Holy Comics!

Adapting the gospels for a graphic novel called Radical Jesus was a dream project for me. In doing so, I entered a field where many had gone before, but few of whom I admired.

After a dozen years in a Quaker bible study group, and about twice as long writing and illustrating comics on issues of social justice, I was enchanted at the prospect of merging these previously disparate sides of my life. Editor Paul Buhle, a veteran activist and historian of American radicalism, had led me to create comics on visionaries like John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, Mabel Dodge, Isadora Duncan, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Perpetually scouring the dustbins for new heroes, Paul had hit upon Jesus. In the same spirit in which we had approached labor unions and feminism, I hoped to make the Word into words and pictures.

I felt self conscious about outing my religious beliefs in the vehemently secular world of alternative comics and political activism. I often winced at hearing my friends, relatives and acquaintances blithely condemning "organized religion" as the root of all evil. If I pointed out that I hadn’t seen anyone plotting violence at my Friends’ Meeting, they tended to dismiss Quakers as "different." I wanted to prove that the peace churches had got Jesus’s message right, that the New Testament called for peace, justice, and equality. During the decade after 9/11, Christianity had been hijacked by belligerent right-wing nationalists. I was eager to clear His name, and take Jesus back from the Republicans.

Image: Sabrina Jones
"What Do You Do in Quaker Meeting?" by Sabrina Jones, in World War 3 Illustrated

In the 1997 religion issue of the political comics anthology World War 3 Illustrated, many of my fellow contributors chronicled their adolescent rebellion against their parents’ faith, while I illustrated how I outgrew my secular upbringing to becoming a Quaker as an adult. I don’t think my colleagues realized that I literally practiced what I preached.

Image: Sabrina Jones
"Chronicle of the New Crusade," by Sabrina Jones, in World War 3 Illustrated

In Life During Wartime, an issue of World War 3 Illustrated I co-edited in 2004, I parodied George W. Bush’s exploits in a strip called Chronicle of the New Crusade, drawing playfully from illuminated manuscripts of the crusader era to refer to the commander in chief’s own blundering use of the term "crusade," which had so inflamed the Arab world and all who abhor that chapter of Christian history. My guilty pleasure: though I hate the history, I love the art. I admire the medieval artists’ single-mindedness in the service of narrative. They didn’t let mere naturalism get in the way of telling their story. So adopting their style to skewer an evildoer belied my great respect for their art and message. Aesthetically, at least, I was more medieval than Bush.

Glancing around the world of biblical comics, I recoiled from both the saccharine Sunday school renditions, and the misguided attempts to seduce teens by beefing Jesus up as a superhero. Yes, Jesus now comes in manga style, too. Occasionally on the subway I can’t resist picking up one of the timelessly cheesy fundamentalist Christian mini comics by Jack Chick that hit you over the head with modern life lessons and corresponding Bible quotes.

The alternative comics universe has produced a couple of biblical anomalies. R. Crumb tamped down his usual antic inventiveness long enough to churn out a hairy, lumpy Book of Genesis that I, and many others, received for Christmas in 2009. Despite his talents, it remains a bit of a slog. Crumb himself declared that he approached it as straightforward illustration, presumably as opposed to his usual opinionated send-up of everything else. Too bad. Likewise the delightfully unpredictable Canadian Chester Brown decided to pepper his Yummy Fur series with regular installments from Mark and Matthew, until he ran out of steam around his second entrance into Jerusalem. Normally prone to flights of surrealism that offset his bluntly confessional autobiographical comics, Brown seems to have put his shoulder to this task dutifully, testing his own response to scripture. The result is interesting, well drawn, but lacking the divine spark. At press time, I hear Brown has returned to the Bible with an in-depth retelling and analysis of its attitude towards sex workers, in the recent Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus (Drawn and Quarterly, 2016).

Image: R. Sikoryak
"Blonde Eve," by R. Sikoryak, in Masterpiece Comics

One artist who managed to be simultaneously funny, outrageous, and true to scripture is R. Sikoryak, whose mind-blowing Blonde Eve casts Dagwood and Blondie as the first man and woman, drawn in impeccable mimickry of the classic newspaper strip. Dagwood’s fearsome boss is the Almighty. Another artist whose chops I covet is the amazingly prolific Larry Gonick, creator of Cartoon History of the Universe. Real history is served up with calligraphic panache and witty asides. As a historian, Gonick dodges the more mythic and unlikely parts of the gospel (sorry, no Christmas or miracles!) introducing Jesus with his adult baptism, and carrying on through the book of Acts.

Image: Larry Gonick
"It is Written," by Larry Gonick, in The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume 12

Since even the best of these examples didn’t present the Bible the way I wanted to, I turned to art history for inspiration. (I may be a cartoonist, but I must confess that I’d rather go to an art museum than a comics convention.) As much as I love the medieval manuscript illuminations, however, they tend to focus on the dramatic events at the beginning and end of Jesus’ life, skipping over what I was interested in: his teaching. If I were to appeal to a new generation of scoffers and skeptics through the modern alchemy of comics, it would not do to appear nostalgic. I resolved to stifle my medievalizing urges.

Emerging from the strictly defined iconography of the Middle Ages, we encounter the first great artist to inhabit scripture wholeheartedly: Rembrandt. Living in multicultural, religiously tolerant Amsterdam, he read and interpreted scripture for himself, and escaped both the dictates of the Catholic Church, and the iconoclasm of the Protestants. Some scholars believe Rembrandt was closely influenced by Dutch Mennonites, though not formally a member.[1] It is well established that he hired a Jewish model to pose as Jesus, and extant sketches show development from realistic portrait studies to a more classical ideal. The result is a powerful and tender figure who radiates equally humanity and divine love. In all the history of art, I returned most frequently to admire Rembrandt’s balance of warm bloodedness and mystical illumination.

Image: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
"Christ with Folded Arms," by Rembrandt van Rijn, The Hyde Collection

One could argue that a secular age cannot produce authentically convincing religious art, no matter how sincerely the individual believes. Since the age of enlightenment, the religious artist risks either the academic pedantry of the grand salon style, or the sentimentality of Christmas cards. The late nineteenth-century French artist James Tissot would appear to support this contention. Struck by a conversion experience at the height of his career as a society portraitist, Tissot spent the rest of his life illustrating the New Testament in as much literal detail as possible, supported by personal research in the Holy Land. I referred to his work for details of costume, architecture and landscape, though I found the whole sadly dry and lacking in spirit.

Image: Henry Ossawa Tanner
"The Miraculous Haul of Fishes," by Henry Ossawa Tanner, National Academy of Design, NY

One successful outlier is Henry Ossawa Tanner, the son of Philadelphia’s African Methodist Episcopal bishop, who painted in France in the early twentieth century. Like Tissot, he traveled to Palestine around the turn of the century to inform his sense of the Gospels. However, Tanner’s shimmering surfaces reveal a debt to the Impressionists, and he never got bogged down in excessive detail. His Mary at the annunciation is a plausibly stunned Middle Eastern teenager, the angel Gabriel simply a blinding shaft of light. I couldn’t find much to borrow from Tanner’s imagery, but I envied his rare achievement of rendering spiritual power in a modern idiom.

SJones_Rich Man.jpg
Image: Sabrina Jones
"The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man," by Sabrina Jones, in Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith.

How to translate paintings like these into my humble black and white comic book, excerpted from the Gospels with an emphasis on Jesus’s teachings on social justice? Although I occasionally paraphrased, or merged two or more gospel versions or translations, I basically stuck to the script, and reserved my commentary for the illustrations. When Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus and his followers are drawn in first-century garb and scenery, while the tale he tells is set in our era, with neckties, cars, and a sadly familiar curbside beggar.

Image: Sabrina Jones
Lazarus and the Dog, by Sabrina Jones, in Radical Jesus

In choosing the modern images for various parables, woes and beatitudes, I asked myself one of the standard questions posed in my Bible study group: "How can I apply the meaning of the passage to my life, or our time?" I once assumed Renaissance artists dressed Mary as an Italian princess because they didn’t know any better. Now I’ve committed similar anachronisms to shake the dust off the Bible, to reveal how its ancient wisdom challenges us today. What does it mean to follow Jesus in the twenty-firstcentury? The Good Samaritan hands over his credit card at the motel where he delivers the beaten and abandoned stranger. Jesus rails against hypocritical religious leaders who ride in limousines and abuse children, and he blesses peaceful protesters who are dragged to police vans. He weeps over a Jerusalem beset with roadblocks, tanks, and surveillance cameras. In subsequent sections, artist Gary Dumm recounts the history of the radical reformation, and Nick Thorkelson chronicles modern faith based movements for abolition, peace and civil rights.

Image: Sabrina Jones
Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, by Sabrina Jones, in Radical Jesus

People often ask who my work is aimed at, and it is a legitimte question, even when it doesn’t come from the marketing department of a publisher, but it always feels foreign to my creative process. I was motivated primarily by my fascination with the text, and the prospect of deepening my understanding. I was astonished to discover how vital and relevant Jesus’s message could be, and I hope to bring others to the same experience. I fear that he is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. I’d like to show activists the ideals they share in commmon with people of faith, and inspire people of faith to make their beliefs bear fruit in creating a more just society. After all, this is what Jesus meant by claiming kinship with "those who hear the word of God, and do it."


[1] Rotermund, Hans-Martin. "Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1607-1669)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 9 May 2016.

About the Author

Sabrina Jones

Sabrina Jones wrote and illustrated Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist’s Encounter with Margaret Sanger (Soft Skull Press, 2016).