When most people think about religion, they most likely don’t think of comic books. Then again, most people don’t read books imagining they’ll be able to have their own personal conversation with the author. However, earlier this month, the students of the course “Thinking About Religion” did both when reading the popular graphic novel series The Wicked and The Divine and Skyping with the author, Kieron Gillen. For this 100-level course, Roshan Abraham, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies, marries popular culture with religious studies and brings technology into the classroom in order to give his students deeper insights and new experiences.
“The aim of the course is to introduce students to what the academic study of religion entails. Namely, what do we study when we study ‘religion’ and how do we go about studying it?” says Abraham. “We spend a good portion of the course taking the category of religion apart to examine the forms and functions of its component parts – myth, ritual, purity codes, charismatic leadership to name a few. When religion is deconstructed in this way, we end up finding places where secular culture shares a similar function. I use the unit on popular culture to explore both how religion interacts with the larger popular culture and, more importantly, to see how popular culture itself can be understood through the lens of religious studies.”
In previous years, Abraham has used readings that explored seemingly contradictory phenomena like Christian heavy metal or Islamic comic books. Always on the lookout for materials to bring into his courses, he says The Wicked and the Divine (or WicDiv) immediately struck him as a perfect fit for the “Thinking About Religion” course. The plot revolves around gods, coming from diverse mythological traditions, incarnating on earth as cultural icons and pop stars, only to die two years later. The series draws parallels between celebrity and divinity, worship and fandom, framed around questions of what it means to be a creator of culture.
Abraham, who enjoys and studies comics on his own time, says he tries to use comics in his courses whenever he can find the opportunity to do so. He adds, “In my ‘Magicians, Healers, and Holy Men’ course, students read Alan Moore’s Promethea, a work that not only resonates with themes in the course but is also written by a self-proclaimed magician. The students in the course read a large corpus of Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Early Christian ‘magical’ spells, but this work allows students to analyze the cognitive element of magic as a way of thinking about and interacting with the world.”
This year, Abraham took it a step further when he asked the author of WicDiv, Kieron Gillen, who lives in London, if he’d be willing to talk to his students. “The comics world is pretty small, and I had already tweeted him about assigning his book. When he responded to that tweet, I thought I might as well ask if he would be interested in Skyping the class so I just thought I’d ask if he was interested,” Abraham says. Gillen accepted the invitation, and a Skype date was scheduled for the semester.
Without exception, the students found their ensuing conversation with Gillen to be invaluable to the course. Wilson Roen, a sophomore engineering student, said, “I really enjoyed Skyping Kieron…When I’m reading, especially graphic novels, I always try to understand the author’s intent, so being able to speak directly with the author and ask him specific questions was great!”
First-year Meg Stolberg agreed. “Talking with Kieron was a hugely positive experience. While we all read his some of his work, what was most meaningful to me was getting to hear from him first-hand… Understanding why he wrote the way he did brought so much more impact and meaning to the comic and our discussion about religion’s relationship to pop culture.” She hopes other classes adopt web conferencing as a way to bring in the occasional guest-lecture.
Senior Amanda Drottar, who is majoring in anthropology and psychology with a minor in religious studies, enjoyed the chance to talk more with Gillen as well, and explained how his conversation with the class led to deeper in-class discussion about the material. “Gillen was such a riot—he was so insightful and a delight to listen to,” she says. “Our class actually spent most of the next lecture further exploring religion and contemporary culture based on the new insights he had provided us on where his own inspirations came from for the characters, and why they relate to which god they’ve been cast as. If I’m being honest, after that lecture I actually spent some of the following weekend finding the rest of the comic series beyond what we were assigned to read, and caught up to the current issue which should hopefully be coming out soon (fingers crossed)!”
Drottar has been in only one other course, in psychological and brain sciences, where a professor used web conferencing in order to have a researcher explain his work in more detail and give real-world examples and strategies for their work. “Although I took that class almost two years ago now, I still remember how enthralling that lecture was, and wished that more departments would be open to using Skype interviews with notable people in their courses,” she says. “From my own experiences with using Skype as a medium to provide additional information and guest lectures to classes, it has only enhanced my curiosity and understanding of course material and how it may be relevant beyond the classroom.”
Photography by Sean Garcia