George Mason University
Ken Koltun-Fromm, Drawing on Religion: Reading and the Moral Imagination Comics & Graphic Novels. The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2020. xii + 264.
In Drawing on Religion: Reading and the Moral Imagination in Comics & Graphic Novels, Ken Koltun-Fromm invites readers to consider how sequential art expands one’s moral imagination or produces morally repressive ways of understanding the world, specifically through religious representation on the comic page. Such representations help readers broaden their imagination/understanding of possible religious worlds and new ways of being.
Koltun-Fromm breaks down his argument into five main chapters. Chapter One considers the use of stereotypes in graphic narratives as “shortcuts” to communicate information with familiar representation (a technique exemplified by Will Eisner). However, this use of stereotypes can lead to the closing of a person’s moral imagination, even in works that seek to expand it. Koltun-Fromm considers how stereotypes play out in Eisner’s A Contract with God, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, the Vakil brothers’ 40 Sufi Comics, and J.T. Waldman’s Megillat Esther. For example, while A Contract with God uses stereotypes as shortcuts to depict a lot of information about a character’s background using a single image, Habibi relies on certain orientalist and gendered stereotypes in an attempt to subvert them.
The examination of stereotypes provides a natural lead-in to Chapter Two’s discussion of visual adaptations of sacred texts, particularly the artistic choices about racial and gender representation. Drawing on the work of Robert Alter, Koltun-Fromm evaluates the choice of racial and gendered depictions in Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, Mike Allred’s The Golden Plates, and Steve Ross’s Marked. While these depictions can challenge the moral imagination of racial and gendered selves, Koltun-Fromm also notes that they often reinforce preexisting prejudices. In opposition to Crumb, Koltun-Fromm states that visual adaptations of texts, far from reproducing what is “simply there” in sacred texts, make deliberate choices about representations, and these choices widen or restrict an individual’s moral imagination regarding race, gender, and the religious imagination.
Koltun-Fromm focuses Chapter Three on superheroes, specifically G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, while also including A. David Lewis’s Lone and Level Sands. The former is a more traditional superhero comic, but Koltun-Fromm includes the latter to explore Ramses not simply as a villain but as a tragic hero to his own people. Lewis expands the reader’s moral imagination by showing the story through the Pharaoh’s perspective. Koltun-Fromm evaluates both stories through the lens of Robert Orsi’s work, particularly the way that the encounter with the religious “Other” should unsettle the Religious Studies scholar. Rather than judging the Other by the standards of one’s dominant viewpoint, the encounter with the religious Other should call into question the surety of a person’s own position. For those Religious Studies scholars engaging with Orsi’s work, this chapter, in particular, offers striking examples of Orsi’s thesis about encountering the Other and stretches the imagination’s ability to understand what that encounter could look like.
However, this chapter presents one of the rare flaws in the book. In titling this chapter “Imagining (Superhero) Identity,” Koltun-Fromm’s inclusion of Ms. Marvel is fitting; however, the incorporation/analysis of A. David Lewis’s Lone and Level Sands is a bit of an odd pairing for a chapter on superheroes. Koltun-Fromm attempts to group Pharoah in with Ms. Marvel as an example of a tragic hero (emphasis on “hero”) and thus, make him fit with the “superhero” theme of the chapter, but it doesn’t quite work. If the goal is to discuss superhero identity, then a more conventional superhero example would have been a better thematic pairing. The discussion of Lone and Level Sands is an important contribution to the book, but perhaps examining Ms. Marvel alongside another traditional superhero and putting Lone and Level Sands in an additional chapter might have been a better fit.
In Chapter Four, Koltun-Fromm examines Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat and their reinforcement of nativist appeals. Koltun-Fromm appeals to the work of anthropologist Kirin Narayan in this chapter. In her work, Narayan notes that while the anthropologist depends on native informants for information, the field researcher must attempt to discern the presence of nativist logic in their informants’ accounts. Narayan questions the claims of “authentic insider identity [and knowledge]” for a person’s identity is rarely so tidy. As Koltun-Fromm notes, “we are always insiders and outsiders to multiple communities” (130). Both comics analyzed in this chapter deal with the problem of identity, its porousness, and how to react when that “authentic” identity is challenged. Thompson’s work is grounded in strict Christian fundamentalism, and Sfar’s comic concerns a Jewish rabbi in an Algerian Sephardic Jewish community. Both stories reveal how the characters are confined by their identities, although the protagonist in each comic handles challenges to their moral imagination differently. Thompson’s hero desires an expansion of his world and positively acknowledges “worlds beyond [his] capacity to inhabit them” (168) and ends in an unsettled place, while Sfar’s rabbi retreats into his familiar world and “authentic” insider identity. Koltun-Fromm uses this chapter to challenge ideas of inclusion and pluralism, at least of the type that accepts the existence of others without allowing one’s world to be displaced. Only when a person allows their views and self to become unsettled can the moral imagination be expanded.
Finally, Chapter Five examines the graphic narrative’s participation in religious violence by exploring how such violence is portrayed in the tracts of Jack Chick, Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament: Akedah, and Grant Morrison’s “The Coyote Gospel” from Animal Man #5. All of these stories depict the nature of religious violence, and the narratives reflect moral imaginations that determine who, if anyone, deserves to be a victim of violence and whether or not it’s possible to imagine worlds without violence.
Koltun-Fromm’s book is a tightly focused, critical, and nuanced examination of graphic narratives’ ability to represent and affect their readers’ moral imaginations. He methodically examines the specific panels and pages of the works he investigates, noting how color palettes and other visual choices provide insight into the representations of religious selves. For instance, in his discussion of The Golden Plates, Koltun-Fromm notes how skin color reflects religious faithfulness. This occurs in obvious ways in panels depicting Satan as pure black and Jesus with whitened features, but it also occurs in the depictions of believing and unbelieving people, with the obedient Lehi being given a lighter hue than the descendants of Nephi he ministers to. Each of Koltun-Fromm’s examples home in on specific details in the evaluated graphic narratives, with the author dissecting every narrative and visual decision that the writers and artists make in their depictions of gendered and racial religious selves. Particularly noteworthy is Koltun-Fromm’s engagement with Orsi’s work in Religious Studies, specifically Orsi’s challenge to encounter the “Other” not as someone who reinforces one’s self-understanding but as someone who “displaces” the self. An individual ought to be left in an “in-between” state as their moral imagination is challenged by another’s moral universe, learning that there are other ways to be a self, particularly a “religious” self, in the world.
Drawing on Religion looks at a selection of graphic novels that represent religious selves. Koltun-Fromm shows that some texts rely on harmful gender and racial stereotypes, while others challenge the reader’s self-understanding. Throughout the text, readers are encouraged to consider how their readings of comics provide an opportunity to think about the potential harm of stereotypes and how the comic medium has the ability to push against the boundaries of our given worlds. Koltun-Fromm asks his readers to not merely imagine that the Other is “like them,” although the recognition of mutual humanity is important, but to live in a world where the Other is not like them and allow that idea to challenge the givenness of readers’ realities. This might enable the reader to see their enemies in a sympathetic light, as in the Lone and Level Sands, or to be chastised for their nativist logic, as in The Rabbi’s Cat. Koltun-Fromm asks readers to embrace the diverse world they live in, not by reducing the Other to the same, but by allowing the Other’s differences to unsettle one’s own settledness.
While a casual comics fan may enjoy some of Koltun-Fromm’s analysis, this work lends itself more to the critical comics and religion scholar, particularly those interested in close reading comic texts and those engaged in research involving representations of religious alterity and pluralism.