Joshua, the latest biblical book in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series by Simon Amadeus Pillario, has been released today. You can order a copy here. I’m excited to offer this review. (Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid biblical consultant to the project. Images in this post are reproduced with permission.)
First, I’m very pleased by the historical and cultural accuracy of the presentation found once again in Joshua. This is a hallmark of the series. As I said three years ago in my very first post about this project, “Bare printed texts . . . 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.” The Word-for-Word series corrects this by presenting visual images based on painstakingly careful research into the findings of biblical archaeology.
For example, when Joshua commands the Israelites to carry large stones out of the Jordan and set them up at Gilgal, the comic depicts these stones being arranged in a circle. While the biblical text doesn’t say explicitly that this was how they were placed, that’s suggested by the name Gilgal, and we know that people did make “stone circles” at this point in history.
The comic also corrects a wrong visual impression we may have about what happened when the walls of Jericho “fell flat.” It shows them collapsing straight down into rubble, instead of falling forward intact like dominoes.
Along the same lines, in the episode where the casting of lots reveals Achan as the party responsible for stealing from the spoils from Jericho, the biblical text says that Joshua “brought Israel near by their tribes.” The comic shows shows only the tribal leaders coming forward at that point. And only the clan leaders assemble when Joshua next “brings near the families” of Judah. Readers of the text (myself included) may have thought that Joshua brought forward many thousands of people at a time in this episode, but this depiction makes much better sense and suits the practices of the culture.
I’m also impressed by the way this next volume once again uses a very creative presentation to pull off a transformation in genre. It draws on all of the conventions available within a graphic novel to bring a literary text to life visually.
This is particularly effective in places where the narrator speaks at length and there is little dialogue between the characters. In one such place, the comic portrays Jabin of Hazor thinking of and listing off the kings he wants in his coalition, keeping track on his fingers and pausing to think of more names, instead of just putting the list of kings in a long sidebar of written text. Similarly, the narration flows directly into Adoni-Zedek’s thoughts as he considers whether to oppose Joshua: “Gibeon was a great city . . .” And when the narrative quotes from the Book of Jashar, that book appears in the panel as a scroll, bearing the text quoted.
The comic even transcends its own genre in some places where the panels themselves seem to join in the action. In the battle against the enemy coalition led by Adoni-Zedek, when Yahweh “confuses” their forces, the panels are placed in every direction on the page, even upside down. With similar creativity, only a single image of the Israelites marching is needed to depict them circling Jericho seven times, because the image is sliced into seven frames. This is one comic that isn’t just a succession of rectangular boxes.
One of the things I find most powerful is the way that the comic uses its visual powers to show that later parts of the biblical story are always lived in light of the earlier parts of the story. As Caleb tells Joshua that he’s just as fit for battle at 85 as he was when he was 40, an image is shown in the background of Caleb as a young warrior leaping into a fight. He’s recognizably the same person, but his beard and hair are black, instead of white as in the foreground. This is how Caleb is seeing himself as he speaks. Similarly, as Joshua recounts Israel’s earlier story to encourage the people to renew their covenant with Yahweh, that story is illustrated in luminous background images.
Beyond this, I find the imaginative viewpoints from which the artist chooses to depict the action simply delightful. The dawn scene at start of the second attack on Ai is viewed from the angle of a bird in a tree. As the Gibeonites are producing faked evidence that they’ve traveled a long way, Joshua’s skeptical face is seen through a hole in the bottom of one of their worn-out shoes!
These imaginative viewpoints can also bring out powerful truths from the text. When the Israelites remove the stones from the mouth of the cave in which they’ve trapped five enemy kings, the artist portrays this action from inside the cave. There’s an amazing scene of the five kings hiding their eyes from the bright, unaccustomed light that is breaking in on them. Of course this happened literally, but it’s also eloquently symbolic.
The Joshua volume includes various kinds of maps that are all used for good effect. There are small inset maps that show where the Israelites are going as they move from place to place, or that trace the action in battles. I’ve often thought that the middle part of the book, in which the land is divided among the tribes, would be best presented through maps, and that’s what’s done here. When the narrative lists all the cities the Israelites conquered, a helpful map of those is offered as well.
Joshua is admittedly a difficult book in many places because of the slaughters it reports. The comic presents this violence unflinchingly but not gratuitously. It discreetly lets the narrative carry the story in places where a full depiction would be very disturbing visually. (Like other volumes in the series, this one carries a 15+ warning, i.e. it’s designed for readers who are at least 15 years old.)
Let me conclude by quoting the overall reaction I shared with the artist after reviewing the volume as his biblical consultant: “The artwork and fidelity to historical detail are simply amazing. I feel as if I’m right in the middle of the action. Every panel has interesting things to see and learn from. I’d love to teach a study on Joshua sometime using this as the text!” I heartily recommend Joshua in the Word-for-Word Bible Comic series.