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What is a Graphic Novel?

The graphic novel is a type of comic book whose format is much longer than the traditional 32-page stapled pamphlet and is distinguished by higher production values, sophisticated art, and quality papers and bindings.[1] It may be defined as "a species of comics" that, "like picture books, are print materials in which pictures and narrative are joined in one interdependent format." [2] The graphic novel typically "presents time as unfolding, showing process in static panels that read from upper left to lower right on the page." [3] They can appear with lavish color illustration or black and white sketches, book length fiction or short-story formats, and cover every type of literature and artistic styles.


This genre of comics has been slower to catch on with readers in the USA, but has been popular for decades in Japan, Latin America, France, and Eastern Europe. Whereas any type of graphics-driven literature has tended to be seen in the USA as something for preadolescents, but not generally helpful to the development of mature reading habits and critical thinking skills, there has more recently emerged a recognition that this type of literature has the potential to appeal across age and gender lines and even to enhance learning for the many young adults who are more visual learners. [4]

Samson: Judge of Israel, the first in a series from Metron Press, an imprint of the American Bible Society, adapts the Samson narrative of Jud 13:1-16:31 to the comic genre of the graphic novel. The following represents a beginning in an endeavor to think through what is involved in the adaptation of biblical narration to graphic novel.

Script and Visuals in the Samson Graphic Novel

Using a different literary frame than the Masoretic Text (MT), the Samson Graphic novel (GN) opens with a series of flashbacks from the wretched Gaza prison where Samson languishes as a ruined, failed leader. Symbolic of other Israelites, Samson had become far too enamored of Philistine (Canaanite) ways and was eventually overcome by them. With nothing but time (and hard labor) on his hands, Samson reflects on how he ended up in such hopeless submission to the Philistine rulers, when his life had begun with such noble promise and calling.

The full-page illustration on GN, p.5 is particularly effective in showing how the imprisoned and eyeless Samson is rehearsing in his head the youthful exploits that started him down the path of eventual disaster. He had certainly hoped for a more noble legacy from his life, had been dedicated to God as a Nazir, and had special promise attached to his birth; however, as his life unfolded from the time of his youth he is seen to be the prime example of what has gone wrong with the failed Israelite system of judgeship. What Samson does is almost always "what is right in his own eyes, " the poignant refrain that concludes the book of Judges. Indeed, by choosing the framing device of having the script be Samson's own reflections from his final days in prison, as he takes stock of what went wrong with his life, Samson thereby becomes much more self-aware in the GN than he ever is in the MT, where he so often seems not to think of the consequences or, in the case of Delilah, not to be able to see through her all too transparent ruses. This seeming self-awareness in the GN must be understood to be the result of this choice of framing the story as reminiscences from the vantage of hindsight.

Samson's spiral of eventual ruin begins innocently enough with falling in love with a young Philistine woman, for whom the GN supplies the name, Semadar, since for this format she must have more dimensionality than the MT allows her. It is then from Samson's demand to his parents (who are utterly astounded by his wish to marry a Philistine) that the segue is made (GN, p.10) to the events of his auspicious birth. The graphics on GN, p.12 very effectively juxtapose all the key factors that will come into play in the unfolding of his tragic story—the promise of his birth, his extraordinary strength and feats of personal valor, his constant chasing of women (or inability to resist the cherchez la femme) that repeatedly gets him (and his people) into difficulty, and his inglorious demise.

He was the last of the judges, and the only one who ended up in enemy captivity. So in a real way Samson represents the last gasp before the leadership system of the judgeship (itself a worthy attempt to organize a shared leadership model rather than a centralized one) went kaput. And, he also represents both the Israelite attraction to Philistine/ Canaanite ways and his people's dysfunctional individualism.

The message from the messenger of YHWH is accurately represented in the GN on p.12, namely, that Samson "will begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines." The messenger did not say that Samson will deliver Israel, but will begin to! The messenger of YHWH is depicted (GN, p.11) as both otherworldly and larger than life, with broad shoulders and salient features. Emerging from sparks of light the messenger looks enormous in front of the petite wife of Manoah. By this characterization of the messenger the GN seems to keep in tune with the story and its hero, suggesting that its resolution is through physical force. In the MT, Mrs. Manoah experiences this messenger as frightening, at least initially, intuiting that what she was seeing seemed to be a messenger of God.[5] In the GN she does not ever seem frightened, but the story line is somewhat compressed here.

Also announced in the composite scene on GN, p.12 is the Nazirite commitment. This type of dedication of one's life to YHWH was in fact most often term-limited (and a term would cease with the shaving of the head; cf. Nu 6.1ff.). In the MT the messenger does not say that Samson's term is to be for life, but the text may imply that. In the GN, Mrs. Manoah clearly does have that understanding (GN, pp.10, 14), and it is implied in balloon 2 on p.12. Scholars have speculated that the high expectations placed on Samson from this auspicious birth became an enormous burden for him. In the MT, Mrs. Manoah does not report to Manoah that this child will be expected to begin to deliver Israel from Philistine power. On p.19, the GN reflects this self-awareness in Samson. Manoah himself is quite incidental in the MT narration, and the GN also compresses his role here in seeking to prove what his wife has reported about this strange visitor. Manoah later appears in the GN (p. 33) as an elderly man near death, being comforted by Samson (an invented detail but a plausible one).

Samson's age at the time of his first attempt at marriage to the Philistine woman of Timnah (Semadar) is uncertain, and there is really no hint in the MT. The GN takes him to be "twentyish." He still lives with his parents, and in the GN he is called an "arrogant boy" (GN, p.17) and "yearling" (GN, 8, box 1) in taunts.

In Jgs 13.24, the narrator tells the reader that Samson's mother gave him the name Samson (Hebr, shimshoni), that the boy became large, and that YHWH blessed him. The name itself is never explained or etymologized anywhere in the entire pericope, but it means "little sun" (playing on the Hebrew word for "sun, " shemesh). But even though nothing is ever explicitly made of this meaning in the Hebrew text, the text is nevertheless replete with subtle interplay on the theme of light and darkness. And the GN also, without being explicit abut the meaning of the name, brings out the light/darkness theme that marks the vicissitudes of Samson's life. (It is not without significance that the very ancient city of Beth-Shemesh, an old center of sun worship, was right in the center of the Danite tribal territory.)

In 14.3, Samson demands of his parents that they "take for him" this Philistine woman, Semadar, with whom he had quickly fallen in love "because she is right in my eyes." His very words unmistakably foreshadow not only why things will go so wrong for him, but also why things are going so wrong for the Israelites in this era. Already as a youth Samson is following his own eyes and not the leading of God or parents. And the decisions he makes tragically doom this poor unsuspecting young woman from Timnah, along with her family, and they begin for Samson a katabatic spiral of failure and disappointment. In the end of his life of "following his own eyes, " it is his eyes that are lost to him, the very eyes that seemed so enamored of the Philistine ways. His mother, whose judgments are always sensible and principled, counsels him to consider a woman of his own people (GN, p.10, 14), but Samson is insistent on his own way.

At 14.4, the narrator of the Hebrew text reveals to the reader a fact that Samson's parents were not even aware of (was Samson himself?); namely, that YHWH was looking at that very time for a provocation against Philistia, under whose oppressive thumb the Israelites (or at least those tribal groups most closely bordering Philistia) were submissively acquiescing. At least this is the sense that most interpreters and translations have taken here. In actual fact, the "he" in the expression "he was seeking" is ambiguous. While most have assumed that its referent is YHWH, it could be Samson. Yet for the narrator, this is the underlying problem of the Judges story/era—the complacency of the Israelites and their willingness to submit without any apparent leadership resistant to the temptations of Philistia's (and Canaan's) customs, values, and way of life. This theme of the pretext is picked up in the GN script at p.25, box 4, in the self-reflection of Samson: "I see now that God turned my selfish anger to the good of his people. . .my people."

In 16.1, Samson goes to Gaza (GN, p. 37), about 30 miles from his hometown, to visit an 'isshah zonah, often translated as "a prostitute." But he is under close surveillance (16.2f.), and, even as he dallied, the Gazites were setting an ambush at the city gate. Samson foils their plan by leaving earlier than expected and ripping up the city gate, posts and all, and carrying it almost to Hebron (an incredible feat in itself, since Hebron is nearly 40 miles from Gaza). The focus here in MT and GN is on Samson alone, and this episode is setting the stage for the big scene to follow. Samson is obviously still chasing after Philistine women (this one is also not named in MT, and covered with a composite in the GN, pp. 37-38), and it is this pursuit that will now lead him to Delilah and his downfall.

At 16.4, the narration gives a very simple connector line:, "And after this" (he fell in love with a woman in Nahal Soreq, and her name was Delilah). The Hebrew text signals a major difference from earlier episodes by its use of the verb h'b, "love" (the GN, p. 43, seeks to convey this difference in the graphics). This time it is love. Samson loves this woman and is smitten by her. The MT does not state anywhere, however, whether she has any real feelings for Samson or whether there is any substance to this relationship beyond his enthrallment with her. The implication of the text is that there is not, since Samson is for the MT narrator representative of the Israelite enthrallment with things Philistine. The GN handles it in this way.

At 16.5, the pitch of the Philistine rulers to Delilah is very much the same as that put to the Timnite woman, Semadar—"entice" him. The imperative verb again is pth, which in Piel is used to mean "entice, seduce, deceive." But the offer in this case is one of a huge amount of money, not the threat of death. The amount of money is enormous, and thus very hard to resist, however its contemporary value might be calculated. The GN (e.g., p.44, box 7; p.47, box 6) shows Delilah as being very complicitous, but implies that she has received an offer from the rulers and is very comfortable with it. It handles the rulers' demand for her to entice Samson "between the lines" and in the graphics. The expressed interest of the rulers is in "capturing" Samson. They do not say anything in MT, or GN, about killing him or what precisely they intend to do with a captured Samson at this point. The MT also gives no information about who Delilah is, what her standing in society may have been, what sort of home or family she had, how her living was gained, etc. But it is clear from the text that she was keen to comply, since she immediately begins to work on the secret of the extraordinary strength of this man who is so enraptured with her.

At 16.6, she makes her first attempt to discover the secret of his strength, and he gives her a phony story that being tied tightly with seven new bowstrings will sap his strength. She alerts the rulers to have their agents on hand when she gets him tied up, so they can capture him. But he easily breaks loose when she yells that the Philistines are at hand. The MT narration leaves the impression that the lurking Philistine agents apparently are able to retreat unnoticed by Samson, since variations of this same routine are gone through twice more, each time with Samson breaking loose and his capture thwarted. In fact, it is astounding that he is so complacent, and so apparently overconfident, to assume that his strength will always get him through, so that he keeps going along with this when it is so obvious to the reader that he is either naïve or a fool about to be caught in his own conceits. How could he continue each time to fall for Delilah's intense interest in uncovering his secret? Why should he trust her when we readers can see that she keeps calling for the Philistines? On another level, how could the Israelites in this era keep falling for Philistine and Canaanite ways, and falling away from their covenant with YHWH? The GN compresses this episode instead of repeating each of Delilah's failed efforts (p.45, box 1); as a result the reader misses out on the gradual build-up of slightly varied repetition that sets up the denouement. Not having the waiting Philistines thwarted over and over again in the build-up leaves something missing in the suspense.

In 16.17, Samson at last opens his heart. The MT narration puts it, "he told her all his heart, " which is to say, he told her the true secret of his strength. And, amazingly, this is also the first time that the reader learns this secret as well (GN, p.46). The secret turns out to be in the one aspect of the Nazirite vow of commitment that was never mentioned earlier in the text—that a Nazir does not let a razor touch any part of the head. The rules for this are clearly elaborated in Nu 6, and this is a key feature of the Nazirite commitment. It may be that the narrator has deliberately left this out in the earlier announcement so that it could be sprung here as a surprise to everyone. The GN handles this "opening up" of Samson, as suggested by the MT, as a case of love overcoming common sense. And, again, symbolically, this love, which has so besotted him, is wrongly directed, just as his people have become enamored with Philistia.

At 16.19-20, with the cutting of his hair, the reader can see that the symbolic bond between the Nazir and YHWH is now cut, and the MT narration says: "He did not know that YHWH had left him" (GN, p.47, box 4). When Samson's eyes are gouged out (16.21) and he is easily imprisoned, the reader senses the tragic irony that now all the potential that Samson has always carried has finally been dissipated in false pursuits, that the "little sun" is now in a permanent darkness. And, in a further irony, the woman who was his undoing has a name that sounds very much like the Hebrew word for "night." The GN does not make these nuances explicit any more than does the MT.

In 16.25, the Philistines, naturally viewing this as a huge triumph, come together later to celebrate their accomplishment, but they seem to give no thought to the growing back of blind Samson's hair. Even in his last moment (16.28), Samson is still primarily concerned for his own personal revenge as he prays for God's help.

In his prayer here, the opening epithet in the GN script, "Father God" (p.52, box 3) is clearly anachronistic. Such use of "Father" was never a way of addressing God in OT times and was supposed to have been edited out of the final draft script, but was not. Such usage is nowhere attested in the Hebrew Bible and is odd here in the GN on the lips of Samson. It makes him sound more like a contemporary evangelical Christian praying than an Israelite of pre-monarchical times.


Elliott notes that Bible comics in particular are prone to a heightened tension between a script that "domesticates the text, " by tending to make the wording of the script as familiar to readers as possible, and the visuals elements, which "foreignize the text" in the sense that they depict ancient clothing, hairstyles, weapons, implements, etc. [6] But this tension is mitigated in the Samson GN because the very contemporary artistic conventions and style, together with familiar features (for the target audience) of the ancient world hero genre (e.g., Conan, Thor), give the visuals a contemporary feel, even though people are wearing robes and shawls and carrying swords and spikes.


Samson is the last of the "judges." He is strikingly different from the first one, Othniel, who did not intermarry, led forces and fought for all the tribes of Israel, and did not leave his people under enemy suppression. But Samson, never really following the code of the Nazir, did little beyond his own interests. He was resistive to the calling of leader and never did lead all Israel in any way. He is in the end revealed to be the tragic figure of the failed hero, but he is symbolically also the failed Israelite leadership system that the reader now sees must begin to move toward more organized central authority (despite the risks that will bring) before the Israelite people of this era succumb completely to other nations or end up in anarchy.

Midrash as Possible Conceptual Framework

Hebrew gradually fell out of common use after the Exile, being supplanted by the widely used Aramaic language, which was the diplomatic and international language of the Persian Empire. As the Hebrew texts were read in worship, translation needed to be made for the sake of understanding, and this could only be done orally so as to keep the translation clearly delineated from the sacred text. Such translations, or Targums, expectedly differed in their wordings since they originate from the context of simultaneous translation. The Hebrew text was fixed and normative, but the targumic interpretations allowed for great variety in the form of expansions, paraphrastic elaboration, and interpretive comments. It was their common purpose to help people understand what the Hebrew text meant and to lead them to understand its import for their lives. To do this, it is typical that midrashic expansions or reinterpretations and exegetical comments are woven in, or paraphrastic elaborations intruded, to help bring clarity where the Hebrew text may be abstruse. [7]

As the rabbis regrouped and reorganized Judaism after the destruction of the second temple (70 CE), midrash developed into "a process of study, explanation, reinterpretation, and adaptation of the past biblical tradition for the ongoing spiritual life of the community" [8] J. Trebolle Barrera pinpoints three essential component elements that characterize midrash: (1) exegesis, (2) Scripture, and (3) intent to edify the community of faith. [9] R. Bloch has iterated five basic features: (1) having Scripture text as its point of departure, (2) having a homiletical intent, (3) being very attentive to the text, (4) adapting past tradition to present situations, and (5) yielding works that serve either edification or practice (i.e., haggadah or halakah) [10].

Trebolle Barrera notes that the purposes of midrash were not merely (1) to connect newly formulated regulations with Scripture texts (to facilitate reception and use among the faithful) or (2) to resolve problems in the Scripture text (to faciliatate better understanding and application), but also (3) to provide a careful "re-reading" of the Scripture text so that the faith community can clearly draw a message for present living from the text. He also distinguishes from this "re-reading" of the Scripture text, the so-called "periphrastic midrash, " which is typical of the targums in that the targums (as written text) do not hold onto the distinction between the text and the midrash but in fact become a "rewritten or reworked Scripture." [11] J. L. Kugel states:

Most of the narrative expansions found in rabbinic midrash…have as their point of departure some peculiarity in the biblical text itself. That is to say, these expansions…are formally a kind of biblical exegesis. [12]


This exegesis made clear to the community that there is more meaning in the text than is immediately obvious.

These narrative expansions "are presented as illuminating, bringing out the hidden implications of, something that is in the biblical text." [13]

In summary, then, it may be said:

Midrash is built on a careful study of the sacred text, raising both the implicit and explicit questions within the text. What comes out of this careful study, then, is the creation of a 'reworked text, ' aimed for either piety or practice, that explains, reinterprets or adapts the biblical text for the edification of a particular community [14]


It would thus appear that this process and activity of producing midrash, drawing out what is deeply embedded meaning in the narrative Scripture text, may be very promising for thinking about work in a medium where the graphic dimension requires the extraction of this sort of embedded detail.

Cynthia Jarvis has recently issued a call for the development of "Christian Midrash as a way to read Scripture." [15] In suggesting this, she is reacting positively to Luke Timothy Johnson's earlier suggestion that Christians consider a "Midrashic model for an ecclesial hermeneutic." [16] Johnson's proposal was that the present day church should follow the process by which the early church brought the NT texts into being--the process of midrash. [17] It is more than simply a resonant curiosity that the Jarvis' proposal reconnects with Qumran practice as she says:

But could not the imaginative engagement with Scripture embodied in haggadah (non-prescriptive interpretation) be reclaimed—or tried out by Christians for the first time—as a strategy for listening to Scripture in community, for hearing the reality of Scripture as it lends meaningfulness to the reality of our lives, and for allowing multiple readings to exist side-by-side in this time of polarized and politicized readings of biblical texts? [18]


May it be that the practice of midrash, which understands that biblical texts are layered with meaning (David Stern's "scriptural polysemy"), [19] has helpful implications for the work of adapting Scripture from print text to formats involving text and image? Can the "thick structure" of the characters' lives, social contexts, conversations, personalities, etc., which are layered under the surface of the often sparse narrative Scripture text, be recovered by a midrashic approach? In linguistic parlance, the many kinds of paratextual aspects (e.g., gestures, sounds, scenery, spatial indicators, time, movement) that permeate every written text are known as "extra textual signifieds." [20] And these are part of the meaning of a text, even though they may be under the surface, so to speak, or constitute implicit information, or appear to some observers to "go beyond the text."

Since the process of movement from narrative text to the graphic novel format is very much akin to that of book to film, requiring much more detail about the characters, more dialogue between them, etc., than the biblical text gives, midrashic thinking may be the key to uncovering that deeply implicit detail. The challenge for exploring midrashic thinking as part of the process for transferring Scripture in GN formats will be "how to put into place the necessary constraints and parameters" [21] so that there are controls for "midrashic extractions" of detail or dialogue embedded in the canonical text. This need for care and balance and restraint is underscored by the many extant ancient examples of forced meanings derived by midrashic applications.


[1] Diamond Bookshelf; "Why Comics",, 1-2

[2] Francesca Goldsmith, "YATalk: Graphic Novels, Booklist Magazine, A Journal of the American Libraries Association, 1/55yatalk, 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Mark S. Smith, "Remembering God: Collective Memory in Israelite Religion, " CBQ 64/4 (2002), 642-643.

[6] Scott S. Elliott, "Bible Comics—A Concept Paper Reporting on Theoretical document of the ABS Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship (July 17, 2002), 15. Elliott further says: "Interestingly, ABS artists have made recognizable effort to overturn certain cultural stereotypes by using women and characters of color. Nevertheless, the art [in Graphic Novels] simultaneously re-inscribes the already deeply entrenched and arguably more dangerous stereotypes that tie significance to specific images of the body—cut, muscular men and svelte, voluptuous women. The reason I say this problem is embedded into the medium itself is that the genre is inextricably connected to the classic hero-myth."

[7] Ernst Wuerthwein, The Text of the OT, 2nd ed. rev., transl. E.F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 70-80.

[8] Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 1

[9] J. Trebolle Barrera, The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible, transl. W.G.E. Watson (Leiden and Grand Rapids: Brill and Eerdmans, 1998), 477.

[10] R. Bloch, "Midrash, " transl., M.H. Callaway, in W.S. Green, ed., Approaches to Ancient Judaism: Theory and Practice, Brown Judaic Studies, Vol. 1 (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978), 31-33.

[11] Trebolle Barrera, 477.

[12] James L. Kugel, In Potiphar's House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), 247.

[13] Ibid., 251.

[14] J. Ritter Werner, "Midrash: A Model for Fidelity in New Media, " in Paul A. Soukup, SJ and Robert Hodgson, eds., Fidelity and Translation: Communicating the Bible in New Media (Franklin, WI and New York: Sheed and Ward, and ABS, 1999), 176. David Stern, Midrash and Theory: Ancient Jewish Exegesis and Contemporary Literature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 18, pursues the further question, for which there is little data, regarding what criteria the midrashists used: "What did the Rabbis believe was the meaning of Scripture?…did they consider it essentially and open text, an unbounded field for the unlimited play of interpretation?…was any interpretation valid? Or did there exist exegetical criteria…and if so what were they?…what criteria existed for resolving conflicts of interpretation?"

[15] Cynthia A. Jarvis, "Midrash and the Recovery of Biblical Authority, " in W.H. Lazareth, ed., Reading the Bible in Faith (Eerdmans, 2001), 9-14.

[16] Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 39

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jarvis, 9-10.

[19] David Stern, Midrash and Theory, 17-18.

[20] Scott S. Elliott, "Bible Comics—A Concept Paper Reporting on Theoretical Research on the Bible in the Medium of Comics or Graphic Novels, " Internal Document of the ABS' Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship (July 17, 2002), 3-4; see also Robert Koops, "I See a Voice: Literalism and Idiomaticity in Non-print and Mixed-media Scriptures, " Conference Paper presented at the ABS' International Conference on 'Similarity and Difference in Translation, " New York, June 30-July 1, 2001 (forthcoming).

[21] Elliott, "Bible Comics, " 4.


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Citation: David G. Burke and Lydia Lebrón-Rivera, " Transferring Biblical Narrative to Graphic Novel," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2004]. Online:


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