Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Are the Stations of the Cross Comics?

The Lenten season has begun for Christians around the globe, the beginning of the most holy 40 days in the calendar that ends with Easter and Christ's resurrection. One of the traditional ways that Catholics mark the death of Christ is by praying through the fourteen Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

So I was driving home yesterday, and the thought occurred to me -- do the Stations of the Cross qualify as comics?

Most people think of comics as those four-color "funnies" printed in the Sunday newspaper, or perhaps as Superman-like tights-wearing super-heroes leaping tall buildings and battling crime in comic books. But those are just instances of certain genres of comics, not the totality of what a comic is.

Scott McCloud, in his seminal work "Understanding Comics", uses this definition for what a comic is:

"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer"

Under that definition, you find comics in ancient Aztec friezes describing a fight between the Jaguar King and his rival brother. You find medieval European tapestries retelling legendary battles, Egyptian hieroglyphic tales of gathering and threshing wheat to give to their gods, Grecian urns relating the labors of Hercules, indeed you find a startling number of cultures that use sequential art to tell their stories.

Without the prejudice of only the American comic book to limit our understanding, then, let's examine the Stations of the Cross. The individual stations are laid out together (juxtaposed). They are in a deliberate sequence, tracking the death of Christ throughout that long ordeal. They are intended to convey information (this is how Christ was tortured and died), and they mean to produce an aesthetic respons (admiration, horror, reverence, and more).

The key question is whether or not they are "pictorial". I think certainly printed versions of the Stations would qualify, but I am not as sure about the sculptured ones. Can a physical, three dimensional (or at least a frieze) sculpture qualify as pictorial?

If so, then even those kinds of Stations would, I think qualify as comics. In fact, I think it would be fascinating to do a series of comics crafted entirely in sculpture -- I don't know that I can think of a modern example of something like that.

In any event, the next time you're in a Catholic church, take a moment to look at the Stations of the Cross again, and reevaluate how amazing, touching, informative, and pervasive the idea of comics has been for thousands of years.


Anonymous said...

The English language is dynamic. Words change their meaning and can evolve into different areas. Thus, to me the word "comics" reduces the emotional impact that the word art carries. Thus, though I suppose this is just semantics, I think it is more accurate to say that the Stations are art, more specifically religous/ christian art, rather than the genre of comics. So much in so many ways involve the culture it is found in.

The Evil DM said...

more like a graphic novel.
a representation of the story using visual medium. remember the fact that many worshippers didn't know how to read back in the day. hence through the stations, a parent, for example, could explain to the child the story.

Denise said...

I've done quite a bit of research on the Stations of the Cross. I think calling the "trail of tears" a comic is akin to calling a woman a broad or a dame. Yes, it's in the dictionary, but they are derogatory terms, meant to lessen the integrity of a woman. Even if the Stations meet the criteria of a comic, as is stated, I would find it offensive to call them such. What the "Evil DM" states is correct. The stations were meant as a way for people who wished to remember the last days of Jesus possible. Many of the faithful of different religions wish to make pilgrimages to a holy place. The stations originally were numerous -- some churches and sites had 10, some 100, etc. They were unified probably back in the 1400's into 14. They are truly inspirational when looked at from a historical standpoint. I ask my eighth graders if they see themselves on the trail -- are they Pilate who washes his hands of any responsibility in life, are they Simon who just came to watch and was called into service, are they Veronica who risks her life to give an act of human kindness that is so simple yet so moving to another, are they the women who cry because they're powerless to help, are they the guards, one of the thieves, one who believes at the end and one who doesn't or are they Joseph who believed but was afraid to say so. They are extremely powerful, even when the kids know that Jesus begged to be spared this horrible death, he despaired on the cross yet he believed, as did the thief next to him. The Catholic Church added a 15th station a few years ago, the Resurrection, to remember that God came back just as promised. I know this is long, but the Stations are a wonderful way to remember a horrible death of a man that, even if you don't believe he was the Savior, was a man of peace, justice, mercy and of the people. It is also a reminder of the barbaric way people treated others in those days and that we all have a path to travel in life that is not always rosy or pleasant. So... even if they qualify in the definition of a "comic," I would never attribute that label to something so heart wrenching and yet so powerfully uplifting. Just as I would never call myself a broad.

Geopoet said...

Honestly, I am amazed about a lot of things when I'm praying along the stations (that God actually chose to suffer for me, that he could have at any moment simply departed, how I'm also called to die to selfishness, etc. etc.) but the last thing that would have entered my mind as amazing is the gift of . . . . comics.

That being said, art/myth to me is an aspect of the divine yearning to imagine the unimagineable and express the inexpressible, trying to paint the ultimate Painter - a truly unscientific and irrational activity of mankind .... unless that calvary story is really true.

Sorry if I'm not lighter in my reaction bro, Ash Wednesday being today and all. For us Christians though, those pictorials depict a very real and very personal God that actually did these things. As JRR Tolkein said, this myth is true.


Jeff Hebert said...

So... even if they qualify in the definition of a "comic," I would never attribute that label to something so heart wrenching and yet so powerfully uplifting. Just as I would never call myself a broad.

This is kind of the point I was trying to make -- "comics" is not an insulting term. Scott McCloud's book is about what makes comics a unique medium, and that the idea of juxtaposing images in a deliberate sequence is an ancient device that is separate and distinct from, say, one painting hanging on a wall. In America, the word "comics" has gotten a negative connotation that makes us denigrate what this kind of art can do.

In fact, I would say that "comics" (in the broader sense of juxtaposing images in a deliberate sequence) are uniquely qualified to convey the kind of passion and gravity that you describe. Imagine trying to convey that whole story only in words, or in one single static image. It can be done, but not to the depth and degree that comics can.

I realize choosing a subject like this to illustrate the concept is shocking and possibly insulting to some, but that's the point -- comics are not just funny pages printed one newsprint. The medium has an ancient, honored, and powerful history that we in America have relegated to this one tiny little sliver.

The fundamental point is that by arranging the various parts of the story in a deliberate sequence like this, and putting them side by side, conveys the majesty of this very moving, powerful story in a way no other art medium can. Calling it simply "paintings" or "sculptures" doesn't really describe what they are -- they must exist together, and they must be arranged in a certain order, or their power is greatly diminished. THAT is what "comics" are.

For us Christians though, those pictorials depict a very real and very personal God that actually did these things. As JRR Tolkein said, this myth is true.

I really wish you'd quit trying to read "See! Christianity is FAKE FAKE FAKE in every single thing I post. Whether Jesus was god or not is completely irrelevant to the point of this posting, which was that "comics" is a distinct kind of art that has the ability to tell a story like nothing else. I thought it appropriate at this time of year to point out that at least one very old method of using comics in this deeper sense survives into churches even now, and is capable of moving people like very few other things.

Jeff Hebert said...

A few more thoughts on this subject, because it's something very near and dear to my heart.

The issue of comics as an art form is one I take quite seriously, since in a very real sense it has been my life's work. It distresses me that people find the entire concept so base as to be insulting, when what I see is a deep, rich, fully realized historical medium of unique range and power. There hasn't ever been a word for it before until the last 200 years or so, but things like the Stations, or those ancient Greco-Roman vases telling the story of Hercules, or even the French cave paintings that depict ongoing hunts and the aftermath were jammed into whatever other category that was handy. There wasn't a term for putting a deliberate sequence of images next to each other in order to tell a story, even though people have been doing it since pre-history. Now, we do have this perfectly good term -- comics -- and we don't use it because ironically, in the very country where we were able to coin the term, the medium's used mostly for frivolous, silly purposes. Not that there's anything wrong with being silly or frivolous, of course, but there's a lot more to this kind of sequential art than anyone uses. I wish there were a different word to use, but there isn't -- there literally is no other word for pictorial and other images juxtaposed in a deliberate sequence. The closest is Will Eisner's "Sequential Art" but as McCloud covers in his book, that doesn't quite nail down the concept.

I hope you understand that to me, calling something an example of "comics" is not an insult. The exact opposite, in fact -- I find comics (or sequential art if you prefer) to be among the finest examples of powerful, moving art humanity has ever devised.

Denise said...

I think the word "sequential art" fits better the story. In reality, most comics are heart-wrenching stories, especially the ones with Spider Man I remember from my youth. I recently read "Persopolis" (the spelling is off here, I know), and it was a sequential black-and-white ink drawing of a girl growing up in Iran. Those "comic" drawings of the Shah killing people were definitely not humorous and they were quite moving. She was able to use an almost Eischer style to convey real suffering and tyranny. The last panel in the book is especially wrenching. But, in my business, word choices are something I've come to notice more and more. Often, it's a subtle nuance to a word or a headline that makes the difference. My editor and I have had long discussions over one or two words in a column or story. Looking at a word from two different perspectives is more involved than it would appear. When you renamed it sequential art, that is what the Stations are. Many of them were created because I learned that creating art for the sake of creating art was considered sinful; hence the reason for so much religious art hundreds of years ago. We have an old chapel, and the stations there are so sad and relate a story that just breaks the heart. That is what good art and good writing does -- it moves the heart and moves the soul. With your explanation, I understand better. I think the first thing that came to mind was the Sunday comics or the Archie comics Dad used to bring home for me. But broadening my mind (not just my rear end) is why I went back to school so another lesson has been learned!