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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

By Steve Ross
Seabury Books, 180 pages, $20
A graphic rendition of the Gospel

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

Christian artist Steve Ross has made the Gospel of Mark come alive by re-imagining the first evangelist’s record in the style of a graphic novel. It’s told entirely in pictures. “What Steve Ross has done is to take us to an entirely new visual place,” says the Rev. William McD. Tully, rector of New York’s St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, in a short introduction to Marked. “We might want to label it up front the way we should label the New Testament itself: Let the reader beware.”

Marked is, indeed, a little frightening. Its world is strange yet familiar, nowhere exactly but clearly every place. The book opens with an image of tents behind a line of barbed wire, with helicopters and high-rise towers in the background. A nearby sign says, “Annual Thank Your Liberators Day.”

The scenery in the Marked landscape ranges from Acropolis-like temples to futuristic automated feeding machines. Posters on buildings around the desolate city that forms the main setting for this tale advertise slogans like “Purity is Job #1.” There are demons everywhere, peering out from behind the eyes of the people in their grip. Mr. Ross’ rendition of Mark 5:1-20, the encounter with the Gerasene demoniac, conveys visually the startling nature of this passage.

Ominous policemen and corrupt officials appear often, and the media are everywhere, too, in this world: They broadcast live coverage of Jairus’ reaction upon hearing his daughter is dead (Mark 5:35). TV viewers vote on which criminal to release -- Jesus or Barabbas -- via a show called “Ultimate Decision.” There are even cameras capturing Jesus’ last words on the cross.

The Gospel stories are not hard to recognize here (and Mr. Ross does not treat every scene related in the Gospel), yet the artist presents them just differently enough that the reader sits up and asks, “Where have I heard that before?” Mark’s Gospel opens with the emergence of John the Baptist, who “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In Marked, John is a wild-eyed, white-haired homeless man rummaging for food in trash cans when he gets “the call” from a public phone in the alley.

Jesus first appears a couple of pages into Marked as a bearded carpenter in overalls working on a construction site while listening to a radio broadcast about John’s popularity. After his baptism, he comes home, shaves off all his hair and dons a simple white robe.

This Jesus is self-possessed, endlessly compassionate and driven by his relationship with his Father. He is also very human, a trait that is especially evident in Mark’s Gospel. The Jesus of Mark is often frustrated with his disciples, even angry and grieved at people he encounters. The Jesus in Marked also gets frustrated: He buys a soft drink from a street vendor, but barely finishes it before the crowds are on him again. The first demon Jesus tries to expel calls him “the holy one of God” and then bites him on the finger before he finally destroys the demon. At one point Jesus wants to say, “I’m done.” Yet he proceeds to the cross.

The story advances at enormous speed, one scene following on another with hardly any time passing in between. In this Mr. Ross conveys well the breathless narrative style of the Gospel of Mark. In fact, the Greek word for immediately or at once or then appears about 40 times in the Gospel’s 16 chapters.

On the night of Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane, a dove is attacked and killed by crows in the sky above where Jesus sits. Mr. Ross has been using these birds throughout Marked to signify God’s presence, and the presence of death. All looks hopeless. Jesus is crucified. The disciples scatter. But the final image in the book shows that death has not won: A sunflower, healthy and full, grows up through a crow’s remains.

Mr. Ross’ images get at the core of this mysterious and powerful tale. We are in Church Year B, when Mark is the primary Gospel read at Mass. It seems there is no better time to go back to these stories. When they become too familiar, we can forget how surprising they are -- how unique is the hope that Jesus brought to this desperate, dangerous world.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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