If you’ve watched a few videos in our How to Read the Bible series, you’ve probably come across some art that looks like it’s snipped from a comic book. As much fun as our artists have drawing a musclebound Moses in a billowing sleeveless robe, we didn’t choose this style just to goof around! We carefully selected comics as a tool to explain the ingenious art of biblical narrative.
Comics Are for (Bible) Nerds
Early on in the creation of the How to Read series, the art department knew we wanted to create distinct visuals for the three styles of literature found in the Bible: narrative, poetry, and prose discourse. For poetry, we chose a meditative, painterly style based on the works of the post-Impressionists. Prose discourse was depicted by the playful, angular shapes of Cubism and Constructivism. But how to represent biblical narrative? This was the easiest choice of all. Comics: the ultimate narrative artform!
While other types of art encourage us to slow down, to meditate on the artwork in an eternal frozen moment, comics urge us, “let’s go!” We are swept along from panel to panel and from page to page as the narrative careens forwards, seemingly with a life of its own. But unlike the medium of cinema, which we watch passively at twenty-four frames per second, comics make us participate in the storytelling.
Imagine a panel in a comic book that shows two strangers meeting in an elevator. In the next panel, the same two characters, dressed in wedding attire, are kissing in a church packed with cheering friends and family. What happened? Their entire courtship, the marriage proposal, renting the tuxedo, your mind supplied all of it, squeezing it into the narrow space between two panels called the gutter. It doesn’t matter if the gutter spans a fraction of a second or a thousand years. Your mind cannot help but infer a cause and effect relationship between the first image and the second, supplying the characters’ thoughts and motives that drive the story forward.
So comics are well-suited to the narratives of the Bible, which never seem to provide as many details as we would like. Character motivations can be frustratingly obscure, and some stories can seem so disconnected from the main narrative, it feels like they were dropped in at random. But the authors were counting on our active participation as readers, linking the story together in our minds, panel to panel and page to page.
These Go to Eleven Of course, comics can be used to tell any kind of story, but I’d bet people associate them most closely with action-packed tales of superheroics. You know the cliches: bright colors, lots of shouting, and square-jawed protagonists who solve every problem with a clenched fist. If your friend reads your fiction and tells you it’s “comic book-y,” that’s probably not a compliment.
Rather than flinch from these stereotypes, we decided to lean into them. For inspiration, we looked at art from the Bronze Age of American comics (the 1970s and early 80s), especially the work of X-Men artist Dave Cockrum. We set guidelines for ourselves: always draw characters with heroic proportions, radically heightened emotions, and dynamic poses like they’re about to spring into action at any moment. Beards would never cease blowing in the wind. Clothing would look more like costumes, and even ancient architecture would soar like a science-fiction cityscape.
This utter lack of subtlety is a good fit for biblical narratives, which are not known for their subdued restraint. Characters in the Bible are intense, prone to melodramatic outbursts and hasty violence. But this doesn’t mean that biblical narrative is childish or simplistic. In our video Character in Biblical Narrative, we used examples from the book of Exodus to show how these narratives can’t be reduced to simple hero-vs.-villain showdowns. Even a consummate baddie like Pharaoh is much more complex than a cardboard villain. His wavering heart hardens, relents, then hardens again.
A Window on the World
We didn’t want our videos to exactly mimic the printed page. Otherwise, what would be the point of animation? The images needed that extra dazzle to bring them to life. Word balloons can pop out of characters' mouths, and sound effects can explode from the point of impact. But the biggest addition was applying parallax to the art on screen.
Parallax refers to the displacement of the relative position of images viewed from different lines of sight. Think about looking through the passenger window of a moving car. Nearby telephone poles seem to zoom by, while buildings glide along at a slower pace. The distant hills are barely shifting, and the moon in the sky moves not at all. By using animation software to stagger the images inside each panel, the border becomes like a window frame. Through this window is a world of illusory depth, with an implied foreground, midground, and background.
Alas, this approach results in a lot of extra work for the illustrators! If I’m drawing a comic for print where a camel grazes behind the trunk of a palm tree, I only have to draw the parts of the camel not covered by the tree. (How do I draw camel ankles? Hmm, too hard...hide them behind the tree!) But in a How to Read video, the relative positions will likely shift as the camera moves, and that means I have to draw the whole camel.
Nyssa Oru, an illustrator who worked on almost every episode of the series, was challenged by these extra requirements. “I've been making comics for years,” she says, “but a comic that needs to have parallax was a totally different ball game. At the beginning of this series I had a second job as a comics colorist and layout designer. I kept catching myself prepping layers for animation without realizing it and later having to merge all my hard work together.” Still, she says, these techniques will come in handy for future projects. “I've done a lot with digital and interactive comics, and so many of the funky specifics this series taught me could be applied to other digital comics.”
Reading in All Directions
Comics panels are usually arranged in a natural reading order. In English, this means top to bottom, left to right. On a printed page, any other arrangement is disorienting to the reader and risks yanking them out of the story as they struggle to find the next panel. But in an animated video, the camera’s free flow allowed us to move in any direction, as long as it served the explanation.
For example, in the video Plot in Biblical Narrative, we wanted to show how biblical narratives follow the standard “plot arc” found in virtually all stories: an inciting incident, followed by rising action, a climax, and finally a resolution as the characters settle into a new normal. When it’s drawn as a dotted line, the rise and fall of a plot arc forms a sort of lopsided mountain. We knew we had to take advantage of this shape! First, we established our terms with a quick, original story about a woman in the Himalayas who summits a snowy peak to defeat a yeti. The panels rise higher and higher to her confrontation, but they settle back down as she returns to her village a hero. We then repeated the same arrangement, but with the story of Gideon from the book of Judges. His confrontation with the Midianites (very conveniently!) climaxes in the hills above their camp and resolves in the valley below.
In How to Read the Gospel, tiny postage-stamp panels allowed even more flexibility. The entirety of biblical history, from creation through the last of the prophets, meanders around the screen like a child’s toy train tracks before finally looping around to the birth of Jesus. Later in the video, we show the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John merging like streams into a single river as all four narratives culminate in Jesus’ trial and execution.
Another element we could play with was the shape of the panels themselves. A typical comics panel is rectangular, though artists can use circles, starbursts, or any other shape for dramatic effect. For Setting in Biblical Narrative, we pushed this technique to the extreme, drawing intricate panel borders shaped like a haunted house, the pyramids of Egypt, or a giant number 40. These shapes designate recurring “settings,” literal frames for the stories nestled inside. In this way, we hoped to demonstrate how biblical authors carefully situated their narratives to set expectations...or subvert them.
We also used distinct panel borders to emphasize narrative patterns in Design Patterns in Biblical Narrative. For instance, the panel that frames Adam and Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden shatters like a dropped plate, forming a fragmented border that recurs throughout the rest of the video. Whenever we see human beings willfully destroying their relationships with each other and with God, the panel is similarly shattered.
At another point in the same video, the tumultuous waters––a churning mass of color that threatens to overflow the whole screen––get “fenced off” into an ocean-shaped panel, as God delineates their borders. This wavy panel shape is reused over and over again, whenever God leads his people safely through literal waters like the Dead Sea or the Jordan River, or the figurative “waters” of death and exile.
“I think what I love about comics is how so many ‘rules’ get broken in terms of styles and compositions,” says Andrew Imamura, a BibleProject artist who worked on the Gospel episode. “Obviously, the pros know their stuff, but then to break or twist things for the purpose of story, mood, atmosphere...it's so fun!”
A Coat of Not-That-Many Colors
Another part of achieving the “look” of older comics relied on color. Though modern technology allows comic book colorists to deploy the full spectrum, earlier artists weren’t as fortunate. Printing color comics in the pre-digital era required four color-separated printing plates: cyan, magenta, and yellow for the colors, and black or “key” for the linework. (This breakdown is abbreviated CMYK). Secondary colors could be created by mixing the primaries, but only in rigidly fixed proportions. For example, 25% yellow plus 50% cyan could give you a bright, cool green. Want a slightly different shade for a subtler effect? Too bad!
All possible combinations yield a total of only sixty-four colors, including a few that are too saturated to print without warping the paper. This technical restriction is why mobsters in old comics wear bright green pinstripe suits, and why classic superhero costumes are designed with so many bold reds, yellows, and blues. Yet the limitation actually works perfectly for stories of extreme emotion and vibrant adventure.
“Color can be challenging for me, so making choices with a very limited color palette could be tough,” says illustrator Mac Cooper, “though it was also a blessing in its own way.” Forcing ourselves to color within these parameters generates a lot of unexpected creativity. Orange might not be an intuitive choice for skin color, but it suddenly makes sense if you tint the sky a fiery yellow. Suddenly we’ve got dramatic sunset lighting that intensifies the whole composition. Since we weren’t constrained by realism, we could use color for “emotional reality.” When King David’s throne room is plunged into a moody purple, it says more about his internal sense of shame than it does about the angle of the sun. And color is yet another way to drive home patterns in the biblical design. The same pinks and violets of the Eden dawn are used when Jesus steps out of his tomb into a new creation.
But Seriously, Comics are for Nerds
These strengths are why we chose comics to visualize biblical narrative. Well, also because comics are fast to draw, at least compared to the monumental illustrations in a video like Tree of Life! And there’s one last reason: we’re obsessed!
If you ever visit the BibleProject studio in Portland, Oregon, you’ll see bookshelves crammed with graphic novels and comic-book posters papering every wall. Most of our illustrators and animators grew up with comics, and many of us honed our drawing and storytelling skills by creating comics of our own. We’re constantly exchanging art by our favorite contemporary comics artists, often as inspiration for future videos.
Sometimes I wonder how the biblical authors would react, seeing these ancient narratives recreated in such a modern way. No doubt much of it would seem bizarre to them, but I hope that they would still see, in the careful construction and repetition of these colorful boxes, something familiar.