Graven Images: Religion in Comics

Faith in comics, much like in politics, is often times a considerably sensitive subject, just as often swept under the rug or kept locked in the closet than openly or impartially explored in the medium. As many times as the topic has been presented earnestly, thoughtfully, or openly - Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God,” James Sturm’s “The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” and Osamu Tezuka’s “Buddha” being several examples of serious depictions of religion and religious themes in comics - it is just as often portrayed humorously (Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s “Battle Pope”), satirically (Rick Remender’s “Strange Girl” or Mark Millar’s “Chosen”), surreally (Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” or Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III “Promethea”), or with outright hostility (Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s “Preacher,” Garth Ennis’ “Hellblazer” run, just about anything Garth Ennis writes).

And that’s to say nothing of the many instances in superhero comics where faith is glossed over entirely -- quick, name Spider-Man’s religion?

With the many and varied depictions of religion the comic book medium has presented over the years firmly in mind, A. David Lewis, author of “The Lone & Level Sands” and “Some New Kind of Slaughter,” two comic book series published by Archaia Studios Press that prominently feature religious themes and situations, helped to organize the first ever Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels Conference, April 11-13 at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies on the Boston University campus. The conference was made possible by the Boston University Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts, and in conjunction with the New England-Maritimes American Academy of Religion, the Boston University Department of Religion and the Boston University Graduate Student Organization.

The three-day event, free and open to the public, included a Friday evening keynote address by James Sturm, the Eisner Award-wining author of “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” and “Unstable Molecules” as well as the Founder and Director of the Center for Cartoon Studies, where he discussed the role that faith and religion has played in his own life and work. The conference also included a full day of lectures and panel discussions pertaining to religion in its multifarious, diverse, and nebulous forms in the comic book and graphic novel medium from respected academics well-versed in the subject, including panels on Grant Morrison’s “Invisibles,” Alan Moore’s “From Hell,” and Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman.” Additionally, the conference saw a creator Q&A with A. David Lewis, writer Saurav Mohapatra (Virgin Comics’ “Devi” and “Deepak Chopra Presents: India Authentic”), writer/artist Steve Ross (“Marked!”), writer G. Willow Wilson (“Cairo”), and Marky Smylie, the creator of “Artesia” and the publisher, through his Archaia Studios Press imprint, of “The Lone & Level Sands,” “Some New Kind of Slaughter,” and “The Long Count,” all titles that deal prominently with some aspect of religion in one form or another.

Although by the end of the conference it still hadn’t been concretely decided how many Kryptonians could dance on the head of a pin, many other intriguing, engrossing and, at times, downright humorous concepts concerning religion and its place (or lack thereof) in the field of comics were discussed - including the best way to circumcise the Thing (here’s a hint: jackhammer!).

Currently pursuing his Doctorate in Religion and Literature at Boston University, A. David Lewis, in helping to organize the conference and serving as its chair, said his main goal was to further expand, explore and encourage an open discussion on the ways in which religious customs, symbols and traditions have and can be portrayed in comics, especially with the general public starting to more and more accept and view the medium as a serious form of artistic expression. He cited the current state of religion in comic books and graphic novels as something that is, “Everywhere and nowhere at once,” treated mostly topically or blandly when it is even treated at all.

“Working in comics and comic book academia as I do, I wasn’t finding the kind of books on certain subjects that I really wanted to read or even research,” Lewis said on Sunday in Boston. “So it sort of stared with me scouring the academic world to see who out there is writing papers and researching the types of subjects that I am interested in reading about in this field. I found a lot more than I ever expected, and it eventually grew to the point of, 'Okay, we need to organize some kind of a conference here.”

During his keynote address, Sturm, who classified himself as a “non-practicing Jew,” discussed the role that faith and religion plays in his own work, as so many of his projects, including “The Golem’s Mighty Swing,” which Time Magazine named Best Graphic Novel of 2000, feature characters struggling to come to terms with their own sense of faith and religion.

“I guess if I were to look back on my career so far, a large part of my work seems to be about trying to unravel the thread of my own religious impulses and convictions through how they play out in my comics work,” Sturm said. “I consider cartooning an essential part of who I am, but given the amount of hours I’ve put into it and the profit I’ve derived from it, it would be a stretch to call cartooning my 'career.’ Making comics is my way to leave my mark on this world, to say this is who I am and this is what I think and feel.”

Sturm cited his first exposure to Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” strip as a major and early influence and inspiration for much of his own work, particularly Schultz’s pessimistic, almost acerbic worldview. “The idea of having faith and kind of being let down by it - the whole Charlie Brown always trying to kick the football thing and it always getting pulled out from under him - has come to play a big part in a lot of my own work,” Sturm said.

As a teenager, Sturm gravitated to Jim Starlin’s Adam Warlock stories at Marvel Comics as another example of how to express weighty themes and lofty ideas concerning faith and religion in the medium of comics without it seeming preachy or polemic. “What I found most interesting about Jim Starlin’s work on Adam Warlock was that the motivations of his characters, even the villains, were so much more than just Doc Ock simply wanting to knock over another bank or get revenge on Spider-Man for foiling one of his plans for the umpenth time,” Sturm said. “In Starlin’s stories, the action and conflict came out of the characters convictions. Starlin’s stories ignited my religious consciousness in ways that Hebrew School never did, which, I suppose, is why I never thought that comics weren’t an appropriate medium to express my own religious convictions or concepts.

“The way that faith propels us forward and prepares us for incredible discoveries and dreams…but, at the same time, it also sets up a lot of expectations in our lives that can oftentimes be hard to live up to. That football always gets taken away, you know.”

Saturday was the academics’ time to shine their own light on the subject, as the day was given over to a series of panels and seminars on everything from Western religion and its symbols influence on Manga (“From Bambi to Buddha: Manga’s Amazing Spiritual Search,” by Rene Javellana) to the role that the landscape of London played in Alan Moore’s “From Hell” (“London as Sacred and Desecrated Space(s) in Alan Moore’s From Hell,” by Emily Merriman), while Sunday’s Creator Q&A with Lewis, Mohapatra, Ross, Smylie, and Wilson assumed the form of the type of lively and spirited free-flowing dialogue one might expect to find in a panel at the San Diego or New York comic conventions.

The first question Sunday’s panelists tackled was, “Just what exactly is a 'religious’ comic anyway?”

“I’ve always felt that the term 'religious comic’ is a very loaded one,” Mohapatra chimed in. “Just because a movie has sex in it doesn’t make it a porn movie, you know. Just like with movies, TV, plays, and novels, there are comics that use religion as a theme while telling a larger, more compelling story, and then there are 'religious comics,’ which are those comics that are mainly concerned with trying to preach to or convert you.”

Lewis said he was inspired to write “The Lone & Level Sands” based on the idea of trying to see the story of Exodus from another point of view. “I wasn’t so much interested in what Moses was thinking, but in what Pharaoh was thinking while all this was going on.”

Smylie added, “I think there’s a distinction between what you would call a religious comic and comics in which characters practice religion.”

While his “Artesia” series is much more a work of fantasy than religious or historical fiction, Smylie does admit to borrowing a number of concepts and customs from Greco-Roman and early European religions to flesh out and define the faiths that the characters in his series follow. “’Artesia’ isn’t a religious comic, it’s a comic about characters who practice a certain religion,” Smylie said.

But, as both a comic creator and a publisher, Smylie also acknowledged the bias that a great number of retailers seem to have when it comes to any comic book that deals with or delves too deeply into the realm of the religious. “In the comic book store, the superhero is the god of choice. Occasionally, in mainstream superhero comics, you’ll see a superhero enter some sort of a generic, non-denominational church in a moment of crisis for spiritual encouragement, and the main inspiration they take away from that is usually, 'Okay, now I can go beat up the villain!’”

Smylie went on to cite ASP’s publishing of the hardcover collection of “The Lone & Level Sands” in 2006 as an example of retailers’ weariness to order a book that deals to directly with religious themes. “We had to package 'The Lone & Level Sands’ more as historical fiction than as a religious text in order to try and get it into some stores.”

The remark prompted Lewis to reminisce about trying to sell the book to a religious bookstore in the Boston, and how they didn’t find the text “religious enough.”

As a Muslim writer who has spent substantial time in both the Middle East and the United States, G. Willow Wilson’s experience writing her debut graphic novel “Cairo” was somewhat different. “When I was writing 'Cairo’ in my mind I was writing the book more for a Western, non-Muslim audience,” said Wilson, who was born in New Jersey, converted to Islam while studying history and Arabic at Boston University, and moved to Cairo after graduation. “Even though most of the characters in the story are Muslims themselves, as am I, I wasn’t trying to write a 'Muslim comic,’ so I wasn’t sure how the book would be received by a Muslim audience. To my great surprise, 'Cairo’ has really been picked up and embraced by conservative Muslims, at least here in the West. I’ve gotten letters from Muslims all over this country, and in Canada, telling me how much they loved the book and asking why there aren’t more comics like this at the moment.”

Steve Ross took on the assignment of “Marked!”, a re-imagination of the Gospel of Mark published in graphic novel form by Seabury Books in 2005, purely as a work-for-hire project, but admits the more he worked on and researched the project, the more it turned into a spiritual journey for him. “At the time I started working on 'Marked!’ I was very ambivalent about a lot of Christianity,” Ross said. “I grew up in an area of Texas where Jesus was portrayed as having long blonde hair and blue eyes. To me, that image was wrong in so many ways that I outright rejected it, and by extension a lot of the Christianity I was exposed to while growing up. I set out with an agenda when I stared working on 'Marked!’ that I wanted to stick it to a lot of these people back home in Texas, I wanted to get a rise out of them and make them questions many of their own beliefs and interpretations of the story of Christ.

“There’s this trend to homogenize religion whenever you’re dealing with it dramatically, and it’s tied to commerce,” Ross continued. “You sell more product if you tread a nice middle ground. So one of the artistic decisions I had when I first started working on 'Marked!’ was did I want to go with a more 'mainstream’, DC-type style, or did I want a book that looked more like 'RAW.’ As you can see from the finished product, I went with the RAW style. I figured if it was going to be labeled a 'Christian comic’ I wanted people who picked it up and flipped through it to go WTF! In my interpretation of Jesus, he definitely isn’t blonde haired and blue eyed. He almost looks like a Shaolin monk.

“I didn’t want to make things easy for the readers. What I would love more than anything is for people to read my book and then go read the Bible, put them back to back, and see whether or not I made this part or that part up or whether it was taken directly from the source.”

Ross, who is currently working on a re-imagining of the story of St. Paul called “Blinded,” to be published in the fall of 2008 by Seabury Books (using the same artistic style he applied to “Marked!”) said he is not overly worried about being labeled a “religious” comics creator. “I don’t think I’ll do anymore religious stories after 'Blinded’ for a while. I suppose if I reached the point where it was my sixth or seventh book that dealt with the theme of religion, then people might start to look at me as that 'religious’ comics guy. But, for now, the checks are still cashing, so I could care less.”

About the only thing that Sunday’s panelists did all agree on is that an audience is not stupid; they can spot when they are being pandered or preached to and, when this is the case, would just as soon leave the book on the shelf in favor of a better, more compelling story.

“Readers can tell when they are being pandered to,” Wilson said. “And that doesn’t make anybody comfortable, even when it is your own ideology being fed to you.”

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