Last December, I was the recipient of a “Screwtape Christmas Miracle.” From some unknown person of no doubt elfin origin, I received the Marvel Comics version of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This 1994 Charles E. Hall graphic novel adaptation of Screwtape has proved completely impossible to find in local shops. I suspect that collectors keep it, and that very few sought it out when it was first published who were not already Lewis fans. As you can imagine, both as a C.S. Lewis scholar and an avid reader of Screwtape, I am pretty pleased to have gotten this particular comic book in the mail on Christmas Eve.
Partway through the winter, I began reading this graphic treasure. I have been leading a church group through the letters, one letter per week, and the graphic novel gave me a chance to pre-prepare my lessons. Early in the week, I would read the 3-page spread of that week’s letter and allow the conversation to soak in for a bit. Then, on the weekend, I began my more serious discussion preparation. I have always urged students and friends to read The Screwtape Letters slowly–a letter a day for a month is ideal–so this method worked remarkably well for me.
As I consider how to review this graphic novel as a non specialist (just a fan), my mind is split into two bands: the book as a graphic novel and the graphic novel as an adaptation. The production team is quite large with overlapping responsibilities, no doubt, including: Charles Hall (Adaptation and Layouts), Pat Redding (Illustrator, Inks, and Calligraphy), John Kalisz (Illustrator, Colours), Darryl F. Winburne (Consulting Editor), Mort Todd (Editor), and Tom DeFalco (Editor in Chief). For a fuller review, you can find Tyler Hummel at “Geeks Under Grace,” including his great pictures I have used here. In this review, first I’ll treat it as a graphic novel doing what they do best, and then look at the Marvel Screwtape as an adaptation–in each case trying to draw out the layers of irony that is The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ classic WWII-era volume of (anti-)spiritual direction, a correspondence of a senior demon to a new tempter working on his first mark, “the Patient.”
As a comic book, I think The Screwtape Letters is superb. The calligraphy is perfect, including a sharp Screwtape signature that was very pleasing and matches the letter format well. The heat of hell and numerous sardonic emphases shoot through the text in visual script. Working together with the script, the cartoon figures of demons are inventive–both gruesome and comic, and full of colour as they dance along the visual frame. The humans are expressive and capture comedic elements and a few more tender moments.
More than any individual word or picture, every page is filled with dozens of details that play with the text–deepening a concept, pawning an image sideways, mocking an idea, visualizing a feeling, or giving an American-friendly interpretation. It took me a great deal of time to read because every page was so image-full. The result is that the character of Screwtape’s hell and the storylines of the Patient’s everyday life take on new textures, sometimes providing that unity of text and image that makes for a good graphic novel, and sometimes allowing for the independent and interweaving threads that can make a great one.
It is not a perfect piece of artistry, perhaps. The Patient’s love interest is a bit too “Betty”–a girl-next-door image that now strikes me as disturbing and probably brings up adolescent feelings about the Archie Comics Betty that I don’t want to talk about. The artists excel at playing with tropes and stereotypes when it comes to cultural ideas and demonic temptations, but fail in allowing the Patient’s true story–about which Screwtape is self-deceived–to sneak through to the reader as it does in the original novella.
The “Betty” figure is precisely the point. Here is Screwtape’s assessment of the “the girl” in the text, which he gets from her dossier:
I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian–a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds through the very pages of the dossier. It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened.
We’d have had her to the arena in the old days. That’s what her sort is made for. Not that she’d do much good there, either. A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood and then dies with a smile. A cheat every way. Looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet has a satirical wit. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny! Filthy insipid little prude–and yet ready to fall into this booby’s arms like any other breeding animal. Why doesn’t the Enemy blast her for it, if He’s so moonstruck by virginity–instead of looking on there, grinning? (Letter XXII).
It is a peculiarly strong use of sexism by Lewis to create the double deception of the text: Screwtape’s own self-limitations allow him to be deceived as he is working to deceive humans. As David Mark Purdy and Hsiu-Chin Chou have separately observed**, The Screwtape Letters is not just satire–a single inversion where “up” is “down,” or where the “whites are all blacks” as one of the Screwtape prefaces says. That’s sometimes true and fits the overall genre of the text pretty well.
But notice Screwtape’s self-deception creates a double inversion, a new layer of irony. “The girl” in the real life behind the text cannot be the figure that he draws here. Or not exactly. Since when does a “simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss”–a girl next door, a Betty in the Archie world–face down the lions in the arena? Is the innocent, dreamy-eyed figure in the cartoon a martyr in your eyes? Even more, is she the kind of spiritually mature and capacious believer who deepens this new convert’s religious life with confidence and strength?
No. In Lewis’ precise way, he has imaged “the girl” as both saintly and powerful. In this adaptation, she is merely sweet.
This was a missed opportunity in what can be a dynamic genre of interrelated story and image: the one genre that could really adapt the various levels of satire and double-irony is the graphic novel, but this team only reached for surface layer of the text–at least when it comes to the characters’ development.
There are moments of cultural spice that work on multiple layers, but not the double upside-down nature of Screwtape that makes it successful when so much demonic epistolary fiction simply does not land.
While it is a missed opportunity for the Marvel Screwtape creators to miss providing us that multi-layered reading of irony only possible in this genre, there is, of course, a deeper irony in adapting Screwtape in a comic book form in the first place.
In the text–and we recall that there is an adapted text here–the mentee Wormwood asks his pedantic Uncle Screwtape whether it would be wise to give the Patient a hint of his existence. For Screwtape, this is answered clearly in protocol. Hell’s policies are always clear. But on a deeper level, letting humans know that they are being shadowed by a real but incorporeal malignant spirit can do more harm than good. Once someone has a sense that, after all, the spiritual realms are real, then there is a sense that God too might be more than a nostalgic tradition or an evolutionary necessity or a figment of our mythic imaginations. To keep the patient in the dark about the possibility of ongoing demonic temptation, you must allow certain images to rise in humans’ imaginations when you say “devil” or “demons.” Screwtape explains:
The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you (Letter VII).
Following this logic: if demons exist, if the spiritual realm is real, then God might exist as well. The danger of spiritual awakening is too high, so Screwtape’s approach is to keep a comical view of demons in the public’ imagination, so that even committed Christians would feel a little silly thinking about the dangers of demonic temptation.
Intriguingly, The Screwtape Letters must be one of the only books in history that implicitly advises against being adapted as a comic book!
And what has Marvel Comics done? They have created in this Christian Classics Series adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ textbook on demonic temptation, a flurry of images of devils in–if not red tights, precisely–a comic form that would cause us to smile today.
Still, This is a pretty cool irony to observe, but I still think the adaptation has merit for fans of C.S. Lewis and comic book lovers.
As a medium for capturing what Lewis was trying to do for Christian spirituality, it takes a risk that could undercut itself. The grotesque is “cute,” and thus shares the danger of parody in the way that it might push the line from the witty to the ridiculous. The cover is a case in point, where the “Danger! Prayer!” sign next to the square-jawed, clean-cut white kid oozes 20th-century American Christian pop culture cheese. And in an already extremely brief book, bringing The Screwtape Letters down to 60-70% of the published text thins out much of the weight of the text and puts a tarnish on its brilliance.
For the right reader, however, this Marvel edition will be a joy to own and read again and again. Thus, I hope we can enjoy the layers of irony–not just in The Screwtape Letters, but in the fact that we have a Marvel Comics edition that fans committed enough to find a rare copy will love.
** See David Mark Purdy’s use of “double inversion” in “Red Tights and Red Tape: Satirical Misreadings of The Screwtape Letters,” in Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, Theological Imagination, and Everyday Discipleship, ed. Rob Fennell (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2015), 75-84. Not unreasonably as it is clearly satire as a formal genre, Screwtape is commonly categorised as satire in most prefaces and in scholarship; see Filmer, Mask and Mirror, 2, 62, 112, 133; Charles A. Huttar, “The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction,” Journal of Inklings Studies 6, no. 1 (2016): 91; Raymond M. Potgieter, “Revisiting C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters of 1941 and exploring their relation to ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast,’” In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi (2016): 1-8, who suggests parody as a possible genre as well. Coincidental to Purdy’s recategorisation though without quite the detail, Hsiu-Chin Chou’s designation of “double irony” in Screwtape is appropriate; see “The Problem of Faith and the Self: The Interplay between Literary Art, Apologetics and Hermeneutics in C.S. Lewis’s Religious Narratives” (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2008), 205.