Graphic Religion

With a dissertation dominating my time for the last year, comics and graphic novels got put on the back burner. With that beast behind me, I’m slowly returning to a realm of pop culture that I have missed. In an effort to get back into the habit of reading and critically engaging with comics and graphic novels, I recently read Graven Images: Religion in Comics and Graphic Novels, a collection of essays edited by David Lewis and Christine Hoff Kraemer. This is a fantastic work that proves not only the cultural importance of comics and graphic novels but the necessity of engaging them from theological and religious perspectives.

Douglas Rushkoff‘s forward, “Looking for God in the Gutter,” lays much of the theological and critical groundwork for the rest of the book. Rushkoff argues that the “gutters,” those spaces between panels in comics and graphic novels, is where the magic of the medium takes place. As Rushkoff puts it, “It’s the closest thing in comics to transubstantiation, and it happens between the unseen crack between two discreet moments. It is everything, yet nothing” (ix). These spaces contain all of the invisible activity that happens from one panel (scene) to the next, yet the rely on the reader to propel the story forward by filling in those blanks. In doing so, we make the invisible visible, even as the writers and artists make the invisible (superheroes, gods, monsters, other worlds, etc.) visible.

In their introduction, Kraemer and Lewis write, “While we do not necessarily wish to assert that comics are themselves a religion, they are one site where individuals grapple with issues of ethics, meaning, and values; engage in ritualized behavior; and explore both traditional and new religious traditions” (3). Here, they come very close to John Leydon’s analysis that film functions as religion. While I think Kraemer and Lewis could have gone farther here, they provide sufficient explanations of why comic books and graphic novels are important art forms and deserve theological and religious attention. The strength of their book is that they do not privilege one religion or genre over another. This is about as diverse a book on the religious and theological implications as you are likely to find. This is no “The Gospel According to…” approach to popular culture. The authors come from a variety of religious traditions and none at all. At they same time, the editors and authors avoid obsessing over popular comics series or graphic novels and address everything from Superman to Mormon comics. Graven Images also benefits from contributions to artists working in the medium who reflect on the ways in which religion and and the medium can inform and benefit from each other.

Kraemer and Lewis divide their 20+ articles into three broad topics, the ways in which comics and graphic novels become a new location for religious interpretation, the ways in which creators and readers of comics and graphic novels engage the medium as an act of religious rebellion or reification, and (closely related) how the medium evidences and advances a postmodern religiosity. The only article that seems out of place (as it should have been placed in the first, rather than the second, section is Darby Orcutt’s “Comics and Religion: Theoretical Connections,” which elaborates on the similarities between comics and religion. Orcutt argues that religion and comics/graphic novels share multiple characteristics because they are both multi-modal, iconic, immersive, and able to influence our experience of time.

It’s tempting, in a review like this, to give away all of the major points of each article, even by simply referencing what theme they address with each comic or graphic novel. I’ll provide a list of some of the topics covered below but before then I’d like to reference on particular essay that, while about a particular series, has implications for the broader field of religion and popular culture studies. In his article “Killing the Graven God: Visual Representations of the Divine in Comics,” Andrew Tripp discusses artists’ (in)ability to depict god in art, visual culture, etc. He discusses a variety of ways in which comic artists and graphic novelists have depicted God, some of which are potentially offensive. Tripp reminds us of two important points when critiquing religious art. First, “The symbols of God point to a greater understanding of what God is, a form of graphic shorthand whose alteration through the course of the narrative tells the reader not only about his or her understanding of God, but about the self-identity of the producing culture” (116). Second, “Possibly the most absurd image is the most important, however, because we can break through the symbol to see the meaning and significance instead of coming to accept the symbol in itself as God” (116). He concludes that rational displays of God are absurd and that the only logical means of depicting God is irrational and ever-changing…unknown and unknowable (118, 119).

There’s an explicitly universal implication here in Tripp’s essay, and while the other essays in Graven Images might seem more specific, they do as well. Other topics include: