by Carlo Santos,

The Manga Bible


The Manga Bible
"In the beginning..." With these words begins the story of God's chosen people, from the creation of the world to the stark visions of the Revelation. Abraham rises up as the great patriarch of the Israelite nation; Moses leads them out of slavery and to the Promised Land; great kings like David and Solomon defend the nation from wars and invaders; and even when the people of Israel are exiled to other lands, upstanding prophets and leaders are able to keep the faith. But the greatest prophet and teacher is yet to come: Jesus Christ, who will have to make the ultimate sacrifice in standing up for what he believes. But even after his death and resurrection, Jesus' disciples continue to spread his teachings around the world.

If manga is "cinematic" (as so many theorists love to say), then what kind of cinema would it be? In the case of The Manga Bible, the inspiration seems to come from Hollywood's big-budget adaptations of epic books. After all, what book is more epic (or controversial) than this one? This picture-story Bible has its fair share of sharp, dynamic artwork, focusing on the action-adventure elements of the Good Book: bloody wars, stunning miracles, and larger-than-life kings and prophets. But like so many visual adaptations of literature, it falls short at the most important part: telling the story. This volume is little more than a clip show featuring the Bible's Greatest Hits, overlaid with so much text that it defeats the point of pictorial storytelling. Is this truly a manga Bible, or just a series of bullet-point summaries with illustrations?

The greatest challenge in adapting the Bible is that it is not really a single book: it is a collection of books, essays, poems and letters, arranged in rough chronological and thematic order. That alone makes it difficult to dramatize, and so we see The Manga Bible taking plenty of artistic license, especially with the Old Testament—events are re-arranged for better historic context (Moses narrates the entire book of Genesis, for example), other events are recounted as flashbacks, stand-alone stories are inserted as interludes, and less story-driven books are omitted entirely. (Proverbs? Ecclesiastes? The minor prophets? See you guys later.) The life of Jesus is easily the most focused part of this book—after all, the source material has four different versions of his story—but like everything else, it's edited and summarized to the point of having almost no depth.

And that's really the problem with trying to squeeze hundreds of pages of assorted literature into a single 200-page graphic novel: if you try to cover everything, you end up covering nothing. Some of the richest, most dramatic stories in the Bible get little more than a single page or panel in this adaptation. Meanwhile, readers have to sit through pages upon pages of historical narration about warring kings and nations with long funny names, which were never very interesting in the first place. But there is one good thing to come out of this: at last we have a "Judeo-Christian manga" without the ridiculous preachy overtones. It doesn't tell people how to live their lives; it doesn't say "Don't do this or you're going to Hell"; it simply presents the events of the Bible in an epic historical-adventure format. In fact, for some, it might be their first objective look at the Bible, far from the obnoxious religious agendas of others. Too bad it's just so short.

Now here's where the "manga" part will be most contentious: how is the artwork? While it does capture the dynamic imagery of manga with sharp lines, stylized characters and dramatic staging, things are much less effective when it comes to actually stringing pictures together. All too often, the layouts are just random arrangements of facial close-ups, superhero poses and fancy landscapes, overlaid with text narration. Whatever happened to "Show, don't tell?" This book does so much "telling" straight out of the scriptures that it forgets to "show" the Bible's most dramatic moments—unless, of course, that dramatic moment involves an angry face or a superhero pose. And that's a sign of lazy art right there—only wanting to draw things that you like, instead of actually conveying the story to readers. It gets to the point where some visual cues are so vague, only those who know the original would understand what's happening. So if the newcomers can't make sense of it, and the old-timers know they're just getting an abridged visual representation, then what's the point?

Most of the text in this adaptation is lifted straight from the TNIV translation of the Bible, so don't worry about thees and thous—this is a modern, youth-oriented text that still manages to capture the poetry of the scripture. Of course, this adaptation has to pick-and-choose the best lines in order to fit it all in, but luckily it goes for narrative flow rather than trying to quote entire chapters verbatim. And yet, it still ends up cramming in way too much text ... Also, the author sees fit to throw in some humorous asides which are, quite frankly, not all that humorous. (Does anyone really care about Noah losing count when brought he the animals into the Ark?) The choice of font and placement are also poorly done—this looks very much like a Photoshop rush job where someone just opened up the text tool, typed up a line of scripture, and pasted it wherever on the page. Imagine this for about 200 pages in a very text-heavy comic and it becomes a rather taxing reading experience.

The Bible has been interpreted and adapted in hundreds of ways throughout its history—some more successful than others, and some more accurate than others. This version makes an attempt at accuracy, portraying the struggles of the Jewish people and the early Christians as a historical action epic, but it's just too difficult to accomplish that in such a small space. This is, at best, a Cliffs Notes Bible with some cool-looking drawings and a selection of the most visually striking stories. The lack of preachy, evangelical overtones is a pleasant relief, but the level of craftsmanship on display—horribly rushed pacing, flashy but lazy art, and cut-and-paste writing—just doesn't match up to the standards of this time-tested work. The Word of God deserves a lot better.

Production Info:
Overall : C-
Story : D
Art : C+

+ Presents the events of the Bible in a striking, dynamic art style and without the shrill preachiness of other religious literature.
Tries to cover too much story in too little space, resulting in a shallow "Best of the Bible" clip show overloaded with text.

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