“Let Them Serve as Signs”:

Graphic Adaptations of Christian Texts

In issue number 301 of The Comics Journal, there are articles critiquing two major spiritual works in the graphic tradition. One of these works is R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, the other Dave Sim’s Cerebus. While the latter article focuses more on whether or not Cerebus truly is a great work of comics literature, the former performs an interesting dissection of not only the craft of Crumb’s work, nor solely the contribution it makes to graphic fiction, but also what it brings, or returns, to its source material. As scholars of comics we often are caught up in showing that our chosen medium of study has the literary gumption to stand on its own, without having to rely on other media for validation. But quite often in other literary fields this is simply not how things work. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, a poem, owes much to the work of Bede, who wrote prose, just as Shakespeare’s plays are, almost to a fault, drawn from, and contribute back to, some other source material. When I wrote my Master’s thesis on Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman, I discussed the potential for Superman to represent a secular spirituality, and my theoretical underpinning was drawn from Northrop Frye’s two books of Biblical criticism, The Great Code and Words with Power. I read All-Star Superman the same way Frye did the Bible and drew some conclusions, but one thing I did not do was to compare All-Star with Christian comics. It seems an obvious thing, in hindsight, but at the time I was focused on the one graphic novel. What I’d like to do now is fix that omission and talk about comics of the Christian variety, and what contributions, if any, they make to the spiritual framework from which they spring. While some of the comics I’m considering are indeed important and interesting to the study of comics, I would like to think about how they are also important to the study of theology.

Though I can hardly make any claim of completeness, the small sampling of Christian comics I have read fall broadly into three categories. In this piece, I’ll address the first category, exemplified by works like Allred’s The Golden Plates, or Kumai and Shinozowa’s Manga Messiah, as well as (though I do not spend much time on it here) Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, all adaptations of canonical Christian texts. Regardless of one’s feelings about particular denominations or sects, there are acknowledged “holy books,” the Bible and the Book of Mormon amongst them. The graphic adaptations of these works attempt to bring to these fundamental texts a reinterpretation and commentary only possible through the comic book medium. In dealing with these particular types of works, the relative success or failure of this reinterpretation and commentary spurs two primary questions. The first question that we must ask when reading a spiritual text, graphic or otherwise, is what is its purpose? The broad purpose of any spiritual text must be that of transformation. Such texts are designed to enlighten and, in some cases, convert. So with specific texts, we must narrow this broad purpose down to a finer point. What is the specific transformational project of a specific text? The second question is to ask do such adaptations bring anything new or important to the original texts? These two questions will provide a framework with which we can consider the graphic holy books.

I would like to make a point of clarification right from the start: my reference to certain texts “holy books” or “holy works” is not an endorsement. It is simply an acknowledgement that certain texts in certain systems of faith have the distinction of being considered holy, and as I am considering these works of the Christian faith from a critical standpoint, it is only proper to show due respect to the books in question. The Bible is a holy book. As is the Book of Mormon. But so is the Bhagavad-Gita. Or the Qu’ran.

Like many of my fellow comic book collectors, I enjoy categorization. Within the holy work adaptation, I would suggest two sub-categories: the tribute and the telling. We can begin to differentiate the characteristics and purposes of these sub-categories by considering the oldest of the comics I’ll be looking at: Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact volume 20, number 1, published in September of 1964. According to the Catholic University of America’s online archive of, the comic “was generally not available for sale at newsstands but rather via distribution through the Catholic parochial school system.” As such, even though only two of the features are overtly religious, the Catholic faith is implied throughout, and the comic opens with “Heroes of the Old Testament: The First Patriarch.”

Fig 1

The opening lines of the first caption box (see Fig 1) give as good a delineation as any of the difference between the tribute adaptations and the telling adaptations of holy works. We are told that “[m]any events in the Old Testament are as exciting as a modern adventure story.” Keeping in mind the audience to whom these comics were primarily distributed, this introduction to the story is interested not so much in a faithful (pun intended) adaptation of the text, but in a retelling of the story that will appeal to those who might not have so much spiritual investment in the original. The “telling” adaptation is similar to the genre of the classic-adaptation comic that periodically goes in and out of vogue. In the early Twentieth century, these comics attempted to appeal to the burgeoning generation of comic book readers, and show that the old stories were just as exciting as the new. Indeed, artistically, Lloyd Ostendorf’s work bears many similarities to the style of Classics Illustrated and its ilk. We could certainly write this off as symptomatic of the era in which the story was produced, but in 1964 both Kirby and Ditko, to name only the two most prominent “adventure story” artists of the time, had been producing comics for a number of years. As with the Classics Illustrated adaptations, then, it would seem that the relatively realistic art in “Heroes of the Old Testament” is meant to give to these characters, who exist in a frankly fantastic story, some semblance of realism. This particular story is a partial re-telling of the story of Abraham, and covers the events of Genesis 12 – 22.18. Included in the tale are visitations by God and his angels, land battles, and the cataclysmic destruction of “the evil cities” Sodom and Gomorra. The climax of the tale is the story of Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac, perhaps one of the ultimate tests of faith in all of the Bible. We can see from the events included in this retelling that the impetus is indeed to tell a “modern adventure story,” but to utilise the characters and events of the Bible to do so. These exciting events are all framed by moments of Abraham listening to and obeying the commands of God. Thus we see that the hero of this Biblical adventure story survives and thrives, and experiences exciting adventure, only by listening to God, an indication of an answer to our first question of the purpose of this sort of adaptation. The telling adaptation does not attempt to depict the events as described in the source material, but crafts those events for a specific audience while retaining the moral message of the original. This seems a sound general principle to apply to such adaptations, so before moving to the tribute adaptation, we will consider another telling adaptation.

Manga Messiah, published in 2006, knows its target audience very well. Or rather, it knows how to appeal to a particular demographic. This adaptation of the life of Jesus is a manga through and through. The Pharisees who function as foils to Yeshuah’s teachings are reminiscent of nothing so much as Team Rocket from the Pokémon series, constantly foiled in their plots to stop the Messiah (who, it must be noted, travels around a small region collecting disciples whom he trains. Is there more to those Pokémon games than we suspected?). The artwork too is traditionally manga, a fact that has drawn some criticism for the book, and that is demonstrated by the behaviours and depictions of various characters within the story (see Fig. 2). And though the art and adaptation very clearly link the work with its graphic antecedents, it is also more explicitly linked to its source material than the Treasure Chest adaptation, as evidenced by the Bible chapters and verses referenced at the bottom of each page. Where the “Heroes of the Old Testament” simply introduces the story of Abraham, giving us a highlight reel, so to speak, Manga Messiah provides both an entertaining retelling of Christ’s life and a gloss for those who may be curious to read the original stories. Again, like the Treasure Chest adaptation, Manga Messiah exemplifies the principles of the New Testament stories, but presents them in such a way as to make the stories entertaining to a specific demographic, and does so quite successfully.

Fig 2

This is, of course, a very brief analysis of “telling” adaptations, but does provide enough fodder to address my second question: what do these kinds of adaptations bring to the original texts? I think that the most basic answer to that question is that they bring introduction. Consider Treasure Chest. It was distributed to Catholic schools and, from the level of vocabulary and content of the comic, was likely intended for younger audiences. Thus the adaptations provide an inroad for readers who perhaps have not had any experience with the denser language of the original Biblical stories. Having read “Heroes,” or Manga Messiah, a reader can then overlay these images on the poetic language of the source material. In contrast, however, these adaptations also eschew the poetry of the source material. Spiritual matter aside, the Bible is a work of beautiful poetry. So perhaps another answer to the question of what these texts bring to the original is a negative answer: they bring a removal of the poetry of the Bible. This removal of poetry is one of the most significant differences between the telling and the tribute adaptations, as we will see.

The second sub-category of the holy work adaptation I would characterize as the tribute. These are works that take the source material and languish upon them a level of care and attention that is indicative of either the artist’s personal investment in the text, as we see with Allred’s The Golden Plates, or simply of respect for so important a text, as we can perhaps claim of Crumb’s Genesis. As I’ve said, I will not spend much time on Crumb’s work here. It has been analyzed elsewhere, and I would like to direct attention to other, less well-known Christian works. But Crumb’s introduction is worth noting as he says of the Bible, after noting that he does not see it as the words of God, but of men: “It is, nonetheless, a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective consciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work.” Here is the first distinct aspect of the tribute adaptation: an acknowledgment of the importance, of the inspired nature, of the source material. This is not to say that the previously discussed adaptations do not make this same acknowledgment, but here it is literal, a translation of text, rather than an adaptation of story. Again, from Crumb’s introduction: “I, R. Crumb, the illustrator of this book, have, to the best of my ability, faithfully reproduced every word from the original text.” We will have to agree to gloss over the fact that it is not the original text, nor could it be. But this reproduction harkens back to one of the problems of the “telling” adaptation, the removal of the poetry of the source material. Much as modernizations of Shakespeare rid themselves of poetry in preference to story, so too do the “telling” adaptations. The tribute adaptations, on the other hand, revel in the poetry. Allred’s adaptation of the Book of Mormon is a prime example.

I’ll note that Manga Messiah was the piece of reading I most enjoyed for this essay, but The Golden Plates was the one I was most looking forward to. I’ve had volumes two and three sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, in the vain hope that volume one would turn up one day, but no such luck. So I dove in anyway. Allred, whose work in comics is justifiably highly-regarded, is not shy about his reasons for adapting the Book of Mormon. In his introduction he says “This is my testimony. The Book of Mormon is a true and inspired record. I know this to be as real and as true as I know the world to be round.” Where Crumb sets the Bible as an important work for its impact on culture, Allred is a believer. His use of the word testimony is key. Where we could read Crumb’s work as a tribute to a fundamental piece of literature, Allred’s is a tribute to a book in which he has faith. And it is here that poetry re-enters the graphic adaptations; not simply the poetry of the original material, but the poetry of an adaptation done out of love and belief. Many of the captions and much of the dialogue in The Golden Plates is virtually identical to passages from the Book of Mormon. The work notes where chapter breaks from the original lie, performing the same function as the references in Manga Messiah. As such, the graphic novel functions as an introduction to the Book of Mormon, though its use of the original language points to its being intended for an older audience than the manga life of Jesus.

But the use of the original poetry of the source material is not the only poetry in the book. In Fig 3., Nephi is explaining to his brothers the meaning behind various dream images related to them by their father. Note that when Nephi explains that the iron rod is the word of God, he is the only one holding onto it, and his brother to whom he speaks is reaching for it. Such images are not present in the original, merely the words. So Allred is here interpreting the poetry of the Book of Mormon graphically. In an essay on using graphic representations to teach students Gulliver’s Travels, John Sena says of such representations of the Travels that they “have a more significant function than merely supplying decorative ornamentation to a narrative.” This is also true of Allred’s Book of Mormon. The scenes offer further commentary on the words presented in the book, rather than merely being illustrations of the action. Similarly, when Nephi outlines the significance of the murky river, he is standing on the bank, presumably on the same bank upon which the tree of life and the saints of God stand. His brothers, once more illustrating that they are working their way toward God, are in the middle of the river. Tellingly, in the following panel, Nephi’s brother is deeper in the murky river, foreshadowing, perhaps, his betrayal of Nephi later in the book.

Allred’s adaptation of the Book of Mormon, moreso, I think, than Crumb’s Genesis, demonstrates precisely the sort of addition to a holy work that is possible through graphic representation. While such scenes might be depicted similarly in other graphic media (i.e., paintings), the combination of words and pictures that is unique to comics allows for the original poetry of the source to be presented next to a graphical poetic interpretation and commentary. The book itself might relate the philosophical tenets, but the graphic adaptation presents an opportunity for elucidation of those tenets through poetic graphic structures. Returning to my original questions, we could claim, in answer to the first question, that Allred’s work certainly hopes to achieve some kind of spiritual transformation. It’s presentation is one of celebration and not-so-subtle proselytizing. But with regard to the second question, this work brings to The Book of Mormon further interpretation of the words, and thus enriches its source material in a way only possible in this medium we call comics.

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Tom Miller currently resides in Calgary, Alberta, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Calgary which he hopes will not take him the ten years everyone keeps telling him it will. His research interests, aside from the ever-pervasive superhero comics, also encompass popular physics texts, H.P. Lovecraft, psychedelic writing and shamanism, modernist American literature, and the literary theory of Northrup Frye. And superhero comics. Always superhero comics. As well as collecting the aforementioned comics, Tom also collects blogs, though many of them sit empty and forlorn. His comic-related work, when it appears, can be found at http://giantboxofcomics.blogspot.ca/

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