Dan W. Clanton, Jr., a Professor of Religious Studies at Doane College, has devoted much of his academic career to the intersection of religion and culture, lecturing and publishing on topics as diverse as the depictions of Hanukkah on the television show South Park and the overlap between the book of Jonah and the comic book Jonah Hex. He has recently co-edited two books that further explored the Bible’s influence on art and culture: The End Will Be Graphic: Apocalyptic in Comic Books and Graphic Novels and Understanding Religion and Popular Culture. In the interview below with Brent Strawn (Emory University), Clanton discusses the varied influences on his work, and the ways in which comic book designers, novelists, screenwriters, and other artists have used the Bible as a source of inspiration.
Brent Strawn: How did you first get interested in graphic novels and their pertinence to biblical studies?
Dan Clanton: I grew up with the original Star Wars films, watched Superfriends on Saturday morning, and had a Six Million Dollar Man action figure with real bionic vision, so I was a sci-fi, fantasy, superhero nerd from the get-go. However, I didn’t read a lot of comics when I was a kid, or even in college. When I was in graduate school, I met my friend Andy Tooze, and after establishing my geek credentials, he recommended a graphic novel (GN) called Kingdom Come, published by DC Comics. This GN is a collection of a four-part, limited series written by Mark Waid and painted (not drawn, which is unusual) by Alex Ross. I’m not overstating when I say that reading this GN changed not only how I looked at comics/sequential art, but it also changed my academic focus.
It’s not an easy read, for three reasons. First, it’s an “Elseworlds” story, which means it’s a “What if?” comic, so the normal plot(s) and continuities one would expect from standard DC Comics characters like Wonder Woman and Superman simply don’t apply. Second—and somewhat oddly, given the first difficulty—the plot assumes that the reader is very familiar with the history of the DC characters, as it includes numerous minor characters and subplots with little to no introductions. And third, the entire story is framed as a series of apocalyptic visions granted to a preacher who is struggling with understanding the book of Revelation. So, the reader must be up on both DC Comic history as well as apocalyptic literature.
As I was slugging my way through the first go-round, I became more impressed by and aware of the sophistication and complexity of the storytelling, as well as the way(s) in which religious concerns, and specifically biblical literature and themes, were addressed and rendered. By the time I’d finished my second reading of the book, I knew I wanted to read more GNs, and also that I wanted to see if other cultural products—like film, literature, TV, music, etc.—also dealt with these same concerns and themes. Like I said, this GN opened up a whole new world for me.
Brent Strawn: What is especially promising/problematic about the graphic novel format with regard to biblical interpretation?
Dan Clanton: Comic art, as found in comic books and GNs, is an extremely malleable medium in which to tell stories. Given certain aesthetic restraints, such as borders and two-dimensional representation, one can do virtually anything. So, when one marries that artistic potentiality with the deep histories of specific characters, say, Batman, for example, one can tell virtually any story one desires in virtually any way one desires. However, just as there are restraints in the visual component of comic art, there are also narrative constraints when one deals with an established character like Batman. There’s always a core story, a central identity, one must account for and deal with when one writes for a specific character. For example, can one write a Superman story in which Krypton never exploded? Is a Wolverine story the same if he’s been de-clawed? Now, to be sure, someone probably has written stories like these, but the informed reader would recognize that they’re the exception, not the rule; that is, that these stories violate the historical continuity of a certain character. So, when a reader engages a narrative told through the medium of sequential art about an established, familiar character, they begin with certain assumptions and background knowledge that will be reinforced, buttressed by, or challenged by this new narrative.
This is, I think, the same experience one has when reading an interpretation of a biblical text. Consider this: can one write a story about Moses in which he doesn’t lead the people out of Egypt? Is a life of Jesus possible in which he’s not crucified? As I note above, surely these stories are possible, but a knowledgeable reader would know they’re not in keeping with the biblical stories. Put differently, the background of a specific character and the plot of a specific narrative function as a baseline of sorts on which later interpreters/authors build their own versions of those characters/stories for specific communities with specific interests at specific times. This process is common to both comic continuity and biblical interpretation, and as such, can serve as a potent and promising point of contact between the two.
However, there are also problematic aspects of the GN genre with regards to biblical literature. Just as one must have a deep knowledge of Bible in order to understand later interpretations of the Bible, one must also be aware of comic history in order to understand many GN/comics today. For example, when reading the New Testament text Hebrews, one needs to know something about the stories of Moses and Melchizedek in order to comprehend the author’s claims that, like Moses, Jesus is the mediator of a covenant, but this new covenant is superior to the old one, and that, like Melchizedek, Jesus is also a high priest. Similarly, if one picks up Brad Meltzer’s 2008 GN Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga, one must know about not only the history of all the individual characters in the League, but also the history of and heroes in the 31st century Legion of Super-Heroes. Along with the issue of narrative knowledge, the GN/comic art format can also be problematic from a visual, or graphic, standpoint. That is, once one has associated a particular character with a specific image, it tends to limit the imaginative possibilities for that character. For example, when I picture Batman in my head, it’s almost always the character from the Warner Brothers animated series. Other Batmen just don’t look right, and sometimes they look plain wrong (sorry, Alex Ross!). In the same way, once a specific image of a biblical figure has become concretized, take Charlton Heston’s Moses as an example, it becomes difficult for interpreters to visualize other incarnations of that character, or to imagine that character doing things their ideal model might not do. In this case, then, the visual specificity offered by GN/comics might be a hindrance to understanding and interpretation.
Read the rest of the interview at Oxford Biblical Studies Online.
Brent A. Strawn is Associate Professor of Old Testament at the Candler School of Theology and in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University, where he has taught since 2001. He has a special interest in ancient Near Eastern iconography, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Israelite Religion, Comparative Semitic Philology, legal traditions of the Old Testament, and Old Testament Theology.
Dan W. Clanton, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies from the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology, with an emphasis in Biblical Studies. Since 2008, he has been the Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Doane College. As a member of the Editorial Board for the SBL Forum, Clanton published a series of articles on the reception of the Bible in graphic novels, and was a contributor to Teaching the Bible through Popular Culture and the Arts.
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