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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.

Hart used B.C. as a vehicle for his art, creativity, and religious inspiration. The messages were sometimes subtle and light-hearted, and sometimes profound and thought-provoking; and sometimes they got him into trouble. The most famous example was his April 15, 2001, strip, published on a week when Easter and Passover were both being celebrated. There was a misperception that the morphing of a menorah into a cross in the strip was a not-so-subtle reference to Christianity supplanting Judaism. The Anti-Defamation League issued a hysterical press release condemning Hart, and the Los Angeles Times refused to run the strip. But Hart’s explanation shed light on the strip’s true meaning: “I noticed one day that the center section of the menorah bore the shape of a cross. I wanted everyone to see the cross in the menorah. It was a revelation to me, one that tied God’s chosen people to their spiritual next of kin -- the disciples of the risen Christ. This was a holy week for both Christians and Jews alike, and my intent, as always, was to pay homage to both.”

Finally, imagine starting a comic strip at the beginning of the 20th century which primarily examined the immigrant experience. At the same time, imagine if that strip’s main protagonist was a Jewish salesman who spoke Yiddish and promoted the virtues of his own religion. As far-fetched as it sounds, it really happened: Harry Hershfield, the Iowa-born son of Jewish immigrants, was once described by comics historian Ron Goulart as “a raconteur as well as a cartoonist. He devoted the majority of his nearly 90 years to telling funny stories, both in words and pictures.” His first strip, Desperate Desmond, which appeared in the New York Journal in 1910, introduced readers to an unusual character, Cannibal Chief Gomgatz, who spoke in gibberish and occasionally in Yiddish.

Gomgatz became a popular figure in the black-and-white world of newsprint and it dawned on the Journal’s editor, Arthur Brisbane, a Christian, that a comic strip with an all-Jewish cast could be a real asset to his paper. Brisbane spoke to Hershfield, and the result was Abie the Agent, which debuted in 1914.

Hershfield’s strip broke the mold in early 20th century comic-strip art. Readers readily identified with the Jewish characters, especially Abie Kabibble, and its wide array of Yiddish words and phrases appealed to the Journal’s mainstream audience. The strip’s success also enabled some widely-held stereotypes about Jews to fall by the wayside.

“Abie is the Jew of commerce and the man of common sense,” wrote Gilbert Seldes in The Seven Lively Arts (1924). “You have seen him quarrel with a waiter because of an overcharge of ten cents, and, encouraged by his companion, replying, ‘Yes, and it ain’t the principle, either; it’s the ten cents.’ You have seen a thousand tricks by which he once sold Complex motor cars and now promotes cinema shows or prize fights. He is the epitome of one side of his race, and his attractiveness is as remarkable as his jargon.”

But the impact of Abie the Agent went further than that. As Coulton Waugh wrote in The Comics (1947), “Spanning the scale, Hershfield conceived a character based on drama, on the reaction to events of the fluctuating, many-sided human soul ... It is because Abie Kabibble is a true picture of this real, many-sided man, that he became one of the best-loved comic characters of our time.” It may even be argued that Hershfield, a Jewish cartoonist, helped lay the foundation for a wider acceptance of religious ideas in comic strips that Christian cartoonists like Schulz and Hart were later able to use to their advantage.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” But in the comics, life and even religion imitate one another in surprisingly equal fashion. Yes, the world of cartoons is a fairly secular, left-wing environment; yes, the vast majority of comic strips in North America, and across the world, have little or nothing to do with religion; and yes, there’s no indication that this is going to change in the foreseeable future. But this doesn’t mean that religion hasn’t a rightful place in the comic strips.

Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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