Comics Academe: Christianity, Comics, and the Classroom
Comics! Academics! The Bible?!
When I tell people I study the Bible and comics, I never quite know how they’re going to take it. Will they be more offended by the Bible part or the comics part? In my North American context, many people conflate the Bible and its intense study with very conservative Christianity, but most of the Bible comics I work on would not be at home in the average Bible study. I go for the weirder stuff—comics that talk about or around the Bible. I’m excited to hear from unique voices and challenging interpreters that comics creators can be. I’m interested in what comics can teach us about the way scriptures (particularly, for my current projects, Christian sacred writings) are perceived and presented in cultures. Let me show you how I got here.
I am a PhD candidate in Religion at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint program, diligently writing my dissertation in sunny Denver, Colorado. I study the Judeo-Christian Bible and specialize in the study of the New/Christian Testament and the study of the canon as a whole. I am primarily interested in what people do because of or inspired by what they read in sacred writings. Are they better or worse to each other? The short answer is “yes” and the long answer is going to take me many more years. One of the things that attracted me to my program is the way its “joint” nature allows me to use the resources of the whole university to answer my questions—Art! English Lit! Philosophy! I want all the departments! It really takes a village to study comics.
Comics have been in the background of my work since undergrad but have only really become central to my work in the last few years. Growing up, I thought Rogue was awesome. I mean, she is. She’s not the whole reason I keep this white streak that’s been forming in my hair over the last 5 years since I turned 25, but she inspires me to be proud of it! I was really intimidated by the world of comics and comic shops as a kid, something that inspires me to fight that boys club culture today. Just think of the comics I was missing out on in the late 80s! Nevertheless, I read my friend Carrie’s X-men like a fiend. In undergrad, I read Maus and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and became truly convinced that comics were as great and magical and important to read as I had always thought. I started picking up graphic novels and comics from that moment for my own reading pleasure through my English undergraduate degree, through my Master’s degree in religious studies, and on through my PhD coursework. Comics only worked their way back into my professional work three years ago when I ran across a footnote in a book on the biblical gospel of Mark that casually mentioned that there was this graphic novel based on Mark that someone should do some scholarly work on. I immediately ran to pick up Steve Ross’s Marked and haven’t looked back.
Comics that people write inspired by the Bible or biblical characters help me see new interpretations of the text. I use comics as fellow interpreters of scripture; that is, I see comics and the Bible in dialog. Other great work is being done on comics as religion, comics in religion, or religion in comics, but I tend to see my work as holding both together and seeing what I learn about people in the process. I find comics give insight into interpretation, meaning and readers that I could not gain any other way. Not only that, but comics are extremely valuable for teaching: students not only like reading them (bonus!) but they can also learn to analyze how they read text and images when they study with comics.
Since my primary identity is a biblical scholar (already looked on with some suspicion in the academy at large, not just folks on the street) finding a way to do what I do, be taken seriously, and make myself marketable is an ongoing struggle. I would eventually like to have a job in the academy. Despite the fact that we’ve been in our professional guild since 1894, women still make up just under one-third of the biblical literature guild. There are a lot of similarities between the struggles of women who write about comics and women who write about the Bible that I’ll be sure to write about in the future. Adding popular culture and cultural studies to my c.v. puts me at additional risk for being dismissed without being heard. I’ve already felt the sting of this dismissal. However, I have gained insights through the study of comics that I am not willing to give up. For those of us who know, comics writing is an amazing part of the academy.