Culture At Large

Pop Culture Primer: Graphic Novels

Bill Boerman-Cornell

Each art form offers us a new way to see the world. Painting, photography, dance, music, poetry, novels—all reveal different parts of God’s universe and how humans fit into it. Graphic novels combine both illustration and writing to tell a story that is at once both image and word-driven. From facial expressions to maps and narration to speech bubbles, image and word combine to uniquely capture not only the brokenness of the world, but also the ways that grace shines through that brokenness. The titles I’ve chosen to highlight offer new ways to see, think critically, and live into God’s forgiveness, justice, and love. Some raise more questions than they answer. Some serve as a jumping-off point for discussion. Others will simply touch you deeply, as the best art should.

5. A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel (Hope Larson, 2012)

One of my favorite childhood books was Madeleine L'Engle’s science-fiction fantasy A Wrinkle in Time. However, even as a grade-school boy, I remember wishing L’Engle had more clearly developed the world of her story, in which Meg, a 13-year-old girl, leads her younger brother and a friend on a search for her missing scientist father. With her 2012 graphic-novel adaptation, Hope Larson not only brings L’Engle’s story to visual life, she also honors its original spirit.

At one point in the novel, Meg is wavering over how she can rescue her brother, who has been trapped on a dangerous shadow planet. Terrified and in tears, she says, “I can’t go. I can’t. You know I can’t.” One of the guardian angel-like beings who accompanies her asks, “Did anybody ask you to?” The following panels chart her indecision, depicting her fear, anger, and anguish, until she catches her breath and says, “All right. I’ll go. I know you want me to.” The angelic being responds, “We want nothing from you that you do without grace or that you do without understanding.”

Grace and understanding. Both qualities of God’s love are depicted in Meg’s love for her family, as well as the sacrifices she is willing to make on their behalf. A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel reminds me of the God who so loves us. I don’t think that L’Engle intended A Wrinkle in Time to be an allegory the way C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books are, yet I see anew in the illustrious detail of Larson’s graphic novel adaption the unmistakable image of God in Meg’s stubborn love.

4. The Eternal Smile (Gene Yang and Derek Kirk, 2009)

This graphic novel is a collection of three short stories, all dealing with questions of how virtual and actual reality interact. Collectively the stories of The Eternal Smile ask whether our responsibility toward others in the real world should take precedence over our desire to enjoy ourselves in a virtual one.

The graphic novel’s title comes from the second story, “Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile,” which is rendered in a cartoonish style for reasons that are quickly revealed. We’re introduced to Gran’pa Greenbax, a stingy millionaire frog who founds the Church of the Eternal Smile as a way of bilking innocent people out of their money. One day he kills someone in a fit of anger, after which the sky opens up and a hand reaches in and grabs him. Gran’pa Greenbax learns he exists as part of a 24-hour cartoon television network. When the owner of the company makes him an offer he cannot refuse, Gran’pa Greenbax must choose between living in a fake world, where he can indulge his greed, or in a real world that offers only the cool water of a pond.

With virtual-reality technology, the temptation to create our own personal Edens is perhaps stronger than ever. Yet that would mean living in denial of both the good (if marred by sin) world God has created and the new creation he has promised. Through their evocative images and clever words, Yang and Kirk expose such instant gratification as a self-indulgent trap. Much like James 5:1-6, which condemns the hoarding of wealth for our own pleasure, The Eternal Smile is a prophetic word of warning against the temptation of designer lives.

The temptation to create our own personal Edens is perhaps stronger than ever.

3. Mighty Jack (Ben Hatke, 2016)

Mighty Jack, a play on the Jack and the Beanstalk legend, is a book for kids, but Ben Hatke’s masterful use of panels, his colorful and action-packed drawing style, and his excellent ability to tell a story with dialogue will appeal to adult readers as well. What’s even more engaging is the way Hatke’s story comes back to the theme of forgiveness again and again.

Young Jack’s life is not easy. His single mom has to work two jobs to keep up with the bills; it falls to Jack to look after his sister Maddy, who has autism. While at the flea market one day, Jack impulsively trades his mom’s car keys for a case of strange seeds. When Jack’s mom finds out, she is angry. Jack tries to explain but then stops and simply says, with tears in his eyes, “I am so sorry.” Jack’s mom embraces him, an image that is repeated for two panels. On the last panel on the page, she tells Jack, “We’ll be alright.”

There are other instances and images of forgiveness throughout Mighty Jack. They resonate because we recognize them—not so much as a variation on the forgiveness God extends to us, but as the imperfect sort we grant to each other. This sort of forgiveness is messy and incomplete and doesn’t always make sense or make us feel better. It is the down-and-dirty work of being a broken human trying to engage in a divine task.

To be clear, Mighty Jack is not contrived to highlight moments of forgiveness. Rather, they happen in the midst of a story that also features giant monster snails, plants that throw mud, plants that explode, and plants whose fruits and vegetables enable kids to jump a mile in the air. One of the visual highlights is the two-page spread of kids flying against a blue sky, an exuberant smile on their faces. The combination of moving words and electrifying images brings you so completely into Jack’s world that you feel as if you’ve left your own.

2. The Tale of One Bad Rat (Bryan Talbot, 1995)

At the start of The Tale of One Bad Rat, runaway Helen Potter is sitting on the floor of a train station. She stands up and leaps into the path of an oncoming train. On the next page, she is sitting on the floor of the station again, talking to her pet rat. She imagined her suicide but did not act on it. This dramatic dream sequence works well for a story that begins in abuse, but moves toward healing.

After drifting through London and escaping various dangerous situations, Helen eventually hitchhikes to England’s Lake District, where she gets a job working for Mr. and Mrs. McGregor, who own a bed and breakfast. After the three of them survive a particularly busy weekend, the grandfatherly owner gives his wife a hug and beckons for Helen to join them. When she finds herself unable to open herself to their love, she realizes she must come to terms with her past and confront her abusive father.

As you may have already guessed from the characters’ names, The Tale of One Bad Rat is styled after a Beatrix Potter book; the soft colors and occasionally flowery script nicely contrast with the desperation of Helen’s situation. Another nod to Potter is the drawing of the face of a predatory man on the London streets, which changes suddenly to that of a hungry-looking fox.

As Helen moves toward restoration near the novel’s end, the beautiful hills and valleys of the Lake District, with their rolling lines and soft colors, suggest healing and peace. The Tale of One Bad Rat starkly acknowledges the brokenness of the world, while also offering the hope of redemption within it, as a girl who once considered herself lost and worthless comes to know real love.

The Tale of One Bad Rat begins in abuse, but moves toward healing.

1. March: Book I, Book II, Book III (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell; 2013-2016)

This graphic memoir of Civil Rights activist and current U.S. Representative John Lewis is both unrelenting in the ways it forces us to see the sin of racism, yet also persistent in its use of the Bible as a moral anchor. And while the theme of grace is not always in the forefront, it is a thread woven through the work, especially visible when major victories, like the Voting Rights Act, are marked.

March: Book I shows a 5-year-old John Lewis sitting on a porch, reading the Bible. The words of the verse—“Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.”—are cast upon Lewis’ form as he sits in the early morning light.

In March: Book II, Lewis is a college student participating in a sit-in when the owner of the lunch counter closes up shop, turns off the lights, and throws a fumigation bomb into the restaurant, locking the door behind him. In the two-page spread that follows, Lewis, his face barely visible in the dark clouds of poison, says, “…and whoever falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” At the same time, a text panel to the side reveals Lewis’ thoughts: “At first I couldn’t believe that man could have left us to die.” Then lower on the page, as the darkness closes in: “Were we not human to him?”

In March: Book III, after three pages of horizontal panels leading up to the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, the explosion itself covers three quarters of a page with black smoke. In the pages that follow we see a dying, burning woman; a parent searching the rubble for a child; and, finally, two parents’ anguish and anger at finding a dead child. “I’d like to blow the whole town up,” says the father as a single shaft of light through a window illuminates broken support beams. The dark smoke, meanwhile, obscures the mother’s words: “No, no, no.”

The March books raise important questions for believers to consider. What responsibilities do Christians (or any citizen) have to fight against injustice? How do we support order and stability (in the form of the government) and at the same time engage in civil disobedience? What is a Christian’s responsibility toward a law that is unjust? Can a person love God and hate his or her brother or sister? The March books demand honest answers to these questions, even as they honor a lifetime of service in the face of injustice.

Editor’s note: You can download the entire Pop Culture Primer ebook here.

Topics: Culture At Large