It’s been five hundred years since Martin Luther changed the world by hammering his ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, in Saxony. Those events split the Roman Catholic Church into two and started a reformation which still has an impact on our lives today.
On this anniversary of those events, there’s been a lot of reflection on Luther’s radical actions, including a slew of new biographies and even a new graphic novel called Renegade: Martin Luther.
Renegade is an intriguing book. It’s respectful but not blindly so. It brings the reader closer to understanding and identifying with the man while using an art style that distances the reader. It attempts to set the man in the context of his times while often presenting those times as just slightly out of reach. It also presents a portrait of a man with significant personality flaws and quirks.
Written by Dacia Palmerino with painted art by Andrea Ciponte, Renegade begins with oppression and ends with revolution. Palmerino and Ciponte create a world in the late 1400s in which the Catholic church is rampant with superstitious events like witch-burning. Oppression reigns. Young Luther is a steadfast and religious boy, called to the priesthood but shaken by the terrible human horrors of the Black Plague. It’s in these early sections of the book that Palmerino and Ciponte present their strongest work, allowing the reader to get inside the head of this complicated man and presenting him as thoughtful and comprehensible by modern minds.
As they move towards the middle of the book, the creators shift to a discussion of Luther’s doubts about the teachings of the church. For instance, when viewing relics, he wonders why they should be revered above prayer.
Maybe the book’s strongest moment comes during Luther’s long, quiet stay at Wartburg Castle in 1521. At that time Luther was declared a heretic and removed from the church. He was refused food, drink and human contact. The ecstatic vision of the Devil that Luther sees during that time helps him to understand the power of his thought and leads to the vision of his history-changing Theses.
From there, the book loses a good amount of its focus because it seems to want to have things two ways. On one hand, Palmerino and Ciponte want to show the revolution that Luther’s thoughts inspired, showing his wider impact on the world. On the other, they want to show the impact on Luther’s own life. In focusing too broadly, they satisfy neither itch. That means the book falters even when it should soar the most.
In fact, that unevenness plagues this book for me. Ciponte’s painted art is lovely and thoughtful at times, but sometimes distances the reader from the story’s events with burry faces and vague settings. The scenes at Wartburg Castle are wonderful, an explosion of color and impact, but scenes of German revolution are underplayed. In fact, there seems to be a number of places where the art is intended to make an allusion to a historical event but little context is included for those who don’t know Luther’s story well. Dialogue is stiff at times, most likely because of the translation, but events are also compressed and relationships don’t receive the attention they deserve. For instance it’s never clear why Luther marries his wife or how close they are throughout his travails.
Even with my complaints, this is a fascinating look at the life of Martin Luther. It appears to be the first graphic novel published by Plough Publishing, an international collective community dedicated to following Jesus together. Maybe their next book could be a profile of that fascinating-sounding community.