I was raised Unitarian by a father who strongly believed that the best way for children to be exposed to religion was through learning about a variety of faiths to examine what resonates most. I have a wide knowledge of world religions; however, when the opportunity to review Plough Publishing’s latest graphic novel, By Water, passed through my inbox, the name Felix Manz piqued my interest as a total unknown in my past education. I knew about Martin Luther and how he spurred the first major division in Christianity, but I had no real knowledge of how the numerous other Christian sects developed or even what the major differences might be! By Water presents one of the earliest breaks in the Protestant sects in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1525 when a devoted young man who felt that non-violence, shared community, and adult baptism were keys to true Christian faith stood against the religious majority.
The author of By Water, Jason Landsel, is a contemporary member of the Anabaptist Church, the sect founded by Manz and his companions, and his reverence for the material infuses every page with deeper meaning. While a lay historian, Landsel presents Felix Manz’s biography with love and reverence for his teachings layered over the facts.
Felix Manz was the son of a Catholic priest and the priest’s mistress and faced harsh discrimination from many of his peers in Zurich. Manz was never officially acknowledged as the priest’s child but gained access to education and university through his father’s connections, which is how he became exposed to the concepts of Utopia and non-violence. The early chapters of the story also suggest that Manz may have had visions of various Christian figures as a result of his deepening faith. I feel that modern individuals can neither prove nor disprove these, but they work as narrative devices to explain the young man’s growing separation from many of his classmates. Meeting Ulrich Zwingli in 1522 put Felix on the path towards breaking further with church traditions as he grew disillusioned with Zwingli’s church reforms for not going far enough. Eventually, Manz’s complex relationship with Zwingli led to his conviction by Zurich’s council and execution by drowning, in a twisted version of adult baptism; however, his beliefs continued on with the people who found them compelling and have continued into today.
The appendices with historical information and documents provided me with additional context for the Radical Reformation, the name for breaks from both the Catholic Church and Luther’s reformation. At the same time, I sense I’ve only scratched the surface on both the Radical Reformation and Manz, and the graphic novel felt a bit like a survey course that hit the highlights. Unfortunately, I was unable to source any more detailed biography of Manz in English, so I will need to keep searching for more reading to fill my curiosity.
Some of the panels in the graphic novel are breathtakingly intense, such as the blend of fire and water on the front cover or the two-page spread of a phoenix as spiritual fervor or the Holy Spirit. While the art style of By Water is very simplified and stylistic, each named person is unique and identifiable (and each named character is a historical figure).
I had never heard of Felix Manz, and By Water has inspired me to learn more about him and the Radical Reformation. It may be challenging to find materials that are easily accessible (either due to writing style or availability), but I’m ready for the challenge. The creators of By Water accomplished what they set out to do, if they wanted to encourage others to learn more about their branch of Christianity and its forefathers. I’d be happy to see more graphic novels in this vein as an entryway into religious history.
4 Visions of Felix and Regula (Patron Saints of Zurich) out of 5
Creative Team: Jason Landsel, Sankha Banarjee (art), Richard Mommsen (script)
Publisher: Plough Publishing House
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