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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 3) [1]

In 2006, Fantagraphics Books published The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming, a collection of Frank Stack's "underground" Jesus comics that spans over forty years, from 1964-2006. In contrast to the stern didacticism of Robert James Luedke's work and Steve Sheinkin's humorous moralizing, Stack's approach is thoroughly satirical.[2] As such, a few words about satire would be useful in assessing Stack's purpose(s) in his work, as well as how well he achieves them. In his work, Dustin Griffin reviews traditional theories of satire and then adumbrates a new understanding of this ancient practice that focuses on four main discourses: rhetorics of inquiry, provocation, display, and play.[3] For Griffin, the rhetoric of inquiry reflects the open-endedness of satire, i.e., "the satirist writes in order to discover, to explore, to survey, to attempt to clarify."[4] In other words, satire is a critical, intellectual enterprise, not simply someone poking fun at a particular subject. However, as Griffin writes,

If the rhetoric of inquiry is "positive," an exploratory attempt to arrive at truth, the rhetoric of provocation is "negative," a critique of false understanding. In each case, the satirist raises questions; in provocation, the question is designed to expose or demolish a foolish certainty.[5]

In using the rhetoric of provocation, then, the satirist not only employs crude and sometimes disparaging humor to critique a particular understanding of a given issue, but often it is this humor that also manages to provoke the audience to pay attention to the more important, deeper issues that the satirist raises. In this regard, one thinks of the sophomoric humor employed in the Peabody-award winning series South Park. This emphasis on the skillful manipulation of comedic rhetoric leads into Griffin's third category, display. This level of satire is designed to demonstrate the artist's creativity and skill. As Griffin notes, "As rhetorical performance, satire is designed to win the admiration and applause of a reading audience not for the ardor or acuteness of its moral concern but for the brilliant wit and force of the satirist as rhetorician," i.e., satirists become "entertainers."[6] The satirist's dexterous display of intelligence is also related to the rhetoric of play that Griffin examines, a rhetoric that emphasizes the enjoyment of manipulating words and ideas into an enjoyable, artful whole. In other words, the level of play concedes that a large portion of a satirist's job is not only to enjoy themselves, but also to encourage the audience to have fun when engaging their work. As we shall see, Stack's work employs all of these levels of rhetoric.

In his Foreword to Stack's work, the famous comic artist R. Crumb specifically connects the latter's work to the satiric tradition and gives the reader a clue as to the specific idea(s) or groups that Stack satirizes: "His humor is fueled by vexation, rage, and alienation. Growing up in the South, he obviously got his fill of ignoramus-fundamentalist-racist meanness and cultural bleakness, for which comics have been a means of venting."[7] In an Afterward that I will discuss below, Stack himself confirms Crumb's observations as to the object(s) of his satire. Given the sheer chronological range of Stack's work collected here, the objects include several groups and institutions, including academia; the military; lawyers; and, most obviously, Christian maximalists, i.e., those Christians who believe their beliefs in the Bible and other aspects of their faith should be maximally determinative for their behavior and identity.

Since the material collected in Stack's book is so wide-ranging and non-sequential, a summary of every story is not possible. However, a few of his stories cry out for comment. For example, the earliest material collected in the book (ca. 1964) details selected scenes from Jesus's career, such as the episode from Luke in which Jesus is left in the Temple by his parents (2:41-52). In Luke, everyone is astounded at Jesus's questions, but here Jesus asks age-appropriate questions, such as "Hey, you know what? Chicken squat!" and "You want to see something funny? Look in a mirror!"[8] In rendering the boy Jesus in this way, Stack (probably unknowingly) creates a humorous portrait of the child not unlike that found in texts like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This early material, all titled "Stories from the Good Book," is reminiscent of more-recent treatments of Jesus in periodicals like The Door and its associated publications.[9] For example, in these panels, we see that in Stack's retelling of John 7.53-8.11, the crowd seriously misunderstands Jesus's saying, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (NRSV). However, once we consider Stack's material concerning the second coming of Jesus (beginning on p. 37), we can see just how sharply his satire is constructed.



One of the first things that happens to Jesus upon his return is encountering a group of hippies, who, when he asks them for some food, tell him, "When you're up tight, find a groovy cat and say, 'Man, I need a hit.'"[10] After days of no food, Jesus decides to try their advice, but unfortunately he tries it out on two cops, who assume he's a "beatnik" and proceed to beat him. In response, Jesus turns them into swine, and they get chased away by a dog. In another story, Jesus decides to go the movies; coincidentally, a picture is playing called "The Greatest Story Ever Shown." As Jesus sits in the audience, he sees himself being portrayed by a large, muscled actor. The on-screen Jesus is baptized by John and then meets John's fiancée, Mary Magdalene. John is then captured, but Mary agrees to "do the Hootchy-Kootchy dance" for Herod if he will release him. Herod reneges, and the celluloid Jesus, who started out adopting a pacifistic attitude, now "goes Schwarzenegger" on everyone, battling ten Roman legions and even beating people with his cross. In the end, he gets the girl and comes out unscathed. As Jesus exits the theater, another patron remarks, "The end's not like the book" — to which Jesus retorts, "Believe me, it's better!"[11] Not only does Stack here satirize various Jesus films, but he (again, probably unknowingly) alludes to different conceptions of the messiah during the Second Temple Period, specifically the conception found in texts like the Psalms of Solomon.



After his trip to the movies, Jesus is picked up by two MPs (military policemen) because they suspect him of being "a deserter traveling incognito."[12] Again, Jesus gets into trouble because he has no government-issued identification to attest to his identity. When he tells people he is the messiah, they either don't believe him or they think that he is simply trying to avoid his tour of duty. At one point, the army officials assume that Jesus is an illegal immigrant because of his name and lack of "documentation." In showing the idiocy of the military personnel in this story, Stack not only pits Jesus and his pacifism against the militancy of the military from the early-1970s, but he also manages to contrast the image of Jesus in the New Testament with this angry Jesus. In fact, after Jesus's beard and hair are shorn, he literally "zaps" the army officials; the last panel shows their building exploding. This sequence begs the question of Jesus's relationship with military power, as well as the limits of his toleration at the same time it satirizes the army's lack of understanding of Jesus's identity. By extension, one could say that all the groups Stack satirizes, using Jesus as his foil, could be compared to the disciples in Mark, with their immense denseness regarding Jesus's true identity.

The same is true of Jesus's next career move. Depressed and confused "about how to play this messiah role," he joins the academic community as a guest lecturer at a large state school.[13] If this sounds like a hilarious premise, it is. Jesus is thrown into the politics and practices of modern academia, sporting only biblical platitudes like, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free," which forms both his teaching philosophy and first lecture.[14] In response to this assertion, the assistant dean of the college tells Jesus, "That sounds good, but it won't work with undergraduates. You can't expect them to know the truth."[15] As we see in fig. 3, after Jesus gives his first lecture and asks for questions, his students ask him questions like, "How many cuts do we get?" and "How long's it been since you've had a bath?"[16] Jesus takes all this in stride, until the chairman of his department takes him aside and suggests that he improve his image so that students and other faculty will take him more seriously. Pondering this, Jesus imagines what might happen if were to shave, bathe, and buy new clothes. Not liking what he could become were he to embrace these material indulgences, Jesus leaves academia and begins hitchhiking. As with his satire of the army, Stack again assails a specific group for failing to realize Jesus's true identity and for trying to remake him into something he is not.



The remainder of Stack's Jesus comics are amusing, such as when Jesus and "Souperman" have to reassemble what they think is the Earth after it is blown up, or the story in which Jesus becomes the religious advisor to President Reagan. After presenting his one and only piece of advice, viz., "The meek will inherit the Earth," he is fired for being disloyal and not strong on national defense.[17] Unfortunately, I did not find the final stories in the volume as funny or sharply satirical as the earlier ones. Luckily, though, the book includes an Afterward of sorts: an essay titled "About My Experience with Religion," by Stack. Here we learn that Stack was raised a United Methodist, but about the only thing he retained from his religious upbringing was "Jesus was a heroic figure, supernaturally wise, a seeker after and distributor of wisdom."[18] He also addresses the reasons behind "my getting aggressive against unthinking acceptance of simpleminded fundamentalist Christian doctrine."[19] For Stack, this acceptance is linked to other forms of uncritical judgments he knew growing up, specifically to his experience in the military during the tail end of the Cold War: "My little religious jokes were a kind of abstract argument against blind acceptance of potentially fatal assumptions."[20] More specifically, Stack was frustrated with the attempt to co-opt Jesus to support the United States' assurance that its military and political actions were for the greater good:

Jesus was neither patriotic, political, protective of property, or even propriety; much less was he a homophobe, or even a family man. Gotta make a better argument, G-guys; this one doesn't make me want to die for my country, or for anyone else to die for it.[21]

Stack connects his work with the story Ivan narrates to Aloysha in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov about Jesus returning during the Inquisition only to be imprisoned and sentenced to death. Subsequently, Stack claims that his main point is analogous, viz., that Jesus's teachings simply would not be tolerated in our society, and then to show why that is.[22]

The way(s) in which Stack shows us "why that is" adroitly employ the levels of rhetoric I mention above. For example, the levels of inquiry and display are found frequently, such as in Stack's early comics that adapt biblical narratives about Jesus to a more comical setting. Stack also utilizes the rhetoric of play repeatedly, but perhaps most obviously in his satires of prevalent social institutions such as the military and higher education. Finally, the most ubiquitous level of satiric rhetoric in Stack's work is obviously the level of provocation, i.e., "a critique of false understanding . . . designed to expose or demolish a foolish certainty."[23] As we have seen, Stack consistently portrays Jesus as an anti-materialist outsider who is shunned, mocked, attacked, and even brutalized by members of society who claim to know who he is and, in some cases, to believe in him, as well seen in fig. 4. The intent of Stack's satirical rhetoric, then, seems to be to highlight the distance between the nominal profession of faith and the practice thereof. Put differently, Stack is illuminating the "pointed contradiction between talking the talk and not walking the walk," in an attempt to present a new image of Jesus for the reader to contemplate.[24]

Satire is not focused on deconstruction, but rather reconsideration; in this light, Stack's Jesus — with all his decidedly human foibles and idealistic notions about truth and correct behavior — invites the reader to reconsider his or her own notions of who Jesus was and, for some, who he is. In this regard, it is instructional to return to Dostoyevsky's narrative, from which Stack took his idea. At the end of Ivan's narrative, the Inquisitor, who imprisons Jesus for fear of his upsetting the ecclesiastical empire the Inquisitor has built, is revealed to have lost his faith in God. Ivan narrates that the old Inquisitor sees that in order to help the Christians in his charge, he must abandon his belief in God and accept the spirit of death and destruction. This requires that he

accept the lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction, and yet deceive them all the way so that they may not notice where they are being led, that the poor blind creatures may at least think themselves happy. And note, the deception is in the name of Him in Whose ideal the old man had so fervently believed all his life long. Is not that tragic?[25]

If one compares this description of the Inquisitor with the depiction of those who scoff at and injure Jesus in Stack's book, one gets the thrust of Stack's satire, viz., those who claim to be and/or lead Christians may need seriously to reevaluate their understanding of Jesus.[26]



By this point, after three articles, my view of these graphic novels is most likely transparent: I found Sheinkin and most of Stack's work to be not only humorous, but also more successful than Luedke's novel in the way(s) the Bible and other scriptural sources have been mined for the authors' educative or satirical purposes. While I realize my judgment is subjective, it seems clear, at least to me, that Sheinkin's work would be more successful with his target group than Luedke's. Similarly, Stack's sharp satire of modern Christians will most likely succeed in its goal of asking the reader to reconsider and reevaluate the behavior of their fellow religionists, and perhaps themselves. The larger question to consider there, though, is the significance of these graphic renderings of scripture. That is, why is it important to evaluate texts like these in a publication of the SBL? The importance of such an investigation, I feel, is that as an organization whose mission is to "foster biblical scholarship," we should care deeply about the ways in which biblical literature is disseminated and rendered, especially in popular culture. As more and more scholars are noticing, cognizance of the Bible is no longer being advanced solely in religious institutions. Rather, our students are gathering knowledge about the Bible from a vast array of textual, visual, aural, and virtual sources. The fact that many of these sources are aimed squarely at children — as Luedke and Sheinkin's works are — should only increase our resolve not just to be aware of these sources, but rather to evaluate them critically so that our colleagues can know how the Bible is being treated in popular culture. As we have seen, sometimes that treatment is laced with humor, satire, and thoughtfulness, but other times it is used in more troublesome ways. The importance, then, of examinations like this one is to illuminate these readings, so that readers can decide for themselves which interpretations would be more useful for them, and thus to "foster biblical scholarship" in a wider sense.

Dan Clanton, Denver, Colorado

Notes
[1] I would like to thank Eric Reynolds from Fantagraphics Books for his help and kind permission to reprint text and images from the graphic novels discussed herein.

[2] For a discussion of these graphic novels, see my previous two articles in the SBL Forum. [add citations]

[3] See Dustin Griffin, "The Rhetoric of Satire: Inquiry and Provocation," and "The Rhetoric of Satire: Display and Play," in Satire: A Critical Reintroduction (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 35-94. I must acknowledge my indebtedness to my friend and colleague Terry Clark for introducing me to and schooling me in Griffin's work. What follows is based in large degree on Clark's expert application of Griffin's theory to modern popular culture, such as the 2004 film Saved! and the television series South Park.

[4] Griffin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, 39.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Ibid., 71 and 75.

[7] R. Crumb, "Foreword," in Frank Stack, The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming (Seattle, Wash.: Fantagraphics Books, 2006), 7.

[8] Stack, The New Adventures of Jesus, 18.

[9] See, e.g., Robert Darden, ed., On the 8th Day God Laughed (North Richland Hills, Tex.: BIBAL, 2000).

[10] Stack, The New Adventures of Jesus, 38.

[11] Ibid., 60.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., 70.

[14] Ibid., 72 and 91.

[15] Ibid., 73.

[16] Ibid., 91.

[17] Ibid., 120.

[18] Ibid., 152.

[19] Ibid., 157.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 158.

[22] This story is found in Part Two, Book V, Section v., "The Grand Inquisitor." [23] Griffin, Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, 52.

[24] Stack, The New Adventures of Jesus, 155.

[25] Taken from Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Constance Garnett; Modern Library Editions; New York: Random House, 1950), 310.

[26] Interestingly, Pope Benedict urges Catholics to do the same sort of re-evaluation in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth. See Philip Pullella, "Re-Discover 'Real Jesus,' Pope Urges in New Book," World Wide Religious News, 13 April 2007. Online: http://wwrn.org/article.php?idd=24832.

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Citation: Dan Clanton, " Scriptural Education and Entertainment: Evangelism, Didacticism, and Satire in Graphic Novels (Part 3) [1]," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=704

 
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