A graphic look at Scripture

Published October 1, 2006

In Steve Ross’ Marked, a graphic novel of the Gospel of Mark, Christ is depicted in the genre’s thickly-hatched, graffiti-informed aesthetic.

No one looking at the cover of Steve Ross’ comic book, Marked, would assume it was a work of faith based on one of the gospels.  In fact, any comics aficionado would associate the illustration of a stark, thickly-hatched man-of-mystery beneath the violent red title font as a graphic novel, a genre launched by Frank Miller with The Dark Knight Returns, and later Sin City.

Marked might not stand out on a comic book rack, but it would certainly give pause to someone browsing in a religious book store where it is just as likely to be found. Only after a number of flip-throughs does the character on the cover – a bald David Carradine look-alike whose outstretched hand appears to be on the cusp of emitting energy beams at you  – become discernable as the newly-risen Jesus Christ displaying the stigmata.

Mr. Ross’ work represents what many would find an odd conjunction between the two disparate universes of Scripture and comic books. In another light, though, Marked might be seen as the outcome of a hidden but natural affinity between those mediums. Looking over the shoulder of the comics geek in the back of science class scrawling vivid depictions in his notebook of post-nuclear uber- and under-mensch, one might easily imagine his spiritual forefather in the medieval novice, doodling demons on the margins of his biblical transcription.

[pulquote]Although the sustained efforts of a handful of talented artists have done much in recent years to overcome the public’s knee-jerk equation of words and pictures with superheroes, the connection remains strong and has deep historical roots. Ever since mass production stripped the artwork of its religious aura, words have lost much of the luster of their “flesh,” that is their physical instantiation in book-form that found its natural expression in the illuminated manuscript. Without the visual iconography to affix their presence to the page, the reams of denuded words cause the reader to look beyond them for the source of their power. The effects of this can be seen in everything from Bible literalism to the secular quest for the “historical Jesus.”

Mr. Ross’ work is futuristic but does its part to retrieve the allegorical, timeless nature of Scripture that animated the Christian visual art of the past. Based primarily on Mark’s Gospel, Marked is a fascinating marriage between the spare, enigmatic source text and the aptitude comics have for representing the ill-defined libidinal landscape of the adolescent mind.

The setting is very familiar to long-time readers of comics as Gotham City – the ubiquitous Orwellian cyber-Babylon where costumed anti-heroes tend to hang out. It is depicted with a graffiti-informed aesthetic that is sketchy and unrefined but can be spontaneous and full of movement. Overall it achieves an inspired flow that sometimes results in some striking, unexpected imagery but often plunges into narrative incoherence. This is not helped by the dialogue which is non-scriptural lampoonery that has much to say about the sorry state of post-Christendom but strips the Gospel of much of its raw redemptive power.

The result is a flawed but very unique and pioneering work that promises to re-inaugurate the practice of visual dialogue with Scripture.

Christian Whittall is a carpenter who lives in Toronto.


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