August 2020

Formal Abstract: This article explores the assumed tendency of evangelical Christians to iconoclasm or even iconophobia. In order to test these tendencies, recent graphic novel adaptations of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is analysed. This text is a perennial spiritual classic for this wing of the Protestant tradition. Concerns for fidelity are explored in reference to both a ‘timeless’ and ‘timeful’ quality. An evangelical theology of adaptation is offered and the graphic novels are assessed for textual fidelity, place in a spiritual legacy, and creative recontextualization.

KEYWORDS: John BunyanPilgrim’s Progressgraphic novelsadaptationfidelity

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Andy Draycott

Talbot School of Theology, Biola University

Final Journal Submission Copy (Introduction below, full text by attachment)

For quotation in research, please see the copy of record:

Andy Draycott (2020) Iconoclasm, iconophobia, and graphic novel adaptations of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, DOI: 10.1080/21504857.2020.1810089


John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim's Progress (PP) has never been out of print since its first publication in the last quarter of the seventeenth-century (Part I in 1678).[i] From the third edition in 1679, the text was accompanied by woodcut illustrations.[ii] Illustrated versions have proliferated ever since.[iii] The very popularity of an allegorical work that emerged from the lower classes rather than the literary elite, expressing populist Protestant theology in demotic vernacular suggests that adaptation to another medium of non-elite popular artistic expression in the shape of graphic novels is entirely fitting.[iv]  And there are graphic novel adaptations. Despite comics’ long twentieth-century history, these emerge only late in the twentieth century with Marvel’s collaboration with Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, followed swiftly by a Christian market comic for Barbour.[v]  A further flourishing from the most recent decade uses a Christian marketplace niche as well as thriving in self-published opportunities that internet marketing and print on demand makes possible. It is impossible to ignore the suspicion of a problematic fit of PP and the graphic novel genre given Bunyan’s Puritan kind of Protestantism, and that of his evangelical heirs, is associated for many with a suspicion of visual representation understood through the terms ‘iconoclasm’ or even ‘iconophobia.’ This would mean that an attitude allegedly warranted by the very religiosity of the text of PP renders it a carrier of this very antagonism to or even fear of images. If this is the case, whatever graphic novels may claim to be in relation to Bunyan’s text, they might be judged cultural co-options of an alien form, maybe even redemptive repristinations of the same, rather than fitting adaptations.

Adaptation theory as a field is ambivalent about the value of considering faithfulness as a criterion of judgment. Is there ever really an uninfluenced pristine original work that sets for all time a trajectory for how it should be handled and received? Are not all cultural products palimpsests, overwriting one text upon the form and content of others, ‘an endless process of recycling, transformation and mutation with no clear point of origin’?[vi] Much work has been done among Bunyan scholars to draw out the historical, social, cultural and political context in which his PP was written.[vii] Bunyan’s imaginative world bears the imprint of ballads, emblems, and morality plays, the Geneva and King James Bibles, the social standing of Puritans, of non-conformists, the turmoil of revolution and civil war, enclosure-driven vagrancy, the fire of London and the Restoration fears of threats to Protestant nationalism it engenders. All these gains of knowledge for understanding the larger and local seventeenth-century, ‘timeful’ contexts of Bunyan’s allegory do not, however, determine the current in which reception runs. Many today continue to read PP because they see it as a ‘timeless’ spiritual classic. The ‘timeful’ material circumstances of its writing, production and dissemination, while interesting to historians or literary scholars, do not necessarily reflect the concerns that these readers bring to the text, shaped as they are by a desire to find spiritual illumination or instruction. While it is not at all obvious that the ‘timeful’ and ‘timeless’ receptions must be contradictory, some way of recognizing the difference is useful. In unpacking the criterion of faithfulness, I assume that any reception, because shaped by prior ‘timeful’ expectations, desires or prejudices of a particular audience, is a form of adaptation. For a book like PP, its continued re-publication sends signals to readers of its importance. Its listing among classics, or allusions to it in sermons, its appearance on school curricula or for family bedtime reading all affect an adaptation of the original to the imagination of the recipient. That is, all elements of character, plot, language, religious world and authorial intention will be interpreted, and weighed by their importance to the recipients. For example, reading for an English literature assignment focuses on critical appreciation of the literary craft, which affects a different disposition in the student, than were PP being read for household devotions. Fidelity, then, is normed by the context of reception. 

Judgments about fidelity cannot be a final ground of refusal of an adaptation as an adaptation, although these might gesture toward, or the step over the line from, adaptation into appropriation or co-option. Julie Sanders suggests that ‘[a]ppropriation frequently affects a more decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain,’[viii] but the key here to any perspective on fidelity is the notion of an ‘informing source,’ even as concern about originality is set aside. If adaptation is, according to John Ellis, ‘a means of prolonging the pleasure of the original presentation, and repeating the production of a memory,’ there is still a requirement of recognition that prompts a fidelity thread: ‘Adaptation as adaptation involves, for its knowing audience, a conceptual flipping back and forth between the work we know and the work we are experiencing.’[ix]  PP, looked on as a Protestant Christian classic of spirituality, is subject to a communal memory within a tradition rather than supposing that target readers of graphic novels are already readers of the seventeenth-century text.[x]  Pilgrim's Progress would  arguably be best adapted according to concepts within the very tradition that informs its initial production. By focusing on graphic novels as the form of adaptation I problematize what fidelity looks like given certain iconoclastic leanings among PP’s primary Christian readers. Marvel Comics and the Barbour 1990s versions are taken as foundations of the contemporary genre, and compared to the commercial Christian product from Kingstone Comics, a 2-volume edition graphic novel (2011).[xi] Further adaptations by Stephen Moore (2007/2010), Steve Vossos (2018/ 2018/ 2019), and Ralph Sanders (2018) are presented and assessed.[xii] All of these are examined for textual fidelity, spiritual legacy, and creative, even iconoclastic recontextualization.[xiii] The last criterion is meant to remind the reader of the literal and metaphorical meanings of iconoclasm. If graphic novels are not going to literally attack images, they may still attack cherished concepts or understandings, whether these belong to the area of spirituality for the reception audience or to the conventions of a comics genre. The literal form of iconoclasm occupies the first section of the article, to be followed by a theoretical framing of a Christian theology of adaptation that permits the reader to follow the concerns of Christian readers who engage PP as part of their spiritual tradition. Description, sample images, and critical engagement with the graphic novels flow from these argumentative positions.

[i] Numerous popular and critical editions exist, textual references in this paper are drawn from John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, eds. James Blanton Wharey and Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960).

[ii] Critical literary editions now include those woodcuts published within Bunyan’s lifetime, through numerous editions. See John Bunyan,The Pilgrim's Progress, edited by W.R Owens, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, ‘Note on the Text’ pp.xxxix-xliii; John Bunyan,The Pilgrim's Progress, edited by Roger Pooley, London, Penguin, 2008, ‘Note on the text and illustrations’, pp. xlv-xlvii.

[iii] Natlie Collé is the present acknowledged expert on illustrations of The Pilgrim’s Progress, ‘The Role of Illustrations in the Reception of The Pilgrim’s Progress’ in Reception, Appropriation, Recollection. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, edited by W.R. Owens and Stuart Sim, Bern, Peter Lang, 2007 pp. 81-97; and ‘Wayfaring Images: The Pilgrim’s Pictorial Progress’, in The Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan, edited by Michael Davies and W.R. Owens, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 624-649.

[iv] Hence the popularity of emblems as a genre made accessible to the most humble reader in chapbook form,  Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories. Popular Fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth Century England, Athens, GE, Georgia University Press, 1981.

[v] Martin Powell, Seppo Makinen, et al., The Pilgrim's Progress™ (The Christian Classics Series), Marvel Comics, (New York: Marvel Entertainment Group, 1992); and Al Bohl (Retold and Illustrated by), The Pilgrim’s Progress, New Barbour Christian Comics, Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Company Inc, 1994. I am grateful to Mr Bohl for sending me a copy of his comic after private correspondence.

[vi] Yvonne Griggs, The Bloomsbury Introduction to Adaptation Studies (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) p. 4.

[vii] Most recently and thoroughly, Michael Davies and W.R. Owens, Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[viii] Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, (London: Routledge, 2006) pp. 24,26.

[ix] ibid. 139.

[x] Shannon Murray’s observation about the new intended audience of an adaptation not being expected to know it, especially when addressed to children, in ‘Playing Pilgrims: Adapting Bunyan for Children’ Bunyan Studies. A Journal of Reformation and Nonconformist Studies, 18 (2014) p.81.

[xi] Tung L and Wong J, The Pilgrim's Progress. Volumes 1 and 2. Adapted by Lee Tung and Johnny Wong, illustrated by Creator Art Studio. (Leesburg, FL: Kingstone Comics, 2011).

[xii] Stephen T. Moore, The Pilgrim’s Progress, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 24, 2011); Steve Vossos, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Volume 3 (BooInk, 2019). Accessed 1/16/20, n.d.; and Ralph Sanders, Pilgrim's Progress. The Graphic Novel (Santa Cruz, CA: Whistle Key Books, 2018)

[xiii]See also an abbreviated Manga version by Shonen Bag, Run. The Pilgrim’s Progress at ( (n.d., accessed March 20th, 2020)  and a Kindle e-book, Pilgrim’s Progress. The Cross Edition by artist Masako Sato (Tokyo: Kiyose Kingdom Church, 2014). The most extensive Manga version I have come across is C K Choi, The Pilgrim’s Progress, (Korean Language) (3 Volumes) Seoul, Word of Life Press, 2019. Children-friendly versions are often illustration dominant, such as Alan and Linda Parry, Go with Christian! (Wordkids, 1996) or Paul and Stephanie Cox (, Pilgrim’s Progress. A Poetic Journey (H&E Publishing, 2019.)