A Conversation with Ken Koltun-Fromm
The professor of religion explores religious stereotypes through comics books and graphic novels in his new book.
In his new book, Drawing on Religion: Reading and the Moral Imagination in Comics and Graphic Novels, Professor of Religion Ken Koltun-Fromm considers our racial, classed, and gendered stereotypes of religious people through comic books and graphic novels. These comic books include R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis Illustrated, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, the Vakil brothers’ 40 Sufi Comics and Ms. Marvel. He considers how comics like these, which depend on stereotypes and simplification, both expand and limit our imagination of different religious communities.
Why do you think comics and graphic novels are an interesting lens through which to think about religion?
Ken Koltun-Fromm: Because comics traffic in stereotypes and those stereotypes can be productive in showing us both expansive and repressive worlds. In this book, I focus on religious stereotypes and images, and those representations are often layered in gendered, racial, and class depictions. Comics offer us one way to explore what religion looks like, or what we imagine it could look like--and because it's not a "high-brow" genre, comics often depict material religion--the spaces where religion happens, and the "stuff" of religion.
Can you give an example of one of the comics or graphic novels you discussed in your book? What was it about and how did that fit into the argument or themes of your book?
KKF: So one of my favorite texts is Michael Allred's The Golden Plates. It's practically a word-for-word translation into comics of the first book of Nephi in The Book of Mormon. I say practically because part of what interests me are the few moments when it deviates from the Book of Mormon, and the images are fascinating if you are interested in race and religion, but also if you are concerned with the moral imagination, as I am. So I look at the racialized imagery in that comic, but I also discuss scenes where the main character, Nephi, exists in this in-between, lingering moment. Like many texts in this book, The Golden Plates oscillates between oppressive imagery and expansive representations.
What’s something you learned as you wrote and researched this book?
KKF: I conclude the book by discussing this notion of "lingering," and by that I mean the state of lingering in-between moral worlds and not acting too quickly to come down on one side or the other in a moral debate or in imagining alternative ways of living a good life. And what I learned was, that's really hard!! At some point we usually need to take a stand, but we often want to, and so lingering in that in-between is not often a pleasant place to be, it's uncomfortable, and there is certainly a built-in tendency to leave that uncertainty. But it's still important to stay there for a while and accept that discomfort.
Have you ever made your own graphic novel or comic? Have you ever considered it?
KKF: I have, and if you want to see what a bad comic looks like I suggest you contact James Weissinger in the Hurford Center. It came out of a course on comics and religion, and we all put together short comics into a volume that is now within the Hurford Center. If you want to laugh, you can find mine pretty easily. I have no artistic ability at all!!