On Religious Imagery In Superhero Comicbooks
(Warning, contains some strong language.)
In discussing my preliminary thoughts on this very post with Maribou, I pointed out that we knew for a fact that Alfred was baptized Anglican. She disagreed pointing out that maybe he was baptized Catholic or maybe even a Dissenter. “We know he was baptized though, right?” She conceded that, yeah, we did know that much.
In addition to that, we all know that The Thing is Jewish (answers a question there, doesn’t it?), Captain America is Protestant, and Green Arrow is a Marxist, which means that he’s probably almost certainly a Materialist/Atheist.
I mean, it makes sense, right? You want to make up a character, your character has a backstory. If your character’s backstory starts prior to, oh, Woodstock, your character probably had some religious inputs. Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic would be the big ones for the US (with a notable handful of believers in the Norse or Greek Pantheons) and, given the various backstories for each hero/heroine, they probably went to a number of funerals. You need somebody at the front of the procession wearing religious vestments of some sort to give a speech that either opens the door for a flashback or to provide some serious foreshadowing. (Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a funeral. It can be a sermon delivered on any given Sunday.)
Much of this has to do with what Superheroes are to us (as a society!) today.
Religion, for the most part, has completed the final drafts of its most important works. To discuss religion is to provide commentary on the final drafts, or commentary on the commentaries, or commentaries on those. This can be about as dry as Constitutional Discussions when it gets down to stuff like “well, what does this word *REALLY* mean?” and from there get drug into weeds about whether and how we live under a new covenant now. As children of The Enlightenment (or bastard children, anyway), it’s easy to forget that our grandparents had another way: the shaman telling stories of right and wrong around the fire.
I see comic books as being modern versions of these shaman stories. The one chosen by the God(s) was given a mission and a set of rules to follow and here’s how s/he went on to succeed or fail. Here’s they dragon they needed to slay. Here’s the murderer they needed to stop. Here’s the victim they needed to save. Here’s the society they needed to transform.
It’s possible. This story proves it. Now… go and do likewise.
(An aside: I encountered a beautiful GK Chesterton quote today and now I’d like to share it with you: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” Isn’t that just wonderful?)
What comic books are therefore doing are coming up with stories to help us deal with the multiple terrors that are still out there that religion (or whatever we have out there that we’re (mistakenly) calling “religion”) is failing to provide: There is something in the universe stronger than strong fear.
The use of religious imagery in comic books, it seems to me, is a deliberate (even if unconscious) nod to the nature of the problems the author is trying to wrestle with. Why are these evil people out there doing what they’re doing? What can we do to stop them? Well, let me tell you a story about a boy named Matt Murdock…
There was a funny quip (that I want to attribute to our very own Rufus) that goes something like this: They say violence doesn’t solve anything… but what if your problem is motherfuckers? What comic books give us is a universe where the biggest problem is motherfuckers. The Joker. The Kingpin. Doomsday. Shredder. Bane. Galactus. Magneto. The Green Goblin. There’s nothing wrong with them that couldn’t be fixed with a hard enough uppercut.
(Another digression: a million years ago, we discussed part of why this is back in Mindless Diversions (apologies, it looks like the comments over there have vaporized) and KatherineMW gave us this insight: That’s sort of my fundamental problem with superhero stories. They start with a dual requirement: they want to present some kind of moral story/message/fable, and they need to do it in a way that includes action, so it will be interesting to the reader. As a result, we get a concept of heroism that revolves around punching bad people.)
Well, given that we’ve established that we’re telling a story that takes place in a universe where violence can solve problems, where we have protagonists who are lucky enough to have the right thing to do in any given situation is also the most interesting thing to do that gives the best emotional payoff, we have heroes who get to fight these bad guys with their clenched fists.
And to make this overlap between the religion of our forefathers and the religion of we children of the enlightenment explicit, we have our heroes surrounded by the symbols of the religion of our forefathers (right before they commence to punching). We see Batman hugging the angel statue that keeps watch over the grave of his parents. We see Daredevil in confession. There is an absolutely wonderful scene involving Ben Grimm (The Thing) trying to help an old friend from his old block who has been attacked. He can’t give CPR and he’s complaining that he can’t do anything at all… wait, no. There’s one thing he can do: he gives the Shema Yisrael.
Of course, after that, it is clobbering time.
The whole deconstruction of the superhero has been discussed ad nauseum and we have seen the evolution of Superheroes that aren’t so super, the evolutions of villains who you just can’t beat by hitting, and explorations of whatever the heck it is that we think of when we think about this thing we think we’re talking about this thing we call “justice”. (On top of that, the works of Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar probably all deserve a series of posts of their own. Garth Ennis has threatened to kill God in more than one book and he successfully pulled it off in at least one. (Shot him in the head.[/efn_note]
But, at the end of the day, the superhero stories we tell ourselves and our children are stories that are intended to get across the idea that while it is true that there are dragons out there, it’s also possible to slay them.
(Picture is by Theodore Scott, used under a Creative Commons License)