As someone living without religion, the tagline “Bible Stories for Atheists, Creationists, Rationalists & Rogues” made me curious about Israeli Tzvi Lebetkin’s scripture-inspired comics. But after reading the first three issues of Biblical, which are undeniably well-done, I’m still left wondering who the audience for this book –intended or otherwise – really is.
Biblical opens with some skillfully-arranged panels depicting a man’s climb up the Tower of Babel, a neat feat for Lebetkin, who did attend art school but says he’s drawing the book as well as writing for the simple fact that he can’t afford to hire a professional artist. The narrative doesn’t suffer because of it, as Lebetkin utilizes sequential storytelling techniques that belie his comic book inexperience, this being his first. The lines themselves are not pristine, which is made more apparent by the lack of color, but that’s probably not as important as the overall tone that’s set.
The tale of the Tower of Babel continues throughout the first two issues, as narrated to a young boy by an older man. Lebetkin indulges in some interpretation of the telling, as he believes the idea of a “war on the creator” is far-fetched. Despite my own meager religious training, I wonder if that’s really a sticking point, as many Bible passages seem to me to be obvious parables meant to teach lessons, without much concern for suspension of disbelief. The interpretations here are not grossly incongruent with mainstream ones, though, which further begs the question of to whom Biblical is speaking and what message it’s trying to send.
If it’s meant as an alternate avenue to attract interest to the stories of the Hebrew Bible, it succeeds. The narrative, which doesn’t often name names, is constructed well enough that I found myself curious about the characters and their motivations by the end of #1. In what I think is the wisest stroke of Biblical, Lebetkin nurtures that interest by including back matter identifying the people you’ve become invested in (“Oh, it’s THAT guy?”) and providing a more scholarly analysis of the story that’s first presented in comic form.
It’s not a bad strategy, if that’s really the intent. So many biblical figures are already larger than life, that adapting them into comic book characters seems so natural it’s almost surprising it hasn’t happened before. Lebetkin himself, through email, describes the cast of the Old Testament as “three-dimensional, flawed, relatable characters in extraordinary circumstances.” I think I heard the same phrase in a Marvel Studios press junket. There’s an image in issue #2 of Abraham standing stoically while an inferno rages around him that’s reminiscent of a superhero storming a burning building to save civilians. If that evocation wasn’t deliberate, maybe it should have been.
The straightforward yet dramatic recounting of tales shows that at least one thing’s for sure – Biblical isn’t looking to convert anyone. There’s no evangelizing and the stories chosen so far, which also include Noah robbing a raven of his glory in issue #3, could in fact be used to illustrate just how dickish old school God and his followers could be. Besides an uncomfortable scene in the first issue that compares those seeking unity to the Nazis at Nuremburg, the depictions of murder, betrayal and general nastiness are straight from the source material, perpetrated by some of the big three religions’ most revered figures.
I suppose if nothing else, Biblical functions as an exciting introduction to religious icons for those who might otherwise not delve into scripture. Whether that’s the book’s true goal, or whether there’s a real need for that, I can’t say. Lebetkin expresses a personal lament that, beyond the spiritual, the Bible doesn’t get the credit it deserves as “rattlingly good drama.” Maybe, then, the fact that Biblical effectively addresses that problem is purpose enough.
The first three issues of Biblical are currently available, in both print and digital formats, at biblicalcomix.com, and possibly soon on comiXology. Issue #4 is scheduled to be released in late January.
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