Drawing on Religion
Reading and the Moral Imagination in Comics and Graphic Novels
- ISBN: 9780271087757
- Published By: Pennsylvania State University Press
- Published: December 2020
How do our reading habits broaden or narrow our moral reflection and responsibility? In Drawing on Religion: Reading and the Moral Imagination in Comics and Graphic Novels, Ken Koltun-Fromm opens a sensitive, critical discussion of our encounters with otherness by closely studying depictions of religion in comics and graphic novels. Far beyond a naïve listing of places where religion appears in comics, Koltun-Fromm has selected a few moments in the history of comics to linger over and interpret in a deliberative way, a way that is conscious of the ambiguities of the medium.
There are, of course, many comics one could cite that reference religion on some level. Every appearance of Marvel’s Thor says something about religion, even if it is just about the handling and commercialization of the sacred symbols of another culture. Rather than attempting to be encyclopedic, Drawing on Religion selects fourteen examples for their poignancy and multivalence in depicting the religious other. These examples are mostly English, Western publications, without popular genres like manga or manhwa. In fact, all the comics reproduced in the text are related to Abrahamic religions in some way. This focus on Abrahamic religions constitutes a major thread through the book that begins in the first paragraph of the introduction, with the Charlie Hebdo attack. That horrible attack on a publisher that printed comic depictions of Mohammed, as well as other religious figures, haunts the examinations of violence, ethical message, and approach to the Other in comics." Like a college lecture, the flow of the conversation developed in the book drives the selection of these particular examples. Whereas some of these pieces seem like obvious choices, there are places where it seems like the author’s preference and familiarity overshadows the choice of pieces to interpret, especially in the space given to the discussion of two works by Craig Thompson. Altogether, it is an eclectic collection of conversation partners.
Given these conversation partners, though, Koltun-Fromm excels at slow, intentional interpretations of comic pages. He analyzes the visual aspects of framing, arrangement, and color, not just focusing on the written words. In this way, he does justice to the medium itself, taking seriously the choices that the artists make by regarding each as a meaningful expression. This leads to an awareness of features in comics that can easily be missed when one is absorbed the text. One of these features that Koltun-Fromm often underscores is the use of skin tone or shading to characterize good and evil. This can range from subtle to overtly racist depictions, and Koltun-Fromm explains the implications of such visual cues well. . Koltun-Fromm is not as concerned with delineating the tools of comic artists as he is with describing the ambiguous moral consequences that those tools can have when used naively. One of the maxims here is that comics can easily deal in visual stereotypes and caricatures in order to move the reader quickly into a story, but that speed can distort the appearance of the Other and narrow our ability to truly encounter someone different from ourselves in an expansive way.
The encounter with the Other is the pivot around which the book revolves. Instances where comics use imagery that reinforces and propagates dominant stereotypes of the religious other are legion. It is possible, though, for something more complex and challenging to happen. Pulling often on the scholarship of Robert Orsi, Koltun-Fromm argues that we can encounter the Other in ways that call our own frameworks into question, ways that make us strange to ourselves. While not being able to fully identify with the religious and moral life that is different from our own, it does become possible to move into an “in-between,” where our own religious and moral life becomes less obvious and absolute. Koltun-Fromm argues that this type of identification and ethical positioning is possible and can be facilitated through the medium of comics.
Koltun-Fromm does not, however, merely delineate between comics that are morally good and comics that are problematic. He surfaces the inherent ambiguities in the works he interprets, noting both their positive and negative elements. Koltun-Fromm’s interpretive lens picks up the dangers of comic shorthand, stereotyping, caricatures, and simplification even as he watches for openings toward otherness, toward wider horizons, and toward the inclusion of underrepresented voices. The focus is not on sorting out the works to avoid, but on having the critical skills to read carefully and thoughtfully. Watching the process Koltun-Fromm applies to reading and interpreting comics is as much of an education as any of the resulting outcomes in his studies.
A good example of this nuance is in his discussion the early issues of Marvel’s Ms. Marvel. On the one hand, there is much to be praised about the depiction of a Muslim superhero, about the positive effects of representation and inclusion, and about showing detail and diversity internal to the Muslim community. On the other hand, there are missed opportunities when the safe, appropriative, and homogenizing American narratives foreshorten us from recognizing differences that would call those hegemonic narratives into question. There are values here that are held in tension, and there are not easy solutions; there are choices made in these depictions that can open and close us to the religious other at the same time. In recognizing these tensions and showing the reader how to watch for them, Koltun-Fromm stocks the reader’s critical toolbox for approaching religious expression in comics.
Each chapter approaches these issues from various angles, but always with an eye toward recognizing the religious other and entering the liminal space of understanding that is necessary for a sensitive ethical position. There is much to commend and learn from Drawing on Religion. Even though the Koltun-Fromm's selections of works may feel eclectic, his method and insights into our moral world make for an enlightening study. Drawing on Religion would be an interesting discussion piece in a media or religious studies classroom, with plenty of directions for meaningful discussions on ethics.
Zachariah Motts is an independent scholar specializing in information science and religion.Zachariah MottsDate Of Review:November 30, 2022