Comic books and the church have grappled in a long love-hate affair for decades, with the scales hovering closer to “hate” most of the time. That sentiment was doubled for religious comic books and tripled for “Christian” ones, as far as those could ever be found – until quite recently.
Writers and artists at some point decided the world was ready for sophisticated, illustrated versions of reality, fantasy and spirituality for Christian readers. Over the last decade they’ve spun out mangas, graphic novels and old-fashioned comic books related in one way or another to the Bible. But would church members ever like or read them?
Imaging the Trinity or the Judgment Seat of Elohim is a highly charged religious activity in any medium. Vicious criticism is expected, and publishers work to offend the fewest possible. Although Christian comics have their critics, a wonderful thing happened on the way to the public stocks – some unexpectedly superb art.
Hands down, the best of the lot so far is Zondervan’s “The Book of Revelation,” listed as a graphic novel and published in 2012. Its 575 panels of stunning art include every word of St. John’s revelatory vision of the end of time, its terrors and promised joys.
Praise and effusive admiration followed “Revelation” artist Chris Koelle. Critics, comic artists, scholars, adults and even 8-years-olds laud how perceptively he captures the mystery and power of the vision. Many readers even claim it helps them to understand the book for the first time.
Some compare Koelle’s art to Gustave Dore, and the effect his illustrations had on making Milton’s complex “Divine Comedy” accessible for posterity. Dore popularized the forbidding work to this day. Although the art is quite different and time will tell, the “Book of Revelation” seems to have that effect on many readers.
The “Revelation” art team shared another challenge with Dore: how to respectfully yet accurately depict a hallucinatory and wildly symbolic vision.
The great painter Turner lectured on their problem before Dore’s time, warning, ”The greatest richness of verse is often the least pictorial.”
As believers they faced a perennially hovering sword. The Apostle’s vision closes with a solemn threat, a curse really, on those who alter its contents in any way. The group took this seriously, retaining every biblical word with no editorial comment or drama – all 404 verses.
Loosely drawn with elegant and tapering inked lines, Koelle’s panels appear as hand drawings or prints of various types. In reality Koelle used mixed media, a combination of hand sketching and photography and finishing with Photoshop or other software. Clarity, rough action and outlines resemble traditional comic drawing but also fine art. Really, there isn’t much of a distinction anymore in the newer graphic novels.
His work is moody and fittingly noire, as the emotional hue of a groaning earth should be. Koelle’s art is more cinematic than contemplative because of the medium, even without added dialogue or sound effects. Without resort to a lot of red paint or gore, Koelle conveys scenes of believable anguish and awe and nightmarish action. They conjure a numinous and transcendent space using tangible, even common creatures and objects. Yet his angels are rough men, almost thugs as they follow in the ferocity of their tasks. This is no simple adventure story and couldn’t have been easy.
The seed of the 192-page book began when film producer Chris Diamantopoulos received a 2004 retranslation of Revelation from two Orthodox Greek priests, Frs. Mark B. Arey and Philemon Sevastiedes. He found adaptor Matt Dorff, who eventually convinced Chris Koelle to create the book.
“Chris is a deeply spiritual Christian, and he knew even more than I did how difficult this would be,” Dorff recalls. “But, I never had a doubt in my mind that, together, we could do it.”
Between a Greek priest, a Hollywood producer and a Christian artist, the results were guaranteed to be at least interesting
Using the hitherto unknown translation melded perfectly with their task. For the biblically literate, the unexpected words cause a reader to stop and ponder what they have seen many times perhaps: “Jesus Pantocrator,” “phials” for bowls and so on.
Stumped by how to illustrate a book that perplexed and frightened almost everyone, they decided the safest and best way to project John’s vision was exactly as he saw it. So John is a major character in the panels rather than a remote bystander. His face reacts in astonishment or awe, and he weeps, swoons and bows before great beings. In one panel John is comforted by Jesus himself.
“I tried to put myself behind John’s eyes and describe in words what he was seeing and hearing,” explained producer Chris Diamantopoulos.
Diamantopoulos’ film and acting background is evident in the pacing and action applied to the original narration. He envisaged their work as “a thrilling fantasy epic, the ultimate good-versus-evil saga, ‘Lord of the Rings’ on steroids.”
Adapter/writer Dorff explained the advantage of their adaption in the book’s notes as a “language of cinema” between the creators and readers. The Book of Revelation is far from sequential or an easy-to-follow story. So it visually transitions between scenes, times or places with images as a film would follow a man’s dream.
Since “Revelation’s” creators faithfully follow the text to the letter, dragons and whores remain dragons and whores, not showing up as Parliaments or anti-popes. This keeps to the original, leading the viewer back to the exact point of wonder St. John felt. Koelle sprinkles just a little artistic glossalia here and there. For instance, Christ the Lamb in one scene is partially human, as is the trans-human lion on the cover of the book.
Most architecture, weaponry and clothing stay true to the Apostle’s era, but there are a few references to falling towers, World War II and such, and they are subtle. Koelle honors a favorite artist Käthe Kollwitz, by a rendition of her “Whetting the Scythe” (see Revelation 14:17). Director Dorff inserted a scene resembling Hitler’s Nazi rallies, noting that the “Romans” represented earthy power and might regardless of the times.
Truly the apocalypse Christ related to John is a prototype of every epic and all visionary literature since. Even nonbelievers sense the superlative nature and finality of the Revelation, as evidenced by constant references in art, music and writing. What can compare to climactic battles between the forces of great good or malevolently evil beings and the end of life as we have always know it?
No script writer can outdo the triumphant return of Christ and the judgment seat of God. Humanity, nature and time itself is redeemed by a supernatural and eternal emperor who ends every tragedy. You can’t just make this up. With a story line this rich, it’s surprising more artists haven’t done more with it.
Do people come to know Christ because of a graphic novel? It’s a definite possibility.
I’m certain most remember the big PR efforts behind the film “The Passion of the Christ” (unless you’re very young). Sobbing penitents graced television screens for months, and spiritually, this was a very good thing. But unlike Hollywood with its great PR machines greased with the hope of huge returns, a book or a painting holds forth on its own. If they affect the world spiritually, it takes time to be noticed and by incremental effects. Powerful biblical art will last, as Dore, Blake, Michelangelo and a host of others have proved.
I was fascinated by readers’ comments in various review sites. Almost none were negative; even non-believers are thrilled with the art or seem to gain interest in the book itself.
A sampling from Goodreads and Amazon:
- “I can’t wait for the return of Christ to right all the wrongs.”
- “Captivated and intrigued by this version. I have been reading through it like it is a thrilling novel.”
- “I am on my third reading of this book, as I have made it part of my daily readings.”
Graphic novels are generally aimed at the youth market, but this one works with a wide audience. Adults enjoy it and children too, although Zondervan and team warn that the book isn’t really suitable for and may terrify young viewers.
For want of another term the “Book of Revelation” is marketed as a graphic “novel,” but it is nothing close to a novel. John’s apocalyptic visions are in class and position of their own, spiritually and aesthetically. Some epic poems or science fiction bear faint echoes but don’t come close to the master vision of all time.
This enthusiastic review came from Publisher’s Weekly: “What the adaptation sacrifices in interpretive nuance or comic book purity, it makes up for in raw impact. For the first time in centuries, audiences can feel the awesomeness of John’s vision of a world to end and one to come.”
The Revelation of St. John has troubled mankind for almost 2,000 years but seems more relevant now than at any other time. The intense and serious treatment by Koelle and Dorff at least attempt to do the great prologue of the earth justice. Jesus is otherworldly, a supernatural titan, presented as comics have always done with superheroes, in immense and inconceivable strength. But this time they add glory.
Certainly the Apocalypse of St. John is deserving of the best in the art world, and they will never find a more challenging source. May art continue to capture the imagination of millions in service of the promises, the joys and solemn warnings found in this great Book.
Thanks to Zondervan/G. Shane Morris, Colson Center/Sarah Howe/ReadtheSpirit.com