Denver Pop Culture Con 2019: Folklore, Religion, And The Supernatural In Comics

by Brendan M. Allen

Join writer/creator Andrea Lorenzo Molinari (“The Shepherd”) as he explores the historical roots of the use of sequential art to address supernatural, spiritual and religious themes. He will also highlight and discuss some examples of how comic book creators are employing these themes today.

If you look back through history, folklore and religion are found in sequential storytelling as far back as ancient Egypt, probably further. In the Book of the Dead, there’s a very famous sequence called “The Judgement of Hu-Nefer,” in which the dead scribe meets his fate in the after life.

Read from left to right, Anubis leads Hu-Nefer into the judgment area, and then supervises the judgment scales in the next panel. Hu-Nefer’s heart, represented as a pot, is weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat.

If the heart didn’t balance with the feather, the deceased would be banished to non-existence, consumed by Ammit, that lion/croc/hippo thing at the foot of the scales. Having passed the test, our boy Hu-Nefer is led by Horus into the presence of Osiris. This is basically a four-panel comic strip.

Another example of sequential art in religious history is The Dossal of St. Clare, painted on wood by the “Maestro di Santa Chiara,” circa 1283. The sequence reads from bottom to top on the left, then top to bottom on the right.

In the first panel, young Clare receives an olive branch from Bishop Guido on Palm Sunday, 18 March 1212. In the second panel, Clare has run away from home with her nurse to Portiuncula, where Francis and his Brothers receive her. Next, Francis cuts her hair and puts her in monk’s robes. In the top left panel, she clings to the altar as her father, who has located the girl, tries to take her back home by force.

In the top right panel, Clare’s sister Agnes has run away to join Clare. Next panel, Clare receives the miracle of the multiplication of loaves. In the seventh, she dies, and in the eighth is her funeral, presided over by Pope Innocent IV in 1253.

Eight-panel comic.

The traditional style Nativity Icon dates back to the 15th century and is attributed to Saint Andrei Rublev. The background is an inhospitable world. In the center, Mary and swaddled baby Jesus. Starting at the bottom left and going clockwise, there’s a depiction of Righteous Joseph, having a chat with the Devil, who’s trying to convince him that his wife’s pregnancy is mundane, and there is no miracle. Following the images around, we see the magi on their way to visit the baby, the angels announcing the birth to shepherds “tending their flocks by night,” then the midwives washing baby Jesus after the event, and we end in the center Madonna and Child.

Five-panel comic.

These examples were done in this sequential format to help teach religious stories to the masses, who usually weren’t formally educated and therefore couldn’t read. After hearing the story, you could probably recall and re-tell most of it with the visual aid. That means the story changed slightly from telling to telling, and that’s part of the reason there are such wildly varied accounts of the root stories. Another reason is people tend to omit and rewrite the bits they disagree with.

Legends, folklore, and religion lend themselves so easily to sequential storytelling that you’ll find supernatural themes all over the comics industry. Titles like Buffy, Constantine The Hellblazer, American Gods, Pestilence, Bone Parish, Spektor, Joe Golem, Hellboy, Light Brigade, Spawn, and The Shepherd are just a few good examples.

Brendan M. Allen

Brendan Allen has probably had more jobs than you would reasonably believe. Dog trainer? He’s done it. Flooring contractor? You bet! EMT? Army NBC specialist? Road dog for a Celtic rock band? Yes, yes, and och aye! Now he reads comics and writes about them. It's a rough gig. You can follow Brendan on Twitter @SaintAmish where he mostly tweets about comic books and cystic fibrosis awareness.

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