Cowabunga! Religion and Comics Connect at Comic-Con

Riverside, Calif. - American popular culture is filled with religious references, and comics are no exception, three graduate students from the University of California, Riverside will demonstrate at Comic-Con International: San Diego.

Toby Johnson, Sean Sagan and Cori Knight — all Ph.D. students in the Department of Religious Studies — will present a panel discussion, “What Are We Seeing Here? Negotiating Religious Presence and Purpose in Comics, Comix, and Webcomics,” on Sunday, July 21. The panel is scheduled at 11:30 a.m. and is part of the Comic Arts Conference, which brings the academic study of comics into conversation with comic creators, publishers, and fans. Comic-Con is a four-day conference that celebrates the contributions of comics to American art and culture.

The trio will present papers exploring: a storyline in which the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rescue a sacred object of Islam; the role of sexualized comic books in proselytizing efforts of the Children of God/Family International church; and creation stories in the steampunk-themed webcomic “Girl Genius.”

“Religion pervades American popular culture,” says Knight, who will discuss the way stories about the Heterodyne-created Jägermonsters are written and rewritten in the webcomic ”Girl Genius.” Jägermonsters are a group of characters created by the webcomic’s Heterodyne family and considered to be unthinking, brutal agents of destruction, generations before the time in which the comic is set.

“Elements of religion are present in television, music, film, and literature,” Knight adds. “Why? And what does the way it is presented tell us about the back and forth between religion and pop culture? … I think it tells us what conversation is taking place.”

Comic books are another media form that can be used to present, discuss or critique religious ideas, says Toby Johnson.

“I think it’s especially interesting to see how their presentations are directed to young audiences and serve as introductions to new ideas through these stories,” he explains. “In some cases, comics may even act as instructional texts for young readers, presenting religious material in a form more easily understood.”

Johnson’s paper, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Mecca?!? Superheroes in a Religious World: Reflection on a Controversy that Never Was,” explores issues arising from the use of Islam as a backdrop for the Turtles’ adventures, the theological implications of their intrusion into the Islamic worldview, and the use of religion as more than a plot device. The story he analyzes involves the theft of one of Islam’s most holy relics, and contains a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

Sagan’s presentation, “And I will Make you Fishers of Men: How the Children of God/Family International church fused Gospel imperatives with sex and comic books,” focuses on the history, beliefs and theologies of the controversial Children of God — now the Family International church — during its peak in the 1970s and its use of comic tracts in both evangelism and intra-group teaching.

The movement published comic tracts under the label True Komix. Many of those tracts, Sagan explains, featured “highly sexualized language and gendered art which was meant to detail the group’s liberated self-view of sexuality, and justify it through a scriptural interpretation of Matthew 4:19 — ‘And he said unto them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’”

Comics appeal to some religious groups as an exceptionally effective way of imparting information to various audiences, Sagan adds.

“The balance of text and art captivates the reader and grounds the emotionally evocative elements of the image with the meaning of the written text. Because of their engaging nature, some religious groups and traditions find the comic medium aids them significantly in purposes of outreach, education and the maintenance of religious identity.”