Graven Images

Believe--or else! Chester Brown's Gospel of Matthew

CHESTER BROWN'S JESUS is a Jesus that shouts. He's a Jesus that screams. In one of the cartoonist's adaptations of the Gospel of Matthew, even the designation of Simon as the rock (or "Peter") of his church is fraught with danger, as Jesus' imposing figure leans over him, his craggy face shouting into Simon's. A few pages later, when Simon/Peter insists that Jesus can't die, the Savior knocks him down. "Get out of my sight, Satan!" Jesus howls, enraged. "Forget this world and start thinking about the Kingdom of Heaven!"

Since the debut of his comic Yummy Fur over a decade ago, Brown has stormed the alt-comics world with a breathtaking array of work, from the frantic surrealism of Ed the Happy Clown to the autobiographical melancholy of I Never Liked You and The Playboy, to his current project, the dreamlike coming-of-infancy story Underwater (Drawn and Quarterly Publications). A few issues into Yummy Fur, the 38-year-old Canadian cartoonist began to adapt the Gospel of Matthew.

Having been raised in a strictly religious family, Brown still considered himself a Christian, but wasn't sure exactly what that entailed. "It seemed sensible to extend that into my work," says Brown, speaking from his apartment in Toronto. "It seemed to make sense to explore the Gospels by actually adapting them into comics, because that way I'd get to know what was actually in there."

What was there, Brown discovered, was often quite unpleasant. Biblical times as depicted in Brown's adaptations--which can currently be found included in most issues of Underwater--are filled with poverty and disease. Many of the apostles bear some kind of malformation, and even Christ's face is haggard and worn, his dark hair matted and stringy.

But if Brown's efforts leave the story seeming less glamorous, they also make it more accessible. In some instances, Brown renders the events more easily comprehensible, while still respecting the poetry of the story. In others, Brown's renditions of the Gospel reinforce Jesus' story as a narrative of intense, terrifying struggles against despair and oppression, not just a rambling procession of feel-good parables and miracles.

Of course, that doesn't mean parochial schools will be using his work any time soon: Brown's Jesus is a difficult man to follow. (Brown himself eventually abandoned Christianity because of what his research taught him. "I just realized that this was something that didn't make sense to me," he says.) Although the words out of Jesus's mouth will still sound reassuringly Christian to believers--Brown is exceptionally faithful to the original language of the Gospels, and he occasionally provides footnotes at the end of an issue--this Jesus is a man who has been driven by visions to the thin line between godliness and insanity. His unnerving intensity seems appropriate for the son of God, but it also makes him viciously impatient with his own disciples, as when he asks them, "Just how stupid are you?" before explaining one of his parables to them.

In fact, it's the apostles, not Jesus, who become the protagonists of Brown's adaptation. They make an awkward entourage to Christ, their muddled doubts and fears clashing with his messianic confidence. Yet their halting actions are understandable compared with those of Christ, who moves less like a man and more like a force of nature. In Brown's hands, the apostles aren't simply our storytellers; they're our stand-ins. They witness the holy, but are still barely able to reconcile the greatness of God with the miseries of their existence.

In them, the paradox of faith is brilliantly, heartbreakingly depicted. How can the disciples, having lived so long under the fears of their world, accept the holy vision of a heaven above it? How can they, with faces deformed and bodies weary, accept a God who would accept both the sublime and the profane in His creation? How, in fact, can any of us?

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