The Action Bible Review – Comic Disappointment

UPDATE: See my comment on the end about suitability for children.

My wife and daughter, knowing that I love comics and cartoons, bought me The Action Bible for Christmas. I was very excited! The artist Sergio Cariello is excellent with Marvel and DC Comics credits to his name. Unfortunately his beautiful work is completely undermined by the poor choices in story telling. Doug Mauss is listed as the editor, which leads me to believe that it is others who provided the copy for the “over 200 fast-paced narratives in chronological order, making it easy to follow the Bible’s historical flow.”

The back cover also tells us that “Original Action Heroes are found here!” And that seems to be the overriding exegetical principal at work here. In Mauss’ introduction he says,

Steel yourself for action… People don’t usually think of God like this, but God is the original action hero. Everyone is so impressed when Superman blows a car over with his breath, yet God created the whole universe with His Breath. Superman may save the day with his strength, but Jesus saved the whole word with His death.

Well, sure. But even Action Comics #1, not exactly known as the pinnacle of story telling, is better written than this version of God’s heroic actions of creation. After eating the fruit Eve declares, “We’re not wise–we’re just naked!” To which quick thinking Adam responds, “Cover yourself with these leaves! We must hide.”

I don’t pretend to be exhaustive in my knowledge of Bible related comics, but I am more than a casual consumer. I have offered here my thoughts on R. Crumb’s Genesiscomics in general, the Manga Bible, and noted a work by Episcopal priest and graphic artist Earnest Graham (check out his rendering Psalm 51!). When I was a kid I loved the multivolume comic Bible called The Picture Bible (1978) that I still take a look at now and then. (It appears to have been reprinted and available on Amazon.) There were some very interesting decisions made in interpreting the text to be included as well as the artwork. For example, it wasn’t until I was in graduate school and thinking about Dagon the Canaanite deity and it occurred to me that I knew he was a “fish god.” I wondered why (the name, of course, has “fish” דג in it) since I had not studied Hebrew until college. One day I was flipping through the picture Bible and there it was; the priest of Dagon depicted wearing a fish outfit. My point? They had done their research, depicting visually that which only a reader of Hebrew might have understood.

The Action Bible has a similar graphic depiction in their retelling, “Pass the Ark.” Aside from the dubious section title (a sadly common occurrence in TAB, such as the story of Gideon, “Cowardly Judge,” and Samson, “A Bad Haircut,” I suppose we should be glad that the Good Friday wasn’t titled, “A Bad Day for JC”), that small section retelling 1 Sam. 4-6 isn’t too bad. And that is the problem with TAB, it is so incredibly uneven in terms of script.

But let’s get to my main gripe. No one who reads this blog will be surprised to learn that I turned fairly quickly to Ruth. Or as it is called in TAB “Ruth’s Redeemer, based upon Ruth.” Great. Already we have shifted the focus of the story away from the primary and titular character. Not off to a great start. It gets worse…. I will only hit a few points here and provide some pictures of the book because, frankly, it is so painful.

  • Whereas the biblical text (Ruth 2:2) has Ruth taking charge of their situation and going out to get them food while Naomi remains despondent, in TAB it is Naomi who asks Ruth to go out an glean in the fields.
  • Boaz as depicted in the cheesiest fashion I can imagine. TAB does have Boaz greet his workers saying, “The LORD be with you” but only after he first ask, “How are the best workers in all Israel doing?” All that is missing is a wink and finger-pistol gesture. To this schmaltzy “wazzup,” Ruth’s thought balloon declares, “What a godly owner.” Sure. That was my first impression.
  • When Boaz directs his overseer to ensure that Ruth has enough to glean the conspiratorial look in their eyes alone should get them placed on the sexual predator list.
  • Finally (for this short list), the climax of the story, the nighttime meeting between Ruth and Boaz has been completely removed. Instead of the evening tryst with all its ambiguities, Ruth now meets Boaz at a post-harvest party where “Boaz notices” that she took care to wear her nicest dress. She then openly asks him to marry her and we proceed quickly to the wedding feast.

In all there are six pages and 20 panels to depict this 4 chapter book of the Bible. The hero of the story has been marginalized and transformed into Annette Funicello while Boaz is a goatee wearing creep who should be a villain in a Disney film. Very disappointing.

Esther fairs a bit better with 17 pages and she is shown as the courageous hero the Bible depicts. Esther’s primary value is shown to be her beauty, but in fairness to the author they are showing the Court’s (and the King’s) valuation of her and the storyline does bring out the fact that she uses this poor estimation of her to her advantage.

I have not read the entire 744 page volume. I have read enough to realize how uneven the story telling is. The artwork is all very good, but at times the choices of expressions, attire, and physical depictions are curious. On the cross, it is a very fit and buff Jesus who asks God to forgive those who crucified him. And while he is very handsome with a fine head of hair and thick beard, at least Jesus is depicted as a brunette with brown eyes. I know, not a very high bar.

The Bible is comprised of so many different genres, styles, content, and perspectives perhaps it is unreasonable to think that any such project could meet with success. Although that gives me an idea, what about giving each book to a different script writer and artist? Perhaps that would help provide some of the texture present in the Bible. Of course, they might still insist on making Samson “God’s Enforcer.” Oh well.

All in all I appreciate the effort and artistry. The Bible remains relevant because it continues to be interpreted and disseminated and I respect what has been attempted here. I would not expect anything to meet each and every one of my own readings although I do think TAB could have stayed closer to the biblical text without doing any harm to the project. (For all the accusations about R. Crumb’s personal failings, in his Genesis he at least simply included Robert Alter’s translation [with occasional adjustments along the lines of the KJV] and left all the interpretation to his drawings.)

If you enjoy good artistry and comics in general this is worth getting. I would certainly use a section in the classroom to provide an example of exegetical variances. I think it would grab students in a way that yet another Bible commentary would not. But it is not my favorite.

For children: I am grateful for Mike leaving a comment asking about its suitability for children! I had neglected to add a word or two on that topic. This is what I told Mike, “I do think it could be appropriate, but you should just be aware that they take great liberties with the biblical stories. So I would suggest reading it [together] and having conversations with him about what choices the editor and artist have made in their portrayal of the story. Then perhaps ask him what he thought and how he would represent the story.”

Grade: C+

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