Comics and Sacred Texts

Reimagining Religion and Graphic Narratives

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Assaf Gamzou, Ken Koltun-Fromm
  • Jackson, MS: 
    University Press of Mississippi
    , November
     2018.
     322 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781496819475.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Will Eisner, generally considered the first graphic novelist, once described a difference of opinion he had with Jack Kirby about the nature of their art. Kirby, Eisner argued, saw what he did as cartooning whereas Eisner saw it as “more of a literary form.” This is the perfect framework for thinking about Comics and Sacred Texts: Reimagining Religion & Graphic Narratives, edited by Assaf Gamzou and Ken Koltun-Fromm. Eisner is (probably apocryphally) credited with inventing the phrase “graphic novel,” and whether or not he was the first to use it, his insistence on seeing sequential art as a medium for serious literary work is what created the genre from which most of the chapters in this volume draw.

This book is not the first to take on the subject of religion in graphic novels, but the approach this volume takes is, well, novel. It is asking us to think about not just the presence of religion in comics but to engage “new visionary modes for recognizing the sacred” (xi). That is an extremely lofty goal, and while it remains to be seen if the collection does, in fact, redefine the ways in which we see the sacred, in the meantime it offers us some fresh and engaging takes on both expected and unexpected texts.

In the acknowledgements for the book the editors talk about the “origin story” for this volume being at a conference at Princeton University in 2015 called “Frames: Jewish Culture and the Comic Book.” I was a presenter at that conference, so I speak with some authority when I say I can both see how this volume was inspired by that conference, and I am thrilled that the volume goes far, far beyond the purview of that event.

Within comic and graphic novel scholarship there have been several excellent volumes on Jewish comics. Because Eisner’s A Contract with God (W.W. Norton & Co, 2006) is often called the first graphic novel, and because Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Pantheon, 1996) is inarguably the graphic novel that propelled the form into academic discourses, the phenomenon of Jewish comics and graphic novels is well documented.

Some edited collections have therefore gone a bit too far in trying to reach beyond Judaism, and have left out texts or artists that should have been included. This volume just feels balanced—covering a range of scriptural traditions and types, publications, approaches to the sacred, and contributors. There are no glaring lacunae, which is frankly a real achievement in an edited collection.

There are four sections: (1) “Seeing the Sacred in Comics”; (2) “Reimagining Sacred Texts Through Comics”; (3) “Transfigured Comic Selves, Monsters, and the Body”; and (4) “The Everyday Sacred in Comics.” Section 2 contains the “expected” material in a book of this sort, and it is a stroke of genius that the editors do not start with that. Their belief that this volume offers a completely new method for seeing the sacred begins by ensuring the reader is constantly off balance.

By beginning not with graphic adaptations of scripture, but instead with a section made up of essays about Arabic calligraphy; awe, sanctity, and ineffability; the Hebrew Aleph-Bet; and “Fictoscripture” the reader is not allowed to settle into complacency about what texts or themes they are going to encounter. Section 2 contains the graphic retellings of religious scriptures such as The Ramayana, The Gospel of Mark, 1 Samuel, and Genesis. Had the volume started there it is quite possible the seismic shift the authors and editors are attempting to create would have been dulled by reader comfort.

Section 3 is, perhaps, a bit less coherent as a grouping. The chapter on teaching Marvel’s Dark Phoenix Saga works well with the chapter on Japanese wizards and fantastical worlds, but Samantha Baskind’s essay on Joe Kubert’s Yossel: April 19, 1943 feels out of place. It is an excellent essay, but it is almost hyper-realistic compared to the other two essays in that section. The final section about the everyday sacred works better as a unit, and those essays speak to each other well.

Generally, all of the essays are excellent, and the mixture of intended audiences brings a great deal of life to the collection. All or almost all of the essays will be of interest to scholars of graphic novels and scholars of religious studies who wish to dabble in sequential art.

Some of the essays, especially Elizabeth Rae Coody’s fantastic “The Ending of Mark as a Page-Turn Reveal” and Samantha Langsdale’s aforementioned essay on teaching the Dark Phoenix Saga will be of special interest to those who already use graphic novels in their pedagogy, or those who are considering how to add such texts to a syllabus. Other essays, such as Joshua Plencher’s “Marvel’s Fallen Son and Making the Ordinary Sacred” offer even die-hard fans of a title or character a new way to read those texts or think about those characters. There is really something for everyone in this volume.

The criticisms I have are minor. Several essays reference Scott McCloud’s foundational text Understanding Comics (William Morrow, 1994), but it would have been nice if the essays had developed more of a consistent methodology or vocabulary. Those using McCloud’s terms and concepts are easier to read together than those that do not, so having that (or any other) theoretical backbone would have strengthened the connections drawn between disparate texts.

Additionally, an unfair wish from a volume that was subject to the vicissitudes of author proposals, is that this would have been an excellent volume to take on J.T. Waldman’s Megillat Esther (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). Waldman attended the Frames conference right after completing this book. His is a text that is so complicated that few volumes have the sophistication and range to include it, but this one could have. So as a reader I can only think about what might have been when I wonder how these incisive authors would have taken on other favorite texts. And that is, really, the best compliment of all.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Caplan is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Towson University.

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Assaf Gamzhou is Director of Professional Engagement at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, and was previously Curator of the Israeli Cartoon Museum and Lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Education.

Ken Kolton-Fromm is the Robert and Constance MacCrate Chair in Social Responsibility and Professor of Religion at Haverford College and author of four books, including Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America and Imagining Jewish Authenticity: Vision and Text in American Jewish Thought.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.