Why Christianity and Comics Go Together

By Gene Luen Yang 8-25-2011

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.

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.

+Continue reading "Telling the Old, Old Story" in the September/October issue of Sojourners magazine

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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