When we think about religious literature, many of us will list publications like the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Torah. After these sacred texts, we may add things like the writings of classic theologians, pamphlets and brochures about salvation and Jesus Christ, or controversial books written by religious and non-religious alike – The God Delusion, Love Wins, the Left Behind series.
Yet there is another branch of religious literature we are likely to overlook, and that is the graphic novel. I’ve written about the intersection of comics and religion before (When Religion Meets Comics) but graphic novels with religious messages – both positive and negative – are receiving growing attention from the religious, secular, and academic communities alike, and have much to offer for those who take the time to consume them.
One of the most well-known religiously oriented graphic novels is Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Published in 2003, Blankets tackles Thompson’s fundamentalist Christian upbringing, time spent at Christian camps, and the evolution of faith in one person. More than 500 pages of drawings and speech bubbles reveal a reflection on the struggle between inherited religious beliefs and finding your own path of meaning, between your faith and your experiences.
Since 2003, more and more graphic novels fall into the category of religious literature. Christian publishing houses have churned out graphic novels and comics to teach biblical lessons, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a powerful work used to teach students about the Holocaust (it was a required text in my freshman seminar class), and Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood brings readers into Marjane Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.
These graphic novels aren’t just being consumed by the general population. Academics have recognized the validity of graphic novels and their contribution to the study of religion – Tufts University offered a course called Religion and the Graphic Novel and the June 2009 issue of Theological Librarianship included the work “Drawing on God: Theology in Graphic Novels.”
Yet it is important to note that not all graphic novels eagerly embrace religious faith and belief. I am in the midst of Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus, a story following the clone of Jesus Christ and his journey to a punk rock atheism. In a 2013 interview, Murphy tells Crave Online about the inspiration and fuel behind Punk Rock Jesus:
As the years passed, I left Christianity and became an atheist – instead of reading the Bible, I began reading about science. At some point, I was reading about the advancements in cloning, asked myself, “whom would the first clone be?,” decided that in the US, it would be Jesus…At first, PRJ became away to funnel my atheist rage. But eventually I learned to pull back a little – I realized that if I was too preachy, I’d lose a lot of readers, and then NO message would get through.
Murphy turns the religious graphic novel on its head but in a beautifully creative way. It is firmly grounded in atheism but allows each reader to see parts of themselves in the different characters, regardless of whether they adhere to a particular religious tradition. As a person who identifies as a Christian, I am finding parts of each character, including the atheist Jesus Christ, that resonate with me and my experiences. I can be a religious person, read this graphic novel, appreciate and reflect on it, and remain a religious person.
Though Murphy is an atheist, Punk Rock Jesus is about more than the abandonment of faith. As Murphy says in a Q&A with Amazon.com, “The trick was to write something that pushed believers to question their religion, but not in a way that abandoned them.” Sure, the clone of Jesus Christ turns into the unbelieving frontman of a punk rock band, but the bigger story is how to cope when our beliefs and our reality seem to be at odds. For Murphy, the result was to let go of his religion and embrace science. Others hold more tightly to their faith. Some will always struggle and fight, never really finding peace of mind or heart. There is not a single right way to reconcile belief and experience. That, I think, is why it is important to recognize how Punk Rock Jesus, Blankets, and other religiously minded graphic novels and comics can function as guides to stronger convictions, new knowledge, and meaningful conversation.