Before Neil Gaiman became a New York Times best-selling author, he wrote a comic book series called The Sandman. In the course of its 75 issues, which he began in the late 1980s, Gaiman explored issues of depth psychology, the relevance of ancient mythology, the sources of Shakespeare's inspiration, the subtleties of Oriental calligraphy, and the relationship between dreams and death. At its heart, The Sandman series explored the diminishment of faith in the modern world and the need for a reconnection with enchantment in our everyday lives.
Clearly" not the "Biff! Balm! Pow!" comics of an earlier generation.
A new type of comic book has emerged. It's often visually edgy and sensitive to a niche market, and it's reaching new audiences. With this new brand of comic book displayed alongside titles of the large comic publishers in more than 4,000 comic shops nationwide, an aging fan base can find ideas and themes explored in more mature and visually sophisticated ways. Comics now explore issues important to adult readers--in some cases with more violence and sexuality. At the same time, many are more thoughtful and subtle in their storytelling than the traditional comic book. This genre has become so popular that even the publishers of such staples as Superman, Barman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, and Spiderman have created comic lines that mirror this new style. It is in this context that comics have found an audience with which to explore issues of myth, religion, faith, and spirituality.
Prior to a boom in independent comic publishing in the 1980s, religion--especially Christianity--in comic books manifested mostly as evangelistic vehicles, Sunday school material, or maudlin stories of "good" boys and girls versus "bad." They were often sponsored by, denominations or mission societies. It was, as one writer put it, Christian propaganda. At its very worse, it was Chick Tracts--a line of comics infamous for vicious anti-Catholic rhetoric and frightening and sometimes sadistic views of what awaits the "unsaved."
Now there are many small presses dedicated to the creation of comic books with Christian themes. Some are visual representations of storylines similar to those found in the Christian best-seller This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti--muscular, sword-wielding angels doing invisible and dramatic battle against hordes of demons who prey on believers and unbelievers alike. Some, like Pakkins' Land: Paul's Adventure, by Gary and Rhoda Shipman, find inspiration in fantasy with a moral context, along the lines of C.S. Lewis's Narnia tales.
PERHAPS THE MOST obvious use of comics as a religious vehicle is in the telling and translating of biblical stories. There have been "graphic Bibles" around for generations, but now fresh interpretations represent this new type of exploration.
The American Bible Society, a major religious publisher, created Metron Press as an experiment to communicate orthodox issues of faith through a modern means of graphic storytelling. Their most successful effort to date is Testament, a 120-page retelling of some of the Old Testament's most iconic stories by an unlikely religious raconteur--a bartender. The work is produced by 20 of the industry's best-known illustrators and written by Jim Krueger, an author of Marvel Comics" Earth X series (which explores issues of divinity, eternal life, sin, and retribution using the X-Men, the Hulk, Spiderman, and many other of Marvel's main characters). The artistic styles are diverse; some use naturalism and humor, others draw on inspiration ranging from classical art to Oriental history. Some of the artists are practicing Christians; others are not.
Beyond the direct biblical story, some of the most interesting explorations of religious life and faith in comics, such as those in The Sandman, are found in unlikely places.
Will Eisner, who wrote and drew a tongue-in-cheek detective story titled The Spirit during the 1940s for the Sunday funny pages, came back into the field of graphic storytelling in the 1970s after years in commercial art. …