Super Hero Comics: Religion 2.0
1938. Action Comics #1. He wasn’t the first hero in comics, but he was the first of a new breed of hero. Like Moses coming down from the mountain, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster burst from obscurity (in Cleveland of all places), to introduce the comic book reading world to a seismic paradigm shift, and just like the Jewish patriarch they came to define their religion. Their tablets were read by millions, and their Yahweh became the leader of a pantheon of gods and goddesses worshiped to this day by millions of disciples.
After 12 years of religious schooling and nearly 20 years of comic book reading, I’ve been fully immersed in the religions of both Christianity (Lutheran and Catholic) and super hero (Marvel, but with a healthy respect for the tenants of DC). The similarities between the two are legion.
In school we’d learn of the massive continuity battles waged by leaders of the early Christian Church. Until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 Christianity was a free market of ideas and opinions. It took this Ecumenical Council and the power of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great to force believers into presenting a unified story to the world. I remember nodding my head when learning of this, as I flashed back to 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics’ attempt to get their own act together and tie all of their story lines into a consistent continuity. True, DC didn’t tie up all the loose ends, but as anyone who actually takes the time to read the Gospels can tell you, neither did the Christians. Nobody’s perfect.
Those spiritual fanboys known as theologians didn’t let things sit for long, though. The next 1700 years were spent in constant debate over interpretations of the most minute points. Of course, anybody who’s sat in a comic book store and argued the merits of the case for Spider-Man snapping Gwen Stacy’s neck as he tried to save her can understand where they’re coming from. (Note: I think he did, and you’ll never convince me otherwise).
Not having enough Lutherans to support schooling us above 6th grade, I moved to a Catholic School, where I was delighted to find incredible similarities between my super hero role models and the Catholic pantheon. While Protestants didn’t have much patience for anyone but the Trinity, Catholics worshipped their own kind of JLA. Getting mugged in Gotham? Batman’s your super hero of choice. Getting mugged in Ancona, Italy? Then pray to Judas Cyriacus, your town’s very own patron saint. Your boat capsized in the ocean? Comics offer you Aquaman, or, in a pinch, Namor (though don’t expect much courtesy from him). Catholics offer you Brendan, St. Elmo, Francis of Paola or Nicholas of Myra. So many to choose from! Can Superman outrun the Flash? Depends who you ask. Who’s a faster flier? Joseph of Cupertino or Elijah (both patron saints of flying)?
Of course, religion is about more than the fun of memorizing and over analyzing minutia written by others years ago. It’s also about giving hope and comfort to those without. Who hasn’t heard that the meek shall inherit the earth, and not felt a sense of comfort? Certainly not Peter Parker, who was as meek as they come, before his god – science – granted him great powers. And with those powers he set out to ensure that the meek do…well, somewhat better, anyway. What inspiration! Or Superman, who died for mankind, only to rise again several years later (despite my comic book guy swearing he’d be dead for good. The heretic! Even the 15 year old me didn’t buy that for a second). Comics and traditional religion both offer comfort to those in need. For every lost soul who walks into a church there’s a picked on kid who wanders into the accepting embrace of the comic book world.
So what lessons can we take from this? Mainstream religion can certainly learn from the editors of Marvel, DC, and to a lesser extent Image (much lesser, in this columnist’s opinion). For one thing, comic book cannon has done a much better job staying relevant than religious doctrine. When Marvel was getting killed by DC, they had the brains to reimagine the origins of their characters in the form of the Ultimates universe. And what a difference it made, both in the satisfaction of the faithful and in recruiting new converts. Imagine how much more popular Christianity could be if it revamped its origin story. Seriously, do you think the youth of today can relate more to clumsy nerd Peter Parker, or a 2,000 year old Middle Eastern zombie Jewish carpenter?
This isn’t without precedent. Early Christianity is rife with examples of the Church taking local tastes into account and incorporating them into the Orthodoxy. The Church would even go so far as to incorporate the popular pagan gods of other cultures into their sainthood, in order to make the locals’ transition to Christianity more harmonious. Surely the editors at DC Comics in 1999 had the story of the Irish pagan goddess Brigid (to become Saint Bridget to the Catholics) on their mind as they purchased Wildstorm and incorporated such modern goddesses as Caitlin Fairchild of Gen13 into the DC cannon.
Allow me to make a suggestion for the continued success of modern religion. Turn your theologies into comic books! Simply translating traditional religions into the comic book medium could give them a powerful shot in the arm. Sectarian violence could be reduced or even eliminated as believers of all faiths debate the issues civilly at places like conventions and in the letters page. Crossovers between religious comic books would encourage cooperation and understanding as Jesus and Buddha battle evils like homelessness together. Church coffers would fill with profits from the sale of their comic books. And the market would be an excellent indicator as to whether or not to continue to support unpopular characters and storylines. Wahhabi Monthly not selling so well? Then Muslims would know to drop it and move on to another, more popular sect. How much cleaner it would be this way than blowing up tourist resorts.
And the people of the world could gather each Wednesday at the Comic Book Shop of their choice – probably the same one their parents attended – and observe the Sabbath of New Comic Book Day each Wednesday as the latest issue of The Adventures of St. Elmo and Aquaman hit the shelves.