Graphic Therapy for the Religiously Afflicted

In our ongoing effort to go interdisciplinary here at Religion in American History, welcome to our new contributing editor Everett Hamner. Everett is a just-minted Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa, and this fall will be teaching in English and Religious Studies at Western Illinois University. Everett's dissertation topic, Spectacles of Faith, will interest many of you; here's a brief description:

This project examines intersections of science and religion via twentieth century American fictions. Starting with the Scopes trial and the satires of Sinclair Lewis, it considers objectivism and scapegoating in Ralph Ellison, technological transcendence in Walker Percy, intuition and quantum physics in Ursula K. Le Guin, and memory in U.S. and Latin American science fiction film. Showing how literature and cinema illuminate the science-religion nexus, and vice versa, it reveals an expansion beyond early-century oppositions of fundamentalism and scientism toward the conflations of Cold War era civil religion, and from there toward postmodern efforts to integrate faith and reason.

As you can see, it's another of those small-and-narrow topic dissertations :)

Welcome to Everett, who inaugurates his contributing editorship with a post on religion, comics, and popular culture.

Graphic Therapy for the Religiously Afflicted

Confession: I am not a historian. I’m a newly minted assistant professor of English and an incurably interdisciplinary former seminarian. Still, I owe this blog. For the past two years, the majority of my working hours (and a few others) have been devoted to completing my dissertation, Spectacles of Faith: Technology, Religion, and American Fiction. Such isolating endeavors necessitate edifying and entertaining respites, and Religion and American History has regularly provided both. Time to start paying up. I could start with a review of some recent critical study, but I’ll save that. For now, a tale of how I faced life once the diss was done, the grad college was happy, and I no longer needed to spend 10-hour days cuddling with Microsoft Word. I turned to comics.

Defy the assumption for a moment that I am discussing male superheroes winning the hearts of two-dimensional women by defeating equally flat bad guys. You will still find plenty of that at your local comics retailer, and some of it is probably better than I think. What I can pass on, though, is a set of recommendations for those who, for one reason or another, occasionally find themselves tired of academic tomes, but still needing more mental stimulus than that provided by the average television show. And admittedly, this is particularly aimed at those fascinated by intersections of religion, race, and popular culture.

If you are new to the serious reading of serious comics (or “sequential art,” as Will Eisner defines it), a great place to start is Hillary Chute’s “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative” in the March 2008 PMLA (123.2). Chute provides a clear overview of basic definitions, references many of the best works in the field, and offers sharp insights into comics’ nonsynchronous presentation of the visual and the verbal. Less recently but more entertainingly, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993) guides neophytes and experienced readers alike through the complexities of graphic narrative via the form itself. A gifted artist, writer, and aesthetician, McCloud further hones Eisner’s definition (“juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”), and in the process delighted and instructed this reader at once.

Enough on the how-to: you want to know why historians of American religion should care (or at least how to convince your chair that this is scholarly research). Please turn immediately to Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003) and Kevin Huizenga’s Curses (2006). Thompson’s 582-page autobiography of first love, adolescent sexuality, and Midwestern, Protestant fundamentalism is achingly good. The narrative’s power derives not only from obvious depths of personal experience and reflection, but also from its self-conscious dramatization of the author’s reconciliation (and potentially the reader’s) with his religious and romantic past. Huizenga’s work is shorter (as an interrelated collection rather than a graphic novel), but his “Glenn Ganges stories” seek a slightly more erudite audience, fictionalizing philosophy of religion and American consumerism with equal ease. As in Blankets, the setting is suburbia, but readers will find themselves wrestling with Origen and Neibuhr before it’s over.

One last set of leads for those with a particular interest in race and religion (this is for you, Ed). First, if you haven’t read Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1973-91), do it—enough said. This uncanny rendering of the Holocaust via mice and kitties is far from the only significant work in the area, though. James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing (2001) powerfully blends baseball and anti-Semitism, while his similar work alongside Rich Tommaso, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow (2007), throws a similar pitch to African-American history. Graphic narrative about black racial and religious experience is particularly on the rise: see Matt Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro (2008) and Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo’s Bluesman (2006) and The Castaways (2007). Similarly poignant reflections on immigration and class-based injustice may be found in Will Eisner’s Invisible People (1992) and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006).

There is much more, of course, but consider these recommended starting points, and do drop me a line if you find yourself moved. I work principally on religion, science, and American literature and film, but there may be a course and/or an article on this material in my future, and I’d enjoy hearing from you … even if you are a historian.


Anonymous said…
Welcome Dr. Hamner!!! Congrats on the new job and I look forward to your posts. - Ed
Jason Bivins said…
Great post, one very close to my heart. I've been meaning to get to "Incognegro" for a while, so thanks for the reminder. Oh, and I would love to read an article on this material (but do please mention Hellboy at least once).
christopher said…
Very interesting stuff. I look forward to your future posts.