Cover Story

What's black and white and read all over?

"What's black and white and read all over?" Continued...

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

Jimmy Corrigan apparently struck a chord: It sold 100,000 copies in hardback and more in paperback. It received rave reviews from The New York Times, which spoke in headlines of Ware "Creating Literature, One Comic Book at a Time." It received academic acclaim: the Yale University Press quickly published Daniel Raeburn's Chris Ware (2004), a scholarly chronicle of Ware's life and career. And it furthered the tendency among graphic novels to emphasize alienation, discontent, and estrangement.

To name just a few examples: Daniel Clowes's David Boring and Ice Haven (Pantheon, 2000, 2005) depict with clever cross-cutting American lives of quiet desperation. Kim Deitch's The Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Pantheon, 2003) fulfills the promise of its title. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) is a poignant but pointed memoir by a lesbian daughter of her relationship with her dad, who had homosexual and suicidal tendencies. Craig Thompson's Blankets (Top Shelf, 2006) features a young man rebelling against his fundamentalist upbringing but never coming to understand the biblical centrality of grace.

Exceptions to this bitter streak deserve honorable mention. Ben Katchor's The Beauty Supply District (Vertigo, 2000) is a nostalgic tribute to New York City life circa 1960. Bill Willingham's Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (DC Comics, 2006) cleverly shows what happens when an evil warlord known as The Adversary takes over the land of Snow White and other fairy-tale characters. Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar (Fantagraphics, 2003) is a gritty and sometimes raunchy Mexican-American melodrama in black-and-white comic panel.

But themes of misery abound, and they track closely with the lives of graphic artists themselves. Many write or talk about their lives as high school outcasts, with cartooning becoming a refuge and then an obsession. As part of the herd of independent thinkers, many rage against The Machine and the bourgeoisie. Politically, many graphic novels are on the left, with the war in Iraq engendering considerable comic opposition; for example, Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman's Shooting War (Grand Central, 2007) is an intense and crude anti-Iraq War book.

Graphic novels have also become a means of expression for artists and writers from minority communities. Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (Roaring Book Press, 2006) provides a charming perspective on those who feel trapped between two cultures yet benefit from both. But Toufic El Rassi's Arab in America (Last Gasp, 2007) is a bitter attack on the United States. It offers up as heroes Noam Chomsky, Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung, and it provides a map of the Middle East with no Israel on it: Between Egypt and Lebanon is a patch merely called Palestine.

All this angst and anger may cover a search for meaning, and graphic artists from a variety of religions are suggesting answers. Osamu Tezuka's multi-volume Buddha (Tezuka Productions, 2006; originally published in Japan in 1987) fancifully tells of Buddhist origins. Steve Sheinkin's The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West (Jewish Lights, 2006), stars a witty rabbi who outwits bad guys and dispenses Talmudic and Hasidic wisdom in the process of tricking liars into confessing, retrieving stolen money, and returning to rationality a child who thinks he's a chicken.

So where are the Christians?

In part, they've been retelling the Bible in comic book form, and sometimes adding to it. Javier Saltares's David's Mighty Men (Community Comics, 2005) has lots of muscular guys bashing each other in color.

The Manga Bible (Galilee Trade, 2007) is an unattractive black-and-white job that could have used better production values (Tyndale also has published a Manga Bible, as well as a volume called Manga Messiah). But Robert Luedke's Gospel- and Acts-based Eye Witness series (Head Press, 2004 and 2006, with a third volume due out in August 2008) is well-drawn, well-plotted, and colorful.

Christian efforts that are not the retelling of Bible stories include Stephen Baldwin and Bruno Rosato's Spirit Warriors (Broadman & Holman, 2006-onward), a series of feverish plots and muddy black-and-white drawings, and the Joe and Max series (Guardian Line), featuring a muscular Hispanic Max who is a guardian angel.

The pickings should become greater as large and small publishers enter the field. Thomas Nelson is bringing out graphic adaptations of Ted Dekker's dark, hot-selling novels, as well as manga-styled series for teen girls. The company has stated that secular readers will be unable to distinguish many of them from the output of secular publishers, although Christians may detect subtle religious themes.

A new, small publisher, Kingstone Media, has also entered the field with graphic novels based in Genesis, Daniel, and the gospels. Kingstone also is contracted to publish one book set 40 years in the future when genetic engineering has brought us creatures who are half-man, half-monkey. (But I'll say no more about that because I'm the author.)


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