Faith in Comics


by

Saturday, December 25, 2010


I wanted to do a post on the connection between illuminated manuscripts and comics but then I got sidetracked a little bit. From what I understand illuminated manuscripts were made like modern “assembly line” comics. They divided up the labor to construct the book. One guy did the calligraphy, another did the drawings, another did the “inking”, another the color and yet still others bound the book itself. Thinking about this also got me thinking more specifically about how I find it interesting that many of the leading alt/art cartoonists of yesterday and today come from interesting and varied religious backgrounds. Like maybe we’re all re-incarnated monks who used to sit for hours laboring over some miniscule drawing back in the 15th century or something. I’m kidding of course. But when I started thinking about my friends who are cartoonists who “had religion” I was surprised – or maybe I wasn’t – by the list I compiled. I dunno if there is a connection between “religion” – or “faith” – and comics – but there is something there.

As for myself I was raised Catholic but I never went to church because I played ice hockey every Sunday and was allowed to miss church. My godfather, who was black and a Baptist, got a hold of me though and made me to go to his church in the summers when hockey was over. That was way better than the solemnity of the Catholic mass. His brothers were in the church band and they fuckin’ rocked. Church was fun when I went to it with my godfather. My parents, especially my dad never went to church. They had enough of it when they were little (Catholic nuns terrorized my mother at her school and told her that her father died because she didn’t “pray hard enough”) and thankfully let my godfather be in charge of my spiritual upbringing. So I don’t have that much Catholic guilt (wait, I think my nose is growing). I do, however, have a really weird interest in alchemic illustrations like Ron Rege does. There’s some Catholic connection to it all that makes sense to me. I don’t know if looking at stained glass windows as a child had any more of an effect on me than my comics collection did – but again, there is something there.

This is meant to be a light, “Hey Look” kind of a post, so please, don’t, um, crucify me in the comments for trying to say that there IS a connection between religion/faith and comics. Just riffin’ here. And for the record, I emailed all the folks on the list and got permission to use the quotes below.

Let’s go to the videotape!

Los Bros Hernandez: Catholic – “[Jaime] had a sporadic Catholic upbringing that he claims helped his imagination and also instilled a fear of the devil.”

Justin Green: Catholic – see Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

Chester Brown: Protestant – (“United Church, or maybe Baptist. But for sure Protestant.” according to Jeet Heer) See Chester’s Gospel stories in Yummy Fur and Underwater

Gary Panter: Church of Christ

“It was a religion that calls itself non-denomenational (because they are the only church)–the Church of Christ, or the Church of Christ meets here. An off-shoot of Presbyterianism in Scotland, early on called the Cambellites. The idea is to literally interpret the King James bible and try to practice early Christianity. I think that being surrounded by people who are every minute bringing up death, the after-life, sin and a vindictive jealous god puts young minds in motion. Running for their life.”

Dash Shaw:

“I was raised Quaker.”

Sammy Harkham:

“I was raised within the orthodox Jewish tradition- but I consider myself Lubavitch-Chassidic these days.”

Kevin Huizenga: -

“I was raised Dutch Reformed. I sometimes say “Dutch Calvinist” but I think people associate that with Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish (though they’re German) and think we were Amish or something. Actually it’s “Christian Reformed” but I figure no one knows what that is. You can say Christian Reformed if you want. “Protestant” covers it. I went to church until a couple years ago.”

Jim Rugg:

“I was raised Protestant. I don’t know that my religious background affected how I see things. I think there may be a work ethic (12 hours today) associated with it. My dad worked 6 days a week my entire life, and that is a value I have inherited. I feel guilt when I’m not working. But in terms of visuals…we were very plain. If anything, pop culture was discouraged in my family to a mild degree. That may have made it more enticing for me. I don’t know. The other religious thing for me is storytelling. I knew David & Goliath and Noah’s Ark long before I read Spiderman or Hulk. And there were different versions – like illustrated versions, kid safe versions, etc. Kinda like how Marvel just keeps retelling the old Marvel Universe stories. When I saw A Serious Man, that’s what I thought about. How storytelling creates sense and order in our lives. “

Ron Rege:

“I do agree about the alchemic/Catholic connection. My present interest in such things must lead back to sitting in mass, and the arcane ritual of Catholicism. I’ve always had an interest in illuminated manuscripts, and medieval art in connection to the craft of comics – but does that have to do with being Catholic? I doubt it. Looking into the connection between modern comics and philosophical searching in general is a really good topic, but don’t oversimplify it by using religion. I think it might have more to do with generational stuff, and our approach to comics- what we saw from Crumb, or from people like Julie [Doucet] and Chester [Brown] – and taking it further. Everyone has a history and an upbringing. I’m Catholic pretty much because I’m from Boston, that’s all. My family’s attitude towards it is completely mainstream, mostly secular, and pretty much the same as everyone else from this part of the world.”

Gabrielle Bell:

“[I was raised in an atheist household.] But my parents were not systematic or intellectual about their atheism. They were hippies who were just sort of rejecting all the establishments that they grew up with themselves. But they did have strong feelings about it.”

John Porcellino:

“I was “raised” Catholic, but in my case I think it had more to do with my parents wanting me to avoid the Chicago Public School system. So I went to a parochial school until 6th grade, when we moved out to the suburbs. I was witness to my share of the (sadly) usual weird psychological abuse that some nuns can mete out, though it was never directed at me (I was a good boy).

So, although neither of my parents were particularly into organized religion, I went to the school, attended Mass several times a week, etc etc. I was never an altar boy. I don’t really remember my Catholic upbringing being noticeably oppressive, but I do have many of the symptoms of what people call “Catholic Guilt.”

After we moved to the suburbs we started attending what seemed to me to be a fairly liberal Catholic church, but soon after we stopped going. I actually continued going for awhile after my parents stopped.

By the time I was a morose teenager I had the usual insights into the hypocrisy of organized religion etc and felt it was just a man-made tool of the powerful, used to subjugate the masses. Then in my late teens I began to have a series of mystical experiences that reopened my belief in a higher power. This was life-altering but had nothing to do with organized religion. It was more a personal connection I felt.

In the mid-90’s, when I became very ill, like many people do, I began looking for answers. I wrote about this a bit in Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man. I was drawn to the similarities between the major religions, and began to feel like there must be some underlying truth that people were trying to communicate through them. I was particularly drawn to Hinduism, and then to Buddhism, Zen in particular.

I always describe discovering Zen as being like discovering an old pair of shoes in your closet. It immediately fit, felt comfortable, well-worn. It was specifically involved in many of the ideas I was dealing with in my comics: boredom, repetition, the mystery/sanctity of everyday life and commonplace experience etc. Zen for me wasn’t so much answering questions I had, but affirming a kind of intangible feeling I’d been aware of personally for many years.

Zen practice is the practice of everyday life, and as an artist, eventually I began to see no boundary between my spiritual life and my artistic life. To me they are one and the same.

I should say also that I don’t feel like I ever rejected my religious background. If anything, my study of Eastern religions clarified Christianity for me. I feel like until I began to meditate I didn’t really understand Christianity at all.”

Frank King: His father was a Methodist minister. King himself was an agnostic/atheist. (Thanks to Jeet Heer for this info. Thought I’d add this to the list just for kicks)
—–

Also, I find it interesting that predominately Catholic countries like Italy, Spain and France have a very visual culture – a strong painting tradition – while the predominantly Protestant countries like England and Germany have a more of musical tradition. I’m over-generalizing but, I think y’know what I mean. I’m not saying that countries like England and Germany have weak visual cultures – just very different than Italy, Spain and France. I’ve read that there was more illiteracy in Catholic countries and so the visualization of Scripture was very important.

Bill Boichel was the one that explained to me that illuminated manuscripts were made by dividing up the labor. I asked him about the different traditions in different countries and he wrote this:

“One thing also to keep in mind that until the bible translation movement began in Germany and then England, ALL services and ALL bibles were in Latin, which ONLY the priestly caste and (the educated component of) the aristocracy could understand and/or read.

Thus, it was almost entirely through the illustrations and illuminations in cathedral panel art, stained glass windows, scrolls, tapestries and the illuminations in the bible – in other words, through the visual telling of the biblical stories – that the religious traditions could be transmitted by the religious authorities and institutions. There were, of course, the basic oral traditions, but your assertion about the catholic church was more dependent on Latin ritual to maintain an awe for authority and thus more dependent of visualizations of the biblical stories.

So, no big conclusions, I’m not really trying to say anything or assert anything like faith or religion is a pre-requisite for being a cartoonist. Like Ron Rege says – I’m don’t want to oversimplify people’s motivations for searching out meaning or anything like that. I just think it’s interesting that many cartoonists do have a “religious” background of some kind. But again, so does everyone to some extent so maybe it’s not that interesting at all. Ho Ho Ho.

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30 Responses to “Faith in Comics”
  1. Santa is an anagram for Satan.

  2. Ian Harker says:

    Religion? Comics? “Everything Dies” by Box Brown. It’s a really good series, and yes it comes out periodically and on time. The Comics Comics crowd should read it. Why? People I consider myself to have a snobby Comics Comics taste in comics and would probably not have read a “web cartoonist” if I didn’t know Box, but I’ve read it all and it’s a really good series. So yeah, merry Christmas!

  3. david says:

    As the man sez:

    ” ” ” ‘Happy’ Holidayz ” ” “

  4. Have you seen my app project thejesuscomic.com?

    Jason

  5. I like that a religion can be based on a book.

  6. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Thanks Frank, a very thought-provoking piece. As you admit, it’s kind of back-of-the-napkin stuff, and perhaps a more thorough analysis is needed, but nevertheless:

    You wrote:

    > From what I understand illuminated manuscripts were made like
    > modern “assembly line” comics. They divided up the labor to
    > construct the book. One guy did the calligraphy, another did
    > the drawings, another did the “inking”, another the color and
    > yet still others bound the book itself. Thinking about this
    > also got me thinking more specifically about how I find it
    > interesting that many of the leading alt/art cartoonists of
    > yesterday and today come from interesting and varied religious
    > backgrounds. Like maybe we’re all re-incarnated monks who used
    > to sit for hours laboring over some miniscule drawing back in
    > the 15th century or something.

    Hmmm, I realize that this is a side point, but I like your reincarnation concept, though it strikes me that if what you said about the assembly-line methods employed for illuminated manuscripts is true, then the true inheritors of this tradition would indeed be those involved in the mainstream comics assembly-line form of comics production. Despite my love of “alt/art” comics, I will never lose my admiration for folks like Tom Orzechowski, Gaspar Saladino, Ira Schnapp (!) Todd Klein, Janice Chiang, Glynnis Wein, or the many other production people who have toiled away in obscurity/anonymity on the “production” side of comics.

    Also, what about Japanese/Asian cartoonists? One sees Buddhist imagery constantly in Japanese comics and cartoons (think how many series are roughly based on Journey to the West, a religious pilgrimage narrative) and yet overall, my sense (from what I’ve heard/read) is that religion plays a much smaller role in the day-to-day lives of most Japanese people than it does here. A gross over-generalization, to be sure. But worth thinking about, no?

    Also, Schulz’s journey from Lutheranism to the Church of God to Secular Humanism seems worth a word or two.

    This is a big topic.

  7. Well since most alt art comics guys tell such non stories maybe we were just the guys who drew the pictures back in the 15th century (rimshot).

    • david says:

      The 15th Century equivalent of the rimshot was the wyrdsvon, which referred to the sound of leather mallets smashing against Valois helmets.
      It was popularly mimicked, tongue-in-cheek, by placing the comic’s tongue in the cheek of a slaughtered bore and laughing maniacally.
      This is why today’s rib joints are so reminiscent of the late medieval period. #fyi

  8. Wait, I forgot. The stories were written by God.

  9. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Perhaps guys like you got to rule the panel borders. More Baldo Smudge than God.

  10. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    (yes, rimshot – I do like your stuff)

  11. Also, I can’t really speak to the Asian philosophy and how it relates to storytelling. Maybe there’s someone out there who can (Ryan Holmberg?). But, yes, it would be interesting to compare narrative styles of east and west in order to see differences in how faith/philosophical searching plays out in the way stories are constructed.

  12. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    And in case anyone’s wondering about Ira Schnapp, a truly gifted “illuminator” of texts:

    http://www.dialbforblog.com/archives/372/

    For the record, Dial B For Blog is probably my second-favorite comics blog after this. A different bailiwick perhaps, but spiritual cousins, I’d like to think.

  13. Something I’ve noticed is there are several comic book artists of the Mormon or Latter Day Saints faiths.

  14. Jeet Heer says:

    My earlier discussion of the midwestern school is relevant. See : http://comicscomicsmag.com/2009/12/notes-on-midwestern-school-of-comics.html

    Huizenga:In one of the recent Annie reprints, Jeet Heer talks in the introduction about this idea of a Midwestern, or Chicago school of cartooning that was more preoccupied with everyday life and the quiet rhythms of everyday life. The style was quieter and more repetitive. I think you can definitely see how Ware fits in that tradition, and also he’s called more attention to that kind of cartooning. Visually, it might look boring, at first, to some people, but it’s a form that’s fitted to content. What they’re doing is comics about mundane things like talking to your wife, or whatever — the “little things.”
    Spiegelman:I guess. But I think rather than just Midwest, I would make it Protestant, you know. Like they don’t have those ornate crucifixions.
    Huizenga:I have those two strikes against me, I guess, here. [Laughter.]
    Spiegelman:It’s definitely suspicious of ornament and exuberance…

    • Daniel C. Parmenter says:

      So the question then becomes is it “midwest” qualities or “Protestant” qualities that you find evident in the cartoonists in question or is it some combination of the two? Getting into identity politics as an explanation for an artist’s work is a slippery business, since inevitably every artist (and indeed, every individual) can claim multiple identity group affiliations.

      I don’t have the book handy, but as I recall in “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book” Gerard Jones suggested that perhaps the midwestern WASP sensibilities of C.C. Beck and Kurt Schaffenberger at Fawcett made for very different comic books than those of their New York-raised colleagues at DC/Timely etc.

  15. James says:

    Check “My Name Is Red” by Orhan Pamuk, a murder mystery set in an illumination studio WAY back in the day.

  16. Richard Baez says:

    Probably only incidental to this thread, but did anyone taken notice of the comic book version of the Book of Esther that JT Waldman did a few years back? It’s entitled Megillat Esther in publication form and it’s the most curious thing:

    http://megillatesther.com/g_image06.htm

  17. Jesse McManus says:

    was herriman religious? i can’t remember……all that comes to mind is that he could roll a cigarette with one hand, which probably requires devotion and practice.

  18. Ian Harker says:

    Lone Wolf & Cub is ultimately about the ethos of Bushido as an extension of Zen Buddhism. Also, Shinto mysticism is an undercurrent in just about every fantasy manga ever made. I’d love to know something about Yokoyama’s spiritual background. His work reeks of Zen emptiness (to me at least.) Also the way he assigns strange purpose to his emotionally inanimate subjects has a tinge of Shintoism to it.

  19. Gil Roth says:

    Ric Burns’ American Masters doc on Warhol has a neat section near the beginning in which the tiled ikons of Warhol’s childhood church totally prefigure the geometric layout of the silkscreen portraits. It’s a pretty neat sequence. It’s not comics, but it IS Pittsburgh, so hey.