Zanne Domoney-Lyttle is a tutor in Biblical Studies, including Biblical Hebrew language, at the University of Glasgow, and is currently working towards her PhD on the representation of the Bible in Comic Books (Theology & Religious Studies/Stirling Maxwell Center for Text-Image Narratives). She is passionate about reading the Bible as a contemporary cultural product, both in terms of adaptation and re appropriation of biblical material in our society.
Biblical comics – that is, adaptations of biblical material into comic book formats – have become increasingly popular in recent decades. In the past ten years alone, W.W. Norton has published The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb (2009), Siku wrote and illustrated The Manga Bible (2009), and a group of creators are currently working on producing a digital word-for-word Bible which claims to be historically accurate, unabridged, and “untamed.” Many more adaptations exist, many more are in the process of being created, and the market for text-image Bible shows no sign of slowing down.
It is easy to see why: the Bible is full of graphical, fantastical, easily visualised and emotionally charged stories, all of which provide great fodder for comics’ artists and writers to use either in “straightforward” retellings (and I use that term tongue-in-cheek with regards to biblical material) like Crumb’s Genesis, Illustrated, or for biblically-inspired stories like Goliath by Tom Gauld, which narrates the battle of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) from the giant’s point of view.
Like any form of literary or visual adaptation, creators of biblical comics have to pick and choose which stories to tell, which characters to include, and most importantly, which bits to leave out of their adaptations. For the majority of biblical comics on the market, that tends to mean leaving out scenes of sexual assault and rape. Of the 30 or so biblical comics which sit on my physical and digital shelf, only two include scenes of rape: R. Crumb’s “word-for-word” interpretation of Genesis means he had to include the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, as well as Genesis 16 where Hagar the slave-concubine is given to Abraham for the purpose of producing an heir; an event which many biblical scholars interpret as rape owing to Hagar’s subservient status meaning she has no free will to accept or refuse. The other comic is The Book of Judges, a digital comic by Simon Amadeus et al. Also a “word-for-word” Bible comic, the rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 is graphically depicted across two pages, in full colour.
Most other biblical comics avoid such difficult scenes. For the reader, this is potentially problematic. In a recent article for The Conversation, Dr. Katie Edwards and Dr. Meredith Warren discussed the problems of leaving out the more gruesome, violent, or sexual aspects of the Bible when children are exposed to the text, arguing that encouraging close, critical readings of the text would give young people the tools to address issues of violence, slavery and even genocide in our own time.
This can and should also be applied to visualisations of sexual assault in biblical comics; after all, other graphic narratives concerning genocide (Noah’s flood, Genesis 6:9 – 9:17), slavery (the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, book of Exodus) and violence (for example, Genesis 4, when Cain murders Abel) are frequently re-presented in biblical comics. So why do comic creators stay clear of sexually-orientated scenes of violence?
One answer might lie in the fact that comic books are often still seen as children’s items; there is a wealth of material that argues against this notion (both inside and outside of academia) and thankfully, it is not as prevalent an opinion anymore. However, that comic books stem from a tradition pertaining to children’s literature still potentially influences their content, and so leaving out sexually explicit subjects might seem safer in order to “protect” a younger audience from difficult content.
Still, the question remains as to why certain forms of violence are deemed appropriate over other types of violence. Conversely, it must be noted that comics are, as highlighted above, no longer the domain of children. Markets are moving towards young adult/adult readers which, if it is the case, somewhat negates the argument that creators must be cautious of sensitive material influencing young minds. Leaving out scenes of sexual violence might be less to do with perceived readership, in that case, and more to do with the creators themselves.
To visually and textually represent a scene of violence from the Bible is difficult enough; to visually and textually represent a scene of rape or sexual assault from the Bible requires the creator to not only interpret and imagine the scene, but to recreate the act. It is the creator or the team of creators who must physically draw Dinah being raped (Genesis 34), for example, which makes them complicit in the act of rape. Complicity may be more pronounced in the act of creating text-image narratives of rape and sexual assault than it is in translating or transcribing, because the visual image is often more visceral than word alone. The creator[s] must figuratively and literally picture how the scene looks; their hands physically transmit the violent act on to paper where it is apprehended instantaneously and directly, without the “cover” of words. In a similar way, the reader also becomes complicit in the act by reading the text and image, and by physically handling and turning pages, effectively allowing the story – and the rape – to continue.
The lack of re-presenting biblical rape narratives in comic books, then, is perhaps just as important as their inclusion in biblical comics. By not including them, the creator of the book is choosing not to become complicit in a sexually violent act, and at the same time, preventing the reader from having to experience the rape, themselves becoming complicit in the continuation of the story’s intimate violence. Conversely, choosing to include rape and sexual assault in biblical retellings is giving a voice and a face to the victim, who otherwise, would remain silent and faceless.
Giving a voice to a victim of sexual assault or rape is essential, especially in the current climate. On an almost-daily basis, new revelations and allegations concerning sexual assault and rape appear in our newsfeeds, and the victims of such crimes are often unable to present their case – either because they are silenced or because they lack the ability or opportunity to present the wrong done to them. Visualising biblical rape narratives, if nothing else, may be a way to present cases of sexual assault and rape, forcing readers to confront the wrongs done to victims, be they historical, current, or even fictional.