Menu Close

Review of Graven Images

By Paul Petrovic

Lewis, A. David, and Christine Hoff Kraemer, eds. Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. New York: Continuum International, 2010. Print.

Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, edited by A. David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer, announces its intentions immediately with a cover by comics artist Carla McNeil, showcasing a panorama of various Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and other gods comingling. This collection seeks to exist as the criterion for comics’ treatment of religious issues, and it establishes this paradigmatic aim through the variety of faiths explored here. Part of the project that Lewis and Kraemer undertake is to expand the scope and diversity of comics texts examined through the lens of religion. For example, unlike the earlier collection, The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture, edited by B.J. Oropeza, which mostly deals with highly mainstream and commercial comics, this collection is far more invested in Vertigo and independent art comics. However, this collection also dedicates chapters to earlier historical comics documents, adaptations from anime to manga, underground comics, and evangelical comics, among others. Contributions about classic DC and Marvel superheroes are thus largely consolidated into one section, with the result that more critical attention has been leveled at creator-owned projects. One of this collection’s foremost strengths is the unification of creative and scholarly viewpoints. Five comics creators offer glimpses into the construction of religion in the comics medium. Some contributors, such as Testament writer Douglas Rushkoff, acknowledge how in their own writings they weave religious elements into the timelessness of the gutter, while others, like Saurav Mohapatra, advance critical readings of other texts. Through it all, Lewis and Kraemer situate the collection’s thematic aspirations clearly, establishing a tri-fold agenda (and evoking, naturally enough, their own religious trinity): offering new interpretations on canonical comics, examining religious rebellion in underrepresented comics, and articulating how contemporary comics engage with postmodern theologies.

The first of three sections, on new interpretations, situates a textual framework to justify the value of religion in this medium. Aaron Ricker Parks’ article on the “Book of Revelation” is a solid beginning, examining how comics misrepresent apocalyptic imagery and reminding the readers of how comics align themselves with biblical illiteracy and sadomasochistic violence by using Christ as a lion rather than the lamb he is depicted as throughout the “Book of Revelation.” As such, Parks depicts how mainstream superhero fare such as Daredevil and Kingdom Come depends on a willful misreading of vengeance to generate their tension and narrative arcs. Further on, Parks broadens his focus to discuss how this theme has shifted in a post-9/11 industry, yet this last point is only broached in his conclusion and lacks the sort of fastidious textual evidence that is begged for after such a tantalizing aside. There remains a desire to see Parks grapple with how, and which of, these post-9/11 comics position religious forgiveness over an endless repetition of puerile violence.

Writing on From Hell, Emily Taylor Merriman is laudable for her close textual analysis, with its standout element being a revelatory examination of author Alan Moore’s use of incantatory iambic rhythm. This focus on the particulars of rhetorical incantation is groundbreaking for deepening how scholars approach prose in comics. The limitation that the essay suffers from is one of compression. Merriman’s essay spends so much time breaking down each element at play in Chapter 4 that her examination of the rest of the series appears superficial alongside it. Nonetheless, future research on Moore’s writing will undoubtedly draw from this article’s discussion of prose styling.

The collection pays due attention to the developments of Jewish and Catholic religiosity within the comics movement, tracing the reception of this content through the 20th century. Laurence Roth’s essay on Will Eisner and other Jewish writers is strong, but his inclusion here of Waldman’s Megillat feels hurried. Certainly this latter text is a valuable addition to spiritual-themed comics, especially in its valorizing of the feminine, but Roth employs so many visual examples of Waldman’s art that similar engagement with the narrative itself potentially fruitful, is overlooked. Such a scholarly maneuver is, likely, Roth’s decision to counter hierarchal values of text over the image, but he could have reached a stronger balance. Anne Blankenship’s article on Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact (1946-63) examines how educational comics from post-World War II culture respond to changing cultural environments. Assessing how these issues teach multiculturalism, democracy, and diversity to the then-Catholic minority, Blankenship masterfully demonstrates how these comics move beyond lip service and teach Catholic accountability and citizenship to their readers, all the while challenging American norms by placing minorities in power positions within their stories. It is a thoroughly convincing argument, and an early highlight of the collection.

There are a variety of theoretical paradigms at play throughout the collection, from adaptation theory to theories of iconicity. G. St. John Stott’s treatment of Gold Plates, for example, is one of the few articles to draw on film adaptation theory, and the application of André Bazin here is illuminating in its foundation for future research. Stott utilizes the idea of adaptation to transcend issues of Biblical fidelity in religious comics, and the attendant linking of Benjamin’s artifactual aura with Bazin’s constellation of texts offers an audacious paradigm from which future religious adaptation scholars can draw. Darby Orcutt’s article on theoretical connections across comics tackles the issue of iconicity of religious figures in comics, tracing how the repetition and requirement of comics’ active participation from its readership offer a unique opportunity for religious audiences to engage with the medium. Orcutt also uses James Sturm’s America: Gods, Gold, and Golems and India Authentic as examples of how religious content integrates fruitfully into comics. A small concern is that, although this argument is soundly deductive, the conclusions here fail to open up new avenues for scholarly inquiry, making the argument appeal to the tentative religious comics scholar more than to the accomplished veteran. Although Orcutt’s essay is a necessary one, more room could have been given to pose new material so that the essay itself led to a more interactive set of issues.

This first section also begins to engage religions other than Christianity. Creator Saurav Mohapatra’s article on Hindu reincarnation motifs localizes largely on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison in conjunction with the Bhagvad Gita. It is an absorbing argument. Although at times Mohapatra is too cursory in the overall conclusions, his engagement with Hindu religion itself is thorough and reveals new connections into how these writers draw on Eastern religion; this work promises to be useful indeed as scholars recover value in Moore’s Supreme and as Morrison grows in stature. Eriko Ogihara-Schuck’s article on Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind engages multiple levels of authorship, from the anime version, to the manga version, and then to issues of translation therein. Drawing on the artist’s interviews, wherein Miyazaki seeks to divest a Christian reading from being placed atop his text (as Disney did in their English translation of the film’s script, streamlining the animistic qualities out in favor of a theological Christian model), Ogihara-Schuck demonstrates how Miyazaki, upon returning to the manga, structures animism as the sole religious worldview in Nausicaä. However, by following this analysis up with a further study of the English translation of the manga, Ogihara-Schuck breaks down how the translators re-introduce a dualistic model of good and evil onto a text that is antithetical to such issues. It is a keen analysis of how translation varies a text’s meaning, and it exists as an ideal example of how to study the myriad influences within adaptation studies.

The second section, devoted to response and rebellion, opens with Mike Grimshaw’s article on the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon series Preacher. Exploring Baudrillardian themes of hyperrealism and the absence of Christian revelation, Grimshaw locates the ways in which Ennis orchestrates an individualist and postmodern need to kill God so that humanity can manifest a whole life. Breaking down the layers of religious betrayal, such as God’s indifference and Cassidy’s betrayal of friendship, Grimshaw offers a fine examination of the classic Vertigo text, although the article could benefit from more engagement with Dillon’s singular linework as it relates to realist and fantastic elements. A. David Lewis’s article responds to the common impression of Superman as a Christ figure. Lewis explodes this reading, so often cited in anthologies and essays, and affirms that Siegel and Schuster’s pulp inspirations for Superman have been co-opted by contemporary scholarship. Instead, Lewis positions Superman as a container of narratives and lives, so that rather than acting as a sacrificial being he is a soteriological one. It is an argument immaculately developed and defended, aided by solid visual evidence. Julia Round’s treatment of Mark Millar and Peter Gross’s rebellious Chosen examines the misdirection of savior themes, linking the text with the Bildungsroman and postmodern pop culture commentary. Round singles out the methods that the writing employs to subvert expectations, but she is equally cognizant of how Gross’s artistic style complements the subversion. Round could have offered a reading on the reception of the series once this reversal was digested by the public; otherwise, she locates many of the text’s strengths.

The collection, which includes solid examinations of comics staples such as Sandman and Persepolis, also reveals important complexities within underground and evangelical comics. Clay Kinchen Smith’s article offers a reconsideration of the general tropes of underground comics, analyzing the religious concern in many of the earliest underground comics. While citing Frank Stack’s early work in the field, Smith segues to Jack Jackson and contends that the latter artist offers one of the most even-handed and sympathetic accounts of Christianity, despite Jackson’s criticisms layered through the God Nose series. Kate Netzler’s analysis of evangelical comics offers a thorough account of how various evangelical companies such as Z Graphic Novels, PowerMark Comics, and Community Comics, among others, draw from this secular industry but entrench their texts in religious alternatives. Netzler assesses how these companies privilege evangelizing over artistic boundary-pushing, but she likewise offers close readings of those comics that advance implicit or explicit evangelical content while drawing on uncommon horror tropes and comics history, an engagement that Netzler signals will likely grow, even as these evangelical comics strive to reassure readers of their God-honoring alternative status.

The third and last section of Graven Images, concerned with postmodern religiosity, rightfully complicates many of the preceding ideas, deepening the application of many of the texts mentioned before. Megan Goodwin’s piece on The Invisibles is remarkable for her strong work in juggling chaos magic, Morrison’s biographical details, and the comics text itself, lucidly depicting how language shapes, constricts, and disrupts reading. Her piece explodes any kind of binary reading between good and evil, exploring instead how belief and practice shape chaos magic and complicate a reading of the text’s ending. Goodwin’s essay also benefits from effective use of images to corroborate her argument. Kraemer and Winslade’s article on Promethea similarly utilizes images well, covering a host of information, and placing this article alongside the Morrison article further allows an understanding of fortuitous synergy as Moore and J.H. Williams’s narrative dialogues with ideas that Morrison’s likewise explores. Kraemer and Winslade investigate the paradigmatic-shattering of binaries—such as how benevolent love and the text’s apocalypse are viewed as non-contradictory—with significant consideration given to how Promethea reads as an occult text. This application deepens the ways in which we read non-traditional spiritual texts, and the facts that Kraemer and Winslade uncover are indeed informative. To see it assigned as a primer text on courses of the occult validates Moore and Williams’s mission, and establishes the value that comics can achieve in offering pedagogical lessons. The essay also usefully interrogates, though not exhaustively, Promethea‘s post-9/11 context, which similarly calls up images of apocalyptic visions.

This third section also includes some of its strongest theoretical work at the end, consisting of articles which concisely but deeply develop their rhetorical concerns. Author and artist Mark Smylie’s piece on Artesia is superlative in its argumentative structure. Smylie begins by dismissing the superhero narrative from its conventional Campbellian arc and instead links it with crime narratives that never escape the clutches of evil, itself a wholly innovative reading. Smylie then explicates the value of practicing belief in fantasy comics narratives, narrowing that interest further via a practical elucidation of how he goes about designing each god and goddess, and what interests are served by each creation. Its inclusion here is a revelatory extension of author interviews, illustrative in demarcating how the practice and worship of gods become true in a given text. Steve Jungkeit’s article on Blankets focuses on eros and theology, and uncovers a feminist reclamation of the body and sensuality via the text’s interests on Plato, which Jungkeit sees echoing Luce Irigaray’s criticism on Plato. Jungkeit’s project is one of the most successful in the collection, masterfully complementing the artistic project of the text with feminist and theological criticism so as to make the article triangulate such interests; it is fluid, detailed, and an exciting glimpse into how comics studies is growing.

If there is a general flaw to the collection, it is the same flaw that afflicts much of print studies about comics—an adverse distribution of images that collect and highlight visually the themes engaged with by the writers. Naturally, those essays that concern texts outside of the Marvel and DC canon offer the most visual evidence; even artistic evidence from Vertigo texts are judiciously employed. Secondly, there are a few essays here that still cling to a need to legitimize the comics medium, even as this defensive mindset is becoming more obsolete as scholarly journals and collections grow in number. The last concern, although this may exist because of limits regarding article length, is the occasional inability to draw on scholarship already done. It is wonderful to see authors rely on contemporary critics like Charles Hatfield and others to generate a full-bodied critical framework, rather than just falling back on Scott McCloud’s seminal work. However, there are instances, especially when dealing with a few of the Morrison and Moore texts, when authors recapitulate ideas explored in other, earlier, and non-cited publications.

Overall, Graven Images is eminently teachable from a pedagogical framework for any course that considers comics alongside religion. Despite a central focus on Christianity, Lewis and Kraemer have collected a variety of religious perspectives that can be readily applicable to any scholar eager to adjust the textual focus. Graven Images excels especially in those chapters where the authors bring light to a new or neglected text, and the creator involvement similarly offers value. It is, in short, an exemplar collection of comics criticism that promises to be invoked in future research on religious topics.

Related Articles