Talking Comics with Tim | Russell & Wheeler on ‘God Is Disappointed in You’
I happen to be a person of faith who also has a sense of humor. As a result, the effort by writer Mark Russell and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler to accurately, yet comically, condense the Bible, God Is Disappointed in You, amused the hell out of me. In Catholic high school, I once offended several people by characterizing a newly unveiled statue of Christ (hands outstretched blessing a crowd) as showing the son of God opting for a “basketball zone defense.”
Fortunately Russell and Wheeler, are far superior at comedy (and religious scholarship) than I have ever been. The book clicked with me from the opening pages. While it will not be released until August, you can preorder it now from Top Shelf.
Tim O’Shea: First question goes to Shannon, thanks to his part of the book dedication. Just to clarify: In the dedication, in which both you and your mom were glad you were not struck by lightning, you also thank Patricia, who survived a lightning hit. I have to hear the story about that.
Shannon Wheeler: My mom manages to be in the middle of all sorts of zeitgeists. Elvis played at her high school. When I was little we went to see Jim Jones preach (before Guyana). She managed to stop by the Koresh compound mid-standoff (she bought me a novelty Frisbee from a roadside vendor). She seems to be at the right place, or wrong place, at the right, or wrong, time. In college she was hit by lightning. It knocked the shoes off her feet and threw her into a ditch. She couldn’t move her legs. A couple of co-eds carried her back to her dorm. The doctor told her to take a warm bath and call back if the feeling didn’t return. Over the next couple hours everything returned to normal. She said it was “tingly” — the same as when your foot falls asleep. She had a circular carbon mark on her side for a bit. Some Native Americans believe that being hit by lightning makes you a shaman. She tells the story like it was no big deal.
Mark, in the preface you wrote: “It is not my intention to mock the Bible with this book, nor to endorse it, but merely to present it on its own terms in a way that is accessible and which relays the same sense of fascination I had when I truly discovered the Bible for the first time.” How hard is it to find the humorous or odd elements of the Bible and comment upon it in a manner that does not seem like mocking?
Mark Russell: I think the key is just to be honest. There’s plenty of hilarious and nutty stuff in the Bible. I’m not going to leave it out because it might embarrass some people. By that same token, there are also plenty of genuinely profound and moving passages of the Bible and I work just as hard to bring that out, too. I think as long as you’re faithful to the material, that’s the only defense you need. I’m not terribly concerned with how it might “seem” if I feel my interpretation is honest.
What aspects of the Bible were the hardest to tackle, in terms of efficient writing?
Russell: The hardest book for me to “translate” into my modernized and condensed version of the Bible was the Book of Psalms. One, because it’s 150 chapters long, and two, because it’s just a bunch of song lyrics. It’s amazing how much of the Bible is about guys trying to break into music. I don’t remember exactly how the epiphany happened, but it occurred to me that I was basically trying to turn this massive corpus of songs into a greatest-hits album. And that’s how I wrote it: as an infomercial for a greatest hits collection. Other books were hard to tackle just because they were short, or esoteric. Much of the Book of Revelation reads like a fever dream. When in doubt, I just asked myself what was at the heart of this book, what angered, inspired, or otherwise compelled this ancient writer to set their quill to a very expensive piece of goatskin. That usually saw me home.
Wheeler: Cultural familiarity made some books easy to represent in a single panel. Everyone knows the story of Job. But each book is profoundly different both in content and style. Even if they aren’t known, some books readily lent themselves to reduction. Hosea has a simple message; Hosea loves his wife no matter what she does because God loves us regardless of what we do. I had Hosea in a bar talking about his wife to his friend: “She may be a whore but she makes for a great metaphor.” Other books didn’t talk about whores and weren’t as easy.
How early in the development of the project did you realize you both wanted the panels to not be period pieces, set when the stories occurred, but rather have present-day scenes, such as when Adam and Eve visit a counselor’s office?
Wheeler: I mostly avoided modern references — pop-culture dates itself quickly. The occasional trope, like a counselor’s office, just made for a funnier cartoon. I let the cartoons lead the way.
Mark, as we already discussed, you had to be economic with your words. For instance, the essence of Moses and the burning bush is boiled down to, “When a flaming shrub tells you to do something, you do it.” I love that line, but I am curious, in trying to make sure a line clicked with readers, would you consult with Shannon about its effectiveness. Or vice versa: Shannon, did you vet panels through Mark?
Russell: I thought I was the master of word economy until I met Shannon. Shannon has a philosophy of figuring out what’s funny about a line, and cutting everything else. We often talked about the books and the cartoon panels that went with them, and our guiding philosophy was always: how can we make this crisper, more essential? Can we get rid of half of it? I think we worked well together because we both approached this book with the same philosophy: Keep it short, blunt and funny.
Wheeler: I’d get stuck on some books and bounce ideas off Mark. Sometimes Mark would throw five or six cartoon ideas at me which I’d reject out of hand. I’d draw up my own stuff. It would slowly sink in that Mark’s cartoons were funnier and I’d draw up his ideas.
Do each of you have a favorite book from the Old Testament and New Testament?
Russell: I really like 1st Samuel. It tells the story of how Israel became a kingdom. Everyone thinks of Saul as the bad guy, but I kind of sympathize with Saul, who never wanted to be king in the first place. To me, the villain is Samuel. First off, he puts his sons in charge of Israel. His sons were a couple of bros who sexually harassed employees, embezzled meat from God, and screwed things up so badly that everyone begged him to find a real king. Saul is out looking for lost donkeys when Samuel runs into him and out of the freaking blue makes Saul king. Saul is totally unqualified! He didn’t even find the donkeys he was looking for! Sure, Saul went a little nutballs crazy later on, but he never should have been king in the first place.
As far as the New Testament goes, I really like the Book of James. According to tradition, James was the brother of Jesus, and though Paul hogs half the New Testament and James just has one slim letter to his name, James was the one everyone looked up to as the leader of the Christian movement. I think modern Christians would do well to read James, which was written to counter the belief that you can be as uncaring and obnoxious as you want as long as you believe in Jesus.
Wheeler: Ecclesiastes is existential and resonates with my own beliefs. It’s thoughtful, sad, lonely and poetic. It feels real. I like Revelations for the exact opposite reasons.
Who had the higher body count, Old or New Testament?
Russell: No contest there. In the Old Testament, God tries to get rid of the human race like a bad case of the crabs. He sends a flood, which destroys just about everybody. Then he throws in a few genocides on top of that just to cover the spread. You could argue that the Old Testament has the highest body count in literature. It’s history written by Quentin Tarantino.
In the New Testament, all of Jesus’ dialogue is in red text. Who had that idea and why (beyond the fact, well, that he’s Jesus)?
Russell: Louis Klopsch. He was a magazine editor who, in the early 20th century, started publishing Bibles with the words of Jesus printed in red. The red is supposed to symbolize the blood of Christ. When you read a Bible, it’s striking just how little of it is in red. It’s virtually non-existent. And yet, so many of the best and wisest things the Bible has to say comes from those few red letters. It gives you a real respect for Jesus. Now, there was a guy who understood word economy.
You both clearly learned a great deal while delving into the Bible, are there certain things you learned that surprised you more than others?
Russell: One thing that surprised me was just how important the issue of circumcision was to Christians. In the early days, if you converted to Christianity, you had to lose the foreskin. This was not a ritual most grown men looked forward to. There was a huge debate about this in the Christian community and Paul spends a lot of the New Testament reassuring converts that they don’t have to get their dicks cut. You could argue that getting rid of circumcision is what allowed Christianity to take off as a religion.
Wheeler: I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading Mark’s version of the Bible. I liked the humor that he lent the project — which I expected. I enjoyed the original stories more than I expected. Working on this project made me like the bible.
How is it that the two of you work together so effectively (after having read the book, your approaches mesh nicely)?
Wheeler: I have a lot of respect for Mark and his work. My strategy on my team-up projects (Oil and Water with Steve Duin, and Grandpa Won’t Wake Up with simon max hill) is to work with people smarter than myself. Luckily, that’s not too tough.
Do you expect to raise the ire of some religious groups? No matter how much you try, some find a means to take offense where there is none.
Russell: I try to live without expectations, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did. I would be outraged by some of this stuff if I didn’t know it was actually in the Bible.
Wheeler: We didn’t go out of our way to be offensive. Our goal was education. We wanted to represent the bible accurately. If we’d done the “The Rated X Bible,” we would have angered a lot more people (and sold a lot more books). We picked a tough path — we didn’t throw tomatoes. Mark and both have genuine respect for the books we represented. I’m sure some will be offended but someone is always offended.
Any chance you two might tackle other religious texts down the road?
Russell: I hope so. I’ve written similar versions of about twenty books that didn’t make it into the Bible. Books from the Jewish Midrash, Gnostic Gospels, and other books that were declared heretical and were supposedly destroyed. I hope I get to use these books at some point, because there is some truly amazing stuff in them. Gospels written from the perspectives of Judas and Mary Magdalene. Peter getting into a magic battle with a false prophet. King Solomon capturing a demon who causes impotence, and putting him to work softening clay. A book called “On God’s Bisexuality” which theorizes that God must be a hermaphrodite. The ancient imagination was as strong as it is today, as was their need for answers.
Wheeler: God works in mysterious ways.