Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table
Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.
In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.
Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.
Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.
The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics. The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout. Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)
So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.
So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.