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R. Crumb, The Book of Genesis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. 224 pp., $27.95. Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig, The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book. Teaneck, New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2010. 128 pp., $26.60. Tom Gauld, Goliath. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn & Quarterly, 2012. 96 pp., $19.95. Sheldon Mayer (story) and Joe Kubert and Nestor Redondo (art), The Bible. New York: DC Comics, 2012. 72 pp., $29.99.
Graphic and Comic Torahs Are Fruitful, Multiply Although a life poring over biblical manuscripts in a monastic setting in the Middle Ages might have exposed one to illuminated illustrations of biblical scenes, it is not the case today that intensive Old Testament study cultivates visual literacy. This holds true despite the fact that the current era is defined by the proliferation of digital and social media, and ready access to libraries of images and other content that dwarfs even the great Library of Alexandria in size. That the study halls of yeshivas and Protestant theological seminaries are packed with able-minded scholars who are not art aficionados is not troubling per se, but it does mean that there may be few who have developed imagination for biblical choreography even at the top levels of scholarship. There are too many rabbinical students, I think, who can recite medieval commentaries by heart but have never asked themselves about the color of Abraham’s cloak or Deborah’s height. On Passover, the Haggadah charges Seder participants to project themselves into the biblical narrative and to imagine themselves as if leaving Egypt literally, which is surely the domain of biblical theater. I wonder how well that can be achieved without delving deep into the Biblical text with some kind of artistic template. One modern genre that aims to inspire the imagination is biblical-themed cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels. If William Blake’s chapel has “Thou shalt not” inscribed over the door, biblical comic strips—what Joseph Witek calls “preachies”1—have cartoon bubbles written over their doorposts. Although that might appear sacrilegious, the Bible actually lends itself to conversation bubbles very well,2 and many medieval manuscript depictions of New Testament
1 See Joseph Witek, Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989). 2 See, for example, Stephen Houston and Karl Taube, “An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 Also available online—brill.com/ima
scenes as well as Hebrew illuminated manuscripts incorporate speech indicators that anticipate the cartoon balloon form. “The Bible may have actually been better off as a comic book,” begins Douglas Rushkoff in his controversial introduction to his graphic novel.3 The Testament series, which was illustrated by Liam Sharp and includes reflections on West of Eden, Babel, and Exodus, integrates both biblical and futuristic narratives. The introduction to Akeidah, Genesis 22,—which invokes “so-called men of God,” “phony politicians,” and “scripture-thumping mind controllers”—locates the almost alchemical transformation of the Bible from a “sacred document” to a mass-produced book around the time of the invention of the printing press. “No longer dependent on a centralized priesthood for the holy word, people read the Bible for themselves, developed their own opinions and reinvented Christianity as Protestantism” (5), Rushkoff writes. Just as many clergymen were unhappy to lose control over the Bible post-Gutenberg, Rushkoff says that after presenting the Bible as an open-source collaboration he has had his own run-ins with “fundamentalists of more than one religion,” who “just didn’t want their story messed with—even though I had been able to prove it was written with that very intent!” (5). It is worth quoting Rushkoff at length, because the position he stakes out and the boundary he navigates between biblical comic interpretation and blasphemy is at the heart of the entire biblical comic medium— which, at first blush, forces a sacred text into one of the most colloquial and limiting of languages. “I’m not bashing the Bible at all. I’m actually attempting to restore its integrity as perhaps the most transcendent narrative ever developed. If just a few people would truly read these stories, we wouldn’t be led around
Ancient Mesoamerica,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10, no. 2 (2000): 261–94, for a discussion of speech balloons, or bubbles, and their medieval (or earlier) origins in a European context. 3 Douglas Rushkoff, Testament: Akedah (New York: DC Comics, 2006), 5.
IMAGES 6 DOI: 10.1163/18718000-12340018
reviews Although biblical comics—which are catalogued in the Library of Congress under multiple headings: “Bible—cartoons and comics,” “Bible N.T. Acts— cartoons and comics,” “Bible stories—cartoons and comics,” “Bible stories—N.T.—cartoons and comics,” and “Bible stories—O.T.—cartoons and comics”— are hardly new, it is a particularly exciting time for the medium.7 In these new graphic novels and comic books, there is nothing short of a “graphic re-invention of the novel as a radical re-statement of Jewish artistic identity,” writes Ori Soltes in “Sports and the Graphic Novel from Diaspora to Diaspora: James Strum’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing and JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther in the Tree of Contexts.”8 But Soltes’s diagnosis aside, it is worth noting that biblical comics and graphic novels are totally absent from Paul Buhle’s Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form,9 and from Matthew Baigell’s American Artists, Jewish Images.10 Baigell’s Jewish Art in America: An Introduction11 devotes three pages to graphic novels, but does not mention biblical themes within the medium, and although Simcha Weinstein’s Up, Up, And Oy Vey! 12 views superheroes like Batman
like zombies anymore,” Rushkoff writes. “The Bible has been intentionally framed as a dry and sanctimonious tome just to keep thinking people from getting near it. In reality, it’s powerfully dangerous stuff: the ultimate handbook for psychic revolt” (6). Many will disagree with Rushkoff ’s characterization of the Bible as dry and zombie-inducing, and the suggestion that some of history’s greatest religious commentators are anything other than “thinking people” is as unfair to Maimonides as it is to Augustine. In his chapter “Cartoons and Comics” in Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray’s Teaching the Bible through Popular Culture and the Arts, Dan W. Clanton, Jr. describes comics as a “wonderful pedagogical tool” to teach the Bible.4 “Comic art can assist in the teaching of biblical content because in the process of rendering a biblical text for the purposes of humor, a cartoonist will often either reinforce or subtly change the text’s content,”5 he writes. Though he is referring more to newspaper funnies than artsy graphic novels like Rushkoff ’s,6 Clanton’s point can be applied to Rushkoff ’s medium too, which also reinforces and subtly—or in Rushkoff ’s case, not so subtly—changes the content.
4 Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray. Teaching the Bible Through Popular Culture and the Arts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007). Robert Koops observes that comic book scriptures can help readers get beyond the printed text to the original author’s vision in “When Moses Meets Dilbert: Similarity and Difference in Print, Audio, and Comic-strip Versions of the Bible,” in Similarity and Difference in Translation: Proceedings of the International Conference on Similarity and Translation, ed. Stefano Arduini and Robert Jr. Hodgson (Bible House, New York City, May 31–June 1, 2001), 169–200. 5 Dan W. Clanton, Jr., “Cartoons and Comics,” in Roncace and Gray, Teaching the Bible, 330. 6 It is not unusual to find religion treated in a humorous way. Donald B. Lindsey and John Heeren note in “Where the Sacred Meets the Profane: Religion in the Comic Pages,” Review of Religious Research 34, no. 1 (September 1992): 63–77. But there is a “seeming paradox” in those depictions, the authors note, because religion is generally a sobering, rather than entertaining or comedic enterprise. Biblical cartoons, however, can present a “kind of shorthand communication between author and audience,” they note. “In this sense, placing moderns in Biblical situations commentary on current events, as well as on our distinctly modern consciousness” (75). 7 In May 2012, DC comics reprinted the 1975 comic, The Bible, and in March 2012, Drawn & Quarterly published Goliath. The Book of Genesis was published by W. W. Norton & Company in October 2009, and Ben Yehuda Press released The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book in October 2010. Some comics and graphic novels—such as Rob Suggs’s The Comic Book Bible (Uhrichsville,
Ohio: Barbour Books, 1997) and Earnest Graham and Shirley Smith Graham’s The Unlikely Chosen: A Graphic Novel Translation of the Biblical Books of Jonah, Esther, and Amos (New York: Seabury Books, 2008)—are just north of the stylized cartoons of The Little Midrash Says (Brooklyn: Benei Yakov Publications, 1987) in terms of their professionalism. But others dig far deeper than mere kitsch. In the latter category are M. C. Gaines’ Picture Stories from the Bible: The Old Testament in Full-Color Comic-Strip Form (New York: Ktav, 1943), Megillat Esther by J. T. Waldman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006), and the 1987 Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament (London: Knockout Publications), which collects the works of Arthur Ranson, Donald Rooum, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, Hunt Emerson, Neil Gaiman, Mike Matthews, Julie Hollings, Peter Rigg, and Dave McKean. Slightly less mature and ambitious are The Action Bible (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), edited by Doug Mauss and illustrated by Sergio Cariello, and Siku’s The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2008). 8 Leonard J. Greenspoon, ed., Jews in the Gym: Judaism, Sports, and Athletics (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2012), 25. 9 Paul Buhle, Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form (New York: The New Press, 2008). 10 Matthew Baigell, American Artists, Jewish Images (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006). 11 Matthew Baigell, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2007). 12 Simcha Weinstein, Up, Up, And Oy Vey! (Baltimore: Leviathan Press, 2006).
and Superman as stand-ins for biblical characters like Moses, Weinstein does not address graphic novels or comic books that trace biblical narratives literally. If there seems to be a gap in the scholarship on the topic, Soltes is one of the few who takes the medium seriously. The “people of the text” can double as the “people of the image,” Soltes argues in his essay. In Waldman’s work on the book of Esther, Soltes notices an interesting and chaotic interplay between the Hebrew and English texts—a biblical ping-pong match. Since not all of the original Hebrew text is translated into English, there are places where the graphic novel allows the comic characters to offer parts of the English narrative instead of just a straightforward translation. “Moreover, the involvement of the reader is intensified by Waldman’s swaying interweave of passages from the story with passages commenting on the story that reinforce the notion that it is part of a larger narrative,” Soltes writes. “So we step out of the text by seeing others reading and reacting to it” (41). A somewhat parallel interpretation surfaces in Tom Gauld’s Goliath, which imagines the giant Philistine champion as a bookish, pacifist deserter rather than a particularly heroic and larger than life warrior. Given the opportunity, Gauld’s Goliath would rather push papers than wield a shield and spear, but he is thrown into the position of biblical trash-talker and intimidator against his will. David does not seem to get the joke, however, and the novel ultimately stays largely true to the original book, at least in terms of its ultimate narrative trajectory. Throughout the text, Gauld oscillates between biblical text and his own invented words, but he is careful to distinguish between the two by using serif font for biblical passages that he transcribes, and sans serif for his textual adaptations. That is a decision that Joe Kubert and Nestor Redondo also make in their Bible illustrations, where divine words from the bible appear in red text offset by yellow highlighting. Unlike Gauld, however, Kubert and Redondo do not make a clear distinction between texts of their own invention and those which they have borrowed from the original text. The only passages that the artists single out are the divine utterances, which means, for example, that Adam’s invented declaration, “What names shall I give these creatures . . . ? Deer . . . Birds . . . Rabbits . . . . Foxes . . . There are many!” is given equal treatment to “In the beginning God created the
13 Kubert, it should be noted, is also author and illustrator of Yossel, April 19, 1943 (New York: DC Comics, 2003), a graphic novel which tells the tale of the (invented) Holocaust victim Yossel, who
heaven and the earth. The earth was without form . . . And was empty.” The graphic novel includes analysis that ties biblical passages to archeological discoveries, and it also offers a fresh narrator’s perspective, as in, “Beyond the sight of their mother and father, Cain struck Abel a mortal blow in a fit of rage. Thus occurred the first murder . . . To be executed again and again through man’s bloody history upon this earth.”13 In husband-and-wife duo Freeman and Rosenzweig’s Comic Torah, by contrast, there is no mistaking the authors’ words for the biblical text. When God—who is, incidentally, green-skinned—orders Abraham to circumcise himself and his household, Abraham, shown fearfully eying the knife, begs, “Couldn’t I just pinky swear?” Told to sacrifice Isaac, the sweating Abraham wonders, “Couldn’t I just limit his internet?” The authors envision the green-skinned YHWH (that’s her name and she doesn’t answer to Sally, she says) launching the flood by switching a pipe valve while swimming in scuba gear, but even in that creative interpretation of the original biblical tale, Freeman and Rosenzweig illustrate the water pouring in from heavenly windows, no doubt a reference to arubot hashamayim from Genesis 7:11. On the first page of the graphic novel, the authors draw themselves waist-deep in yellow primordial ooze (the tohu and vohu of Genesis 1:2 perhaps?) within a Torah scroll. Rosenzweig holds the female and greenskinned YHWH (identified by her name tagged on her green dress) in her palm. YHWH, who has clearly just been created/drawn by the authors, demands, “Hey! I’m God! Why am I a woman?!” To which Freeman, echoing various Kabbalistic accounts, replied, “The ‘divine presence’ is widely recognized as feminine.” “Guess I’m widely recognized as green too, huh?” comes YHWH’s snarky reply. Rosenzweig offers the enigmatic explanation, “It was an artistic choice. Why did you make the sky blue?” The response is coy— and not unlike God’s “explanation” to Job, which lays a biblical precedent for Jews responding to questions with further inquiries—but that does not minimize the impact of the artistic decision, which recalls Indianborn Jewish painter Siona Benjamin’s decision to paint herself as a blue-skinned woman to symbolize her own “Otherness” as a Bene Israel Jew, as well as a Jew of color. But Freeman and Rosenzweig’s green-skinned goddess is further complicated by their decision to
manages, for a time, to save his life by amusing Nazi officers with his drawings.
reviews appearance in the context of the curses delivered in Deuteronomy 26:1 to 29:8. Although Rosenzweig and Freeman pick and choose which biblical stories to depict, Comic Torah generally follows the chronology of the biblical narrative, even as it embeds contemporary references and perspectives. It may not have been what the Talmudic term shakla ve-tarya—the “give and take” of traditional “learning”—imagined, but the graphic novel’s wrestling with the text has more of biblical exegesis in it than it does Torah depiction or replication. Like the genre of creative non-fiction, biblical memoirs—popularized perhaps by Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent14—biblical comics and graphic novels can revolutionize the way readers respond to the Bible.15 But unlike literary biblical memoirs, comics and graphic novels can add visual nuance to the Bible and make it even more contemporary and relevant. It is clear from even a cursory glance at Comic Torah that Freeman and Rosenzweig are playfully toying with the text, but they embed just enough sobering and mature references to assure readers that their project involves both biblical interpretation and humor. That is very different from R. Crumb’s tone in The Book of Genesis. In his introduction, Crumb assures readers that he has, to the best of his ability, reproduced the original text faithfully. “In a few places I ventured to do a little interpretation of my own, if I thought the words could be made clearer, but I refrained from indulging too often in such ‘creativity,’ and sometimes let it stand in its convoluted vagueness rather than monkey around with such a venerable text,”16 he writes. Where works like Comic Torah certainly “monkey around” with the Bible, Crumb exhibits an unusual reverence for the Bible—at least in the graphic novel world. “Every other comic book version of the Bible that I’ve seen contains passages of completely made-up narrative and dialogue,” he writes, “in an attempt to streamline and ‘modernize’ the old scriptures, and still, these various comic book bibles all claim to adhere to the belief that the Bible is ‘the word of God.’ I believe it is the words of men.” When some readers are inevitably offended by the book, Crumb asks them to remember that he treated the work like “a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.” Crumb’s book, which stars God as an old man with a flowing white beard, does not shy away from the
16 Crumb’s book does not have page numbers.
add other gods and goddesses to the mix. Zeus, identified as a fellow god of YHWH’s with whom she seeks counsel, has gold skin, as does a Shiva-like character. An Egyptian god that YHWH spanks with a Torah scroll in a section on Exodus 10:1 to 13:16, has even darker green skin than YHWH’s. It is clear that the authors did not want YHWH’s skin (which is the kind of color James Joyce might have called “snot green”) to be too unlike that of her fellow gods and goddesses, but it’s an element they wanted to draw attention to. The notion of showing an origin myth, so to speak, for YHWH within the context of the graphic novel is very innovative, however. R. Crumb talks about being respectful in his introduction to Genesis, but the looming reality throughout his book is that he has drawn God. Freeman and Rosenzweig address that potentially-blasphemous (and perhaps Second-Commandment-violating) notion of drawing God by depicting themselves in conversation with YHWH and by invoking the artistic license of coloring YHWH’s skin green. In other respects, Freeman and Rosenzweig are truer to Midrashic texts, such as those that cast Rebecca as a very young girl. The Rebecca of Comic Torah is a child, but so is Isaac, who although thirty-seven years old, wears only a diaper (fig. 1). And so it goes: Jacob struggles with a sumo wrestler of an angel, Joseph’s Egyptian analyst tells him to invest long on cattle and grain, and when God—appearing from the burning bush—shows Moses the sign of spontaneous leprosy on his hand, God jokes to the (black) Moses, “Haha! They’ll think you’re turning into a white guy!” But later on in the narrative, when God is telling Moses at Mount Sinai about how the Jews will rebel, the punishment, “I’ll turn against you! Your enemies will rule over you!” shows a man who looks suspiciously like Hassan Nasrallah wearing a keffiyeh around his neck. The Nasrallah-figure rides on Moses’s back and waves a banner that states, “Mission accomplished.” This is not the only modern reference in the book. Joshua is cast as Barack Obama (his poster screams, “Yes We Can-aan”), and when the earth opens up and swallows Korah and company, there’s a Confederate flag conspicuously attached to one of the evildoer’s tents. Albert Einstein becomes the angel who teaches Jacob how to swindle Laban out of his flock by orchestrating a growing population of striped lambs. Even Goya’s Two Women Eating (1821–23, Museo del Prado, Madrid) makes an
14 Anita Diamant, The Red Tent (New York: Picador, 1997). 15 See, for example, Menachem Wecker, “Biblical Memoirs: Cutting Edge or Old Hat?” Jewish Daily Forward, March 4, 2005.
Fig. 1. “The Really Big Ask.” From Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig, The Comic Torah: Reimagining the Very Good Book (Teaneck, New Jersey: Ben Yehuda Press, 2010), 8. Courtesy of Ben Yehuda Press.
reviews Not only are the evildoers punished with chaos, but their words are also foreign to the reader. Crumb uses a similar strategy when Joseph (in disguise) addresses his brothers through a translator. Joseph’s speech bubbles are filled with hieroglyphics, while the translator speaks to the brothers (and readers) in English. In Crumb’s linguistic inventions and Freeman and Rosenzweig’s comedic (and often self-deprecating) reinterpretation of the Torah, readers—if they are willing to grant that the medium is mature and useful rather than blasphemous—can find new ways to engage the text and its meaning. Just as Freeman and Rosenzweig’s Jacob wrestles with a sumo fighter, readers can grapple with the text in innovative and ultimately very contemporary ways. It is hard to imagine a better way to keep a sacred text holy than to tolerate its occasional contact with the mundane and the profane, without worrying that it will become impure. Menachem Wecker Independent Scholar
X-rated parts of the Genesis narrative. Voluptuous, bare-breasted women (Eve, Lot’s daughters, Rebecca with Isaac, Leah and Rachel with Jacob, Hamor and Dina, Tamar, etc.) make frequent appearances, and the gore (Cain killing Abel, Jacob’s sons murdering the inhabitants of Shechem, Hadad ben Bedad who killed Midian, etc.) is rendered in the open. Crumb, despite his promise not to invent narratives, does not seem to have been able to restrain himself in certain instances, as when Potiphar and Joseph recline together on a couch drinking wine and watching an Egyptian strip show. It is hard to pick out one particularly arresting aspect of Crumb’s book, which is packed with brilliant drawings that fit well with the text, but one of his most interesting decisions comes in his speech balloons. When the rebels construct the Tower of Babel, God punishes them by confounding their languages, so they cannot understand each other. Crumb illustrated that confusion by placing hieroglyphs and nonsensical texts into the punished builders’ speech bubbles.
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