Graphic novels occupy a strange place in our literary landscape. While award-winning classics such as Watchmen and Maus have established them as a medium for serious art, many people still instinctually dismiss them as mere entertainment. Comic books, for some, retain the stigma of the moral panics of the 1950s and ‘90s about their supposedly violent content (before video games took their place as our go-to cultural scapegoat.) There remains a tension between what constitutes a “graphic novel” versus a mere “comic book”, the latter assumed to be a lower art form. This distinction, however, is increasingly irrelevant to younger generations. The wedding of words and picture to tell a story allows for a cinematic feel, and artists can use the layout to direct the eye in ways that underscore the emotional tone of the action. It is this kinetic sense of motion that The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story attempts to harness. Designed to bring the stories and messages of the Bible to a pre-teen audience in an engaging way, the book (edited by Doug Mauss and illustrated by Sergio Cariello) is respectful yet exciting in the way it handles the religious material.
This book is a hefty volume, and although it would be impossible to cover the whole Bible in such a format, time periods or events which are not illustrated on the page are explained or referred to by the narration boxes. Certain books such as the Psalms and Proverbs, as well as prophets such as Amos and Joel, are positioned as asides, alluding to their place and significance but touched on fairly briefly. The style of spoken dialogue is plain and easy-to-read, and doesn’t become colloquial enough to stray into irreverence. Narratives are presented in chronological order (so, for example, 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles overlap), which makes the story threads easier to follow. Each story is presented and indexed as a different chapter, each with a title such as “Birthright Stew”, “Management Crisis”, or “Flour Power”. The Bible verses covered in each chapter are noted in the subheading, so the source can easily be referenced. Some chapter titles are quite clever – Elisha’s prophecy starts with “A Rash of Miracles”, followed by “A Miracle for a Rash” – while a few are too clever by half, such as “The Wonderful Win Against Og”.
Through narration and pictures, overarching themes are made evident without having to be spelled out explicitly. We see God’s chosen people go through a cycle of harmony with the Lord, followed by the growth of either complacency or doubt, then falling away from the faith, receiving correction from God, and finally returning to His grace. We get the sense that every few generations (particularly during the time periods covered by the books of Kings), the Israelites either became just a little too comfortable with their pagan neighbors, and integrated into their culture to the extent of worshipping false gods, or they faced a threat from another people and didn’t fully trust God to take care of them. The subtitle of the book, God’s Redemptive Story, is true to the emphasis it places on the many second chances given to a wayward human race. Jacob’s sons betray Joseph, but are later redeemed by staying loyal to Benjamin. Peter denies Jesus three times, and then affirms his love three times to the risen Lord. And, of course, ultimately the disobedience of Adam is redeemed by the obedience of Christ.
The Action Bible also illuminates some of the Old Testament personalities. The dynamic between Saul and David is particularly well-rendered, and is definitely one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. We see the ramifications of Saul’s rampant insecurity and love-hate relationship with his one-day successor. David is God’s chosen king, loyal and brave, but in his later years he is marred by his coveting of Bathsheba and his inability to properly punish his own relatives. The story of Joseph and his brothers is also given time to breathe, and Joseph’s emotional journey is clearly communicated. In addition, The Action Bible is excellent at highlighting lesser-known Biblical stories, ones that aren’t particularly prominent in our cultural landscape. Most anyone, churchgoing or not, could recount the basics of Noah and the Flood, David and Goliath, or Daniel and the Lion’s Den. After reading this book, kids will also be familiar with moments such as ‘Gideon and the Wool’, ‘Hezekiah and the Sundial’, and ‘Jeremiah Smashes the Pottery’, and will understand their context.
Artistically, the book balances itself between a comic-book format and the more classical look of the characters. The panel structure is clean and easy to follow, though generally not overly creative in its layout. The colors are rich and beautiful, giving a lush feeling to the dense jungle battle of Joab and Absalom and a grand sense of scale to the sight of Noah’s tiny ark floating on a huge panthalassa of water. Although some of the character designs skew just a bit too Caucasian – and the majority of the angels we see are blonde – effort is made to distinguish each character through features and clothing, and their faces animatedly convey emotion. There are many nice little details to be found in the artwork, such as the Egyptians remaining pockmarked even after the plague of boils has subsided, or God’s and the Devil’s respective word bubbles having silhouettes very distinct from humans’ and those of each other. Dreams and visions are especially well-rendered, with Ezekiel’s wheels-within-wheels glimpse of the glory of God a definite high point. Daniel’s four beasts arising from the sea, Solomon’s gift of wisdom, Peter’s vision of the feast of unclean animals and Elijah’s raising of the bones are also delightful. A few comic-style sounds – the KRAK, WHISH, and SHUNK of various swords, slings, and arrows during battle scenes – added pizzazz, and in fact could stand to have been used more often.
Despite The Action Bible’s commendable scope, there are a few surprising omissions. Notably, although we see Joseph talking about his and others’ dreams – the grapes, the birds, the fat and skinny cows – none of those dreams are illustrated! Surely for such a visual medium this was a wasted opportunity. Likewise, the story of Rachel and Leah remains situated in Jacob’s perspective – we are not given a glimpse into the women’s opinions of this, and Leah is barely a character at all. And although the dialogue usually finds a way of synthesizing Biblical speech into more natural-sounding turn of phrase, the choice to paraphrase the Our Father (Jesus starts with “Our Father in Heaven, your Name is holy….”) is very odd. The prayer is so iconic that the attempt to make it conversational just comes across as awkward. The main quibble in an otherwise valuable resource, however, is that compared to the nuance and depth found in the Old Testament, the New Testament feels quite rushed by comparison. The Action Bible is 70% Old Testament in terms of page count, and although the life of Christ and the subsequent spread of the faith are competently told and illustrated, they don’t feel as expansive as the Old Testament epics. The Passion narrative only takes six pages from when Christ receives His cross to the burial of His body, and although those pages and the subsequent resurrection are beautifully rendered, a little more time spent in each part of the story would make it feel more properly climactic. In a tome of over 700 pages, surely three or four more wouldn’t be too much to ask.
Excerpt from page 134
The Action Bible, a recipient of the ECPA Christian Book Award, is from a Protestant illustrator and publisher, but Catholics who are debating whether it would be right for their kids have little to worry about in terms of theological slant. The Annunciation and the Last Supper are both highlighted in the story, though probably not to the extent that they would be by a Catholic author. The issue of Mary’s virginity is somewhat elided, but this seems to be for reasons more age-of-the-audience related than thematic. The most noticeable influence is on Revelation, which is unfortunately brief – again, like Joseph’s dream interpretation, a missed opportunity for some fantastical illustration. Touched on are the Four Horsemen, the seven-headed beast from the sea, the triumph of good over evil and the “thousand-year reign”. Rather than exploring the symbolism (an admittedly daunting task at any age level) or phrasing it as “John saw this, John saw that”, these events are phrased as “This will happen, that will happen”, which is rather disappointingly literal. As far as young readers are concerned, however, any confusion can be easily cleared up through parental discussion, an indispensible part of any child’s religious education. Parents should remember that no one book will do the whole job of forming a child’s understanding of faith, and that a mixture of resources and active parental participation are the key to the process.
The reading level is perfect for about ages 9-12, though younger children (especially precocious readers) can also enjoy it and its pictures (and can of course be read to by parents). As far as maturity of content, although each parent has to judge his or her own child’s growth, there is little to upset readers of the target demographic. Though battle scenes are dramatic, next to no blood is ever shown, and the book does an excellent job of touting God as “the original action hero” while never reveling in violence. A few mildly disturbing images may upset the youngest readers – for example, Ahitophel’s hanging is seen in silhouette, very small and far away – but if anything the book errs on the side of sanitization. In all, it is an excellent way to breathe color and personality into Biblical heroes, imparting lessons about trusting God without becoming patronizing. Children and pre-teens will never feel like reading it is a chore, and will come away with an understanding of Biblical figures that is nuanced, acknowledging their flaws as well as their virtues. Children’s picture Bibles were a literary genre ripe for updating, and the graphic novel format serves the source material well.The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story quite rightly places emphasis on redemption, on both grand and personal scales – and is exciting enough for young readers to listen to that message.
The Action Bible: God’s Redemptive Story is 744 pages, and is available at Kaufer’s for $26.99.
It can be purchased here.