The Bible is a strange and wondrous book, filled with startling images and lurid events. Scenes of rape, torture, and mass murder co-exist with ecstatic and hallucinatory visions of divine love. Unfortunately much religious art over the past century or so, especially in North America, has had a tendency to whitewash the Bible’s ominousness, presenting soft-focus pastoral portraits of a blond, blue-eyed hippie Jesus, a pleasant fellow with whom we can happily sing “Kumbaya,” while ignoring his many startling injunctions, such as his call to pluck out our eyes should they cause us to sin.
The cartoonist Dave Lapp’s creepy and wildly imaginative drawings of selected biblical verses are part of a long counter-tradition of alternative cartoonists who have paid the scripture tribute by presenting unsettling images that grapple honestly with the text. Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis Illustrated made the sheer fleshiness of the first book of the Bible abundantly evident. And Chester Brown’s uncompleted adaptations of the Gospels were notable for showing a ferocious and stern messiah, one who made no concessions to modern squeamishness. Lapp’s work is equally as honest.
Lapp started drawing bible verses nearly a decade ago as a contributor to the Flaming Fire Illustrated Bible Web site, a now-defunct attempt by many hands to illustrate every verse of scripture. He also used them to develop his draftsmanship, which tended to atrophy when he worked in the simplified and abstract style of his comics. In his narrative strips, Lapp often prefers to keep his art subdued so that it doesn’t overshadow the stories he wants to tell. Drawing biblical verses freed up the more daring side of Lapp’s visual imagination, allowing him to create staggering images of skeletons, ghouls, and tormented flesh. “That the Flaming Fire Bible was wide open to all kinds of interpretation from all denominations encouraged my agnostic sensibilities to create images that were more personal,” Lapp says. “I also liked the grand madness of someone trying to illustrate the entire Bible.”
As with the work of his underground predecessors, Lapp interprets the Bible in a way that seems wholly new and unfamiliar, even though it is much more closely rooted in the actual words of scripture than most conventional religious art. His stunning drawings should surprise secular and pious eyes alike.