"The Reign of God: A Gospel Story" (2017) by Issey Fujishima is a graphic novel that attempts to reclaim the humanity and complexity of Jesus as a person in history. How human was Jesus? How much did he struggle with his calling? Fujishima takes historical liberties to tell the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist. I love how he highlights the characters’ banter, philosophical conflicts, and — did I see that panel right — even Jesus peeing in the wilderness. Fujishima is unafraid to show these revered historical figures through multiple dimensions of their humanity.
I grew up viewing Jesus as more God than human. I had always assumed that he knew who he was from childhood and that the only struggle he had was deciding whether or not he wanted to take the painful road of being the Messiah. Never in my imagination did I think Jesus — or leaders such as John the Baptist — would question Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.
Fujishima’s novel presents an alternative view of Jesus, one that is much more human. In Fujishima’s retelling of the life of Jesus, the complexity and uncertainty of Jesus’ identity and purpose in life is brought to the forefront. Even John the Baptist questions who Jesus is. While these images of Jesus and John the Baptist can be troubling for readers with assumptions about these famed people, the characters emerge very naturally from the story and context of the novel.
"Reign of God" first establishes the historical context of the time through the story of a Jewish religious leader named Yosef. It is the first year of the reign of Vespasian, around 69 ACE, and Yosef is struggling between his loyalty to his people and his role as a tool of the Roman empire. He reconciles these two roles by telling himself he is working for the Romans in order to ensure the survival of his people and his faith.
For those of us today, it is easy to enter Yosef’s story and relate to his struggles with loss. When the powerful use unethical means to maintain power, do we stay the course or do we try to fight power with power? Can we use the tools of those we see as oppressors or will we risk losing our own moral base in the process? The complexity of Yosef’s internal struggles is easily relatable and creates a way for the reader to understand the internal conflict of Yeshua (Jesus). Yosef serves as a foil to understand the similar trials and yet different choices Yeshua makes.
Another way that Fujishima helps the reader enter into the narrative is by using alternate, phonetically-based, or translated names: Yeshua for Jesus, Yochanan the Immerser for John the Baptist, Separate Ones for the Pharisees, Yisrael for Israel, and so on. This technique is very helpful for jolting the reader’s attention. It takes the story out of the realm of familiar but distant Sunday school lessons and brings the reader into a story that is rich with context, history, and uncertainty.
While acting as a torturer for the Romans, Yosef meets the second point-of-view character, Shimon from the Galil. Shimon was one of the twelve “emissaries” of Yeshua but did not start out as an appointed leader. Shimon’s backstory takes the reader back, half a century earlier, to the time of Yochanan the Immerser. Shimon has a colorful backstory. He joins Yochanan’s group of followers as a failed pickpocket. The reader learns later that when Shimon was a boy, his father was killed in a political conflict. As Shimon continues to spend time with Yochanan and Yeshua, he begins to discover the family he has been searching for.
Through these two characters, Fujishima gives the reader a taste of the emotional and political tension of the times. The tension is further heightened by Fujishima’s captivating use of black-and-white illustrations. His shadows and textures add to the sense of conflict and emotion in every scene. Fujishima’s beautifully illustrated scenery places the reader and all their senses solidly in the midst of a Middle Eastern world. I can vividly feel the movement of his stunning birds and taste the gooey honey drippings from the freshly broken honeycomb in Yochanan's hands.
A limitation to the art is that some of Fujishima’s character depictions are difficult to follow. In certain panels, it is not clear who is speaking, if it is a new character or one from a previous panel. This confusion slows the story down, making it difficult to read and connect with the characters at times.
The most glaring barrier I encountered in relating to the characters was the lack of any major female characters. The glaring absence of any substantive female characters is befuddling and a conspicuous shortcoming. There are actually only two instances in the novel where women have any lines. The first is when a woman notices that Shimon is pickpocketing and grabs his hand. The second is when another woman asks Shimon to help her husband reach Yochanan the Immerser. This omission limits "Reign of God" as a story by men for men.
The lack of female characters not only limits the narrative force of the story, it also severely limits the novel’s ability to paint Jesus as a complex human. As a person in history and society, Jesus had significant interactions with women. His life was influenced and affected by women. The Gospel accounts show the significance of women in Jesus’ life, from Mary the mother of Jesus, to the woman at the well, to the Syrophoenician woman. For this novel to convey fewer lines by women than an account written almost two millennia ago is troubling, at best.
Further, if the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that leaving out women’s perspectives and accepting a male-dominated narrative perpetuates pain and misogynistic patterns of behavior. Most recently, we saw this pattern exhibited by people actively dismissing Dr. Ford’s allegations of assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh instead of taking her claims into consideration and calling for a thorough investigation of Kavanaugh. The ramifications of leaving out women’s voices perpetuates injustice. Leaving out women also makes us miss out on message of Jesus. We cannot forget that back in the time of first-century Palestine, the male disciples ignored women’s testimonies and almost missed out on encountering the resurrected Christ.
Overall, "Reign of God" shows potential in that it is incredibly thought provoking, which only adds to my disappointment of the glaring omission of female voices. I would love to see another version of this novel that includes female characters with more agency and voice. As the story is now, it sends a dangerous message, that women’s voices and roles in religious and political movements are negligible and unimportant.