Introduction

The Bible has a long history of reception within the visual arts, as well as in music and fiction. It was only a matter of time before so-called popular culture appropriated the Bible and produced its own reworking. The recent publication of three manga Bibles aims to introduce a young audience familiar with Japanese manga to the Bible.

The word “manga” refers to a Japanese style of combining words with illustrations, and presenting them in a panel form. It bears similarities to (and differences from) Western comic books and can be best described as “sequential art” or even “comix.” While the word “manga” is composed of two pictographs—man, meaning “rambling, aimless,” and ga, “picture”—its origins are disputed. It is believed by some scholars that the word manga originates with Katsushika Hokusai, who used it in the sense of rough, preparatory sketches, or random drawings; “flowing words” or “undisciplined words,” “whimsical pictures” are also possible translations. There is also a school of thought, however, that traces the earliest forms of manga in twelfth-century Japan to forms of designs, comic and satirical, from the Edo period to the twentieth century. The current consensus is that the modern use of manga comes out of the period following the Second World War. Crucial to understanding the development of the genre is its syncretistic character: Graphic works in Japan were to some extent influenced by the influx of Western comics introduced during the American occupation following Japan’s defeat in 1945.

At first glance it may seem that manga is an odd choice of medium with which to translate the Bible, yet there is already a rich history of the use of sequential art in Western biblical representation. In recent years there has been an explosion of Bible-related comics. In 2009, for example, Robert Crumb, a well-known American satirist and leader of the “underground comix” movement, applied his unique graphic (and sexualized) style to the Book of Genesis. Furthermore, sequential art has made a foray into translating the “classics” and other literature, including works by Shakespeare and even The Iliad and The Odyssey. This is mainly done in Western types of comics, but Japanese manga form also appears quite frequently.

Within Japan, manga as a medium remains popular with children, teenagers, and young adults, and often addresses every conceivable human issue, ranging from practical genres (DIY, sports, cooking) to subjects such as history, fantasy, science fiction, religion, and the supernatural. More specifically, manga has been used to explore religious themes, particularly stories relating to the supernatural, Buddha and Buddhism, and Christianity. The portrayal of Christianity in manga preceding the manga Bibles is of two kinds: a positive portrayal found in manga, such as One Pound Gospel (1987), Iesu (1997), and The Virgin Mary Is Watching (1998); and another which draws on themes popular in Japanese culture, such as the paranormal and the occult. The richness and popularity of sequential art heterogeneous traditions stands behind the creation of manga Bibles.

Kodomo Manga: Manga for Children and the Zondervan Manga Bible

Reading the Bible, an ancient Near Eastern text, as a Japanese sequential art form presents challenges. Three publishers have undertaken the task, each addressing a primary audience of children, teenagers, and young adults.

Zondervan, an evangelical publishing company, partnered with author Young Shin Lee and illustrator Jung Sun Hwang, already known in Korea for their young adult work, to produce the Zondervan Manga Bible, aimed specifically at children aged nine to twelve. This is the most extensive manga Bible with eight volumes (five on the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and three on the New Testament). The episodes are often short and tend to be presented as stand-alone stories meant to facilitate children’s engagement with the text itself.

One of the characteristics of kodomo manga, or manga for children, is its moralistic tone which aims to teach children to lead a life of principles and to remain on the right path. In terms of style, the Zondervan Manga Bible is visually similar to the style of Tezuka Ozamu, the father of modern Japanese manga. The Zondervan Manga Bible is characterized by a number of unconventional features, namely the use of everyday language (“Time to go to work” in Genesis 3 or “Are we there yet?” in Ruth); a mixture of historic and modern clothing (the narrator in the book of Joshua wears a suit and the doctor in Ruth has a stethoscope); contemporary nods to cultural icons (Pokémon characters appear in the book of Ruth); frequent onomatopoeia and gender stereotypes (that latter of which is relatively standard). In fact, gender stereotypes seem to be encouraged in the Zondervan’s modern retelling of Genesis 1—3. Eve calls out to Adam, “Come home early if you can,” to which he responds, “Okay. I’ll be home right after work.” The illustrated panels show Eve hanging cloths outside their home and Adam physically working the ground. Similarly, in the book of Ruth, Ruth is shown as a sweet young woman, with flowery dress whose experience of want is rewritten as romance with Boaz. The reason for her choice is not starvation, but the result of a conversation with Naomi, who plays the role of a supportive older woman (“You look lovely. You should marry him”). Ruth’s decision is theologically motivated, as she contends, “He’s a little old for me, but he believes in God, so I will [marry him].” This reduction of complex and polyphonic narratives into a theologically simple message is found throughout the whole series. A similar illustration from Joshua serves as further evidence to the reader: When Joshua and his troops commit genocide against the Canaanites, the narrator comments, “Why did God command such destruction of life? … God did this to protect Israel from wicked religion and sin.”

The New Testament is similarly composed of extended illustrated (and humorous) episodes of scenes from the lives of Jesus and Paul. While the use of single and multiple panels makes this visually attractive, the reader must be weary of a number of issues. For example, the story line is in fact taken from the four gospels conflated into one narrative. Additionally, even though there are a number of stories about women in the Gospels (the woman anointing Jesus’s feet, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, and the Syrophoenician woman), these are sketchily drawn. There is an emphasis on Paul’s life and ministry, with a strong message about following a god who performs healing miracles. The audience is addressed directly and is invited to make a connection between salvation and their way of life, particularly with an emphasis on personal salvation.

Shonen Manga: Comics for Boys and The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation

The Manga Bible, written by Christian artist Ajinbayo Akinsiku (Siku) and produced by Hodder and Stoughton, was aimed at the “unchurched” to show them the “relevance” of the Bible. It is also an example of shonen manga, which is aimed at a young male demographic, as it is drawn in dramatic (and sometimes bloody) and dynamic style. Siku’s free use of panel space, his engagement with the viewer/reader, and his use of onomatopoeia suggest many similarities with Japanese manga. This essay will focus on two aspects of Siku’s manga Bible: the content and selection of scenes that constitute his work and his representation of women.

A single volume contains both Testaments, so the selection of biblical passages is limited. First, the Old Testament is patchily represented: the creation of the world, of Adam and Eve, the story of the flood, some episodes of the life of Abraham and Sarah, Esau and Jacob, and the story of Joseph combine to illustrate Genesis. Exodus (with a map) focuses on the leadership of Moses and ends with his death in Deuteronomy. Oddly, the book of Job (one page: the “story of human suffering”) is placed between Deuteronomy and Joshua. A selection of scenes taken from Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Samuel are illustrated, including a number of war scenes and the story of Samson (Judges 13—16). Some of the brutality of the “conquest” is drawn unflinchingly at times (e.g., the hanging of Canaanite kings in Josh 8:29), but battle scenes and violence are part of traditional manga. Therefore, it is not surprising that Siku illustrates these, but there is a danger that the horror of the genocide perpetrated by Joshua and his troops is underplayed. The books of Kings, interrupted by the story of the prophet Jonah, emphasize the religious apostasy of the Israelites. The continuous historical narrative is broken up by one page on the book of Psalms. The story of the exile is brief, with a mention of the letters of Jeremiah before continuing on to the book of Daniel, followed by Ezra and Nehemiah. The final result is a heightened emphasis on historicity, while bypassing the thorny problems of date and literary function of the Bible.

Second, manga are notorious for their portrayal of sexual violence against women, so how does Siku’s manga Bible fare in this regard? There is a nod to the importance of women, though in completely gendered roles, for instance, as midwives to the Hebrews; Deborah and Delilah are also represented in the work. However, Jael, Sisera’s mother, Jephthah’s daughter, and Samson’s mother are among a host of women who are absent within the retelling of the book of Judges. When women are present, they are stereotyped and drawn as young and slender (predictably in the case of Eve, but unusual in the case of old and barren Sarah in Gen 18:11). The issue of abuse of women is not raised (neither in Judges nor in other stories). The book of Ruth, a book about women’s lives, is depicted in four pages: The darker elements of the story are ignored, and it is essentially transformed into a romantic encounter with a happy ending. Siku, perhaps understandably, shies away from violence against women, but the result is an unsatisfactory narrative that privileges patriarchal concerns.

When we turn to the New Testament, we are faced with similar issues. Siku’s Son of God is “‘a samurai stranger who’s come to town, in silhouette’, here to shake things up” (Banerjee 2008); “the book of the Gospels” is an amalgamation of story elements from the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in an attempt to produce a single unified Christology. There is no sense of the different purposes of the birth narratives, and the story line is seamless instead of the narrative complexity of the Gospels. Stories of exorcisms (Mark 1:21–28), healing (John 9), miracles and parables (e.g., Matt 18:21–35; 21: 33–46; Luke 15:11–32) form the bulk of this section. From John’s gospel, the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is selected, perhaps to emphasize the “born again” element. The book of Acts hinges on Paul’s conversion and travels, followed by pages on the conflicts and challenges faced by Paul in his letters. The last couple of pages center on the book of Revelation. These episodes are woven in the story of Jesus’s life, condemnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

The question of women is also at stake in Siku’s New Testament: While the women at the grave are portrayed in the four gospels (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1), Mary and Elizabeth do not make any appearance and neither do other women like the Syrophoenician (Matt 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–29), the Samaritan woman (John 4), and the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:21–28) who all have an important function in the gospel narratives. The calling of the disciples as a men-only group betrays a focus on patriarchy. The main presupposition behind Siku’s manga Bible is based on the historical Jesus, not as an ongoing debate among contemporary New Testament scholars but as a “given.”

Overall, Siku’s graphic style and writing are engaging, with captions that address the reader and ask questions such as “Want to know more?”, followed by relevant chapters and verses. He employs a light tone and everyday language, making it accessible to a young audience (Jesus, post-resurrection, asks, “Do you have any food? I could murder some fish and honeycomb”). His style, choice of topics, action-packed adventures, dramatic and sometimes humorous stories of superheroes, and portrayal of women best relate to the shonen style of manga. However, Siku’s manga Bible is predicated on literal historicity rather than the more open-ended exploration of the narrative contents of the Bible.

Shōjo Manga: “Ladies Comics” and The Manga Bible by Tyndale House Publishers

This “manga for girls,” produced in Japan and published in the United States, is evangelical in nature as it aims to “bring hope to a new generation lost without Christ.” It is a longer version than Siku’s, eventually spanning six books, three on the Old Testament and three on the New Testament. Its aesthetics are the closest to Japanese manga and are broadly reminiscent of shōjo manga, literally “young woman” manga. Its themes tend to focus on romance and emphasize individual stories and relationships. Indeed, the portrayal of women in this manga Bible is close to that found in shōjo manga, which portrays the aesthetic concept of moe, “a slightly confused, dreamy, yet seductive vulnerability, that doe-eyed, ‘please, don’t hurt me’ look” (Sharalyn Orbaugh 2003, 204). This is exemplified in a number of stories, and in particular in the book of Judges, a book that contains a high number of stories of or about women. While Deborah, Jael, and other women are portrayed, some of their positive features fail to be highlighted. For instance, while Deborah is portrayed as a prophet, her role of judge is underplayed, and her complex characterization as “wife of Lapidoth” is ignored. This might have been a visual opportunity to highlight her power. Similarly, the biblical scene where Samson’s mother is the recipient of an angelic annunciation (Judges 13) and shows a deeper understanding of events than her husband does not appear in Tyndale’s manga Bible. Delilah, the woman who betrays Samson for money, however, is portrayed in some detail. The Book of Judges stops at Judges 16, clearly shying away from the violence against women perpetrated in Judges 19 and 20—21.

The book of Ruth is a good test case for the treatment of a shōjo-style biblical text, as it figures individuals and groups of women and has a significant amount of dialogue. The characterization of Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth as “doe-eyed,” emotional, and vulnerable is striking and highlights the stereotypical character of this type of manga; the story is read as one of cooperation, where Naomi strives for Ruth’s happiness through marriage and the begetting of a son. The story also develops the more recently popularized trope of poor-girl-meets-rich boy in Japanese manga.

When we turn to the New Testament, manga Messiah presents its mission statement on the last page: “It is up to you now.… These things have been written for you so that you will believe Yeshua is the Messiah, the son of God, and if you believe in him, you will have the eternal life that he promised.” With this in mind, it will come as no surprise that the visual narrative reimagining the gospels is also a compilation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in a unified narrative, more extensive than Siku’s, yet still exhibiting similar presuppositions about the historical Jesus and his salvific function (note the use of the name “Yeshua,” which means salvation). The extensive reimagining of the episodes of the life of Jesus/Yeshua uses a number of traditional manga themes, namely interest in the supernatural, with angels and demons as protagonists, which appears frequently in the course of the narrative. More difficult is the portrayal of the Jews who are in opposition to Jesus/Yeshua; the drawings are objectionable and offensive (cf. manga Messiah 118–119, 140, 263–268).

Assessment

Manga Bibles, as a relatively new arrival on the scene of biblical representation, needs to be assessed with care. Clearly manga Bibles, for all their cultural appeal and ability to cater to a young audience, cannot be free of ideology; any reimagining of the Bible is always mediated through the eyes of interested parties who often prioritize issues of dogma over the Bible itself. While it is broadly the case that the three manga Bibles are intended for three different audiences, none of them are devoid of presuppositions. The common aim is, of course, laudable: to engage the next generation with the Bible stories, to help them discover narratives that are not just cultural references but that also aim to “change their lives.” By necessity, the three manga Bibles are selective in their choice of stories, with the result that whole sections of the Bible are simply not represented, while others are more popular. For instance, in all three manga Bibles the representation of Jesus Christ’s life as “superhero” is a common trope (in both Western comix and Japanese manga). In that same vein, all three offer a compendium of the four gospels with an emphasis on a unified Christology whose presupposition is based on an uncritical acceptance of the historical Jesus.

Will boys and girls, young men and women, and the not so young leapfrog through the manga Bible stories, uncritically accepting the often conservative message? In an increasingly heterogeneous society (and market), could a young audience be satisfied with the present three versions of one-dimensional readings of Bible stories? Aside from these important questions, there are equally notable aspects about these manga Bibles. As a publishing phenomenon in the West, manga Bibles could create a community of readers defined by sharing a group identity, loyalty to the narratives, and a continuing engagement through loyalty to their character of choice and discussion group, whose whole sense of identity is lived through a particular manga series. Whether manga Bibles will, like other manga, be read tachiyomi (“standing-up reading” in the shops), or be bought “for keeps” remains to be seen. What is clear is that manga Bibles offer a potential, new Bible literacy sustained through re-reading and collecting Bible stories. It is hoped that the manga Bibles can be revised to convey a less sanitized and possibly a less anthropomorphic Bible, which truly engages with ecological concerns, animal welfare, inclusiveness, and social justice.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

  • See nextmanga.com (accessed October 5, 2018); see also www.bible.or.jp/e/manga.html (accessed October 5, 2018) for the Japanese Bible Society website (in English).
  • Book 1: manga Mutiny. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009. The story begins with rebellion in the heavens and failure on earth.
  • Book 2: manga Melech. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010. Escape from Egypt to crowning of the greatest king on earth.
  • Book 3: manga Messengers. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011. From Solomon to the decline and eventual exile of Israel.
  • Book 4: manga Messiah. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007. The climax of the series—the birth and death of Yeshua.
  • Book 5: manga Metamorphosis. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008. From Yeshua’s departure to the wild and treacherous adventures of the early church.
  • Book 6: manga Majesty. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, still in development. Brings the story to conclusion with the story of Revelation.
  • The Next manga Bible was published in Japanese and then translated into English. Tyndale House Publishers has purchased exclusive English language rights for all the titles in the manga series from NEXT Inc., a nonprofit corporation formed in 2006 to produce and distribute biblically based manga materials worldwide. Behind NEXT is a group of dedicated professionals with years of experience in Japanese printing and publishing. This series has its own Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/manga_Bible_(series) (accessed October 5, 2018).
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Ann Jeffers