Art Every Wednesday (12)

A week ago I revealed a deep, dark secret to Andy Patton: I love comics. So, when he asked me to write about the art-form I was reluctant, but wonderful truths and beauty hide in the pages of comics, so here I am.

First, let me extinguish 3 myths about comic books:
  1. Comics are only for kids. Like most art, comic books span an array of subject matter, style, and substance. Children love The Amazing Spiderman, because the characters are simple, and the plot is easy to understand, but a great portion of comic art is much to complex, dark, and provocative for children. In movie terms, some comics are G-rated, but some are R-rated.
  2. Comics books are taboo. Only weirdos read them. In American culture this view holds some validity, but in other cultures this is not the case. During the Japanese reconstruction after World War II, Japan could not afford to broadcast good radio, or make films. So, publishers began to mass produce comics at low costs. The media stuck. Today, Graphic novels are read by Japanese persons of all walks and stages of life. So, I would argue that professing comic books are strange, reveals a hidden layer of cultural bias and personal superiority.
  3. Comics are too simple a medium to produce meaningful cultural insights. As an English education major, and avid reader, I find this entirely untrue. In fact, I think comics can help young learners understand the complex themes found in great literary works. Many people are surprised to discover that some of the most stimulating films of the last few years were based on comic books. Take for example, V for Vendetta, a truthful interpretation of an Alan Moore comic of the same title. Much of the movie’s strikingly beautiful dialogue is taken from the pages of the comic, including my favorite quote:

So, who’s to say comics aren’t literary?
I could spend an entire post explaining why comic books are valid art, but that’s not my purpose, so if the last three reasons were insufficient, suspend your disbelief and carry on.
I first realized the significant spiritual relevance of comics while playing digital 20 Questions. The game is simple; you think of a person, place or thing, then the digital 20 questions ball asks you 20 questions, and guesses what you are thinking of. One day I played, and tried to get it to guess Jesus Christ. The ball guessed Superman. I tried again, but the ball guessed batman. Again, Superman, then Batman. I finally gave up.
20 Questions revealed a connection between super heroes and Jesus. Americans love superheroes, they are the stars of the highest grossing summer blockbusters, and DVDs. We love them for their spectacular powers and intellect, but especially for their love. That’s the difference between villains and heroes; both have superpowers, but one chooses love, and the other hate. I think the real reason we love superheroes is because they remind us of God. They embody the self-sacrifice of Jesus, and that is their truest strength.
Heroes truly live out Spiderman’s uncle’s adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The heroes true super power isn’t strength, laser vision, teleportation, or healing. Their true strength is their altruistic spirit. The super hero supernaturally chooses to save and love everyone.
Comic books teach intense enemy-love. The great hero’s desire is to save the supervillain from his own insanity. Almost every great superhero struggles with this decision. Take this example; out of vengeance Peter Parker kills the man who killed in his uncle. He forever regrets this decision and never kills another man. Take the end fight scene from Spiderman 1 for example (fast forward to 2:50 into the video):

Spiderman loves the Green Goblin so much, that he follows the Goblin’s wishes and never reveals the Goblin’s secret to Harry.
Frank Miller, maybe the most prolific comic writer and illustrator of our generation, wrote the Dark Knight graphic novels. His most famous work, Return of the Dark Knight, tells the story of aged, retired Batman, Bruce Wayne. Crime reaches a new high in Gotham, and Wayne is forced out of crime fighting retirement. The climax of the novel is the final showdown between Batman and his arch-nemesis, the Joker. After being released from Arkham Asylum the Joker begins his worst killing rampage, and Batman finds himself in a deep philosophical struggle: should he kill the Joker, and end his stand for the redemption of evil or continue to fight for the redemption of evil doers. In the most potent scene, Batman, with a shaking hand, holds a gun to the Joker’s head. He overcomes the temptation to kill and turns to leave the Joker to the police. At that moment, the Joker grabs his hidden pistol and commits suicide to frame Batman.
This story helps us understand 2 more spiritual truths taught in most comics:
  1. Evil is predictable and always self-destructs. Ultimately most supervillains die by their own workings. Some parish in murder attempts, others parish after their redemption (attempting to right their wrongs). Moreover, we always know what the villain will do, because evil is terribly boring and simple; they always do what’s best for them at all costs.
  2. Heroes are hated most by the ones they protect. The X-Men are outcasted by society, yet they protect normal humans day in and day out from evil mutants. Truly, love overcomes hate and fear in comics.

The aforementioned themes only scratch the surface of comics as an art form. They are nonetheless potent. Why do American’s love movie based on comics? Because the characters lining the pages of graphic novels are tiny reflections of Jesus Christ himself. Comic book characters willingly lay their lives down for those who despise them, and reveal evil for what it is. They redeem the wealthy and poor, save the righteous and unrighteous, and love the worthy and unworthy.

The comic book art form lends itself beautifully to epic tales of supernatural redemption. I only discussed the most popular American graphic novels (those published by DC, Vertigo, and Marvel). Here are a few great graphic novels outside the superhero genre:

Blankets: This isn’t a graphic novel for children, because of its adult themes. It is a challenging piece about a boy’s journey through college into adulthood. He leaves his smile super-conservative home to find himself suddenly facing all the temptations of the world. He loses his faith in God, and battles throughout the book with obsession for his girlfriend. This novel reveals the brokenness faced by many college students today, but gives a different to the answer than the gospel.

Maus: This graphic novel, based on a true story, is a challenging read for adolescents and adults alike. It’s a beautiful illustration of a Jewish family struggling to survive in Nazi Poland. After years of hiding, and bribing, author Art Spiegelman renders the frightening reality of Auchwitz. This heart breaking series is one of the only graphic novels to win a well-deserved pulitzer prize.

Bone: This playful three-part graphic novel, done in the classic Japanese style anime, is a great choice for children and adults alike. It begins as a simple story, or three goofy characters in a far away world, but eventually turns into a gripping bildungsroman, in which the whole gang takes on a slew of monsters, and evil empire.

Fables: This is a graphic novel for more mature audiences (high school and older). Written in the vain of our favorite superhero comics, Fables is the story of a city in which nursery rhymes come alive, and often with dangerous ferocity. Read as the big bad wolf takes on red riding hood, and watch as the author humanizes some of the most frightening “fable” characters. If you liked Wicked or Son of a Witch then this is a great read.

So head over to Barnes and Noble, find a quiet corner, and plow through a comic that fits your fancy. Take a lesson from our favorite heroes in self-sacrifice, and supernatural love.
Resource graphic novels (asterisks denote adult content): Batman: Year One* (Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli), Return of the Dark Knight* (Frank Miller), The Amazing Spiderman Vol. 1 (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), The Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1 (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), and V for Vendetta* (Allan Moore and David Lloyd).

About Patrick K. Miller

Currently I am living in Columbia serving at the University of Missouri with Veritas, The Crossing's campus ministry. In December 2010 I graduated from Mizzou with a degree in English Literature. My beautiful wife, Emily, works is an Interior Designer with a local firm. I like espresso, 30 Rock, and books. My favorite old dead guys are John Owen, Augustine and Francis Schaeffer. You should read something by them.
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