It’s the Greatest Story Ever Told – but is it the greatest graphic novel ever produced? Probably not, but it’s an intensely cinematic read nonetheless.
Written by Mike Maddox
Illustrated by Jeff Anderson
Lettered by Steve Harrison
Design by Jonathan Roberts
The Bible is a unique narrative of origins and cosmic powers; of the ageless battle between good and evil; of human potential and human treachery – the very stuff that graphic novels are made of.
Published in 1998, Lion Hudson’s “Graphic Bible” (known in some editions as “The Illustrated Bible: A Dramatic Reading of God’s Story”) is an incredibly vivid, almost entirely painted adaptation of the narrative parts from the Old and New Testaments. It’s a lavish and spectacular rendition that will leave every young or first-time comics reader incredibly spoiled, resembling a cross between concept art and storyboards for a Hollywood blockbuster, albeit with word balloons instead of captions.
Jeff Anderson’s art is beautiful, evocative and emotional, and he’s as comfortable illustrating the Parables of Jesus with inked and colored drawings as he is bathing most of the characters in shadow and light. (Smartly, he’s also able to dispense with backgrounds to emphasize people, objects, or Steve Harrison’s lettering when necessary.) Maddox’s script is excellent, balancing the gravity of an omniscient narrator with modern, unpretentious dialogue for the characters, which reminds us that they’re generally honest, salt-of-the-earth people in extraordinary situations. (There’s even some wry self-deprecation about how they should sound by having one unnamed character, who is studying his predecessor’s account of the fall of Israel and Judah, remark that “Jeremiah never spoke like that!”)
The narrative is kept fresh by changing the perspective to characters like the old Moses and David reflecting on their lives, as well as the aforementioned men chronicling the fall of Judah, and Paul and John’s canonical reflections in the New Testament. (Cleverly, the epistles are covered with a montage of the letters being read to different crowds, whose locations are indicated by unique color palettes.) While this approach does become repetitive as a result of it always being old men taking over, it’s a reminder that, despite being a single graphic novel, this book is as dense as its source material, and it should be read over as many days and many nights.
As a product of the ’90s, the book takes advantage of all the knowledge from Biblical archaeology at the time: it was, and remains, striking to see the men in Genesis draped only in Sumerian skirts. The characters are generally tanned and hirsute, although they still more like English character actors than Middle Easterners: I’m willing to concede this may be a subconscious result of the language, except Adam and Eve are depicted with large, curly hair and glowing bronze skin to reflect their pre-fallen state, meaning the book does not go all the way in depicting how these people would’ve looked like. (It should also be noted Anderson has only improved in conveying Biblical people are Middle Eastern people on subsequent projects.)
Similarly, this adaptation does not flesh out the lives of female characters beyond the text – there’s also a whiff of the male gaze in moments like David observing Bathsheba, her backside posed against a towel like a glamor model, which would’ve been less noticeable out-of-context, but it adds up when you leave out characters like the Prophet Deborah, or don’t hint that David may have also been in love with Jonathan. Still, these feel like quibbles when you consider that the book could’ve been a shorter, child-aimed anthology that ignores darker incidents like these entirely – instead, the book is comprehensive to the point that Maddox makes a note of the Apostles’ deaths recounted outside the Bible.
There is something simply incredible about seeing lesser-known stories — such as Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones — being depicted with as much weight and reverence as more familiar events like those in Exodus or the Gospels. Anderson’s take on the likes of Genesis — with its documentary-like visuals of Earth, and a Serpent of Eden who was basically an Andy Serkis character before Andy Serkis ever donned a motion capture suit — is wonderful, but what was truly mindblowing as a child was discovering stories like Revelation here.Continued below
But the most jawdropping moment in this is still the sight of Jesus on the cross, bloodied and naked. We’re so used to depictions of Christ’s crucifixion where he look almost serene, his dignity preserved with a loincloth, that Anderson has to literally strip that away to remind us how awful and humiliating his execution was. As an artistic expression, it’s easily a match for any of the old masters, and it is probably my favorite depiction of the death of Jesus, even if I’m aware that the nails were driven through his arms, not his palms – which means it utterly embodies the merits of this adaptation.
Ultimately, “The Lion Graphic Bible” is the gold standard for any graphic novelization of the Christian canon, and is bound to inspire any Christian (age 10 to 100) reading it, and hopefully any non-Christian with its stunning renditions of the timeless stories within. Who knows: perhaps this 20th century Sistine Chapel ceiling is actually the one comic book you should read before the Day of Judgment – hopefully it’ll make its way online for digital reading beforehand.