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God in the Funnies

Is there a place for religion on the comics page?

4:58 PM, Nov 14, 2010 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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On June 5, 2009, The Washington Post posed the following question in a readers’ poll: “Do you think expressions of faith -- and not just satiric references to religion -- belong on the comics page?” Of the 257 participants, 70 percent answered “YES - the funnies are all about personal expression,” while 29 percent replied “NO - I believe in the separation of church and comics.” Should this be considered a surprising result?

God in the Funnies

Certainly, if you simply took into account the Post’s political bent, coupled with the extensive majority on the YES side. But if you step back and think about it, it’s really not that shocking. Although recent polls have shown that most cartoonists and animators are political and religious liberals, the cartoon universe has often depicted religion in a reasonably favorable light.

There have been positive comic book adaptations of religious and spiritual figures, including Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama. Animated television shows such as Superbook, Jot, Davey and Goliath, The Flying House, The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible, and VeggieTales have offered uplifting images of Christianity and Judaism to young children. The cartoon Bible TV series and the Golden Books version of the Children’s Bible are still regarded as important teaching tools. Graphic novels by Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Will Eisner (Fagin The Jew, The Plot) have attempted to show personal struggles with religion, religious myths, and religious hatred.

The same goes with comic strips. Obviously, there have been cartoonists with less than favorable views of religion, including Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks). But there have also been cartoonists with strong religious beliefs and a personal relationship with God. Here are three examples.

At the top of most people’s lists would be Charles M. Schulz. The creator of Peanuts and only two-time winner of the Reuben Award, religion played an important role in his life and career. Born into a Lutheran family, he was active in the Church of God, a “firm believer in Jesus Christ” as a young adult, and even taught Sunday school in a Methodist church. Although Schulz gradually drifted away from his faith he maintained his Christian principles until his death in 2000.

Peanuts was occasionally peppered with Biblical passages, but they were presented in such a tasteful, thoughtful manner that even the most ardently non-religious person would have had difficulty in condemning them. As Schulz himself once said, “a cartoonist must be given a chance to do his own preaching.” Through the theological interpretations of Linus and, to a lesser extent, Charlie Brown, he was able to accomplish a deeper exploration of life’s mysteries through wit, charm, and good humor.

The same principle was followed in the first Peanuts animated special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). At the start of the project, it was important for Schulz to include passages from the King James version of the Bible to explain what he felt was the true meaning of Christmas. Although CBS executives were typically concerned that Schulz’s program had too many religious references, his determination won out. A Charlie Brown Christmas turned out to be an enormous success, winning critical claim and an Emmy. It’s still broadcast each Christmas -- complete with Linus’s quotation from Luke 2:8-14 fully intact -- and is regarded by many Christian and non-Christian families as a holiday tradition.

If you were searching for a mainstream cartoonist with strong Christian principles, look no further than Johnny Hart, a talented artist, winner of the Reuben, and creator of two influential strips -- B.C. and The Wizard of Id (co-founded with Brant Parker) -- who provided an interesting explanation of his early -- and comparatively lax -- roots in Christianity:

When I was a kid, my mom and dad were C&E Christians -- they didn't go to church except on Christmas and Easter. But they made sure I went to Sunday school. I was fascinated by the stories in the Bible, without actually having read them. But I always believed in Jesus -- that he died and was resurrected, and that he is in heaven. But whenever I was around church people, I would be really nervous, because I felt like they suspected I was a hypocrite. I didn't want them to find me out, so I would exude goodness when I was around them. There are a lot of good people in the world. I was one of them.

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