Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sequart Reprints: New Adventures of Jesus

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
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Before Crumb, before Shelton, before the Zap! collective, there was the New Adventures of Jesus. It was created by Frank Stack, an art professor who drew the strips under the pseudonym of Foolbert Sturgeon. He was concerned that writing blasphemous tales of Christ would be frowned upon by his superiors--and worse yet, that he was drawing comic books. These days, Stack's best known by comics fans as a frequent collaborator of Harvey Pekar's. He drew the excellent Our Cancer Year with his now-trademark scratchy, cross-hatched and borderline grotesque style. Out of print for years, this edition collects all of the old stories and has a new one as well.
The Jesus stories came about as a result of his frustation with being in the army in the early 60's. Stationed near New York City, he fell in with assorted comics and art scene folks, including the likes of major influence Harvey Kurtzman, Terry Gilliam and Gilbert Shelton. He and Shelton knew each other from their days at the University of Texas, which was the incubator for much of what we know as the underground movement. Starting in about 1963, Stack started drawing retold & cheeky stories of Jesus for his friends. These eventually got collected and photocopied by Shelton back in Texas (making these the first mini-comics as well as the first undergrounds). When Shelton founded his own publishing concern, he printed six years worth of strips. Stack went on to to do a couple of other issues of Jesus comics during the late 60's and would continue to return to them from time to time.
Like a lot of humor from this era, what seemed groundbreaking & taboo at that time seems a bit quaint today. Humor that relied on shock value and drug references (like much of Shelton's material) as punchlines don't have much bite now. That's why I prefer Crumb's work from the 80's til now--he seemed to get a lot of that juvenalia out of his system. The best strips by Stack in this collection have a timeless quality. In some respects, his earliest strips were the funniest. These reimagine biblical tales, with funny retellings of Jesus being separated from his parents and hanging out in a temple. Contrasting the original story's account of Jesus being wise beyond his years, this story shows him as a wise-ass. Another funny story shows Jesus' confrontation with Satan in the desert, except that Jesus transforms himself into a camel and Satan looks like an idiot. My favorite is a silent strip that has Thomas reaching into Jesus' wound after he was resurrected--he kept reaching into Jesus' side until he had a shocked expression. Pulling out his hand, we see that Thomas has a mousetrap on his hand!
Stack notes that he was raised a christian, and it shows in the level of detail in his stories. There's a gentleness in his satire--Jesus is a sympathetic and very human figure. These stories are played for laughs, but they're really a clever updating of old tales. They lose none of their original power, but add the new dimension of being hilarious. Stack drew them in a quickly tossed-off scratchy style that adds to their charm. It's a style that reminds me of what Glen Dakin would do years later in his strip.
In his later stories, Stack brings Jesus into the 20th century. He used Jesus as a means of commenting on more contemporary issues, and as a result, some of the strips feel a bit dated. A story about Jesus being forced to join the army and go to Viet Nam actually works pretty well, as every attempt Jesus makes to get out of the service (showing off the stigmata, claiming to be the Prince of Peace) gets twisted around by the draft board. On the other hand, an extremely lengthy story about Jesus joining the faculty of a university is incredibly tedious. It's clear that Stack has an axe to grind and wanted to comment extensively on academia at the time (especially as how he experienced it), but the long party sequence feels like one long inside joke. Another clunker had Jesus joining the Reagan cabinet, and it just went to prove that most political humor has a short lifespan.
One of my favorite later strips include Jesus going to the movies and watching an action movie version of his story that is ridiculously over the top. We see a brawl between Jesus & John the Baptist over Mary Magdalene and a musclebound Jesus using the cross as a weapon to fight off the Romans and incite a revolution. Coming out of the theatre, someone says "The ending's not like the book." A grinning Jesus replies, "Believe me, it's better!" Another great later story sees Jesus coming back to earth, only to find it a burning cinder. God tells him to put it back together with the help of a Superman-figure in a story that feels like a cross between Feiffer and Kurtzman. Stack's latest stories, which feature Jesus in the suburbs trying to eke out a 9-to-5 existence, sell a sequel to the bible (his working title of "More Bible" wasn't wowing anyone), struggle to deal with intellectual property rights and figure out when to bring the last judgment.
For his later strips, Stack uses his mature style. Faces are heavily shadowed and cross-hatched, adding a certain grotesqueness to the proceedings. Stack manages to combine a loose sketchiness to his line with that cross-hatching & heavy use of shadow. This adds a tension to his work that is lacking in his later 60's art, which looks busier and more cluttered. That greater clarity allowed Stack a chance to breathe while setting up his jokes, which are a bit more sophisticated. In the end, it's Stack's wit, playfulness and thoughtfulness that make these stories work. It would have been easy to use Jesus just for the sake of shock, but he instead cleverly deploys him as a figure that comments on his surroundings. Some of those observations are more interesting now than others, and he certainly overplays his hand on some of them, but there's no question that Stack's affectionate development of Jesus as a fleshed-out, wise-cracking and very human character is what I enjoyed most about this book. Both in the bible and in this book, Jesus doesn't have any tolerance for hypocrites, hustlers and abusers of power.

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