Once upon a time, religious satire was a daring proposition. It’s hard to believe if you’ve grown up with The Simpsons, South Park–hell, even Mad Magazine–but, back in the day, respectable citizens were scandalised by merely flippant attitudes to religion, much less pointed satire. Confronted with an apostate satirist, outraged citizens tended to respond with gnashing and wailing and stoning. It rarely ended well for the apostate.
Luckily, of course, those benighted days are far behind us.
(Ha! And you thought I was going to link to certain recent controversies involving the Prophet. Not me, that would be blasphemous.)
Changing public attitudes to religion, and mainstream acceptance of religious satire, might explain why the material reprinted in Frank Stack’s The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming now has all the satiric bite of a wet sponge. But that’s okay, because the attractions of this volume (published by Fantagraphics in 2006) have nothing to do with the “infamous [...] satirical assaults on beliefs held dear by Middle America” which are promised by the back-cover copy. In fact, they have nothing to do with the religious content at all.
The book mostly reprints material from the late 60s and 70s, with a couple of pieces from the 80s and one new story. We start out with short stories (1-2 pages each) poking fun at various biblical incidents or characters: John the Baptist, Doubting Thomas, Jesus’ temptation by Satan, the arrest at Gethsemane, and so on. There’s a lot of miracle-based humour here, but it’s pretty moderate stuff–although there is a good sight gag about walking on water, and the Xenophanes-inspired bit “The Dog Messiah” is laugh-out-loud funny.
Soon enough, however, Stack moves into longer stories. The central conceit of these longer pieces is that Jesus has had his second coming in modern times, but no one cares. The first story of this kind sets the tone. Jesus returns, meets some hippies and gets beaten up by the pigs.
Hey, man, it’s the 60s.
In later stories, Jesus goes to see a film about his life, which turns out to be a crude travesty composed of every Hollywood action movie cliche you can think of. He also gets drafted, joins the US presidential staff, and gets arrested (not all in the same story!).
There are laughs to be had throughout this material, but most of it doesn’t come from religious satire as such. Unlike, say, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon in Preacher, or William S. Burroughs in pretty much everything he wrote, Stack doesn’t care to mock the content of religious belief, or even religious institutions. The satire, instead, comes from the reactions of those around Jesus, and the general folly of their political, military and academic settings. So it’s religious satire in roughly the same sense that Borat was Kazakhstani satire, i.e. not really.
Even the impact of this sociocultural satire is muted these days. Robert Crumb’s satire still packs a punch because it’s so misanthropic, not to mention misogynistic, racist, etc. Stack might have seemed just as far-out, back in the heyday of underground comics, but his material is really a lot milder. That said, it’s often very funny, regardless.
But the best part of The New Adventures of Jesus isn’t the satire, or the jokes, or the generally merely serviceable cartooning. Rather, it’s the remarkable 14-page story “Jesus goes to a faculty party”. This story does what it says on the tin, but it also does much, much more. Having recently joined the faculty at an American university, Jesus goes along to a faculty party one night. Then, for the next twelve pages, he basically drops out of sight as Stack presents a sprawling panorama of faculty life. Characters weave in and out of panel, while competing conversations continue in the background. Various “types” are introduced and examined. Characters square off into groups, then scatter back into the main group.
It’s really like nothing else I’ve seen in comics–at least, I’ve never seen it so skilfully executed. The only real comparison is Robert Altman, both in the vignette structure and the framing of the sequences themselves. These aren’t stories we see here, or episodes in characters’ lives. We see the characters themselves, careening in a social void, colliding and rebounding like Democritean atoms. This story captures the rich and chaotic texture of social life better than most comics you’ll ever read.
In a way, the story is too good for its own good, or at least the good of this volume. Everything else seems slighter by comparison, even the shorter story “Top level meeting” which has a similar structure to somewhat lesser effect.
But in that, the book is only following the example of its hero. After all, once you’ve died and been reborn one time, anything else is a come-down.
Recommended: Come for the laughs; stay for the formal brilliance of the stories “Jesus goes to a faculty party” and “Top level meeting”.
IYL: Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb (both of whom contribute introductions), Robert Altman
The skinny: The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming, Frank Stack, Fantagraphics 2006. $19.95, 160 pages