Renegade: Martin Luther, the Graphic Biography
Reviewed by Isaac Barnes May
By Dacia Palmerino, illustrated by Andrea Grosso Ciponte, translated by Michael G. Parker. Plough Publishing House, 2017. 160 pages. $19.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Renegade is one of the numerous biographies of Martin Luther published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It stands out in that crowded company because it is a graphic novel. Despite the “comic book” format, this is a serious effort by two Italian authors to engage with history, hewing fairly closely to well-established fact.
Each chapter covers key events from Luther’s biography, including his youthful decision to become a monk, his opposition to the sale of indulgences, his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, his time spent in disguise as a knight, the translation of the Bible into German, and his later years married to Katharina von Bora. Luther’s early life is exciting enough material for a graphic novel; the moment where he defiantly declares at the Diet of Worms, “I cannot act contrary to my conscience” is as dramatic as fiction.
Renegade should be commended for not shying away from the most disturbing parts of Luther’s career and for portraying his complexity. One chapter places a spotlight on Luther’s choice to side with the nobility in the midst of the German Peasants’ War. In a memorable and brutal scene Luther’s writings—which urge the rebellious peasants to be “killed like a mad dog”—are juxtaposed with images of a peasant family being murdered by soldiers. Luther’s rival in those events, the Anabaptist minister and revolt leader Thomas Müntzer, is depicted as being excessively violent, but his advocacy for the oppressed and downtrodden peasants makes him at least as sympathetic as Luther. A later chapter shows Luther’s intense anti-Semitism, and how he urged the destruction of Jewish homes, synagogues, and schools. This critical perspective offers a sharp contrast with the celebration of Luther present in other works, like Eric Metaxas’s recent biography. Such attention to the disturbing side of Luther’s life can perhaps be attributed to the publisher, Plough, which is part of the Bruderhof movement, an Anabaptist peace church that has a conflicted view of Luther’s legacy and his version of the Reformation.
Renegade makes an effort to explain the historical and religious context of Luther’s ideas, but would probably be confusing to anyone not already acquainted with the causes of the Reformation. For example, Luther’s growing conviction that salvation comes by faith alone is illustrated by an image of Luther reading a passage in the Epistle to the Romans; a subsequent comic panel shows him suddenly shouting the word “faith” to himself; and then the book depicts him quoting a passage from St. Augustine as an explanation of his thinking. Readers would have to have foreknowledge about Catholic ideas of purgatory and the sacraments, and Luther’s ideas of grace, to make much sense of this or many of the other religious debates depicted. The use of excerpts from Luther’s writings or important religious texts is interesting, but often comes at the expense of other explanatory dialogue.
The artwork, which was created digitally using 3D models, can be crude. Some of the characters have been rendered with contorted facial expressions that make them look unintentionally bizarre or inhuman. It is often difficult to tell faces apart to keep the characters straight. Many of the images are blurry, and others use so many dark colors that they are hard to discern. The illustrations include gruesome depictions of executions, beheadings, and burnings, which make the book unsuitable for young children. In this reviewer’s opinion, the overall effect of the art is that the book does not look entirely professional.
Readers searching for a straightforward account of Martin Luther’s life might be better off with historian Lyndal Roper’s recent biography, or even with the dated but still highly readable classic Here I Stand by Roland Bainton, but Ciponte and Palmerino’s graphic novel is not really competing with such works, as it is aimed at a younger audience. This is an educational graphic novel, not a dense historical tome, and despite being unpolished, there is nevertheless a charm in such a quirky and unique effort. A bright high school student or college student who had spent some time prior studying the Reformation would likely get at least an afternoon’s enjoyment from reading the book, and it is conceivable to imagine a parent borrowing it to flip through it themselves. Renegade is a read that, much like the man it portrays, is ultimately messy, complicated, and fascinating.