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Comics, the Bible in

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Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible What is This? Provides accessible, authoritative coverage for all major topics pertaining to the Bible and the study of the Bible.

Comics, the Bible in

The Bible, a cultural icon that has long been a subject of art and literature, often serves as inspiration, theme, or object in comics. In what follows a definition of “comics” will be offered as well as a brief sketch of possible origins, and an outline of some of the ways that the Bible has been in comics in the English-speaking Western world.

Defining “Comics” as a Form

In a frequently cited study of the subject, comics theorist and creator Scott McCloud (1994, 9) defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer. “Comics” is a noun “plural in form, used with a singular verb” that indicates this relationship of text and images. The added “s” when used alone helps differentiate it from “the comic” that indicates comedy. Comics, despite a reputation for frivolity, is not defined by subject matter–often incorporating quite serious matters. As Neil Cohn (2013, 193) has shown, many use different visual languages with their own set of grammar and symbols. Comics creators use a variety of visual vocabularies to interpret and translate a host of religious subjects, including the Bible.

Comics, as we recognize it today, has been a form of modern popular literature since the 1800s, but a broader history can be traced back for centuries. Viewed through the lens of McCloud’s formal definition, cave paintings, temple murals, tapestries, and other ancient visual art that communicated in sequence are comics. McCloud’s predecessor in comics theory, pioneer of the form, Will Eisner (1985) used the phrase “sequential art” to define his work in a similarly sophisticated way. Eisner would not count McCloud’s ancient examples as comics, but he anticipated early in the computer age the way that visual tools and repeated symbols characteristic of comics would be used in graphical user interfaces (GUI). The whole principle of scrolling or using frames or “windows” has its roots in the communication form used in comics. The symbol systems that structure time visually and make characters recognizable in comics allow people to interact with electronic devices through icons and visual interactive design. Eisner wished to elevate the form from its reputation as unsophisticated entertainment for children to intellectually stimulating adult subject matter. He used the gravitas of religious subjects, such as considering divine commandments and theodicy, to help lend prestige to his already sophisticated work (Eisner 1978).

Origin and Development of Comics and the Bible

The origins of comics may be traced by form, mass media function, or individual industry, but wherever one sets the origin of comics, their history in the modern West reveals a reoccurring biblical influence. Illustrations, especially in non- or selectively literate cultures or age groups, have incredible communicative power. There is evidence of images portraying biblical events and characters from late antiquity, despite Judaism’s reputation for aniconism, or holding images of holy matters to be taboo (Levine 2012). Biblical visuals alongside text appear in illustrated manuscripts, synagogues, churches, and catacombs. Stained-glass windows are a familiar example of this sort of biblical storytelling in sequential pictorial form. The paper ancestor of comics was the European broadsheet, and the first century of printing (1450–1550) was rife with religious propaganda in comics form. The life of Jesus in sequences of from four to thirty-six panels is the subject of the majority of the surviving early comic strips, as David Kunzle’s important study shows (1973, 14). However, these early forms, though compellingly related, do not serve the same market function as more contemporary comics simply because they existed before the modern mass media.

Beginning in the late 1800s comic strips developed into a mainstay syndicated newspaper feature, in a time when newspapers dominated mass media. In 1933 Eastern Color Printing salesman Max C. Gaines and sales manager Harry I. Wildeberg bound a series of Sunday color newspaper comic strips into a 7½-by-10-inch book as a promotional premium for North American companies. The result was Funnies on Parade, widely considered the first modern comic book. In 1942 Gaines wrote a treatise on the subject, Narrative Illustration: The Story of Comics, as part of his promotional materials for the comic Picture Stories from the Bible. From these early days the form of comics was connected to the reading and reinterpretation of the Bible, even if only to lend comics some of the Bible’s respectability.

Comics enjoyed an exponential increase in popularity around World War II, as the classic superheroes such as Captain America and Wonder Woman went to war alongside the Allies. Legions of soldiers enjoyed comics’ anti-Nazi propaganda. Many of these characters were influenced by the moral worldview held by a number of their successful Jewish creators.

After the war comics came under attack by various social groups, churches, teachers, and even the US government. These comics were the focus of postwar anxiety around the role of immigrants, violence, and morality. In the 1950s, in an attempt to save his publishing firm from accusations by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that comics were corrupting the youth of America (Hajdu 2008, 73), Bill Gaines tried to capitalize on the fact that his father Max’s company had printed and distributed biblical stories. In the postwar United States he was striving to use the presence of content from the Bible to defend the form of comics. In 1954 this pressure led to the creation of a voluntary comics code that self-regulated the industry in the US for decades, keeping sex and gore out of newsstand comics. Some publishers used the code and the “seal” on their comics to lend them a soft protection from inquisition until 2011. Appeal to the Bible had a limited effect; the code, however voluntary, was a more or less successful means of saving the industry from antagonistic scrutiny or at least slowing its postwar decline.

In another attempt to legitimate comics in the US, Eisner popularized the term “graphic novel” to refer to a longer-form comic book containing a sustained narrative. Most well-known at the time for his popular newspaper comic The Spirit (1940–1952), Eisner first used the term to promote A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978), which used a sophisticated style to tell demanding stories of urban Jewish life in the Bronx. The complex artistic form and subject matter, including overt Hebrew Bible themes, gave the work literary cachet. Since the 1990s the term has grown in popularity and has been used by publishers and authors to lend comics legitimacy in a US market that continued to characterize the form as juvenile and “lowbrow.”

Types of Relationships of Comics to the Bible

As with literature as a whole, the Bible is often used by creators of comics as a source of inspiration: creating illustrative interpretations of the entire text or from sections of the text, using plots or characters as direct elements in their own work, or more obliquely using concepts from the biblical material as source material. The categories of relationship treated here have porous borders. Creator attitudes toward biblical subject matter vary widely, and generalities are unreliable when discussing comics. While mainstream comics publishing has a similar editorial ethos to mainstream art and literature, there is a strong independent and underground publishing strain of comics that was born in copy shops in the late 1970s, which then carried over to the internet in the late 1990s and 2000s and still finds a home in both print and online publishing companies. The limits in many cases are only those imposed by the creators’ imagination, ability, and willingness to censor themselves. These creators can play with sacred and revered ideas with near-impunity, unrestrained by the corporate budget and liability considerations of film or television.

Comics Bibles

There have been several attempts to present the Bible or a significant portion of the Bible in a straightforward way in comics form. These comics Bibles are not the traditional “picture Bibles” or illuminated Bibles; the sequential images drive the piece rather than the text, per McCloud’s definition. Some are also not intended exclusively, or even at all, for children. R. Crumb, a well-known underground comics creator, attended to the King James and Robert Alter versions of the text when he created The Book of Genesis Illustrated (2009). His fascinating graphic depiction does not shy from the supernatural creatures, nudity, and violence found in Genesis; his reverence is for the literal and dramatic rather than for devotees of the text.

A one-to-one word-to-image translation is not possible; the creators’ assumptions about what biblical people and situations look like are often more obvious in pictures than in more traditional forms of exegesis. For example, The Action Bible (2010) is a widely available long-form comic that gives some treatment to each book in a Protestant Bible from Genesis to Revelation in a superhero or “action” comics style. The editor and artist follow the structure of the source text closely; their biblical heroes are portrayed as noticeably white while the villains are noticeably dark. Without illustrations these sorts of troubling racial assumptions may be made by a reader of the biblical text but are not necessarily implicit in the translation.

Comics can reveal new interpretive possibilities in the text as well. Steve Ross’s Marked (2005) situates the Gospel of Mark in a cartoony technological dystopia and in the process finds new ways to relate the story of a demonic empire to a contemporary audience. Alternative creator Chester Brown depicts biblical stories in Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus (2016) to make a provocative argument about prostitution and religious obedience.

Comics with Biblical Elements

Plots and other elements from the biblical text can be used as direct elements in comics with other narrative concerns. Because biblical imagery is often so recognizable to a Western audience, comic strips in particular often use scenes and characters from the Bible for shorthand. For example, Adam and Eve—a nude, strategically fig-leaf-covered couple—commonly serve as stand-ins for the concept of something “first.” In a single-panel Bizarro newspaper strip, a nude man in the midst of an idyllic garden calls to the sky, “But without having eaten the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we could not have known it was ‘wrong’ to disobey you.” The caption “The First Lawyer” gives the punchline (Piraro 2015). The creator assumes a degree of biblical literacy. A long-form example of this sort of combination of modern concerns and explicit biblical plot is found in Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament (2006–2008), which weaves a complex modern thriller with biblical stories. Rushkoff uses the comics’ conventions of the relationship between panel and gutter margin to present a dialogue between, for example, the biblical sacrifice of Isaac and the story of a contemporary father being given a way to avoid sacrificing his son.

Characters from the Bible are also commonly used as shorthand for particular ideas, or as conversation partners in new contexts—for instance, underground comics artist Frank Stack placed Jesus in contemporary settings in a loose series of comics distributed from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, using him as a conversation partner in dialogue with his US context. By having Jesus struggle with various modern situations—from a Vietnam-era US Army recruiting office to a community college faculty meeting to a fight with copyright lawyers—Stack was able to comment wryly on modern US culture. By depicting the race of Jesus in a conscious way, Black Jesus (2009) comments on the treatment of people of color by religious groups and white people by putting a black version of Jesus in a modern urban context.

Other implicitly biblical characters are used outside of biblical contexts. Lucifer is a common character in comics of many genres who is often at play in far from biblical stories. From the more traditional starting point of the fallen angel leader of Hell in sweeping mythic The Sandman (1989–1996) series and Lucifer (2000–2006) spin-off to the more avant-garde white-suited fire-starting woman in the The Wicked + The Divine series (2014–present), Lucifer enjoys fame inspired by—but only loosely tied to—the character’s biblical origins.

The Bible as a Source for Comics

A more oblique use of the biblical material as a source or conversation partner is as ubiquitous in comics as in other popular literature. Because the Bible contains so many recognizable tropes that can be used to signal complex concepts, they are a useful shorthand for creators.

Intertextuality with biblical figures is prevalent in the superhero genre of comics. Messianic figures are so omnipresent that the difficulty is often finding a superhero without parallel biblical heroes, usually either from the Hebrew Judges or popular conceptions of Jesus. Superman, who was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1933, is one of the longest-running comics characters still in print. He shares features of the Moses story (a baby sent to live with strangers in a space-worthy rush basket) and the Jesus story (the miracle-working man in cruciform poses sacrificing himself for his adopted Earth). While not often explicit, these connections are regularly a part of conversations around comics. For example, the way superheroes die and then return to life is meant to explore interreligious notions of the afterlife (Lewis 2014). Biblical connections are often constructed around texts with more oblique or even unintended references to biblical concepts or material.

When studying biblical material in comics, it is useful to note that these are not simply illustrations of material. They are—intentionally or not—translations into visual languages that come with their own sets of grammar and meanings. Uses of the biblical material reflect back on the Bible, revealing something of tacit assumptions informing a creator’s understanding of the nature of the Bible and its contents.

Bibliography

  • Brown, Chester. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2016.
  • Cary, Mike, Peter Gross, and Ryan Kelly. Lucifer. New York: Vertigo Comics, 2000–2006.
  • Cohn, Neil. The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Crumb, R. The Book of Genesis Illustrated. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.
  • Eisner, Will. A Contract with God: A Graphic Novel. New York: Baronet Books, 1978.
  • Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Tamarac, Fla.: Poorhouse, 1985.
  • Gaiman, Neil, et al. The Sandman. New York: DC Comics and Vertigo, 1989–1996.
  • Gillen, Kieron, and Jamie McKelvie. The Wicked + The Divine. New York: Image Comics, 2014– present.
  • Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
  • Inge, M. Thomas. Comics as Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
  • Krintzman, David, and Nicholas Da Silva. Black Jesus. Coquitlam, B.C., Canada: Arcana Comics, 2009.
  • Kunzle, David. The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet from c. 1450 to 1825. History of the Comic Strip vol. 1. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.
  • Levine, Lee I. Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Lewis, A. David. American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
  • Lewis, A. David, and Christine Hoff Kraemer, eds. Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. New York: Continuum, 2010.
  • Mauss, Doug, ed. The Action Bible: God’ s Redemptive Story. Illustrated by Sergio Cariello. Colorado Springs, Colo.: David C. Cook, 2010.
  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Kitchen Sink/Harper Perennial, 1994.
  • Piraro, Dan. Bizarro, 21 Dec. 2015, King Features Syndicate.
  • Ross, Steve. Marked. New York: Seabury Church Publishing, 2005.
  • Rushkoff, Douglas, and Liam Sharp. Testament. 4 vols. New York: D.C. Comics and Vertigo, 2006–2008.
  • Stack, Frank. The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006.
  • Varnum, Robin, and Christina T. Gibbons, eds. Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Elizabeth Coody

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