Biblical Graphic Novels: Adaptation, Interpretation, and "Faithful Transfer"
Author's Note: This article is a follow up to a conversation already begun by David Burke and Lydia Lebrón-Rivera on the topic of so-called "faithful transfer of scripture," a response to the more recent phenomenon of biblical graphic novels (see David G. Burke and Lydia Lebrón-Rivera, "Transferring Biblical Narrative to Graphic Novel," SBL Forum, 4/7/2004 to 5/4/2004). I explore the notion of what an unfaithful transfer of scripture might entail when adapting biblical material for the format of the graphic novel by examining two separate treatments of the Samson Saga in graphic-novel format and then briefly examining a graphic-novel treatment of the Exodus story.
A quick perusal of dictionary definitions for the term "adaptation" reveals a broad range of possibilities, many of which draw upon the fields of biology and medicine. If it is legitimate to apply these meanings to the adaptation of texts into graphic novel format, then such adaptations may have a restorative effect, bringing greater illumination and clarity where before there was only ambiguity. An adaptation may more clearly capture the text's originally intended purpose, serving as a more effective rhetorical form than the original. Alternatively, adaptations may entail change that creates more ambiguity than clarity, leading to less response or to an unintended response on the part of the intended audience. In light of this possibility, I will explore the following questions: What if the existence of ambiguity in the parent text is by design? Could an adaptation that achieves clarity lead an audience to miss entirely the originally intended point of a biblical text? Might the supposed advantage of clarity one gains by an adaptation be interpreted, alternatively, as a disadvantage? Might it be the case that an originally ambiguous text is more faithfully transferred when the adaptation retains ambiguity?
To answer these questions, I will review two graphic-novel versions of the Samson Saga from Judg 13 to 16 and one adaptation of the Exodus. The Samson story is retold in the graphic novels Samson: Judge of Israel and Testament, both of which are published by Metron Press, an American Bible Society imprint. The former retells the story of Samson by adapting the Contemporary English translation, which is printed at the end of the novel. The latter is a selective retelling of a number of well-known stories from the Hebrew Bible, treating them as if they are all part of one, larger story, namely, the story of humanity's relationship with its divine Author.
Testament retells biblical stories in the setting of a modern story and from the reader's perspective. Here, the reader imaginatively enters a local bar, named JJ's, and while deciding what drink to order, receives a story from the bartender about a divine Author (i.e., God) who is still writing his own story, one in which all human beings get, at some point, to write a part for themselves. The central message tying all of the stories together is that they teach the "cure" for the "poison" that plagues the human race. This cure is for humans to demonstrate repentance by saying the words, "I'm sorry."
The biblical graphic novel The Lone and Level Sands, by A. David Lewis and mpMann, which I will argue demonstrates a more faithful transfer of Scripture than the Samson tales, changes the point of view of the Exodus story to allow the reader to imagine how the cycle of plagues and Israel's liberation from Egypt might have been perceived from the perspective of the Pharaoh. While this graphic novel is centrally based upon the biblical tale, it admittedly draws upon the Qur'an, other historical sources, and even Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film The Ten Commandments.
In their review of Samson: Judge of Israel, Burke and Lebrón-Rivera note that the protagonist of this biblical tale "becomes much more self-aware in the GN [Graphic Novel] than he ever is in the MT [Masoretic Text]." They attribute this to the way the story is framed in the GN as a series of "reminiscences [of Samson] from the vantage of hindsight." In other words, because the character of Samson serves for a time as the narrator of his own story, telling the tale of his life prior to his capture by the Philistines, he winds up appearing much more insightful than in the biblical version. I agree that this narrative device has such an effect, but this is not the only reason Samson is presented as a more insightful character in the GN than in the MT.
Let me explain. The GN clearly juxtaposes Samson's loss of physical sight with his acquisition, following his arrest and torture, of spiritual insight, through which he reevaluates his life. This is confirmed by the words of the divine messenger watching over Samson, the same messenger who announces his birth earlier in the graphic novel. Samson concludes that he has misused his divine gift of strength throughout his life; in the end, he is depicted as a redemptive hero when he repents of his sin and is rewarded by the renewal of his strength for one last slaughter of the Philistines. Interestingly, in both the GN and the MT, this renewal of strength apparently comes in response to Samson's prayer for revenge against the Philistines for putting out his eyes, a sentiment that conflicts with Samson's penitent attitude a bit earlier in the GN when he characterizes his prior life as a misuse of divine power because he thought only of his own "personal retribution" (25, panel 4).
(Reproduced with permission of the American Bible Society)
It also seems to conflict with the earlier plot of the story, in which Samson uses his divine power quite effectively to defeat Israel's enemies. In other words, God uses Samson as an effective tool for killing Philistines long before his confession and repentance, even if he winds up killing Philistines far more efficiently afterwards when his suicide collapses a Philistine temple. So, we might ask, why the need for repentance in order to accomplish God's purposes if all we are really talking about is simply doing more of the same (i.e., killing Philistines)? This inconsistency in the plot of the GN calls into question the value of Samson's confession in the first place, a confession that never occurs in the MT. Why is it necessary for Samson to repent at the climax of the graphic novel in order to be used heroically by God, if it was not necessary beforehand? What role is the confession intended to play for Samson and the reader?
In both the biblical text and in the GN, Samson is never depicted as keeping his Nazirite vows. Certainly, in the Bible, the real key to his strength was never an issue of contrition or spiritual insight. The biblical text simply treats the cutting of the hair as a magical key to maintaining divine strength, without explaining why this component of the Nazirite vow is more important than the others. Judges 14:4 also states that Yahweh used Samson as a way to provoke the Philistines, apparently so that God could also use Samson as the instrument of Philistia's destruction. While both the GN and the Hebrew text ultimately credit God for Samson's morally suspect behavior, the MT appears far less troubled by Samson's immorality and lack of spiritual insight. In some ways, Samson's death is all the more tragic in the MT because of Samson's lack of knowledge about divine providence. In the Bible, there is a consistent moral ambiguity and spiritual ignorance on the part of Samson's character that the graphic novel tries to erase with Samson's transformation into a morally insightful and repentant figure and by implying that his final killing of Philistines is a reward for his repentance, as opposed to being just another episode in God's deliverance of Israel through the tragic hero.
I find this extremely troubling, and an example of unfaithful transfer of scripture, for a number of reasons. I suspect that very good intentions lay behind the GN's attempt to redeem Samson as a morally and spiritually heroic figure, but in the process more problems were created than were solved in light of the MT's inherently ambivalent portrayal of Samson and God. God, while remaining rather aloof in the book of Judges, appears to have the ultimate goal of alternately punishing his people for disobedience by allowing them to fall into enemy hands, and occasionally liberating them through the military prowess and charismatic gifts of the judges. God's morality is really not at issue in the biblical text, and Samson's character is never redeemed by depicting a moral conversion or spiritual transformation. The Bible is more concerned with depicting the ongoing cycle of Israel's sin and judgment, a cycle that is occasionally disrupted by divine deliverance, only to repeat itself again.
In the GN, however, God seems to reward Samson's plea for a revenge killing primarily in response to Samson's newfound piety. Here, the final killing of Philistines serves as a sign of God's forgiveness of, and redeeming love for, Samson. As might be expected, no such opportunity for acquiring God's forgiveness and love is extended to the enemies of God's elect. Instead, in the scene that I consider the climax of the novel, Samson first prays for forgiveness and then expresses a desire to "do something for" God, "not because it earns me your favor, but because I long to do, for once, what is right and have it be a testimony to your redeeming love" (52-53). Hence, Samson's last slaughter of Philistines is intended in the GN as a testimony to God's redeeming love, a love that is, rather unlovingly in my opinion, not extended to the Philistines.
(Reproduced with permission of the American Bible Society)
While the climax of the saga is normally considered the tragic suicide of Samson, the GN seems to be just as interested, if not more so, in the moment of Samson's penitent prayer, a completely non-biblical scene that presents Samson as a model of humility and submission. In addition, Samson's self-sacrifice seems to serve in the GN as the so-called "opportunity" Samson sought "as a testimony to your [God's] redeeming love." I consider this problematic not because I refuse to acknowledge the henotheistic, pro-Yahwistic, and pro-Israelite slant of much of the Hebrew Bible, but because it introduces to the Samson Saga elements so foreign to the biblical text, namely, explicit references to Samson's conversion and Yahweh's redeeming love.
This appears to be a well-meaning attempt to bring moral and spiritual clarity to the saga by presenting Samson as the "better late than never" moral exemplar and God as forgiving and loving. But in actuality, its theology is far more problematic than that of the biblical version, which has retained ambiguity most likely by design and as an essential part of its rhetoric: the biblical Samson serves as the type or microcosm of which the macrocosm is the collection of Israelite tribes, all of which are intrigued with and tempted by the exotic ways of the foreigners among whom they live.
To support my interpretation further, let me review how the GN ends. A few pages after what I am calling the climax of the novel, Samson prays again, this time specifically for strength to "punish the Philistines for the loss of [his] eyes" (57). This prayer is juxtaposed with a prior panel on the same page in which the reader is allowed to know the thoughts of Samson, thoughts that frame his desire for revenge with a stronger desire to atone for his sins. His thoughts are as follows: "Opportunity. A second chance. More chance to atone than it is a chance to take revenge."
This glimpse into the thoughts of the protagonist once again introduces a non-biblical element into the narrative, which apparently seeks to downplay Samson's desire for revenge as the motivation for bringing down the Philistine temple. Instead, Samson is depicted as wanting to demonstrate "that faith is stronger than sin" (57). The novel does not clarify whose sin is in view here, either Samson's or the Philistines', but the faith is apparently Samson's alone. As a result of this interpolation, Samson once again serves as a model of supposedly faithful behavior and teaches what genuine faith in Yahweh can accomplish, namely, the death of one's own, and/or God's own, enemies.
Another interpolation is found on the upper half of the same page. Here, Samson, who is accompanied by a boy in both the biblical text (Judg 16:26) and the GN, attempts to teach his young companion "the difference between boastful pride and righteous power." Samson then tells the boy to "learn it young and live it always," advice that seems rather meaningless if, as the remainder of the story in the GN suggests and as the biblical text (Judg 16:30) makes clear, everyone in the temple gets killed. In other words, the GN never depicts this boy as escaping the destruction that soon follows; thus, the scene is rather clumsily inserted merely to imply that Samson should now be considered humble and righteous before God.
Such implied humility is perplexing, ironic, or downright contradictory in light of Samson's final words just prior to breaking the columns of the temple. Here he takes a parting, verbal shot at the Philistine king, saying "Good bye prince. I'd wish you mercy, but you'll have to ask God for that" (61). Apparently, God's redeeming forgiveness and love are to be extended only to the penitent Hebrew or to the reader of the graphic novel, but not to all humanity. While redeeming love is important enough to become the central focus of the GN, as opposed to the biblical account, such sentiment is not to be universally extended, especially not to Israel's, Samson's, or God's own enemies. We can only hope that the reader will not follow suit.
Finally, on its closing page, the novel makes one last attempt to inscribe clarity concerning Samson's character. Here one finds an image of the vibrant, physically whole Samson nobly floating above the horizon (63). The text seems to claim that in some way Samson, at the end of his life, was able to "rise above" himself and "see [his] place in God's plan for his people — all people — and the world." The last text box, representing the perspective of the narrator, goes even further, telling Samson to "rest well in the tomb of [his] father . . . and take comfort that [his] death will be a blessing for all future generations." Here, the narrator does not seem to notice the irony of such a statement when applied to the generations of Philistines who will be excluded from this blessing for "all people" because their ancestors have just been killed. What this blessing might actually entail is never really clarified, but because it results from Samson's death, it seems to make of that death some sort of redemptive self-sacrifice. Such an interpretive trajectory sounds strikingly similar to the popular Christian idea of Jesus as a sacrificial victim on behalf of all humanity, but I think one would be hard-pressed to find biblical support that Samson plays such a universally redemptive role.
(Reproduced with permission of the American Bible Society)
Clearly, I have my own ideological slant on the Samson Saga. I am showing much more sympathy for the Philistines than the biblical text, or the GN, cares to show. But because of some of the inherent ambiguity in the Bible's treatment of both Samson and God, I believe that the theology of the biblical version is significantly less problematic than the graphic novel. The Bible does not attempt to depict Yahweh as primarily a God of redeeming love in the Samson Saga. The Bible does not attempt to depict Samson as a character who repents for misusing a divine gift or who comes to understand God's redeeming love before going on to show no mercy to his enemies. In an attempt to produce theological clarity for a biblical text that is inherently and morally ambiguous, the GN transforms Samson into a universally redemptive hero and God into a universally redemptive deity — at least it tries to do so, but, in my opinion, it fails. In the process, it creates at least as great a theological problem as the one it seems to have perceived as residing in the parent text, since the GN seems to limit the offer of redemptive love to Samson and the modern reader.
I suspect that a similar search for clarity drives the depiction of Samson in the graphic novel Testament, the central thesis of which is that the cure for what ails humanity is repentance. Here again we see Samson treated as an exemplary character, who, in the moment that he "used the words that always undo the effects of the poison in all men: 'I'm sorry' . . . found the strength he thought he'd lost. The strength he needed to strike back at his people's enslavers" (52).
(Reproduced with permission of the American Bible Society)
Here, Samson heroically acknowledges the wrongs of the life he lived before being blinded and enslaved; upon repenting, he "finds" the strength to accomplish God's will in a way greater than any prior military victory. Like the previous graphic depiction, it seems that this interpretation is driven by the desire for a "transfer" of the Saga, that, in order to really be "faithful," must diverge dramatically from the original text.
In this version, the "pile of rocks" that once served as the Philistine temple is littered with the bodies of dead Philistines and serves as a monument to "remind" God's people "of the Author" — a reminder, and an author, that the GN alone creates and that I submit we should perhaps try to forget.
In one last bit of (most likely) unintentional irony, Testament immediately follows the panel depicting Samson's "monument" of rubble and bodies with a panel that points out Israel's failure to learn the lesson that Samson's killing was supposed to teach. The text here — "it is the nature of the poison: to forget what is important . . . to forget people . . . to treat them like dirt" (53) — seems unaware that Samson's, and perhaps God's, own actions on the opposite page seriously call into question whether or not this hero and his so-called Author have themselves learned the lesson they are trying to teach.
In the biblical text, the driving force behind Samson's birth and heroic deeds is Yahweh, and Samson is merely an instrument, however morally imperfect, for God to liberate his people. It is a case of the ends justifying the means because in most instances it is Samson's natural attraction to foreign women, a situation that parallels the threat that all things foreign pose for the emerging Israelite league, that provides the opportunity or snare by which Israel's greatest military enemy is defeated. Thus, while the Bible clearly depicts the favoritism of Israel's God for his chosen people, a God who may use any means at his disposal to accomplish his purposes, the emphasis is not upon divine forgiveness, redeeming love, or universal blessing, and thus there is less theological contradiction. However, theological problems are compounded when the text is made to suggest that the killing of enemies has divine sanction so long as one is personally or individually contrite or righteous before one's God.
For the purposes of contrasting these examples of "unfaithful transfer," let me briefly review A. David Lewis' and mpMann's treatment of another biblical text that evokes feelings of ambivalence from a number of readers, namely, the plague cycle in the book of Exodus, which includes the motif of Yahweh hardening Pharaoh's heart. Lewis and Mann depict a number of scenes in which Yahweh apparently possesses, manipulates, or afflicts certain characters in Pharaoh's court or family in order to encourage the foreign king to oppose Yahweh's will, an act that eventually results in the death of all the firstborn sons of Egypt. Mann indicates Yahweh's voice speaking to Pharaoh through one of the surrounding cast of Egyptian characters by distorting with crooked lines the text balloon around their speech or by using a distorted, crooked, or italicized font. When Pharaoh hardens his own heart or simply speaks for himself, the text and text balloons for his character appear normal.
This device recurs when Pharaoh receives advice from his Vizier, Ta (57-58), and even in an encounter with his grandson, Seti (75-76). In the latter case, Pharaoh interprets Seti's speech as "some splinter of the Hebrew Demon" that has "infected [his] family," making "the message of Yahweh clear" (76).
(Reproduced with permission of A. David Lewis)
In effect, Yahweh's message was that Pharaoh was not to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh obeys, allowing the plague cycle to continue and further escalate.
Lewis also has Yahweh send a vision to Pharaoh's queen, Nefertari (apparently through the divine magics of Moses and Aaron ), that serves as the prelude to her falling ill and remaining bedridden for most of the plague cycle. Eventually, Pharaoh's will is broken: he confesses to having sinned against Yahweh and decides of his own free will to set the Israelites free (90-91). Immediately, Nefertari revives (92-96). However, she is soon possessed one last time by Yahweh: just before expiring, she issues a wish that Pharaoh "remain hard" and never release the Israelite slaves (96). Out of grief, honor, and love, Pharaoh promises to comply.
How is this adaptation different from those reviewed already? How can such a depiction of Yahweh and Pharaoh represent a more faithful transfer of what one finds in the biblical story of the Exodus?
I would argue, on two different grounds, that Lewis' and Mann's work is more faithful. First, by filling in the gaps that the story has allowed to remain, Lewis explores the way in which the hardening motif may have been effected. This certainly adds more detail to the biblical story, and in some ways these details attribute a rather diabolical side to the divine character. Furthermore, they suggest that Yahweh is superior to Pharaoh and may use any means at his disposal to accomplish his will, a message that is also found in the Samson Saga. In fact, this message is consistent with other biblical texts in which Yahweh sends tormenting or lying spirits to punish his opponents, such as in the stories of King Saul (1 Sam 16:14) and King Ahab (2 Kgs 19:7). While I do consider Lewis' handling of the hardening motif an attempt to inscribe clarity over ambiguity, I do not consider it any more theologically problematic than the parent text. Lewis' depiction of the manipulating Yahweh, who goes so far as to kill Pharaoh's wife, is not out of character with the biblical God who unnecessarily kills all the firstborn sons of Egypt in order to gain glory or fame (Exod 4:21-23; 14:4, 17, 18; 7:3-5; 9:15-16).
Second, Lewis's novel goes out of its way in both the forward and the introduction to clarify how it is adapting the biblical text, changing the point of view from that of an Israelite to that of Pharaoh, utilizing historical sources, drawing upon the Qur'an and Cecil B. De Mille's film The Ten Commandments, and purposely "inject[ing] . . . humanity into scenes that are told so starkly." Dedicating this amount of space to clarifying one's adaptation is refreshingly responsible and should serve as a model for future projects. Imagine how helpful this approach might have been, and how much less controversy may have ensued, had Mel Gibson been so responsible prior to releasing his film The Passion of the Christ.
Some readers may well ask if there is anything wrong with even radically rewriting a biblical tale, so long as one clearly displays the disclaimer of "adaptation" from the outset, as Samson: Judge of Israel does on the backside of the title page. Or perhaps, some will object that Testament has done nothing wrong, since it at least implies in the introduction that it is also an adaptation of the biblical material.
The problem with this is that the term "adaptation" may suggest a broad range of meanings, as may the term "faithful transfer." Additionally, it is my suspicion that a good many readers will simply assume that an adaptation is, by and large, a faithful rendering, and that too few will actually take the time to compare and contrast what they find in a biblical graphic novel with the texts upon which they are based.
But granting this, I suppose that my pet peeve is with the level of discomfort so many biblical interpreters or adapters seem to feel with the inherent ambiguities and unpleasant theologies that have been fixed in the biblical canons. The need to clarify supposed textual "problems," to "fix" them in ways that treat an already fixed text rather unfaithfully, sometimes misses the originally intended meaning and purpose of the text, and may lead others to misunderstand them as well.
Instead of treating the Bible as a faithful rendering of a variety of historical and ideological perspectives from ancient Israel and early believers in Jesus, the text is treated as something that must be inherently and theologically clear and consistent, and at all places morally and spiritually exemplary. It is treated as if its power to inform modern day faith lay in these qualities alone, as opposed to the reader's necessary struggle with the text — a struggle that sometimes, in order to be faithful to the text's intention, requires the reader to reject the ideology of the text because it presents the modern reader with a negative example, that is, an example not to be followed. Such is the case, I think, at least to some degree, with the biblical Samson, and at times even the biblical God.
At the risk of sounding overly critical, I found the introduction to the GN Testament ironically insightful. Here we are said to find "a timely version of the world's most timeless stories," through which the authors of the graphic novel have "kept alive the ancient tradition of telling these tales in ways that could be easily understood by all who wanted to listen." Now, it may be the case that here, in this notion that biblical tales should all be "easily understood," lies the crux of one problem with certain adaptations of the Bible, namely, the need to oversimplify, the need to make things easily understandable, the need to over-clarify. The introduction goes on to say that "interest, not a particular dogma, has always been the best door through which to enter these stories. These stories were always meant to reach us where we really live." While I support fully the need to bracket dogmatic concerns when one enters the world of the Bible, and I agree that biblical stories are designed to meet people where they live, the target audience of the biblical authors was an ancient one that lived elsewhere culturally and ideologically. However, just as we today, they often "really lived" in places of moral and spiritual ambiguity, and this is why faith stories that capture such ambiguity resonate so powerfully with our human experience.
As David Burke argues in reference to the translation of biblical texts, "the aim of any translation should be: the clear and understandable transfer of meaning across the language/culture gap." I would suggest that in some cases, where the real meaning of a biblical text may actually lie in its ambiguity, the "clear and understandable transfer" should require the interpreter, even if adapting a text into the format of a graphic novel, to capture that ambiguity and communicate it faithfully, as opposed to seeking clarity where it never originally existed.
Terry Ray Clark, Iliff School of Theology and University of Denver
 Mario Ruiz and Jerry A. Novick, Samson: Judge of Israel (New York: Metron Press, 2002); Jim Krueger and Mario Ruiz, Testament (New York, Metron Press, 2003).
 A. David Lewis, mpMann, and Jennifer Rodgers, The Lone and Level Sands (2nd ed.; Fort Lee, NJ: ASP Comics, 2005).
 Cf. Lewis et al, Lone and Level Sands, Forward by Ben Towle and Introduction by Lewis.
 Burke and Lebrón-Rivera, "Transferring Biblical Narrative."
 Lewis, The Lone and Level Sands, Introduction.
 David G. Burke, "The History and Practice of Bible Translation: A Brief Survey," n.p. [cited 26 February 2007] Online: Bible Resource Center
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Citation: Terry Ray Clark, " Biblical Graphic Novels: Adaptation, Interpretation, and "Faithful Transfer"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=641