COMICS AND RELIGION

“God isn’t dead,” stated the large billboard in the “Pogo” strip, “He is merely unemployed.”

Americans have always had an interest in religion, whether embracing it or criticizing it. The comics have often reflected this interest, focusing on clergymen, churches, and topics of belief.
A few strips were specifically Bible –oriented-
“Tales from the Great Book” by John Lehti was a Sunday color page illustrating Bible narratives, and, on occasion, such extra-Biblical stories as the childhood life of Moses.
“Jack and Judy in Bible-Land” by Robert Acomb featured modern children in Biblical settings.

Clergymen

“David Crane” by Creig Flessel (with scripts by religion writer Hartzell Spence) was the story of a midwestern minister, his family and parishioners.  
Bill O’Mally’s “Reverend” was a gag strip based on.. a reverend.
“Sherman on the Mount” by Lee and Fruchey kidded a pleasant monk and his monastery brothers.
“Sonny Pew” (James Estes) centered gags on the young son of a preacher.

The local parson often visits the home of Snuffy Smith and Loweezy in the “Barney Google” strip. Snuffy’s typical response is to hide the cards, the corn squeezins, and the chickens he just liberated from his neighbors.
  
“Kudzu”’s clergyman, Rev. Will B. Dunn, has become a default star of Doug Marlette’s strip, Part man of the cloth, part everyman, Rev. Dunn struggles with desires to become a popular television evangelist.
“Just updating a little bit!” says Ida Mae, trying to be contemporary with music.    
“No!” says  Rev. Dunn, “... I refuse to let our young people sit around campfires, toasting marshmallows, singing, ‘Someone’s dysfunctional, Lord, Kum Bah Yah’!”  (“Kudzu” 10-25-94)

Activist pastor Scot Sloane of “Doonesbury” is a hip clergyman. Garry Trudeau modeled Rev. Scot after Rev. William Sloane Coffin of Yale.
     “What can we say about Phil Slackmeyer? ” asks Scot Sloane from his pulpit as he oversees the funeral.
     “By all accounts, he was a decent golfer. He subscribed to three newspapers, and he collected paper clips. In short – a life well-lived...Okay, I’m sure he had other fine qualities, but that was all I was given to work with.”     (“Doonesbury” 4-14-2002)

Jerry Bittle’s “Geech” includes a clergyman character, who is consistently frustrated in his attempts to convince the cynical Rabbit to change his ways and come to church.

A large, feathered Padre is an occasional character in “Shoe,” now done by Cassatt and Brookins.
Padre: “Just remember, my son.. when God closes a door, He opens a window.”
Shoe: “Padre, my cousin got arrested for doing that.”

Bayonne, N.J. has a famous comic strip church with a well-known pastor, as developed by artist Bud Grace. Reverend Bob, however, is a member of “The Piranha Club,”  which means he’s a master con artist like Sid and all the brothers.

Beetle Bailey's Chaplain Staneglass has been described as a "whimsical, naive,
harmless fuddy-duddy." Mort Walker noted that he was cautious about using a religious character, "but we have not received a single complaint about the chaplain." The
chaplain preaches, counsels, and visits the troops.
    “Beetle, I saw you asleep during my sermon,” says the chaplain.
     Beetle: “I’m sorry, sir, but it was a long sermon.”
    Chaplain: “I didn’t think it was long at all.”
    Beetle: “Guys that deal with eternity don’t think anything is long.”  (“Beetle Bailey, 8- 3-87)

Churches

Dennis the Menace and the characters in “The Family Circus” are often shown sitting in church or  making comments as they leave.
“Curtis,” with kid brother Barry, enjoys going to church, mostly to chuckle at the ladies’ fancy hats and to get a glimpse of his girlfriend Michelle singing in the choir.

The Bible

Mother Goose: “And the last shall be first,” reads Mother Goose from the Bible.
“Try telling that to a sled dog,” responds Grimm.  
(“Mother Goose and Grimm”, 10-30-01)

“What are you doing with that marker?” asks young Nelson.
“I’m highlighting some of my favorite Bible passages,” replies Opal Pickles.
“Ah, that’s what I thought,” says Nelson. “Grandpa said you were crossing out the parts you didn’t like.”
(“Pickles” 3-10-2002)

“What are you reading?” asks waitress Roz.
“The Bible,” replies Shoe.
“Looking for inspiration?”
Shoe: “No ...loopholes.”
(“Shoe” 8-1-2002)

Specific Strips

Wiley Miller’s Sunday “Non Sequitur” page introduced the character Homer who is dispatched to earth and given various lives in various eras by God, who sits at a computer.

Tim Downs, artist of  “Downstown” in the 1980’s, was also a traveling lecturer for Campus Crusade for Christ, and many of his strips carried a religious theme. Concerned about moral relativism and inspired by evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, Downs created the character Captain Relative who expects to be paid in cash for his good deeds.
“One of Downs’ most clever and profound series occurred Christmas (1981), when he depicted children asking hard questions about Santa Claus. One boy wrote earnestly to the North Pole: ‘They say you know if we’ve been sleeping; you know if we’re awake. Doesn’t this demand omnipresence? You know if we’ve been bad or good. This implies your authority to assign moral absolutes. Are you aware of the staggering theological implications of these claims?’” (1)  

Roger Bradfield’s “Dooley’s World” form the 1970’s often interjected a Biblical teaching.
When Thelma, the aggressive rag doll knocks down the other toys, Max the mouse exclaims, “Thelma! Haven’t you ever heard of the golden rule?”
“Of course..Do unto others as you would!”
“Didn’t she leave something out?” asks the mouse.  

Various strips have led readers to look for an interpretation, a deeper meaning.
“The popular strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ features a little boy and his stuffed tiger,”
wrote Colson. “...The title plays off the names of John Calvin, the great Reformation leader, and Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher. These historical figures believed that human nature is depraved. The little boy portrays on a childish level the sin and weakness our flesh is heir to.”  (2)

For many years December “Peanuts” strips focused on the kids’ involvement in a Christmas pageant, with Linus quoting the nativity account from Luke, chapter two.
The consistent Biblical input of cartoonist Charles Schulz led theologian Robert Short to write the book “The Gospel According to Peanuts.”  According to Short, Linus is the intellectual and the miniature theologian, often quoting the Bible to his sister, sometimes generating unusual questions (“If you hold your hands upside down when you pray, do you get the opposite of what you prayed for?”) Furthermore, Charlie Brown is the oft-failing everyman, Lucy is a portrait of “original sin,” and Snoopy is the saint, the happy, dancing, spreader of love.

“The inability of the Peanuts kids to produce any radical change in themselves – or in each other – for the better is a constant ‘Peanuts’ theme…The classic ‘Peanuts’ commentary on this rather pessimistic view of human nature is the running gag every year when Charlie Brown’s courageous  views on man’s freedom and goodness are brought back to earth by Lucy.”  (Short) (3)
“Why don’t you let me hold the ball for you, Charlie Brown?” asks Lucy. Charlie is wearing a helmet and carrying his football.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” responds Charlie Brown. “Do you think you can fool me with the same trick every year?”
“Oh, I won’t pull the ball away, Charlie Brown..I promise you..I give you my bonded word!”
“All right,” he agrees, “I’ll trust you.. I have an undying faith in human nature! I believe that people who want to change can do so, and I believe that they should be given a chance to prove themselves..” He runs at the ball. Lucy yanks it away, smiling.
“AAUGH!” (“Whump!” as he lands on his back.)
“Charlie Brown,” says Lucy, "Your faith in human nature is an inspiration to all young people.” (4)

“In Peanuts, religious heresy seems to be represented by the ‘Great Pumpkin’, Linus’ substitute for Santa Claus. Linus believes (‘with every fiber of his being’) that every year on Halloween night the Great Pumpkin rises up out of the pumpkin patch and brings toys to all the good little children  in the world!’ ‘You’re crazy!’ Charlie Brown tells him. ‘All right,’ replies Linus,' so you believe in Santa Claus, and I’ll believe in the Great Pumpkin. The way I see it, it doesn’t matter what you believe just so you’re sincere!’ Furthermore, the Great pumpkin will only appear in the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. Over and over, Schulz seems to be saying that sincerity  is no more a guarantee of truth than it is a guarantee of success. ‘How can we lose when we’re so sincere?’ laments Charlie Brown after his baseball team loses another game, this one ‘one hundred and eighty four to nothing!’ (5)

BC

“I assume,” says Wade, proceed in through the Twelve Steps with recovering alcoholic Funky Winkerbean, “You’ve done your homework and are all set for a discussion of the third step..about turning your will and life over to a higher power.”
“Yeah,” says Funky, “But somehow it’s just not that simple for me!
I mean, my life isn’t a B.C. comic strip!”
(“Funky Winkerbean” 10-8-2001)
 

“What could a dead atheist, a dead agnostic, and a dead saint possibly have in common?”
asks B.C.
Thor answers, “They all know there is a God.” (“B.C.” 7-31-2001)

“Since 1988, (Johnny) Hart has been putting Christian themes in the strip, writes Rick Green. “His  B.C. is a caveman with conviction. On Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter –and many days in between – his characters offer messages reflecting hart’s firm belief in the Gospel.” (6)
“Last Easter Sunday (2000), for example, Hart had the characters B.C. and Cute Chick watching the sun set behind a large cross. As the sun went down, the cross’s shadow crept along the ground until it covered them. Hart explained that the cross was done in blood red to indicate Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In the last frame, B.C. says, ‘I stand corrected.’” (7)
In a Good Friday strip, Grog ponders play on words from a church announcement-
“Son rise, serve us..Son rise, serve us..”
“‘Johnny wants to be funny, and he has something important to say,’ (Creators Syndicate director  Rick) Newcombe says, ‘if he can do it with a scalpel, he’s happy. If he does it with a bulldozer, it  won’t work.’’’ (8)

References
1. “A Cartoonist Deals with the Faith in the Funnies,” Christianity Today, 1981.
2. Colson, C., “Calvin and Comics,” BreakPoint, Nov. 1992.
3. Short, R., The Gospel According to Peanuts, John Knox Press, 1965, p.42.
4. Ibid.
5. Short, p.71.
6. Green, R., “Cartoonist With a Message,”  The War Cry, August 19, 2000, p. 18.
7. Ibid.
8. Neven, T., “Lessons from the Hart,” Focus on the Family, April 1999, p1.

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