Captain Zepto was born on a bad hair day.
Hank Kunneman, pastor of Lord of Hosts Church in Omaha, was at a hotel getting ready for a speaking engagement with his wife, Brenda.
There was a problem, however. Their hotel had only one mirror and his wife quickly claimed it. Kunneman resorted to blow-drying his hair without the benefit of seeing what he was doing.
When Brenda saw the results, she burst out laughing.
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “Look at your hair.”
When Hank saw his accidental pompadour, he had a good chuckle and an idea popped into his head. He sketched out a character before they left for their event.
It was the birth of Captain Zepto.
More than 20 years have passed since the blow dryer incident, and with the help of illustrator Norris Hall, The Galactic Quests of Captain Zepto comic books are reaching children throughout America and beyond. The space adventurer battles fear, “negatoids,” and the dastardly plans of evil Dr. Zorb. He has been warmly received by children and parents. Online, the series has received overwhelmingly positive customer reviews.
“My 8yr old son LOVED it!!!” one person wrote on Amazon.com. “I so appreciate funny, engaging and CLEAN but still cool reading material for our kids!”
Now the nondenominational charismatic pastor is excited to launch an animated version of the comic aimed at kids between the ages of 4 and 12. The first episode was released at the Opening the Heavens conference on September 15, sponsored by Lord of Hosts Church. Early audiences gave enthusiastic feedback.
“I’m watching kids just fall in love with it,” Kunneman said. “I’m watching God cross many different lines to touch people because his hand is on it.”
Of all the current entertainment options—from books to podcasts to movies—animated series may be the most promising for evangelicals. VeggieTales paved the way in the 1990s, showing that a fun and creative show for children could please Christian parents, win over secular audiences, and raise a generation on “Silly Songs with Larry” while still conveying moral messages.
Anna Alsager, a Christian animator who currently teaches at George Fox University, believes the animated vegetables created a great model.
“It really kickstarted the Christian community in the entertainment industry, not only because it was one of the first 3D animated Christian films, but it was also handling Christian themes in an entertaining way,” Alsager said.
Alsager has worked with both secular and Christian animation companies, including Soma Games, which is Christian, and So Peculiar, which aims to create games “that focus on the good in life.” She’s also done contract work for Angel Studios, the company behind The Wingfeather Saga.
If there was any question about whether VeggieTales was the only series that could grab hearts and minds, TheWingfeather Saga put it to rest. A crowdfunding campaign for the series raised $5 million, and in the first month it was available on streaming, the show was watched 3.6 million times.
“There are tons of Christian studios out there who are making great content, and they’re just starting to grow,” Alsager said.
The success has proven that creative stories with subtle messages can be very popular. That’s exciting to anyone whose art has been inspired by the tales of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, according to Alsager.
“They’re storytellers who have touched not only the lives of Christians but the entertainment industry as a whole,” Alsager said. “They were able to stay true to their faith and beliefs and still create content for everyone to enjoy.”
She sees that same potential for broad appeal in Captain Zepto.
“The character designs are so great,” she said. “This looks like it would be really appealing to kids.”
Kunneman does start with the characters. His affection for animation began when he was a child watching cartoons like Looney Tunes and Rocky and Bullwinkle. He began drawing his favorite characters and imitating their voices.
But he’s hoped for something bigger ever since he came to faith. He had a dream at 18, shortly after he became a Christian. In it, he says, God sketched a character on an easel. As soon as he woke up, Kunneman drew the character himself, accepting it as a divine gift. It was a bear he called Mutzphey and paired with a cartoon duck, Milo.
The idea didn’t immediately take off, though.
“I felt a calling from God to do something with the cartooning passion that I had,” Kunneman said. “But I didn’t know where it was going to go. … I got mad at God because I didn’t think he cared.”
Looking back, he thinks the timing wasn’t right. Today, with Captain Zepto, he sees more Christians open to the potential of animation and thinks the faith-based, family-friendly stories will stand in contrast to secular alternatives.
“If you look at where cartooning is today and what is being offered to children, we have to step up,” Kunneman said. “That’s what I feel is my assignment from God: to give families on the earth wholesome, hilarious cartoons with identifiable characters.”
But getting the characters off the page and onto screens is a big challenge. The dream of animating Captain Zepto got a big assist when Kunneman enlisted the expert help of Paul Crouch Jr., the son of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) founders Paul and Jan Crouch. As a producer, Crouch is interested in expanding the reach of evangelical entertainment. So animation seemed like a perfect fit.
“My parents helped introduce Christian television to America and the world,” Crouch said around the time he left TBN. “And today there’s a new generation of viewers who are poised to take Christian television’s popularity and extend it to the digital age, where they’re not tied down to broadcast schedules and big-box TV sets.”
When Kunneman asked, Crouch immediately agreed to work on the animated series and helped think through what they would have to do to make it really special. It was important to both men to create something of high quality. Getting the right script, voices, music, and sound effects was time-consuming and expensive. The first episode, funded by donations, cost more than $300,000.
Crouch said he’s proud of the quality of their work, though, and happy with the subtlety of Christianity in the series.
“It’s not in your face,” he said. “It’s not throwing Scriptures all over the place and trying to get people saved.”
Instead, it offers a wholesome message for families who want their children to learn morals.
“Zepto’s personality is he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room but he’s really not,” Crouch said. “It’s his ego that drives him, not necessarily his brain, but he’s surrounded himself with some great sidekicks.”
The characters get instructions from King Elyon (Hebrew for “God Almighty”) through a tablet-like device called the Writings of Right Doing (W.O.R.D.). They must protect the world from the evil Dr. Ab Zorb, who is trying to infect the minds of children.
There are also jokes, including lots of puns. The humor opens the comic books to a broader audience—connecting adults and children and people who might not otherwise be interested in a Christian cartoon.
“We’re trying to fill a need. We’re trying to bring light into a very dark world of animation and kids’ programming,” Crouch said.
Initially, Captain Zepto will be aired on the One Voice Ministries platform One Voice TV. For Kunneman, that’s just the start. He’s optimistic that Captain Zepto will go far and that evangelical animation will grow and expand in the coming years.
“I think God is really doing something,” he said. “I think he has a world vision for this.”
Adam MacInnis is a reporter in Canada.
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