Monday, June 12, 2006

No Sunday School In Smallville

Critics, creators, and academics pay a lot of lip service to the notion that superhero comics are the modern mythology, "Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men… all rolled into one." Those heroes, though, were inexorably tied to the religion of their times; what we call mythology now was a matter of serious faith then. So why are today's myths not steeped in today's religion? Why are so few superheroes men or women of faith?

I should preface the rest of this entry by explaining my own beliefs, so you know where I'm coming from. I was raised Lutheran, due to my grandfather having been a Lutheran pastor. By the time I reached the age of confirmation, though, I'd begun to have serious doubts about what I was being told by the church. Most troubling was the notion that only the properly faithful could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Scorning generations of decent, humanitarian Jews, Hundus, Bhuddists, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, and yes, atheists, in favor of pious scum like Torquemada, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Pat Robertson didn’t seem to me like the actions of just and merciful God. Over time, I became less and less a man of the church, and eventually settled into the life of what I like to call a "practicing agnostic." The events of my life have convinced me that there is *something* to the universe, a power and wisdom greater than humanity and beyond mortal understanding. My exact feelings on its nature and its involvement in human affairs differs from day to day, but I do my best to reach what I feel is a state of benevolent harmony with it by practicing love of my fellow man. Living in New York makes this a challenge on occasion, but I try to rise nonetheless.

So, that's where I'm coming from. Where this entry comes from is a post Gail Simone made a couple weeks ago, detailing her unused idea for DC's Batgirl. For those of you too lazy to click the link, she essentially would have had Cassandra Cain undergo a serious and deeply personal conversion experience and become a devout Christian. It's an idea rife with story potential; reconciling the dichotomy between vigilantism and the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself alone would provide reams of material. DC passed on the idea, as is their right, but when Gail posted it, I nonetheless got to thinking (those of you who know me know this is rarely a good thing).

I think DC's decision here was a waste. There are precious few heroes of faith in comics, mainstream or alternative, and the more I think about that, the less I like it. Most heroes' religion is used as a type of shorthand characterization, something to fill space in the Handbook. Kitty Pryde and Ben Grimm are Jewish, but you never see them paging through the Torah or asking forgiveness at Yom Kippur. Nightcrawler is a devout Catholic, but stories using his faith rarely treat it with the weight and respect it deserves (Chuck Austen, I'm looking in your direction). Ironically, it took not a comics professional, but director Bryan Singer and actor Alan Cumming to add some genuine text to the Catholic subtext of the character. Daredevil's Catholicism has been treated in a similar manner, with Kevin Smith being the lone writer to examine it in detail. (1) Storm practices, or practiced, a vague paganism, worshipping (and on one case being worshipped as) a generic Earth Mother goddess, although but that aspect of her character has fallen into disuse over the past 15-20 years. As for other faiths, they're often reduced to embarrassing costume elements and stereotypes (c.f. Arabian Knight, Dust, any Amerindian character ever, any voodoo-themed character except for Empress, and even Sabra, Marvel's defender of Israel). (2)

Religious-themed villains are another thing. Marvel has no end of devil-analogues -- Mephisto, Hades, Cloot, Satannish -- but they balk at letting the cloven-hooved one himself make an appearance. (There is one exception: an issue of the '70s Ghost Rider where Johnny Blaze's soul is rescued from Satan by a robed, bearded figure who identifies himself only as "a friend." There was a retcon not long after, but the issue's writer, Tony Isabella, has confirmed that he intended the "friend" to be Jesus Christ.) DC gets away with Neron by using the excuse, so handily provided them by Neil Gaiman's Sandman, that Lucifer himself has abdicated Hell's throne. And then there are the men of the cloth (3) who show up as villains, a la Claremont's Reverend Stryker, and are always defeated and exposed, not by the true faithful, but the secular superheroes.

Hey, there's the word I've been avoiding: secular. The adjective has gotten a bad rap lately, mostly due to the radical religious right's co-opting of it to denote a diabolical (and, to the reality-based community, ridiculous) conspiracy to drive religion and morality from America's shores. Which is utter nonsense; secularism is but one of the many points of view respected by America's pluralist society, and it's in that context that I use it. Secularism: the absence of religion. Superhero comics are a part of the secular subculture, (4) and it's not hard to see why when you look at their history. The men who founded the comics industry were Jews who had at least three good reasons to hide their light under a bushel. First, the high society publishers like Donnenfeld and Goodman thrust themselves into with their new wealth was dominated by secular WASPs, and the signs on the country clubs still read "Jews need not apply." (For membership, anyway.) Second, they were almost uniformly sons of poor Jewish immigrants who had fled the Eupropean pogroms at the turn of the 20th century, raised in the Lower East Side and Brooklyn ghettoes, and only too glad to leave every shred of their old lives behind. Third, being Jewish in the '20s and '30s carried with it political connotations that most people wished to avoid. (5)

So, the superheroes were secular because their fathers were; it was the new family business. Tradition carried it to today, where the corporate culture surrounding Marvel and DC provide even more reasons to avoid exploring matters of faith in comics. Any discussion of religion in pop culture is going to meet with controversy. And the comics, still so desperate for acceptance from the mainstream, skitter from that controversy, preferring not to bring it up at all. There's also the fact that comics are and always have been an aspect of the youth culture, two giant elements of which have always been cynicism and anti-authoritarianism. Secular superheroes is simply how it's done.

But I think that's doing the art a disservice, to say nothing of the audience and the cultural conversation. Art is about the human condition, and faith is an inexorable part of that condition. Even atheists believe in something. Stories about faith illuminate what it means to us, and there is certainly room, and I think a need, in superhero comics for the portrayal of faith as a virtue. Superheroes are about virtue, after all. Superman is self-confidence, Spider-Man is responsibility, Wonder Woman is trust, the Fantastic Four are family. Batgirl could have been faith.

Right now, no one is faith. There have been heroes of faith in the past, though. Right now my mind turns to the work of Kurt Busiek. His Avengers run featured, in part, Firebird and Triathlon, two characters who showed in very different ways how faith can have a positive impact on the lives of the faithful. (I'd still like to see those two debate theology over a cup of coffee, in fact.) And then there's Astro City's Confessor. You don't get much more archetypally virtuous than a vampire whose faith drives him to serve man instead of feeding on him. (6)

Going back to my Lutheran heritage, one of the most important passages in the Catechism comes from Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith." Superheroes are here to save us; why can't they do it through faith as well?

(1) By the way, the fact that Smith is one of the few voices in contemporary pop culture to examine American faith in a well-rounded manner speaks volumes about the dearth of serious religious discourse in this country.

(2) The absence of DC in my examples is no accident; for a universe where the Wrath of God fought for the allies in World War II, and angels with flaming swords and spears once manifested to the world's leaders to avert Armageddon, a surprisingly small number of superheroes spend their Sunday mornings in church.

(3) The astute reader will no doubt wonder where my feelings lie on the subject of Preacher. While that series contains many insights worth discussion, its "grade school theology," as Grant Morrison put it, are not among them. Now that I think on it, if my only choices for spiritual guidance were Jesse Custer or Bill Stryker, I'd be an atheist, too.

(4) In a truly pluralist society, everything's a subculture.

(5) For elaboration on this, as well as anything else you might want to know about the birth of the comics industry, see Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow.

(6) I'm tempted to include the Apollo Eleven as metaphors for New Age/transhumanist faith, but I feel it's prudent to wait for them to be fleshed out more. So hey, Busiek, get cracking on The Dark Age Book 2 already!


MacQuarrie said...

Very interesting and nicely done, Michael. I agree, I'd love to see how the Batgirl storyline would play out.

Also, it is interesting, as you noted, that people like Billy Batson and Diana Prince who are on a first-name basis with gods, nonetheless haven't time to chat with them nor the inclination to tell others aobut them. Curious, that.

David said...

There's only a few defenses I could give for the obscurity of genuine religious practice in comic books. It's difficult to reconcile the competing claims of say, Thor with those of Christianity (in the comic book world, at least). It's also difficult because each hero is supposed to maintain a broad appeal. Now I'm of the opinion that most of us are reasonable adults and you could make a favorite hero a Muslim, a Buddhist, an atheist, or a Christian without driving away readers as long as it was treated intelligently. But because religious values are so dearly held, I do wonder if it wouldn't alienate a Jewish reader if Superman was a Christian or a Christian reader if he was an atheist. I believe Batman was treated as an atheist, or at least an agnostic, in "Absolution"--but I'm not sure about that.

The way to get around this difficulty is to avoid the specific faith of the real icons like Superman (Supes has been treated consistently in the last few decades as a Christ figure, and also once as a Golem in a fitting tribute to his creators. But I see no reason why you wouldn't empahsize the Catholocism of Nightcrawler or the Jewish faith of Kitty. It didn't repel fans of X2 in the first example.

Flidget Jerome said...

I think sometimes religious backgrounds fall by the wayside because writers are daunted by having to write about a faith that they aren't familiar with or can screw up spectacularly when they try; look at Conner Hawke, a character that even a writer as good as Kevin Smith had offering a prayer to a Christian-style god even though he's a Buddhist monk.

Mark Engblom said...

Why are so few superheroes men or women of faith?

I would say alot of it has to do with the fact that the creators of superheroes have seldom been very religious people. I can't think of a single high-profile creator of the last forty years who was a serious, practicing member of an established religion.

In other words, because spirituality wasn't a big deal to alot of the creators, the characters don't have much connection to it either.