Whaleish Work in the Disciplines: Comics and Religion Swimming Around

The last time you heard from me—and it’s been a while—I was urging academics who love comics to find their peers and work with them. I took my own advice! I was delighted to be a part of the Comics and Sacred Texts Symposium at Haverford College. It was wonderful to collaborate with scholars that share my interests in both religion and comics and to see the vastly different angle each takes on such a similar subject. Academics can sometimes be territorial, but interdisciplinarity rules when your discipline is still being formed. Comics scholarship is in the process of forming in open ways. I don’t have to protect my New Testament and comics turf because even another scholar of New Testament looking at the same comic can find new and exciting interpretations there. Here’s another New Testament scholar using comics in his work right here.

In part, I think this comfort I have with the field is a product of its novelty. It’s new enough that we can all find something valuable to say. But, also I think this openness has to a bit do with the form of comics itself. Comics are images with text involved; they allow for interpretations and resist being “settled” into one bit of language. You and I will explain the same panel differently. Because comics require both text and image, they can neither be entirely structured or relational, read strictly sequential or always all at once. In his comics treatise Unflattening, which began as his dissertation, Nick Sousanis does a study of these sorts of relationships. He defines his core concept of “unflattening” as “a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing” (32). Sousanis uses the concept of “parallax,” the way the position or direction of an object to appears to differ when viewed from different positions, that is, what allows most people with two eyes to see in depth. His own wonderful argument uses this kind of interdisciplinary work—I recommend it—but I have something else to argue.

Excerpt from Unflattening by Nick Sousanis.
Excerpt from Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

What happens when we take those two viewpoints and spread them further apart? Most human eyes come in the front of the head, a measured distance apart—enough to allow us to see three-dimensions. This is not the case with whales. And I argue here that interdisciplinary work—like that of comics and religion—has the vision of whales.

"The Tepid Tears of Moby-Dick" by Angela Cockayne
Like this. Except not.


Yes, I said whales. Let me back up a second and admit that Moby-Dick, or the Whale by Herman Melville is one of those books I can’t stop reading. (And if you haven’t tried listening to the Moby-Dick Big Read, I recommend it—Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch read chapters. There’s also beautiful art to go with each chapter.) The biological information on whales and the gendered language is not up-to-date, to make a huge understatement, but the material on spirituality and nature makes my little religion-nerd heart quiver. When Melville is not talking about misguided Ahab or chronicling the way that people killed whales in his time, he spends many pages musing on the sublime and beautiful creatures themselves.

In a chapter called “The Sperm Whale’s Head”, Melville goes on at length about the positioning of the “lashless eye” of the sperm whale. It’s smaller than one expects for the giant creature, and the position of the eyes on the side of the whale’s head makes him wonder about what the world might look like from the whale’s point of view—from his eyes positioned where human ears usually are:

You would find that you could only command some thirty degrees of vision in advance of the straight side-line of sight; and about thirty more behind it. If your bitterest foe were walking straight towards you, with dagger uplifted in broad day, you would not be able to see him, any more than if he were stealing upon you from behind.

Kind of like this.

Melville points out that eyes on the side do not help with defense. In the same way, I think interdisciplinary work—such as that of comics and religion scholars—is not able to guard against attack from the front or the back. We are buffeted back and forth between (a few, but loud) foes who claim we specialize too much and those who claim we do not know enough about their discipline. In front of us and behind, we are unable to do much with this sort of criticism. I think I can say that generally, we find this sort of claim a little boring. With a healthy dose of cultural self-critique we can all say with a shrug rather than a wince—“of course we don’t know everything about everything or even everything about your particular academic fetish.” This sort of self-awareness encourages the people who study comics and religion to analyze ideology—even the ideology of their own work.

Moreover, while in other animals, the eyes are so planted as imperceptibly to blend their visual power, so as to produce one picture and not two to the brain; the peculiar position of the whale’s eyes, effectually divided by many cubic feet of solid head, which towers between them, a great mountain separating two lakes in valleys; this, of course, must wholly separate the impressions which each independent organ imparts. The whale, therefore, must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side; while all between must be profound darkness and nothingness to him.

The Tepid Tears of Moby-Dick by Angela

The religion and comics disciplines and subjects are maddening miles apart; like whale eyes, they produce two different pictures in the brain. Religion has its conservative elements and real people practicing it to understand; the stakes are bewilderingly high every time you speak about your subject. Yet, we also have to defend the study of religion regularly. Comics are struggling for legitimacy, too, but in a different way. I don’t think I have to argue with you that these two things are different. There is a vast glob of things between that we hold between the two; I flatter myself that it’s not quite “profound darkness and nothingness.” But, here’s where trying to do two things at once pays off. Back to Melville:

Nevertheless, any one’s experience will teach him, that though he can take in an undiscriminating sweep of things at one glance, it is quite impossible for him, attentively, and completely, to examine any two things – however large or however small – at one and the same instant of time; never mind if they lie side by side and touch each other. But if you now come to separate these two objects, and surround each by a circle of profound darkness; then, in order to see one of them, in such a manner as to bring your mind to bear on it, the other will be utterly excluded from your contemporary consciousness.

Here’s Melville’s argument about why this sort of comics and religion work might be impossible. Some days, it feels this way. You pay attention to the activity of religion in the plot, but lose sight of the way the art works to emphasize something else. Or finally find a delicate way to talk about a panel and lose track of a religious concept in your paper. Is it possible? Maybe, if we think like whales:

How is it, then, with the whale? True, both his eyes, in themselves, must simultaneously act; but is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining, and subtle than man’s, that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction? If he can, then is it as marvellous a thing in him, as if a man were able simultaneously to go through the demonstrations of two distinct problems in Euclid.

When I say that my comics and religion people are whales and claim that they are just more “comprehensive, combining, and subtle” I want you to hear the awe in my voice. I love my comics and religion people—and often I watch them work with the same wonder as if I were seeing simultaneous geometry problems. It is quite marvelous—as Melville says. I won’t say that comics and religion or sacred text are “opposite” studies; the similarities feed each other. But, the comparisons never stop teaching me something new.

Nemo's dad, Dory, and the whale from Finding Nemo
I can’t wait for even more disciplines to find comics and work with them. (Also, I love whales.)
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Elizabeth Coody

Elizabeth Coody

Elizabeth has a PhD in religion and a snarky sense of humor. She writes about religion(s), comics, and the Bible and can be tweeted @ecoody and tumblr'd /ecoody. She posts pictures of food she makes only slightly ironically.