Religion major James Levy ’18 drew inspiration for his thesis from an unusual literary medium.
“I puzzled over where people turn to grapple with spiritual meaning in life if they are not satisfied with the answers offered by organized faiths,” he said.
His surprising answer: comic books.
“I stumbled upon comic books as an unexpected possibility, thanks to a paper I was writing for my Russian minor,” Levy said. “In that paper, I discussed the resistance to Western superhero comics by Russians who preferred to be self-reliant instead of depending upon saviors. The Russian ‘komiks’ I read were alive with thoughtful introspection, and I began to toy with the idea of comics as a space for exploring beliefs.”
Levy’s thesis, “God in the Gutter: Exploring Religious Doubt Through the Emotions of Comic Book Characters,” includes a series of close readings of popular texts from authors Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), and Miyazaki Hayao (Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind). His thesis, Levy said, “is a study showing how the comics and manga, or Japanese comics, produce engaging visual manifestations of our internal struggles with religious doubt.”
The provocative title of Levy’s thesis refers to a technical aspect of comic construction. “A ‘gutter’ is the framing line that separates an individual drawing from its neighbors on the page,” Levy explained, “and action only occurs when the comic’s readers use their imagination while crossing the gap between those lines. For instance, in a Sandman story that I analyzed, called ‘The Sound of Her Wings,’ an old man dies, deeply ambivalent about whether there will be an afterlife. A Death character promises to enlighten him, but the next drawing is just the shadow of an enormous wing on an empty wall, with no explanation. As readers mentally leap the gutter lines into a third drawing, they discover that the old man has completely vanished.”
How did your advisor help you develop your thesis topic?
My thesis advisor was Professor Ken Koltun-Fromm, from whom I took courses on the material and visual culture of religion. His interest in a sacred dimension to mundane items of daily life gave me confidence to integrate my love of comics with my academic pursuits. He somehow knew I would be able to wrestle a coherent study from my haphazard beginnings, and his regular meetings, great feedback, and structured deadlines helped that happen. I am forever grateful that he challenged me to make sense of my vision, instead of rejecting it as too offbeat.
What did you learn working on your thesis?
My research suggests that meaningful explorations of religious ideas can happen in surprising and unlikely spaces, including behind the playful façade of a comic book. This thesis shows that the study of religions can be enriched by looking for ways in which the sacred is encountered outside of traditional practices. I would enjoy doing future studies with comics and religion, but for now I am trying to focus my career path on expressive arts programs to nurture cultural literacy.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.