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This page last updated 4 April 2014
Anglicans Online last updated 11 August 2019

A review for Anglicans Online
by R. Mammana

Graphic Gospel
A review of
By Steve Ross, foreword by the Rev. William Tully. Seabury Books. 2005. See

A cell from MarkedArt Spiegelman's two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus marked a turning-point in English-readers' attitudes toward comics. In its examination of the the Shoah, the Nazi genocide of Jews before and during World War II, Maus broke ground in showing readers what Japanese—and, to some extent, European readers—had long known: the medium of comics can be serious, effective, interesting and extremely worthwhile way of telling a story.

Since then, comics, or, as they are called by some, graphic novels, have gone mainstream in a way that could not have been predicted fifteen years ago. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis books have made the Iranian Revolution a clearer, more personal story to many readers; Chester Brown has brought the story of early Canadian Métis leader Louis Riel to a wide audience; Umberto Eco and the late Will Eisner have examined the strange history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and Joe Sacco has written profound graphic reflections on conflict in the former Yugoslavia—all in a medium that until recently would have been associated strongly with unsubtlety, garish colours and the words KAPOW!, ZONK! and #$@^%@#.

That the literary world has changed mightily is underscored by Seabury Books' daringly brilliant decision to publish Marked, a modern graphic novel adaptation of the Gospel of Mark by professional illustrator Steve Ross. (There have been many other adaptations of religious topics in the genre, but to my knowledge there has not been a previous attempt to make a graphic novel out of a single gospel; an extremely poorly edited graphic novel adaptation of the Book of Mormon is in progress and has now reached its third volume.) Mark is in many ways an ideal gospel for graphic novel adaptation—it runs to under 16,000 words in the Authorised Version, making it far shorter than the other gospels and shorter still than a feature article in the New York Times Magazine.

It is important to note that Marked is an adaptation, and not a strict graphic depiction of Mark's narrative. Marked is set in an undetermined time and place: there is a country occupied by an outside power, but its name and oppressors are not mentioned as Palestine and the Romans. Trumpets, gas-masks, machine guns, trucks, televisions, helicopters and barbed wire make it clear that this is not the first century AD. Individual parables and gospel incidents emerge page after page effortlessly, but without any air of conventionalised religiosity. My favorite series of pages (they are unfortunately unnumbered) depicts Jesus' healing of the Gadarene demoniac whose demons were sent into the herd of swine. The three cells just before the swine throw themselves off a cliff have the elegance of a Japanese screen triptych, and the narrative moves smoothly, quickly, believably and very effectively from each cell to the next. Ross even preserves some of the atmosphere of the famous Messiasgeheimnis or Messianic secret often associated with Mark's gospel. It ends, as it must, with the empty tomb, grieving Maries and folded graveclothes.

Ross does his best work in drawing figures who are instantly recognisable as their counterparts from scripture: John the Baptist is unmistakeably himself, as are the demons, pharisees, Mary Magdalene, the Blessed Virgin Mary and, of course, Jesus. This spot-on characterisation combines with forceful illustration of word-pictures from the gospel to make a highly readable book full of evangelical potential.

R. Mammana is an editor of Anglicans Online. His articles and reviews have appeared in Sobornost, Anglican Theological Review, The Living Church, Touchstone and The Episcopal New Yorker.