about your catechism books, but could you talk a little bit about your Pilgrims Progress book that you have?

Paul Cox: Yeah, definitely. So my wife and I rewrote The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan as a rhyming poem for kids. And I illustrated it as a children’s book, like a children’s picture book. So each page kind of has like a four line stanza or rhyme. I don’t know what the proper word is for that stanza maybe. Each page has a four line stanza and it rhymes and it goes through a very condensed story. I think it’s about 42 pages or 44 pages. So it’s very condensed. But we rewrote it and it’s available through H and E publishing and also through RefToons.com.

Clay Kraby: Excellent. So definitely worth checking out. Those who would be drawn to your cartoons and figures like Spurgeon and everybody else will obviously probably have a soft spot in their heart for Pilgrim’s Progress and having a means to introduce that to our kids in a way where they can grasp the core elements of the story and keep it fun.

And you go from that and then you can go to The Dangerous Journey, which is a really solid picture format. Some creepy pictures in there, by the way. And then introducing the full thing. I think that’s just a really neat way to get to keep that classic story at the forefront and even on our young kids, too.

Paul Cox: Yeah.

Clay Kraby: So you have these catechism books as well. For those joining in our conversation who aren’t familiar. A catechism is just a way of teaching theological truth through questions and answers. So you have the Baptist catechism, and now you’ve got coming out the Westminster Shorter Catechism. So could you talk a little bit about what drew you to even to start these projects and how they could benefit parents using them?

Paul Cox: Yeah, I love catechisms. I think they’re super important for kids and adults coming in to understand theology a little more than I had growing up. I mean, catechisms were very useful to me because they kind of brought out the basic doctrines of the Bible in question and answer format that was easily understandable and kind of systematic.

It just went through like who is God? Who are we in relation to God? What is sin? And all this just all the doctrines building on each other and um it’s very important. It was very important for me to understand deeper theology and so I’ve illustrated two catechisms, the Baptist and the Westminster catechism. They’re both very similar. So I was actually able to use a lot of the same imagery for both of them. But some of the images is very different just because um, the Westminster is geared towards Presbyterian.

The Baptist is obviously geared towards Baptist and they each have their own differing um, theological views when it comes to baptism and some of the other things. Westminster has 107 questions. The Baptist catechism has 114 questions.

So there’s a little difference there. I wanted um to see more solid theological material for um, children. I hadn’t seen much of it out there and I hadn’t really seen any illustrative catechisms. Although after I um, started these I did find that I think in the 60s or 70s, maybe 80s. One of those years there was a guy named Vic Lockman who illustrated the Westminster Shorter Catechism and he did it in comic strip form which was pretty cool.

So yeah, I just wanted to see something out there and these are both in the public domain. They were written in the 1600s. There was no copyright any to get for them. So I was able to just find some of the original text, put them into uh this format and illustrate them and so I decided to go the self publishing route just to get them out there. And so now they’re available through reptiles.com.

Right now I’m actually doing a pre order for the Westminster. The Baptist is already done and printed. So the Westminster is available for preorder right now through raftunes.com and those pre orders will help us determine how many books to get and help us to pay for the printing.

Clay Kraby: Excellent. Yeah. I encourage people to check those out. I actually need to pick one up; we’re doing the Baptist catechism in our house and have been for many uh, weeks now through what we do at our church and encouraging that during the week.

So I still need to pick up my Baptist catechism. And just having seen the kind of the preview images there its really helpful to have a visual, I think especially for kids to have a visual to go along with the answer because sometimes the answers you were mentioned, it was written in the 1600. So as valuable as it is, sometimes the answer is a little bit unwieldy.

Paul Cox: Yeah.

Clay Kraby: Having that visual can be a really big help.

Paul Cox: Yeah. And I kept the old English in there because I didn’t want to mess with trying to translate the old English into modern English. I just kept it the same. So it’s pretty meaty. Yeah.

Clay Kraby: And I agree with you wholeheartedly catechism is a great thing. It’s unfortunate that it’s often an unknown tool in people’s arsenal, particularly parents. But it seems with some things, it’s maybe getting a bit of a resurgence, and that’s a great thing.

So it’s nice to have a couple of tools like this to help people in that and maybe help things go a little bit smoothly and add this element of fun to it as well. I think that’s a win all the way around.

Paul Cox: Yeah, definitely.

Clay Kraby: So what do you enjoy most about your RefToons work?

Paul Cox: What do I enjoy most? I really enjoy digging into the old theological material. I really enjoy wrestling with the questions that come up as I’m reading questions that I would have probably never known to ask or ask the Scriptures.

Even as you’re reading Scripture, you should ask questions where, when, why, things like that. But there’s other questions about different doctrines. Theology. Recently, I’ve been asking questions and about the Second Commandment, for example. There’s a lot of differing views that I found out when I came into the Reformed world. There’s a lot of different views on what constitutes a Second Amendment violation and things like that.

So reading a lot of these old Puritans and things, they answer some of these questions with their interpretations. And it’s good to learn from the past and challenge different ideas that may have been formed in your head through, I want to say, American Christianity, commercialized Christianity.

I just really enjoy digging into theological material. I think it’s so rich. And also, another thing I enjoy about my work with refugees is that last year Stephanie and I were able to start taking refugees conferences, setting up a booth at conferences. And through doing that, we’ve been able to meet a lot of the people that we’ve interacted with online through our live drawing videos and things like that. It’s just been really fun to put faces to the different people that we interact with online. So that’s been fun.

Clay Kraby: That’s great. I’ve seen, especially on your Instagram, where you’ve drawn some modern day people as well. RC Sproul already passed, but you’ve got some with him. I was watching one where you were kind of live drawing. I had just skipped a head in it and about ten strokes in the thing I knew it was Steve Lawson. Have you had any interaction with any of the living people that you’ve drawn, or has a word got back to you at all, whether they’re flattered and enjoyed it, or have you not had a chance to hear back from anybody that you’ve drawn?

Paul Cox: Yeah, I’ve heard from a few people. I’ve been able to gift some of my original drawings of some of these people. So I did a quote from Tom Ascol, and I was able to gift him the original art of that, and he seemed to enjoy it. And then James White, I was able to gift him one that I did of him and Jeff Durban. But, yeah, I’ve heard from other people. Uh, I did one of Bad Voddie, where he turned into, like, a Hulk. And I heard from Voddie that he enjoyed that one.

Clay Kraby: Excellent. I don’t know if you can say it’s hot off the press quite yet, since you’re still doing pre-orders on the Westminster, so I know that project is really fresh and recent, but do you have anything in mind, anything on the horizon that you’re hoping to do when you get the opportunity?

Paul Cox: Yeah. Well, so I’d like to continue. I call them daily reference posts, but I really don’t do any new ones. Every day I do a new single panel rough tune, maybe once a month or twice a month, sometimes not even just depending on my schedule. But there are a few other projects I’d like to do.

I’d like to do some graphic novels, possibly based on people from church history or even just based on concepts. I had this idea for a graphic novel based on John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. But I would turn that into more of, like, a story form rather than a teaching story. I don’t know how to describe that, but it would be more of, like a fictional story based on John Owen’s Mortification of Sin. So things like that and just getting back into the single panel comic strips.

Clay Kraby: Very cool. Now, where should folks go to learn more about you and your work and check out some of these cartoons.

Paul Cox: You can go to RefToons.com, or you can find me on all the social medias. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. I’m also on all the alternative social medias, so that would be like Gab, Getter, Parlor. I try to grab the reptiles all the places, each one that comes up, just in case.

Clay Kraby: Yes. You don’t want anybody squatting on the reference name, right? Well, I appreciate you taking the time. Thank you for joining us on this episode. Our guest has been Paul Cox of RefToons. I encourage everyone to check out RefToons.com and especially commend checking out the Illustrated Baptist Catechism and the Illustrated Westminster Shorter Catechism that’s coming out soon. So get your pre-orders in.

Paul Can’t, thank you enough for joining us. Thank you for your time.

Paul Cox: Thank you for having me. It was fun.

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