The Word-for-Word Bible Comic: The Gospel of Matthew.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 September

When I was a kid our Sunday school classes had a take-home comic book called Bible-in-Life Pix. (Now it’s just called Pix.) As I recall it’d usually contain three stories each week:

  • Something about some missionary or preacher or saint who did something of interest.
  • “Tullus,” a fictional series about the adventures of an ancient Roman Christian who’d share Jesus with pagans. I found it so boring, so I’d skip it.
  • Excerpts from The Picture Bible, which is the only part I really cared about—and collected. ’Cause it’s bible. But a comic book!

My only beef with The Picture Bible was it wasn’t the whole bible. Stories were abbreviated. Some stories were skipped altogether. Sometimes for very good reason; most of Judges really isn’t for children! But you know how literalist children can be: If you present ’em a comic-book bible, they want the whole bible. All of it. Genesis to maps.

My other beef with The Picture Bible came much later, once I majored in biblical history in school and found its pictures weren’t all that historically accurate. Yeah, some of this is my usual rant about White Jesus in a toga. To be fair, the illustrators were trying to create images which 20th century American Christians were already familiar with through western art, instead of startling them with reality. The unfortunate side effect is whenever the Holy Spirit himself tries to wake us up to reality, too many of us figure it can’t be the Spirit, suspect it’s some other spirit, and embrace our favorite fictions all the tighter. But that’s another rant.

The Word for Word Bible Comic: The Gospel of Matthew by Simon Amadeus Pillario. Word for Word Bible Comic.

Clearly English graphic designer Simon Amadeus Pillario had the same issues. So he did something about it! In 2014 he began a Kickstarter campaign to finance the first book of his Word for Word Bible Comic, in which he was gonna illustrate the full text of Judges. (Yeah, Judges, which I just said isn’t for children. Gotta get the rough stuff out of the way, I guess.) And he was aiming for historical accuracy: Ancient middle eastern Hebrews which look like ancient Hebrews instead of white Europeans; buildings and landscapes which are accurate to ancient Canaan instead of looking like 20th century Jesus movies; angels which don’t generically look like Anglos.

He completed Judges; then did Joshua, Ruth, Esther, and Mark, and this weekend he’s releasing Matthew—hence this article. He sent me an advance copy of Matthew to read. It’s good stuff. You might want it; along with the other books, all of which are on his website.

Why a comic book?

If you’re not into illustrated sequential art, whether you call it comic books, graphic novels, or manga… well hopefully it’s not for the wrong reasons.

One all-too-common attitude I keep running into (generally from people who don’t read comic books) is this belief comics are just for children. Therefore comic-book bible stories would be children’s books… and what’re we doing reading children’s books? This belief is weirdly common. It’s dangerously naïve, because I’ve had students whose parents were totally clueless about the very age-inappropriate books their kids read.

Another attitude is comics are for the illiterate, or the less-literate: If you’re not a strong reader, here y’go; read a comic book. It’s tied to the idea comics are for children, and there’s also a lot of snobbery mixed in there.

Comic books are art. You read ’em for the art. The images, like all good art, is meant to evoke emotion, and if it’s done right it does that. And what better to make art from than the bible?

But art is a risky thing. Y’might unintentionally evoke the wrong emotions. I already brought up the snobs: There are plenty of people who think comic books are too lowbrow, and the scriptures are too exalted, for one to adapt the other. Or they think the only purpose of comic-book bibles is to help not-very-literate children and adults actually read the bible: If they struggle with the words, at least they can look at the pretty pictures!

Yeah, that’s a dumb thought. Take this image, from Matthew 24 where Jesus foretells the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in 40 years. (Pillario depicts it as if it’s gonna happen during a future totalitarian regime. Agree to disagree.) If you’re truly illiterate, how’re you gonna know what the images are about?

The coming tribulation. (Hey, the students asked.) Possible interpretations of Jesus’s prophecies, or depictions of non-literal things like his parables, are illustrated with a lot of magenta. WFWBC Matthew 168

But the purpose of Christian art is, as it’s always been, to help us meditate on sacred things. Many of us Christians use our imagination, but just as many (if not more, thanks to movies based on bible) use Christian art: Images of how biblical history might’ve looked, inform us as we turn the scriptures over in our minds, and the Holy Spirit points out stuff to think and pray about. And plenty of images in the Word for Word Comic Book series are gonna give you stuff to think about!

Pillario strove for historical accuracy, which as an historian I very much appreciate. For the most part he hit it. But y’know, nitpickers like me are gonna find a few gaffes. Like Jesus’s students being his contemporaries instead of teens and young adults. Or Sadducees with Jewish-style (not, at the very least, Greek-style) beards. Or men covering their heads in synagogue (with medieval-origin prayer shawls to boot). And yeah, during his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is straight-up wearing a toga. Not the typical red or blue one, but whatever. (To be fair, ancient art does exist of Jews in togas, as Pillario pointed out to me later. I still doubt.)

But all that is minor stuff. Stuff nonhistorians won’t notice… ’cause they’ll be too surprised at all the clever images they do notice.

The Lord’s Prayer. Nope, Jesus isn’t standing in the shade; for once he’s properly brown. And he’s praying like ancient Jews would, with his head raised and hands out. WFWBC Matthew 41

Historical accuracy aside, there is creative license taken on a regular basis. (As there should be.) Spiritual events, fr’instance, which are ordinarily invisible, have to be depicted somehow. So when Jesus foretells the future, his eyes start to glow blue, kinda like he’s literally looking through time at those events. (Me, I figure foreknowledge is more like knowledge: He’s simply recalling what he’s seen already—which just happens to be in our future. Still, the illustrations look more cool.) Or when demons and Satan pop up, there’s wispy green stuff around them. Angels likewise: Typically they’re invisible, but when Matthew doesn’t specifically say they look like men, Pillario went for a loose depiction, based on Ezekiel and Revelation’s descriptions of angels. They’re not just winged Anglos in bright nightgowns.

The night Joseph found out Mary wasn’t lying about where her baby came from. WFWBC Matthew 11

Some of Pillario’s interpretations struck me as really thought-provoking. Like when Jesus walked on water, maybe the students didn’t initially recognize him ’cause his cloak was covering his head. Like Jesus’s hair going white (’cause it’s white in Revelation) after his resurrection—which might also explain why the students enroute to Emmaus likewise didn’t recognize him. Or when Jesus takes the throne in his kingdom, he’s wearing head-priest robes. I don’t entirely know that I buy it… and I don’t entirely know he’s wrong either. It’s stuff to think about.

Honestly if anything I’d have liked it if Pillario took more creative license. There’s a lot an artist can do to illustrate Jesus’s teachings; we don’t have to see yet another panel of Jesus talking and crowds reacting! But okay, that’s more of a selfish nitpick on my part. I like creative imagery. Pillario’s goal is to illustrate the bible—the whole bible—accurately. I’m all for that too. More please!

(Oh, and if you wanna contribute to his Patreon so he can create more, website.)