Graphic memoirs are a great way to relay historical information to audiences who may never pick up a giant prose biography. Renegade: Martin Luther, the Graphic Biography takes a deep dive into the life of Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. While I knew many of the significant facts of his life, this biography covers details that I wasn’t aware of, and thus paints a more complete picture of this significant historical figure.
The first thing one notices is that this is a ‘dark’ graphic novel, both in tone and look. Italian artist Andrea Ciponte uses dark oil paints to show that life 500 years ago was not easy. Author Dacia Palmerino begins the tale with disease, hunger, poverty, leprosy, and executions. Ciponte helps her tell the story with dark tones and blurred lines to convey the feeling of the time. Luther is raised in a devout, religious German family that is strict and punitive. He eventually goes to university and decides upon a life as a monk after a near-death experience involving a lightning strike. As he studies the Bible and finds that scripture diverges quite a bit from what the Church is teaching, he starts to agitate for change. Travelling to Rome and observing the corrupt practice of ‘indulgences’ sets him on a path of revolution. Soon he is posting his “95 Theses” on the door of a church in Wittenburg and initiating the Reformation. Luther goes into hiding, translates the Bible into a common language, gets married, has children and reckons with the forces that his actions unleashed.
While the narrative is linear and straightforward, the artist adds flourishes and fanciful images periodically to convey a message. The devil is often painted when Luther is contemplating evil or temptation. When Luther is feverishly writing, he is depicted walking through halls made of pages and words. Some pictures look like they are out of a Salvador Dali painting or Dante’s Inferno because of their odd shapes and distorted perspective. These images are powerful when they show up because they are used sparingly. The artist also effectively uses color, close ups and various perspectives to move the narrative along. Care is taken to differentiate the look of the historical figures and it’s pretty easy to follow who is doing what, no easy task considering how many important individuals appear in this book. The text is well resourced and uses research to back up the events depicted. This book is quite an achievement.
So who is this written for? The Italian authors are academics and educators. They clearly want people to learn more about Luther, but this is a book for adults, not kids. The dark topics that are covered depict a realism and nuance that some might not appreciate, particularly if they are looking for a sanitized version of Luther’s life. But for those looking for an imaginative yet well researched look at a seminal historical figure, this book will fit the bill.
Renegade: Martin Luther the Graphic Biography
by Dacia Palmerino
Art by Andrea Ciponte
Plough Publishing House, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: T+ (16+)