Looking for God in the Gutter

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels on 21 October 2010

COMICS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT mythic narratives and beings: Superman is nothing if not Godlike, the Marvel Universe is virtually a pantheon, and even Charlie Brown was everyman’s Job. But recently, writers have been taking this mythic potential more literally by making comics explicitly religious: Virgin’s India Authentic, Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis Illustrated, and my own Testament, to name just a few. Why do so many writers choose to explore their relationship to the gods through comics?

There are plenty of answers–as many as there are comics, I imagine. But really, beyond the iconic representations, the history of superheroes, or the protection offered writers in a supposedly “kids’” medium, what is it about comics themselves that make them such an appropriate venue for Bible and Upanishads alike?

The gutter.

That’s right–the space between the panels. The parts of the page no one even pays attention to. Those white, empty lines separating one panel from another, one moment in comic narrative from the next. It’s there in that gap that the magic of comics occurs.

In one panel, Clark Kent heads into the phone booth; in the next, he’s Superman flying above Gotham City. Between those two incarnations, a simple gutter in which nothing is drawn, yet the entire transmogrification of man to superhero has taken place. It’s the closest thing in comics to transubstantiation, and it happens in the unseen crack between two discreet moments. It is everything, yet nothing.

This is core premise of comics, the art of sequential narrative. Our stories and their characters do not move in a line, as in theater or even literature, but through a series of windows. Frozen instants. These are the ticks of the clock, but not the spaces between each one where life actually happens or the story actually occurs.

As such, a comic requires a leap of faith from its readers every time they move from one panel to the next. We move to the next panel and must absorb it before we even understand its connection to the panel before. Only then are we able to relate it to the narrative of which it is a component part. Picture, word, then connection.

This gives the author an amazing opportunity: to instill word and image into a reader’s mind before the reader has a context for this information. This is the tremendous power behind comics’ ability to generate cultural iconography–to create modern mythology.

Sure, the mere juxtaposition of word and image within panels holds a power of its own. Visual representations of characters were deemed such a coercive threat that rabbis forbade “graven images” altogether, lest the masses be drawn into the mire of polytheism or paganism.

But when the illuminated manuscript is divided into separate but related panels of text and image, something even more inspirational happens: the reader is asked to participate, willfully, in the assembly of a whole from the parts. It is the reader who makes sense of the narrative, connecting the panels and turning them from separated moments into a living story.

It’s this act of reader participation– this transformation of sequence into story–that implicates readers so much more fully in the very telling of the story they think they’re reading. The readers aren’t just going along for the ride, but providing the propulsion forward. They are rewarded with a sense of completion and sense-making every time they move their eyes from one panel to the next, implicitly agreeing with the sense they have made.

For me, the gutter has always been such a powerful yet unrecognized element in the form that I decided to make its function explicit in my own work. For my own Bible-based comic series Testament, I chose to use the space between the panels as a zone for action. While my mam, human characters lived in the discreet moments of the comic’s panels, I placed the gods in the gutters between the panels (see Figure 1). Instead of leaving those spaces blank, I turned them into a second universe where gods fought among themselves in a war to dominate the sequential action.

Like the comic’s author and readers, the gods live outside sequential time, a dimension above and beyond the story–capable of commenting on it, seeing where it is going, even pushing the panels around. But they cannot actually enter the world of the story, at least not as themselves. If a god reaches his hand from the gutter, where he lives, into the panel itself, the hand becomes an element, like water or fire. The god can set a bush on fire, for instance, and communicate to a character through the flame–but he can never enter into the world, completely, himself.

Yes, it was a gimmick of sorts, through which I could create characters who lived beyond the story yet still had a stake in what went on. But it was also meant to reveal the power of the medium and its particular relationship to religious narrative.

Religious experience, for human beings, consists of a shift in awareness from the particular to the universal–from the mundane to the mythic or, even more precisely, from the moment to the infinite. Religion attempts to codify and transmit the eternal to creatures who are (at least for the time being) trapped in the present. It means to make human beings who are trapped within panels aware of the gutter beyond–even for just a fleeting moment, in the obscure shadows of inference.

And this is what attracts so many writers to comics as the ideal medium through which to express their own immortal intimations. The panels are winks: building blocks that, in themselves, may not amount to more than any other storytelling device, but collectively create a multidimensional rendering. Once they lock into place in the mind of the reader, they assemble, like a Kabbalistic Tree or I Ching sequence, into an informational matrix of a higher order than can be put into words.

The scholars represented in this book recognize this unique ability of comics to communicate, simulate, and perhaps even actualize transcendence. All you have to do to understand them is get over the fact that God is less likely to be found in a sacred text than in the gutter.