The Common Good
September/October 2011

Telling the Old, Old Story

by Gene Luen Yang | September/October 2011

Why, despite mutual suspicions, Christianity and comics go together like paper and ink.

I remember vividly the first time I went to a comic book shop with my mom. I'd sneaked there before. But this time was different. This time I’d come without pretense, openly confessing my love of the four-color art form. I was in the fifth grade.

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While I perused the back issue bins in the middle of the shop, my mother looked from one rack to the next, her face slowly solidifying into a grimace. On one cover, a half-naked green man punched a half-naked rock man in the head. On another, a woman wearing spandex tight enough to be body paint draped herself over some sort of futuristic motorcycle. Eventually, my mother’s eyes fell upon the cover of a sword-and-sorcery title near the cash register. Behind a tan, sinewy barbarian stood a harem of women, all wearing thin strips of well-placed linen. We left before I could make a purchase.

On the way out, she grabbed my hand and crossed herself. Surely, a good Catholic woman had to protect her son from such drivel. I sighed, knowing I would have to go back to my sneaking ways.

She didn’t know it at the time, but my mother had just played out in microcosm the long, antagonistic relationship between Christianity and comics. Since its inception in 1933, the modern comic book has drawn the ire of preachers, priests, and parents. Committees and associations have been formed on both sides of the struggle.

This animosity is curious, especially since Christianity and comic books have a lot in common. Christianity was established by a small band of poor Jewish men who loved stories. Almost 2,000 years ago, Peter, James, John, and their peers in the neighborhoods of Galilee gathered around a wonder-worker who taught by telling stories. From this community grew the largest religion on earth.

Similarly, the comic book was established by a small band of poor Jewish men who loved stories. Almost a century ago, Jacob Kurtzberg (Jack Kirby), Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee), Robert Kahn (Bob Kane), Will Eisner, and their peers in the neighborhoods of New York gathered together to draw cartoons. From this community came the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Batman, the Spirit, and a brand new entertainment industry.

This early Jewish influence permeates both Christianity and comic books to this day. The language Christians use to talk about faith is colored by Jewish concepts. We talk about the Law, sacrificial blood, and cleanliness. We refer to our savior as the Lamb of God or the Lion of Judah, recalling stories from the Torah.

Many of the most familiar comic book stories also have Jewish roots. As Moses' family sent him down the river in a reed basket to escape a besieged city, so Superman’s family sends him into outer space in a metal basket to escape a besieged planet. As Samson retained his superhuman strength so long as he avoided his fatal weakness (haircuts), so Superman retains his superhuman strength so long as he avoids his fatal weakness (Kryptonite).

The Green Lantern mythos echoes Lucifer's story. Sinestro, the greatest member of the Green Lantern Corps, becomes the Corps’ greatest enemy after his pride leads him to proclaim himself the sole arbiter of right and wrong. Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern from Earth, remains good not only because of his courage, but also because of his humility.

Despite this shared heritage, however, enmity between Christianity and comics emerged early on. Most pop culture historians would peg the modern comic book’s birth year to 1933, when two printing plant employees collected Sunday strips into magazine format and published them, as a promotional giveaway, as Funnies on Parade. This was followed by Famous Funnies, the first retail comic book, in 1934. By the end of the decade, comics had become a mass medium, selling millions of issues each month.

In the beginning, Christian churches recognized the new medium's educational potential. Maxwell Gaines, one of the two men behind Funnies on Parade and Famous Funnies, founded a comics publishing house called Educational Comics, or EC Comics. Of his entire line, he was proudest of the series Picture Stories from the Bible, which sold particularly well to Catholic parishes and religious schools.

Picture Stories from the Bible proved to be the exception rather than the rule, and by 1938 enough parents voiced their concerns about their children's reading material that the American Catholic bishops created the National Organization for Decent Literature (NODL). Lead mostly by Catholic priests, NODL encouraged its members to verbally affirm their disgust of "immoral pictures" every Sunday at Mass: "I condemn indecent and immoral pictures and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to unite with all who protest against them ... I promise further to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show pictures that can be an occasion of sin."

NODL also issued a monthly list of "Publications Disapproved for Youth," which included many comics. Unfortunately, schools and churches weren’t always sure what to do with these lists. Posted lists would often be seen by young people as required, rather than forbidden, reading.

Secular institutions supported Christ-ian disapproval of comic books. Librarians and teachers argued that the comics medium itself, and not just the content, impeded reading comprehension and imagination and caused eye strain. In his landmark book Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham pointed to comic books as a primary cause of juvenile delinquency.

Eventually, this anti-comic-book fervor culminated in the comic book burnings of the late 1940s. Under the guidance of their teachers, students brought their collections to schoolyards on weekends. They sang their school alma maters as the “immoral pictures” went up in flames.

Was this conflict inevitable? Were Christianity and comics destined to be enemies?

In Scott McClouds's book Understanding Comics, he defines comics not as a genre or a type of book, but as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response." Using McCloud's definition, we can trace the history of comics back to Swiss artist Rodolphe Topffer’s ink drawings in the early 1800s, which used panels and word balloons as narrative devices. Or we can trace comics back to the Japanese woodblock print books of the same era, which presented stories as mass-produced images in sequence.

McCloud himself dates comics all the way back to 1300 B.C.E., when Egyptians adorned their royal tombs with storytelling images. According to McCloud, comics are ancient, much older than Christianity.

Christians have long used images, including "juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence," to convey the gospel. Many of Christianity's most famous masterpieces are, by McCloud's definition, comics. The Sistine Chapel tells the story of God and humanity, from creation to Fall to redemption, using a series of paintings meant not merely to be looked at, but read.

All this imagery stands in stark contrast to the practice of our forebears in faith, the Jews. Despite the fact that modern Jews created the modern comics industry, ancient Israelites assiduously avoided making images. Exodus 20:4 instructs, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."

Early Christians abandoned this prohibition fairly quickly. Within just a few decades of their Jewish founder’s death, first century Christians were painting images of him in the tombs of their dead. Some later Christians have argued that this was simply a corruption of the original faith.

Christian polymath John of Damascus (676-749 C.E.) understands the issue differently. He suggests that our tradition of visual art grows from the very heart of the gospel. When "the Word became flesh and made a dwelling among us" (John 1:14), God expressed the desire to make what was once invisible (the Word) visible (flesh). John of Damascus writes:

"But when the Invisible, having clothed himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of him who has appeared ... Paint his birth from the Virgin, his baptism in the Jordan, his transfiguration on Mount Tabor ... Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards."

To respond to the Incarnation -- the making of the invisible visible -- we must express the Incarnation visually. In other words, we must make comics.

By the time I got to high school, my mother had made peace with my love of comics. Long boxes of monthly issues cluttered my closet, and she didn't complain as long as there was still enough room for my clothes. When I announced, shortly after turning 16, that my first trip after getting my driver’s license would be to a comic book store, she didn't object.

And when I began writing and drawing comic books as an adult, my mother supported me wholeheartedly, even while I was still losing money at it. Nowadays, when my mother accompanies my family and me to Mass, I watch her study the stained glass windows above us, first one and then the next, quietly pondering the messages they contain. I smile. I probably got my love of comics from her.

Gene Luen Yang is a cartoonist and author of 2006 National Book Award nominee American Born Chinese, Prime Baby, and most recently, Level Up. He also teaches computer science at a Catholic high school in California.

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