Sacred Intertextuality in Comics: Claims of Medium through Visual Retellings of Scripture

Scriptural narratives are widespread literary tropes. From rabbinic aggadah to Steinbeck’s East of Eden, stories of scripture appear in diverse, creative forms throughout literary history. The graphic novel genre complicates this long tradition of sacred intertextuality, challenging literary conventions of scriptural narrative interpretation. By comparing and contrasting the methods of scriptural adaptation in Neil Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament and JT Waldman’s Megillat Esther, we will uncover the unique role of imagery in rendering scriptural stories. Both authors approach scripture by manipulating the relationships between text, image, and source narrative. Gaiman and Waldman harness the potency of scripture to make strong claims about the notion of sacredness and its connection to, or divergence from, comics as a medium.

Outrageous Tales and Megillat Esther contribute something new to the literary legacy of rewriting narratives from scripture, and the authors achieve this innovation by harnessing the power of the visual in relation to the adapted text. Through iconic imagery and caricature, Gaiman empties the scriptural source narrative of any literary depth and frankly confronts the reader with the insistence of unapologetic violence. Such emphatic violence and gore are found on pages 27-28 in Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. On these two pages alone, the image of the tent pin sticking into Sisera’s bloody head appears eight separate times, which exemplifies the author’s persistence of exaggerated brutality. The drawings are not intricate or detailed, and the panels lack a descriptive visual setting. Instead, the iconic style draws attention only to blood, violence, and gore. Blood gushes from Sisera’s head, his curly shoulder hairs fill almost a full quarter of page 27, and Jael’s tongue drips saliva as she swings the decapitated head in the air on page 28. By caricaturizing violence through such iconic imagery, Gaiman highlights the baseness of the scriptural story he retells. The shock of seeing such straightforward, overdramatized bloodshed is immediate and direct, without literary nuance, subtlety, or insinuation. In an interview with Martin Rowson, Gaiman speaks to the ability of comics to best evoke disgust due to the “capacity for offence that an image can give” (4). For Gaiman, the image is a tool of provoking an unadulterated, unmediated response from the reader, of cutting through “high brow” literary conventions like symbolism and communicating the p’shat version, the most surface-level story, which can only be achieved through this “offense that an image can give” (4).

By exaggerating images of violence, Outrageous Tales iterates the status of comics as a “gutter” medium. According to Gaiman, the power of the visual to offend is the unique capacity of comics that creates a distinct role of the reader in comparison to conventional literature. He explains in the interview,

“Comics are a target in a way that literature cannot be a target because the truth is you can grumble about Hilary Mantel’s short story, but in order to have an opinion on it you have to read the story. But the act of reading the story is going to change you… And it is an act that is considered, it has to take days, it takes time. The act of shocking people or upsetting people or rabblerousing people about an image is as simple as showing them an image or a portion of the image” (4-5).

The caricature of violence in Outrageous Tales is exemplary of comics’ special capability for fast, direct, unadulterated response from the reader through shock and offense. On the bottom of page 24, Shmagar stands upon a mountain of corpses, a knife protruding from his side. Limbs stick out from the pile, and silhouettes of severed arms and legs litter the skyline. Removed from its context, independent of the text or the source narrative, this image would still maintain its ability to shock and offend. The reader does not need to take time or effort to interpret the nuances or symbolism, like one would do for a poem or short story depicting the same scene. By choosing to retell narratives from scripture, which possesses a full tradition of literary interpretation and exegesis, Gaiman even further exaggerates the comics’ ability, as a lowbrow medium, to penetrate and empty layers of literary depth with the immediate provocation of the image. The distance between cryptic, symbolic scriptural literature and sensational cartoons is dissolved through this visual emphasis on violence. Employing iconic style and gory caricature to shock and offend, Gaiman demotes scripture and pulls it into the home of the comic, the gutter. In this way, the author adapts scriptural narrative with a visual insistence on violence to assert the base position of comics as a gutter medium.

JT Waldman offers a very different graphic novel, one that employs imagery to elevate the comic medium to the stature of highbrow literature. An examination into the design style and the complex visual narratives of Megillat Esther will uncover the author’s construction of layered symbolic meaning and artistic prestige through rich and intricate imagery. Page 63 provides an important example of the detailed and profound imagery found throughout Waldman’s book. On this page, we see Haman walking past Jews who bow down to him in the top horizontal panel. This rectangular panel is literally interrupted by a sharp diagonal panel, in which a bowing Jew interrupts Haman’s walk to point out Mordacai, who refuses to bow. Already, one notices the symbolic intention behind Waldman’s composition. The horizontal panel that evokes Haman’s horizontal trajectory is cut short by a severe vertical panel, echoing the interruption that takes place in the story. In each of the three vertical panels that comprise the bottom section of the page, the images take on a different perspective—next to, behind, and directly in front of Haman. The dark, thick, straight, black lines depicting Haman on the left contrast greatly with the light, thin, crooked lines depicting Haman on the right, indicating Haman’s emotional transformation with his reaction to Mordecai’s protest. Waldman’s unique and deliberate composition of the page, complex visual perspective, symbolic variation of style, and intricate detail serve to deepen the layers of meaning in the graphic novel’s imagery. In contrast to the shocking images of caricaturized violence in Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales, which communicate with the reader in an immediate and surface way, Waldman’s rich imagery implores the reader to indulge in more weighty interpretation of authorial intent, character psyche, and religious symbolism.

This constructed literary depth is also evident in the visual “subplots” that occur throughout the book. As one example on page 84, Waldman inserts small, cryptic images of a parallel narrative on the two bottom corners of many pages. On this page, we see Bezalel and Joshua, whose figures take on great abstraction and whose story remains completely visual, aside from their names and a short footnote at the end of the work. In an interview with Yoav Fisher, Waldman comments on these visual subplots,

“The Midrashic subplots are intended to add layers of depth and context to the Book of Esther… I wanted there to be some mystery to my interpretation and not have everything be on the nose. The subplots manifest the mystique of the work.”

In these subplots, Waldman inserts allusions to other texts from scripture and makes literary claims about the central characters and plot by drawing these external connections. The fact that the subplots are almost entirely visual, without textual explanation, only augments the “mystique” of the story’s meaning by inhibiting any definite conclusion on authorial interpretation. By adding this supplementary stratum of visual narrative, Waldman challenges Gaiman’s assertion that comic images do not require effortful interpretation.

While Outrageous Tales minimizes the role of the reader by relying on the immediacy of comics through unfiltered images of violence, Megillat Esther expands the investigative, interpretive work of the reader through enigmatic, detailed, and symbolic imagery. Much of Waldman’s style echoes the techniques of art nouveau, with decorative intricacies, linear patterns, and flowing curves. Page 112 illustrates how the author fills up almost all white space with full, complicated images. The top left panel shows the king’s head twice. His beard is comprised of tiny repeated swirls, his mustache of small lines, and his hair of dark patterned curls. The background of the panel is filled with thick, sharp zigzags that signal the king’s emotion. In his reference to the cannon of art nouveau, Waldman asserts his artistic credibility and prestige. In other words, his comics do not belong in the gutter. In this way, the details and intricacies of Waldman’s artistic style require the time and consideration that Gaiman attributes to highbrow literature.

Page 9 is another moment that necessitates effortful reading. The page is filled with more than one hundred panels, each with complex details that fill up almost all of the white space within them. The page turns into a panel itself, bursting with so many images that it is basically impossible to process, which embodies the “richness of his kingdom” introduced on the former page (8). While it is an instinct to look closely at each small picture, one must actually look more generally at the entire page to find the hidden Hebrew and English words (“eighty hundred days”) constructed by the negative space between the many panels. This page exemplifies Waldman’s achievement in elevating the notion of “iconic solidarity” to its full potential. In his essay “The Impossible Definition,” Thierry Groensteen defines iconic solidarity as “interdependent images that, participating in a series, present the double characteristic of being separated … and which are plastically and semantically overdetermined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia (128). As page 9 in Megillat Esther demonstrates, Waldman employs iconic solidarity as yet another layer of complexity in his imagery. Not only do readers need to investigate and analyze the small details of his drawings, but they also must synthesize the page composition as whole. Even the book, as a bigger whole, must be grappled with – Waldman forces the readers to physically flip the entire book at page 92. This flip is simply implied; the reader is surprisingly confronted by words and images that appear to be upside down and backwards. In addition to the physical involvement of the reader in the book’s materiality, the flip also asks the reader to conceptualize the flip (a whole new level of iconic solidarity!) and to ponder its meaning. By pushing his use of iconic solidarity to such an extreme, Waldman challenges the reader to synthesize all of the intricate visual elements of his work. As this analysis reveals, the visual components of Megillat Esther operate to elevate the comic medium far above the gutter and into the realm of symbolic, cryptic, and challenging literature, implicating the reader both physically and intellectually.

An analysis of these two works in dialogue would be unfinished without considering the role of text, its relationship with image, and its connection to scripture. Both authors represent text with important differences that contribute to their diverging claims about the status of comics and the sacredness of textual scriptural tradition. The relationship between Outrageous Tales and its source text, the Old Testament, is expressed through the comic’s narrative techniques, representation of text with image, and reliance on the integration of visual and verbal satire. A core component of Gaiman’s retelling of scripture is the “Old Bible Keeper” character, who narrates the Book of the Judges (23). Wearing an eerie cloak, he smiles hauntingly through sharp teeth while holding a huge, menacing book labeled “BIBLE” in his boney hands. Cyril Camus details that the Bible Keeper is “an obvious allusion to the Crypt Keeper, who was the host of EC’s Tales from the Crypt, and probably the most famous comic-book-horror-host ever” (86). This allusion likens the ostensibly sacred Book of Judges to gory horror comics. In fact, as the possessor of the textual scripture tradition in Outrageous Tales, the Bible Keeper is a salient figure of the lowliest comic world, which relies heavily on stories and images of sensationalist violence. This reference to comic horror stories stands in stark contrast with Waldman’s reference to the highbrow art nouveau style.

In addition to the Book Keeper, Outrageous Tales is rife with irony, satire, and trivialization that are manifested in the relationships between text, image, and scripture itself. In many moments throughout the anthology, text takes on a visual quality that mimics the surface-level immediacy of comic image that Gaiman’s style embraces and embodies. Page 21 provides a poignant example of this method of presenting text. Here, readers are confronted with thick, large, animated words of violence, including, “Hack,” “Chop,” “Cut,” “Stab,” and “Slice”(21). These shocking words are incorporated into the image itself, appearing as the foundation below dead bodies, a screaming dog and boy, and unattached limbs. The reader needs to look twice to even notice the small character in the top left of these panels, who reads the words of scripture describing who must be killed—“Women who lie with animals… Men who lie with their sisters…” (21). The font from the scriptural source text is much smaller than the loud, animated words of violence. By emphasizing the gruesome, shocking words with a conventional comic font over the quotations from the source text, Gaiman compresses the scriptural narrative in order to, as Camus suggests, “make it as clear as possible the tyrannous absurdity, from the point of view of a modern outsider, of Yahweh’s behavior” in scripture (85). Gaiman is willing to overrun the quotations from scripture with his p’shat interpretation of the story’s bottom line – violence. As this page illustrates, Gaiman utilizes the depiction of text to assert the magnitude of violence in scripture.

The connections between word, image, and retelling in Outrageous Tales work to bring scripture and sacredness down into the gutter with the comic medium. On page 31, all of the narrated text is presented on the image of a scroll, a symbol of the religious textual tradition. This scriptural text on the scroll, loyal to its source, contrasts greatly with the more casual, humorous dialogue in the speech bubbles. But more striking is the positioning of these scrolls of scriptural text next to the gruesome, iconic image of a human sacrifice. Blood gushes from the daughter’s neck, and the priest aligns her chopped body parts on the altar. All of these actions are not literally spelled out in the source text, but Gaiman highlights the implicit violence of scripture’s story by imposing the text onto the graphic, shocking images that, according to Gaiman, are comics’ greatest power. In this unique relationship between text and image, Outrageous Tales asserts a profound link between scripture, a sacred literary tradition, and comics, the gutter medium. The connecting tissue between these seemingly opposite worlds, Gaiman illustrates, is violence. In this anthology of scripture’s gruesome “horror stories,” Gaiman highlights and caricaturizes violence in the narratives and ultimately drags scripture down into the gutter as well.

A final analysis of the duality of text and image in Outrageous Tales must turn to the story “The Prophet Who Came to Dinner.” This comic stands out in its uniquely highbrow drawing style, with sketches, contour, and perspective. But the text in this comic preserves the lowbrow quality of comics, with satirical colloquialisms, casual dialogue, and funny trivialities. Camus identifies the strong result of this contrast:

“The effect of this incongruousness is quite funny, in a way that clearly pertains to desacralization (especially as the condition of a prophet is referred to very casually, as if it were no more than a common trade” (90).

Through this contrast between text and image, Gaiman achieves satirical irony that undermines the seriousness of the source narrative. In doing so, Outrageous Tales “domesticates the myth” of scriptural tradition and “trivializes the sacredness” of these sanctified narratives (Camus, 90). In effect, Gaiman dismantles the infrastructure of theological and literary sentiment that elevates scripture. He asserts and proves the comic’s capacity to pull scripture into the gutter by highlighting violence and trivializing sacredness through caricature, satire, and the relationship between text and image.

Waldman’s manipulation of the source text in Megillat Esther offers an entirely different presentation of the interactions between text, image, and sacredness. Waldman’s method employs the Hebrew source text as a symbolic and functional component of the graphic novel’s visual composition. Relatedly, W.J.T. Mitchell describes the tendency for comics to challenge the distinction between text and image by reframing the notion of “pure” media. “Writing, in its physical, graphic form,” he writes, “is an inseparable suturing of the visual and the verbal, the ‘imagetext’ incarnate” (118). A manifestation of this phenomenon occurs on page 88 of Megillat Esther, where Gaiman prints the Hebrew word “Haman” in thick, dramatic, stylized letters in the very center of the page. The lettering morphs together with the intense close up of Haman’s eyes. The rest of the Hebrew text follows the angular composition of his face, connected by his angry wrinkles that turn into firey decoration above the words. The pictorial quality of the text embodies the same powerful symbolism as the images on the page, and the boundary demarcating these two elements softens. The combined effect of this intimate relationship between text and image is the clear illustration of Haman’s intimidating evilness. In this fashion, Waldman employs “imagetext” to expound the literary and artistic depth of his retelling.

Waldman also crafts the composition of the text into shapes and patterns that contribute to the overall visual impression of the page. Unlike Gaiman’s reliance on the traditional comic panel, grid, and speech bubble, Waldman fills his pages with diverse designs of pictorial text and image. For example, the Hebrew text on page 90 is shaped like a swirling tornado. At the bottom of this tornado stands Haman. The visual depiction of the text reflects the emotional narrative – at this moment, Haman’s world swirls before him. On the top left of the page, he laughs happily with the king and queen. But on the right, he cries in anguish about his anger over Mordecai. This is also the moment right before the book flips, right before the Haman’s power is overturned. By endowing the source text with this visual quality, Waldman imbues deep narrative foreshadowing and emotional symbolism into the textual imagery.

Another significant difference between Outrageous Tales and Megillat Esther is their method of adapting the text from the scriptural narrative. Outrageous Tales rarely cites directly from scripture. When it does, only certain quotes are included, and they are often overshadowed by caricaturized words and images of violence. The narratives in Gaiman’s work are recited through crass colloquialisms, humorous satire, and ironic puns. In great contrast, Waldman preserves the original source text in its original language. The Hebrew text from the Book of Esther is only manipulated in its visual representation. By conserving the original text so exactly, Waldman nods to the credible sacredness of scripture. This acknowledgment of the text’s sacredness is at odds with Gaiman’s trivialization of the unquestioned holiness of scripture. In fact, Waldman imitates rabbinic midrash by quoting the scripture and then presenting his own interpretation, which takes both visual and textual form. The English translation in Megillat Esther, which usually appears in much smaller font, takes on a more comic-like, causal style, often enclosed in speech bubbles. By embedding the comic-style English text into the artistic, dramatic, and preserved Hebrew text, Waldman elevates the comic genre to the highbrow status of the scriptural literary tradition.

Waldman bolsters this elevation by creating an entire library of sacred text within his graphic novel. The pages are spotted with the image of the lotus, which works as a footnote to an expansive description of intertextual allusions. This insertion of extratextual tradition adds yet another layer to expound in one’s investigative reading. Waldman labels all of his references to external sacred texts, even if these references are only visual. Waldman himself spells out his intention for these citations at the end of the book:

“The tradition of citing sources has remained a continuous and integral aspect of rabbinic study for centuries. The inclusion of the rabbinic sources within Megillat Esther locates this book within the framework of rabbinic literature” (157).

The last 15 pages of Waldman’s graphic novel include these citations and explain their relevance to the story of Esther. By adopting this rabbinic tradition, Waldman fortifies the claim that Megillat Esther is, in fact, a credible midrash that follows the conventions of this respectable and holy tradition. Clearly, Gaiman’s adaptation of scripture lands at the opposite end of the spectrum. In contrast to Waldman’s efforts to “locate this book within the framework of rabbinic literature,” Gaiman works to locate scriptural narratives in the lowly framework of bloody, offensive comics.

A comparison of Neil Gaiman’s Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament and Waldman’s Megillat Esther reveals the deep divisions between the two adaptions of scripture. Through shocking, caricature images of violence paired with satirical text, Gaiman drags down the sacredness of scripture into the gutter with the comic medium. In doing so, Gaiman utilizes scripture as an instrument to illustrate the power of the comic’s lowly status. Waldman, however, employs complex images, pictorial text, and rabbinic conventions to elevate the comic medium, ultimately asserting his own participation in the sacredness of scriptural tradition. In essence, then, Waldman utilizes comics as an instrument to illustrate the power of scripture’s lofty status. Such a vast distance between the conclusions of Outrageous Tales and Megillat Esther demonstrates the potent productivity residing in the integration of text, image, and scripture within the comic medium.

By Lucille Marshall. Written for Jewish Graphic Novel with Professor Barbara Mann at the Jewish Theological Seminary

Works Cited

Camus, Cyril. “The “Outsider”: Neil Gaiman and the Old Testament.” Shofar Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 29.2 (2011): 77-99. Web.

Gaiman, Neil. “Comics: Unrepentantly in the Gutter?” Interview by Martin Rowson. Pod Academy. Index on Censorship, 12 Dec. 2014. Web. <http://podacademy.org/podcasts/gaiman/&gt;

Gaiman, Neil. Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. London: Knockabout, 1987. Print.

Groensteen, Thierry. “The Impossible Definition.” A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. 124-31. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Beyond Comparison.” A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2009. 116-23. Print.

Waldman, J. T. Megillat Esther. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2005. Print.

Waldman, J.T. “Not Your Average Spiel.” Interview by Yoav Fisher. JBooks.com. New Zionist, Web.

 

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About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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