Can a graphic novel presentation of Scripture still be the Bible? (In this case, yes.)

In this panel from the Word For Word Bible Comic, Samson repulses the Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon.
In this panel from Word For Word Bible Comics, Samson repulses the Philistines using the jawbone of a donkey as his only weapon.

In a recent post, taking up an example offered by Christianity Today, I asked, “If you put the Bible in a flow chart, is it still the Bible?”  I argued that the particular flow chart in question, which presented the biblical laws about oxen, was not the Bible because:
(1) It was not just the Bible—it added explanation and interpretation;
(2) It changed the literary form of the Bible into another form; and
(3) It isolated the laws from their original surroundings, so that the broader principles they taught were lost.

Based on these same criteria, I have to conclude that the remarkable presentation of the Scriptures now taking shape in graphic novel form as The Word for Word Bible Comic is indeed still the Bible.  Let me explain, with the help of some material that the artist behind this project, Simon Amadeus Pillario, sent me after we connected through the Bible Gateway Bloggers Grid

(1) As Pillario explains here on his site, W4W (as I will abbreviate the name) presents the entire verbal text of the Bible, with nothing omitted.  Even narrative explanations that are not essential when the story is presented visually are still included, though in gray at the bottom of the panel.  The only added “words” are sound effects, such as a lion’s roar.

By contrast, other illustrated presentations of the Bible typically add imagined events and dialogue.  For example, midway through the story of Samson (the story that W4W is starting with), one previous presentation reads this way:

Narrator: News of Samson’s escape from Gaza spreads through the country. Rulers of Philistine cities are worried and call a meeting.
First Ruler: Samson must be captured. Let’s put all our armies together.
Second Ruler: I’m not risking my army on Samson. We’ve got to find another way.
Third Ruler: I have an idea!

None of this, of course, is found anywhere in Scripture.  One great strength of W4W is that it will be “just the Bible,” but still the whole Bible, in terms of the words and events depicted.  (Because in places the Bible can present scenes that are violent and “adult-themed,” W4W comes with a parental advisory, explaining that “parents and guardians should be aware of the strong content of the Bible” and that “this comic will only be suitable for readers over the age of 15.”)

(2)  But what about not changing the literary form of the Bible?  How can a historical narrative reworked into a comic book still be the same thing?

We need to recognize that the original form of the Bible was not written, but oral.  And oral storytellers would inevitably add their own “illustrations” to the material they were reciting, in the form of gestures, facial expressions, changes in intonation, etc. W4W is, in effect, a recitation of the story of the Bible with corresponding “illustrations” that just happen to be drawn pictures instead of gestures.

I realize there’s a fine line here.  But I would argue that W4W is not really a “comic book” in genre, which would be the case if it portrayed Samson like a superhero (more about this below) and if it adopted conventional comic-book stereotypes when it came to characterization, dialogue, and even things like coloration.  What I see as I read it is an attempt to represent the Scriptures accurately and faithfully, so that they provide the governing conventions.

Indeed, one might argue that W4W is actually a more authentic presentation of the Bible than our bare printed texts, which invite us to fill a visual vacuum by supplying pictures in our own imagination of people and events. We tend to do this as if they happened in our own time and place, or else in a generic “Bible world” where nothing really changes culturally from Abraham to Paul. W4W instead brings the reader very authentically back into the specific cultural world in which each story originated, through careful archaeological research.

For example, as Pillario demonstrates on this page, the Samson story depicts the specific pottery, clothing, footwear, headgear, etc. of that story’s place and time.  Other material the artist has sent me shows how he has authentically reproduced the armor of the Philistines in this period, right down to documented colors, instead of dressing them like Roman soldiers, as other illustrated Bibles have done.  He even follows the shift from four-spoked wagon wheels to six-spoked wheels when that occurs historically!

(3)  Finally, what about not isolating biblical material from the larger themes it would teach if encountered in context?  For me, one of the greatest strengths of W4W is that it carefully brings out these themes.

For example, in other illustrated presentations, Samson is typically drawn as if he had the physique of a bodybuilder, as in this depiction in an older book of his fight with the lion:

But as Pillario observes, if this is what Samson really looked like, there would have been no need for the Philistine lords to try to discover the “secret of his great strength.”  That would have been obvious: he had great strength because he had huge muscles.  W4W instead depicts Samson as the ordinary looking man he was (compare his physique in the panel at the top of this post), showing that he had great strength only because the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.  This  is an essential theological theme of the book of Judges: ordinary, weak, even flawed people become instruments of God through the power of the Spirit.  In cases like this the artistic depiction in W4W supports, rather than undermines, the larger theological themes of the Bible.

However, in the end, the most important question here may not be, “Is this graphic novel still ‘the Bible’?”  That question could admittedly be answered in different ways, depending on the criteria chosen. Instead, the right question is simply, “Is this an approach worth checking out?”  And I’d say it definitely is.  I think it will set a new standard for accuracy and fidelity in illustrated presentations of the Bible.

Have a look for yourself and see.  The artist has just launched a campaign through Kickstarter to raise money for the next phase of the project, a full graphic novel of the book of Judges.  On this page you will find a video version of the Samson story along with detailed information about each of the design principles behind W4W, which I have described only briefly here. You may find that you want to help him along with a pledge, as I have.  But even if you don’t, what he’s doing is definitely worth seeing.  Check it out.


Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

6 thoughts on “Can a graphic novel presentation of Scripture still be the Bible? (In this case, yes.)”

  1. Your question is one question to ask and is a good one to ask.

    I ask an additional question: Does it aid my understanding of Scripture? Or might it possibly mislead? My answer for both the OX chart and the graphic novel is that I think both aid my understanding, my expectation/experience is that I learned things from both of them. So I see both as study aids.

    The question about possibly misleading one is a tougher nut. But there are some obvious examples where text is taken out of context which can then mislead.

      1. I was not referring specifically to either of them, just in general. I think both are helpful in different ways.

        I do know that the ox chart is not only relevant to oxen, per Paul, rather it is about minimum standards of treating any being with a nephesh/soul, including people, the ox is just a specific example of such a being, and that this is an example of case law by example.

        There are lots of ways to take some text out of context, just miss something that is relevant to the context. It could be taking text out from its teaching unit (pericope) or neglecting to see some relevant text in other Scripture or misunderstanding an idiomatic phrase or technical term or not seeing the literary structure, as examples. And I have done all of these mistakes, but as I learn more I try to do better.

      2. I agree–in my post about the oxen flow chart I quoted Paul who said, “Is it (only) about oxen that God is concerned?” We need to see the wider implications and as you say not overlook or misunderstand anything.

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