By Riley Manning
IUKA – Growing up in the 1950s, the Rev. Nick Phillips, pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Biggersville and lawyer at Phillips and Phillips law firm in Iuka, remembers his family tradition of reading the Sunday morning comic strips together before getting up to do anything else.
He recalls losing interest in serial-style comics like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, comics that advanced a story from week to week, in favor of the self-contained laugh-a-day comics like Nancy and Sluggo.
Pretty soon, his passing amusement became something more.
“I began to notice that some had more truth to them,” he said. “I began cutting out the more meaningful ones, then specified to ones that pertained to religion.”
By the late 1980s, Phillips had begun what he calls “true collecting,” clipping comics daily and meticulously sorting them by categories. He organized them by characters they depicted, like clergy, children, Biblical figures, and themes like prayer and theology.
“There are a lot of Dennis the Menace panels that show Dennis praying. In one of my favorites, Dennis is kneeling and he tells God, ‘You better sit down,’” Phillips said. “The Frank and Ernest comic strips often refer to the Beatitudes, or show God on a cloud saying something funny.”
In 1996, Phillips was granted a fellowship while attending the College of Preachers in England, where he explored comics and faith over the course of two directed study projects.
“It was affirming for them to agree that the comics could be a serious source,” Phillips said. “The first directed study was to sort them, but the second one was more in depth, dealing with the theology of humor. Sometimes the best way to look at things is to turn them on their heads, and comics can help us do that.”
One thing Phillips noticed is the comics overwhelmingly depicted features of the Old Testament, and almost never about Jesus himself.
“The Old Testament is more situational,” Phillips said. “It tends to favor story over concept, and to place those ancient Biblical images in a modern context creates a lot of irony.”
Perhaps the most religiously inclined comic, in Phillips’ view, is the B.C. comic strip, drawn by Johnny Hart from 1958 until Hart died at his drawing board in 2007. Set in a prehistoric time period, the comic was regularly criticized in the latter half of its running for increasingly bold religious commentary.
“Hart and B.C. had a very evangelical message. Though it never mentions Jesus directly – being B.C., before Christ – it’s clear from the symbols what’s being talked about,” Phillips said.
In particular, one Easter strip showed four panels getting increasingly darker. The caption read, “The First Good Friday.”
Phillips said Hart co-authored another comic, the Wizard of Id, but it wasn’t as religious as B.C.
For Phillips, there’s something about the brevity, the quick punch of a comic strip that makes it a powerful medium.
“A comic strip continues every day. It’s constantly refreshing and offers a new way of seeing something,” he said. “Like a parable, it takes a truth and boils it down to its essence.”
When Phillips finished his first directed study on comics, his collection numbered around 1,500 strips; now they have nearly doubled. He has gone from presenting his findings to professors on overhead transparencies to presenting to churches and civic clubs through powerpoint.
Though the funny pages may seem like awfully low art to convey something as powerful as faith, to Phillips, they are a way of seeing faith play out in culture.
“I’ve always been intrigued by different ways religion and faith are expressed,” he said. “Sometimes that challenges us, and reflects culture, too. If something catches your attention, no matter what it is, maybe it’s something you need to explore.”