144 – Reading Comics and Religion

Friday 1:30-4, Tuesday 7:30-9
Spring, 2016
Haverford: Stokes 10 (Fridays) and Stokes 102 (Tuesday evenings)

Professor Yvonne Chireau
Pearson Hall 206

Professor Ken Koltun-Fromm
Gest 201
610-896-1026 (office) 610-645-8324 (home)

JT Waldman


This class will explore how notions of the religious arise in comics and graphic novels that visually depict narratives of and about the sacred. Only recently have scholars actively explored how comics frame, in both text and image, religious identity and belief, and the ways in which visual culture informs religious practice. Reading comics is a visual practice, but it is also a study in religious expression, creative imagination, and critical interpretation. We want to engage the multi-textured layers of religious traditions through a reading of comics, and thereby integrate comics within the study of religion even as the very reading of comics challenges our notions of what counts as religion.

We will read together a series of graphic texts that explore and represent religion in multiple and often conflicting registers. To help us navigate through these divergent texts, we want to think of various “rubrics” or “themes” that work within and among our readings. When reading these comics for the first time, think about how these works engage notions of ritual, theology, orientation, sacredness, community, politics, myth, tradition, ancestry, place, and text. In each class we will appeal to one or more of those rubrics when exploring how these graphic mediums represent religion.

This course will be co-taught by Ken Koltun-Fromm (Haverford College) and Yvonne Chireau (Swarthmore College) on the Friday afternoon sessions, and will include a “lab” component on Tuesday evenings run by artist-in-residence JT Waldman. Students will produce comic narratives that draw on critical readings and methodological texts, and do so under Waldman’s guidance.


  • Preparation: Attendance and preparation for class discussions are required and necessary. Students should be fully prepared to engage the course material, and offer reflective comments on the reading assignments as well as on the comments by student peers in class.
  • Course Blog: We will create a blog for the course to record student thoughts, questions, and ideas as they arise during the semester. The blog is also the place to post material related to student projects and research. Each student is expected to participate actively in this blog, posting weekly. This is the place to upload images, movies or links of all sorts as students discover them in their class work and research. In this way, all of us can see and comment upon our work as it develops during the semester.
  • Papers: Students will write two five-page papers–the first due Friday, February 19th and the second due Friday, March 16th–during the semester that engage the critical analysis of religion and comics. These papers will encourage close textual and visual analysis, and cover a spectrum of religious expressions and traditions.
  • Final Project: Students will produce a religious comic narrative of text and image for their final projects, although we expect the sense of “the religious” will be critically appraised within the comic narrative. These projects will be developed throughout the semester as part of the “comic lab” supervised by JT Waldman, our artist-in-residence. These creative projects will be presented to the tri-college community during finals week of the Spring semester. In addition, students will produce a five page critical analysis of their comic narrative that includes a review of the gallery installation.
  • Symposium: students are required to attend and participate in the symposium “Sacred Texts and Comics” to be held at Haverford College, Thursday and Friday May 5-6, 2016. Students will be responsible for coordinating one of the public panels with invited speakers.

Required Texts

Will Eisner, A Contract with God
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
JT Waldman, Megillat Esther
Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat
Siku, Drink It!


I. Comics and the Representation of Religions

This section introduces the methods and main foci of the course. How do comics depict and represent religion? How are comics themselves considered religious? We are concerned with the different ways that comics are created and used as text/art about religion, as well as text/art that is religious. How do comics create religious narratives and enact religious themes? We also want to think more critically about the production and creation of comics through selected secondary sources.

Week 1 (January 19-22)

Tuesday: Introduction

  • Introduction to class; format and goals.
  • What lenses do we bring to the reading of Comics and Religion? What questions do we bring to the study of Comics and Religion?

Friday: Reading Comics

Week 2 (January 25-29)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 1 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Comics & Context: Introduction to key vocabulary and concepts in visual literacy and sequential art.

  • Lab objective: Introduction to building blocks of comics. Introduce final project.
  • Topics covered: Comics 101 vocab: panels, closure, word balloons, captions, gutter, spread, sequence, comix, zines, professional titles.
  • Assigned Reading: Understanding Comics, chapters 5-9
  • In class Activity: Exercise 1. in CP: Narrative as Play
  • Slide lecture: Religion, Art and Sequence: Art historical perspective of visual representations of faith in sequence.

Friday: What do comics have to do with religion?

  • Eisner, A Contract with God
  • Muhummad Vakil, 40 Sufi Comics

Week 3 (February 1-5)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 2 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Comics & Participation: Why comics and religious text require active participants to braid together meaning.

  • Lab objective: Introduce concepts of narrative theory as they apply to comics.
  • Topics covered: “Exegesis as Closure,” alone togetherness, theory of mind and unflattening.
  • Assigned Reading: Course pack: page 3-13
  • In class Activity: Exercise 2. in CP: Show and tell: evidence and inference
  • Special guest: James Sturm Skype from 7:30-8 pm

Friday: Notions of the Sacred and God in Comics

  • Thompson, Habibi, 1-49, 132-145, 471-475, 597-605
  • Morrison, Animal Man 5, “The Coyote Gospel”

II. Comics and Sacred Texts

This section focuses on how comics engage, construct, depict, and interpret sacred texts. In what sense do these canonical texts remain sacred in these comics? What is a sacred text? How do these comics transform traditional texts?

Week 4 (February 8-12)

Friday: The Bible as Graphic Narrative

  • Crumb, The Book of Genesis, ch. 1-3, 15-22
  • Jack Chick comics,  “The Story of Abraham and Isaac: The Sacrifice”http://www.chick.com/

Week 5 (February 15-19)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 3 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Drawing and Narrative Fundamentals: People, place and narrative devices

  • Lab objective: Introduce mechanics of how to tell a story blending images and words
  • Topics covered: Hogarth, indices, symbols, types of closure, diegetic axis, survey of comics artists
  • Assigned Reading: Course pack: page 15-17
  • In class Activity: Exercise 3. in CP: Diegetic Axis
  • Slide lecture: Comix as a faith based quest

Friday: Interpretations and Transformations of Sacred Texts (First Paper Due)

  • Allred, The Golden Plates
  • The Book of Mormon (1 Nephi, chapters 1-14)

Week 6 (February 22-26)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 4 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Megillat Esther: Comics as ritual object and hypertext (Q & A and discussion with Waldman)

  • Due before class: Two questions for JT about Megillat Esther emailed by Mon2/22 7:30
  • Lab objective: Discussion of Megillat Esther and how it is a religious object, propaganda tool and hypertext.
  • Topics covered: Midrash, metatextuality, religion vs culture, the other
  • Assigned Reading: Megillat Esther
  • In class Activity: Q & A with JT about Megillat Esther

Friday: What Counts as Sacred Literature?

  • Conversation with “Siku” Ajinbayo Akinsiku on Drink It!
  • Tezuka, Buddha (excerpts)

Week 7 (February 29-March 4)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 5 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Message and Medium: Tips and tricks in comic book production  

  • Due for class: Final project idea fleshed out enough for 60 second pitch to class
  • Topics covered: Production terminology: inspiration, thumbnails, layouts, script, style guide, moodboard, materials, techniques & mediums, scope management
  • Assigned Reading: See What I Mean
  • In class Activity: Elevator Pitches for final project and class workshop
  • Slide lecture: Elements of style: 99 Ways to Tell a Story and show and tell comix and formats, packaging and messaging.

Friday: Indian Comics and Religion

  • Mclain, India’s Immortal Comic Books, 87-113
  • “Tales of Durga,” Amar Chitra Katha

Week 8 (March 7-11)— Spring Break (No Classes)

III. Superheroes and Religion

In this section we will explore the function and identity of superheroes as religious figures. In what ways are superheroes modeled on religious heroes? Does it make sense to think of superheroes as modern functional equivalents to religious figures? How do we understand the mythic narrative as a religious one? Are these comic texts themselves religious?

Week 9 (March 14-18)

Friday: What is a Superhero? (Second Paper Due)

  • Garrett, Holy Superheroes!, 17-27, 35-54
  • The Dark Knight Returns, Book One and Book Four
  • Paula Frederickson, “What You See is What You Get: Context and Content in Current Research on the Historical Jesus,” 75-97

Week 10 (March 21-25)

Friday: Comics Superheroes and Supergods

  • al-Mutuwa, The 99 (purchase issue here)
  • Morrison, Vimanarama

Week 11 (March 28-April 1)

Friday: Religious Pluralism

  • Lucy Wright, “Shamans vs. (Super)heroes,” in Haslem, Super/heroes
  • From Brother Voodoo to Doctor Voodoo
  • “Aren’t There Any Brown People in This World?” in Philips, Comic Book Crime

IV. Comics, Culture, and Religion

This section looks at how graphic narratives present religious cultures. Can we disengage religion from culture and politics? What about popular religion? How do we define the center and the margins of religious culture, and how do these comics represent those boundaries?

Week 12 (April 4-8)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 6 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Workshop Final Project: Class critique of final projects

  • Due for class: Thumbnail breakdown of story and draft of script
  • Topics covered: Bibliography, presentation, articulation and archiving
  • Assigned Reading: A classmate’s draft script of their project
  • In class Activity: Show and tell your draft of final project with JT and class, make action plan for iterations and improvements
  • Lecture: Review of final project production guidelines for symposium installation and final print production.

Friday: Final Projects

  • Final project workshop

Week 13 (April 11-15)

Friday: Religious Culture, Religious Authority

  • Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat
  • Eisenstein, “Imperfect Masters: Rabbinic Authority in Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat (in The Jewish Graphic Novel, 163-180)

Week 14 (April 18-22)

Tuesday: Waldman Lab 7 (Haverford, Stokes 102): Working lab to develop final project. One on one counseling with JT and peers

  • Due for class: Working draft of final project, enough for a show and tell critique
  • Assigned Reading: CoursePack Pages 26-34 Writing Comics Criticism
  • In class Activity: Show and tell your draft of final project with JT and class, make action plan for iterations and improvements, how to write about religious comics.
  • Lecture: Text Study with Comics

Friday: Contemporary Visions of Religious Narratives

    • Gillen, The Wicked and the Divine
    • Millar, American Jesus: Chosen One
    • Gaiman/Carey, Lucifer
    • Ross, Marked
    • Gaiman, Sandman

Week 15 (April 25-29)


  • Work on final projects

Symposium (Thursday and Friday, May 5-6) (Haverford)

Final Work due Saturday, May 7th at 5 pm for seniors and Friday, May 13th at noon for everyone else.