Before Neil Gaiman became a New York Times best-selling author, he wrote a comic book series called The Sandman. In the course of its 75 issues, which he began in the late 1980s, Gaiman explored issues of depth psychology, the relevance of ancient mythology, the sources of Shakespeare's inspiration, the subtleties of Oriental calligraphy, and the relationship between dreams and death. At its heart, The Sandman series explored the diminishment of faith in the modern world and the need for a reconnection with enchantment in our everyday lives.
Clearly not the "Biff! Bam! Pow!" comics of an earlier generation.
A new type of comic book has emerged. It's often visually edgy and sensitive to a niche market, and it's reaching new audiences. With this new brand of comic book displayed alongside titles of the large comic publishers in more than 4,000 comic shops nationwide, an aging fan base can find ideas and themes explored in more mature and visually sophisticated ways. Comics now explore issues important to adult readers - in some cases with more violence and sexuality. At the same time, many are more thoughtful and subtle in their storytelling than the traditional comic book. This genre has become so popular that even the publishers of such staples as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, and Spiderman have created comic lines that mirror this new style. It is in this context that comics have found an audience with which to explore issues of myth, religion, faith, and spirituality.
Prior to a boom in independent comic publishing in the 1980s, religion - especially Christianity - in comic books manifested mostly as evangelistic vehicles, Sunday school material, or maudlin stories of "good" boys and girls versus "bad." They were often sponsored by denominations or mission societies. It was, as one writer put it, Christian propaganda. At its very worse, it was Chick Tracts - a line of comics infamous for vicious anti-Catholic rhetoric and frightening and sometimes sadistic views of what awaits the "unsaved."
Now there are many small presses dedicated to the creation of comic books with Christian themes. Some are visual representations of storylines similar to those found in the Christian best-seller This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti - muscular, sword-wielding angels doing invisible and dramatic battle against hordes of demons who prey on believers and unbelievers alike. Some, like Pakkins' Land: Paul's Adventure, by Gary and Rhoda Shipman, find inspiration in fantasy with a moral context, along the lines of C.S. Lewis's Narnia tales.
PERHAPS THE MOST obvious use of comics as a religious vehicle is in the telling and translating of biblical stories. There have been "graphic Bibles" around for generations, but now fresh interpretations represent this new type of exploration.
The American Bible Society, a major religious publisher, created Metron Press as an experiment to communicate orthodox issues of faith through a modern means of graphic storytelling. Their most successful effort to date is Testament, a 120-page retelling of some of the Old Testament's most iconic stories by an unlikely religious raconteur - a bartender. The work is produced by 20 of the industry's best-known illustrators and written by Jim Krueger, an author of Marvel Comics' Earth X series (which explores issues of divinity, eternal life, sin, and retribution using the X-Men, the Hulk, Spiderman, and many other of Marvel's main characters). The artistic styles are diverse; some use naturalism and humor, others draw on inspiration ranging from classical art to Oriental history. Some of the artists are practicing Christians; others are not.
Beyond the direct biblical story, some of the most interesting explorations of religious life and faith in comics, such as those in The Sandman, are found in unlikely places.
Will Eisner, who wrote and drew a tongue-in-cheek detective story titled The Spirit during the 1940s for the Sunday funny pages, came back into the field of graphic storytelling in the 1970s after years in commercial art. His gift to the genre was the first self-proclaimed "graphic novel," A Contract With God. In it, Eisner explores the lives of the people he remembered from his youth among an impoverished but colorful immigrant community in the Bronx. His stories explore issues of life, death, faith, and failure with all the warmth and complexity one would find in fine fiction.
With Contract, Eisner broke the superhero mold. No costumes, no super powers; both the heroic and the villainous lived in tension within his characters. With this breakthrough came a new exploration of issues - including those of faith - that no one thought would be found within "funny books."
The offspring of Eisner's groundbreaking work is found in Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics, the home of Superman. These comics have had a love affair with Christian eschatology since day one, according to Vertigo writer Mike Carey. Titles such as Hellblazer, Preacher, Sandman, and Lucifer have all drawn on Christian imagery and ideas for some or all of their setup, characters, and backdrops.
But these comics aren't suitable for Sunday school. Often heavy with violence, Vertigo comics and others of their type deal with issues of salvation and damnation, and justice and retribution, in a visceral manner. Their characters live and often suffer greatly in an environment washed with despair. But against this backdrop, every occurrence of hope shines and every act of selfless love glows.
SOME OF THE most directly Christian characters in comics - and most interesting - are women. Catholic nuns have had numerous incarnations. A few years ago, Antarctic Press's Warrior Nun Areala drew much attention in the mainstream press. Employing the manga style of Japanese comics, Ben Dunn created a complete society within the Catholic Church of "magical priests" and "warrior nuns." They were equipped with traditional Christian as well as occult powers to fight the church's fight against evildoers throughout history, including an extended battle against Hitler during World War II. A darker manifestation of this idea is The Magdalena. Image Comics created a historical story that dated from the crucifixion when Mary Magdalene began a secret lineage of women warriors who fought against the enemies of the Lord while struggling with authorities within the church to control and manipulate members of their order.
One of the most interesting examples of the Christian message in comics is found in the character Shi, a young biracial woman. Her father was a Japanese Buddhist and her mother an American Catholic. After the murder of her father, young Shi is raised by her grandfather to become a vehicle for vengeance. But just as Shi is about to take revenge on her father's killers, the Catholic teachings of her mother return to her and call her away from a life of violence.
None of these comics directly call their readers to repentance or make demands about church attendance. In fact, few of them have much good to say about established religion in general. What they add to the experience of their readers is the call to a life lived with at least one eye open to the possibility of an enchanted universe - a place where the spiritual world is alive, active, and intervening in the affairs of humanity. This intervention isn't in the form of brightly costumed messiah surrogates who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but in the lives of fairly ordinary human beings, imperfect and often conflicted in their motivations, who are struggling to find meaning in their lives beyond the dulling drone of the culture's demands, the sudden storms of violence that threaten to overwhelm their worlds, and the limitations of life boxed in by not enough justice, not enough joy, and not enough hope. Out of this context, they become heroes. Just like you and me.
It's not just biff, bam, and pow anymore.
David Wade is a free-lance writer living in Mt. Airy, Maryland.