The Common Good
November 2009

Nothing Comic About It

by Van Jensen | November 2009

Graphic novels tackle the tough issues of our times.

In the Battle Pope comic book series, a slovenly, muscle-bound version of the Catholic leader bumbles from one superheroic adventure to another—with a hippie Jesus as sidekick. The only time a serious question of religion arises is when it offers a convenient punch line.

While people of faith certainly enjoy their share of juvenile humor, they’ve often had to look hard to find more-substantive treatments of spirituality and real-world issues in comics. But the last few decades have seen a maturation of the genre, as comic books and graphic novels—which are essentially book-length comics—address serious issues in thoughtful, creative ways. Think of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus, which documents his father’s experience in the Holocaust, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic memoir of her child-hood during the Iranian revolution.

The industry has snowballed in the past five years, and now rakes in big readers and big bucks—last year, graphic novel sales in the U.S. and Canada reached $395 million. Combine this with revenue generated from movie adaptations of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Wanted and you have an industry that feels larger than life.

Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second Books, which publishes graphic novels, said his plan when creating the imprint in 2006 was to include graphic novels about race, politics, and social justice “for the world citizen,” which coincided with creators’ increasing desire “to tackle big things in new ways.”

He understands why some readers are reluctant to pick up graphic novels—he said he had faced an analogous challenge when he met his wife, a former ballerina. “Once I’d gathered enough of ballet’s vocabulary so I could begin to discern and appreciate it for what it is, I could also be touched, moved, transported by some great moment. And it was electrifying,” Siegel said. “It’s the same with comics. Spiegelman, Satrapi, and now a host of others are expressing things that transcend the medium. You don’t need to be a comics connoisseur to feel it when some work is about the human story, when it’s universal.”

Siegel seeks out novels that address tough questions or plug into current news. The imprint’s recent graphic novel The Photographer chronicles the experience of a photographer who followed a Doctors Without Borders mission into Afghanistan, which helped it gain relevancy—and sales. The 270-page book combines Didier Lefévre’s photographs with simple yet realistic art by Emmanuel Guibert.

“Even if The Photographer wasn’t breaking out like this nationwide, I would have no regrets,” Siegel said. “Once I’d read it, I couldn’t not publish it.”

An Uneven History

Comic books first appeared in 1934, but the industry’s maturation in the United States was stunted for generations when, in the 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and overzealous government officials mistakenly connected superhero and true-crime comics with adolescent crime, as recounted in journalist David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Comics became stigmatized as juvenile, fantastical, and even harmful, a label that is only now dissolving. In Europe and Japan, where comics never were repressed, artists have been creating thoughtful, mature work for decades.

Adam Johnson, a Stanford University creative writing professor who co-teaches the university’s graphic novel class, counts himself among those who took some convincing to pick up a graphic novel.

“Maybe I was a jaded kid, but I was like, ‘No hero swoops in to save the day, man,’” Johnson said. “It was only when comics got permission to be nonfiction by Spiegelman that it really took off. This guy gave his father’s whole existence in this format, and it was so dexterous in how it moved in time and showed back story.”

Johnson first began using comics techniques to help his fiction-writing students better understand story construction. Then two years ago he developed the graphic novel class, in which student writers and artists build a book from scratch. To help justify the endeavor—especially since some older members of Stanford’s administration didn’t regard comics as “real literature”—Johnson decided the class had to tell important stories that dealt with real issues. He allowed students to choose the topic.

The first year the class created Shake Girl, a retelling of the story of Tat Marina, a famous Cambodian singer who, like many Cambodian women, was pressured into a relationship with a government official, and then brutally attacked with nitric acid as backlash for the affair. While the art in Shake Girl (which you can read online at www.sojo.net/magazine) betrays the students’ inexperience, it is clean and emotive, and the students were able to see the medium’s potential for storytelling.

Coverage of Shake Girl helped spread knowledge of the acid attacks to the U.S. The most powerful moment, Johnson said, was when a member of Stanford’s Cambodian student group came to review the artwork for its authenticity. It turned out the student had witnessed the attack on Marina and emotionally described how the acid had bubbled on the ground afterward.

“That was one of the most electric moments,” Johnson said. “That saw us through a lot of late nights.”

A subsequent class created Virunga, which depicts the struggle to save mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The creation is inconsistent yet impressive, with loose inking and imaginative panel structures.

Religious Comics

The history of Christian comics traces back almost to the medium’s origin. In the early 1940s, publisher M.C. Gaines created Picture Stories From the Bible. Gaines’ son would later create EC Comics, the famed horror publisher of Tales From the Crypt. The Picture Stories series represents the first in a long line of literal biblical translations, with the iconic R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis as the latest iteration.

Fantagraphics this year released The Wolverton Bible, the creation of Basil Wolverton, known for his intensely crosshatched monster and pulp stories. From 1953 through 1974, Wolverton produced hundreds of illustrations inspired by the Old Testament and the book of Revelation. Much of the work focuses on the Bible’s harsher passages, thus showcasing Wolverton’s grotesque sensibility.

The Manga Bible, adapted by Siku, was published in 2008. Manga—the Japanese term for comics—has come to be known for stylized characters with oversized eyes and a focus on action. The Manga Bible is no exception, and pares the Bible down to little more than a series of fight sequences.

Other faiths have seen similar works. Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, spent his later years creating a massive series of illustrated stories of the Buddha, and Mormon illustrator Mike Allred has split time between superhero books and creating The Golden Plates.

A more recent development has been comics that touch on religion and spirituality but not as literal interpretations. One of the most popular graphic novels of the past decade is Blankets, Craig Thompson’s rumination on teenage love and his struggles with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Publisher Thomas Nelson also recently developed a new line of graphic novels featuring illustrated adaptations of author Ted Dekker’s novels.

Andy Runton, creator of the children’s graphic novel series Owly, said while his faith is completely ingrained in his creation, he doesn’t label his books Christian because he doesn’t want non-Christian readers to feel excluded. Despite the preponderance of darker, edgier books in the comics world, Runton said he’s enjoyed strong support from traditional comic book fans and those who don’t read other comics. He attributes that readership to his main character and the comics medium.

“Owly wouldn’t hurt a fly and he always wants to do the right thing,” Runton said. “There’s a lyric in a song by The Smiths, ‘It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind.’ That’s what I’ve learned. It takes strength to follow the high road; it takes time to work out differences.

“Owly is a different kind of hero, but he’s my hero. And comics can be a very emotional medium; the way the images are presented makes them very powerful.”

The topics of religion and social justice merge in the writing of G. Willow Wilson, a journalist-turned-comics author whose debut graphic novel, Cairo, delved into the collision of Abrahamic faiths in Egypt. Her ongoing series from Vertigo, Air, focuses on terrorism, the airline industry, and oil, among other topics.

Wilson’s collaborator on both projects is M.K. Perker, a native of Turkey who now lives in New York City. Fittingly, his heavily detailed work combines elements of Eastern and Western styles.

“The issues surrounding our modern relationship to religion—and how that, in turn, affects global politics—are always in the forefront of my mind because they have a direct impact on my life,” said Wilson, who converted to Islam after studying the religion in college. “I’ve kind of got one foot on each side of the ‘clash of civilizations.’ So that works its way into much of what I write.”

For those in the comics industry, it has been a long push toward earning respectability among mainstream readers. That effort has consisted largely of efforts to convince readers that while many comic books are silly and fun, the medium offers plenty of substantive material as well.

But there are those who say creators need to focus even more on making comics for readers who are looking for more serious books. Even with Hollywood’s added attention, sales of superhero comics have remained relatively flat. The potential for growth, then, lies not with Battle Pope but with Blankets.

“If there’s going to be a bigger audience, it’s going to be here, with these more mature graphic novels,” Johnson said. “If the medium is going to be taken seriously, it’s going to come from nonfiction. There aren’t any more people who are going to buy Batman.”

Van Jensen is a journalist, artist, and comic book author. His first graphic novel, Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer, was released this fall.

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Life, Illustrated: Some significant graphic books over the years

It Shouldn’t Happen. An oddity when released, Don Freeman’s slim book about a soldier who becomes a dog serves as a parable about equality. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945.

A Contract With God. Will Eisner’s deeply personal work about struggles among tenement residents. Baronet Books, 1978.

Kings in Disguise. Playwright James Vance tells the story of a boy wandering through Depression-era America. Kitchen Sink Press, 1988.

Persepolis. This inside account of the Iranian revolution by Marjane Satrapi gives context to a country often viewed simply as an enemy. L’Association, 2002 (reprinted in 2004 by Pantheon).

Notes for a War Story. Italian artist Gipi explores the psyches of young men and how easily they can be manipulated into committing terrible acts. Coconino, 2005 (reprinted in 2007 by First Second Books).

Superman: For Tomorrow. An intriguing premise from writer Brian Azzarello, with Superman doubting himself and a priest doubting God, but the story quickly falls into typical superhero silliness. DC Comics, 2005.

American Born Chinese. Gene Luen Yang uses cartoonish art to illustrate a complex fictional story around his conflicted background as a Catholic of Asian descent born in the U.S. First Second Books, 2006.

The Arrival. Shaun Tan’s wordless fantasy story of an immigrant allows readers to join the protagonist in feeling lost in a new land. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.

Fun Home. Alison Bechdel’s memoir of a tragic childhood highlights her struggles coming out as a lesbian; a deeply textured story laden with literary references. Mariner Books, 2007.

Exit Wounds. In Israeli cartoonist Rutu Modan’s story, two young people search for answers, and themselves, in the wake of a terrorist bombing. Drawn & Quarterly, 2008.

The Manga Bible. The artist Siku created a loose, action-heavy rendition of the Bible drawn in the Japanese comics style. Galilee Trade, 2008.

The Book of Genesis. R. Crumb, the premiere indie comics creator, dedicated four years to a literally translated illustrated edition of the Bible’s opening book. W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

The Wolverton Bible. Best known for his bizarre and often gross comics illustrations, Basil Wolverton here drew versions of the Old Testament and the book of Revelation. Fantagraphics, 2009.

Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book. Illustrator Umlando Wezithombe tells Mandela’s vivid life story—from his birth to his presidency. W.W. Norton, 2009.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. First published online, Josh Neufeld follows seven New Orleanians through Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects and its aftermath. Random House, 2009.

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