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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


On The Separation Of Church And Stately Wayne Manor

Steven Grant is right on all points. But the primary reason why I can't stand "concrete Judeo-Christian figures"--be they God, superhero angels, or divinely-directed Spirits of Vengeance in my superhero comics is that atheistic and rationally thinking characters are by default rendered as at best misguided, and at worst as delusional fools in deep denial, desperately rationalizing away their interactions with The Demon, The Spectre or the big guy himself.

Comic books typically excel at making the abstract concrete; that's highly problematic when you're dealing with issues of faith. The natural tendency of the cartoonist to draw the thing, to create visual representations of ideas, directly cuts against a force or concept which gains all its power from its invisibility and unprovability. To be blunt, comics featuring these concepts as concrete characters are almost always every bit as stupid as religious fundamentalism itself. I resent that in modern comics the atheism of Ted Knight or Mr. Terrific isn't a matter of debate-they're simply wrong. It's particularly galling to see this point made repeatedly in the DC universe, a direct descendant of Julie Schwartz's "clockwork universe" which had the good sense to leave God off the table (aside from "The Voice" in the Spectre strip.)

At least we seem to be past the 1990s tendency for superheroes to solve problems through non-denominational Super-Prayer; by clasping hands and believing together in the power of good to vanquish bad vibes (see: Mark Waid). Whatever else can be said about Civil War, at least it didn't go that route.

First, congratulations on the title of this post. I stand in awe.

Second, total argeement here...but that makes a boring comment, so I'll try to find an angle for discussion. This exact point came up a while back on Steve Gerber's blog, in relation to Gerber writing a one-shot featuring the character Zauriel. I don't like the character for your above-stated reasons, but I did argue for the sake of argument that the presence of such a character -- or the Spectre for that matter -- needn't totally destroy atheism or skepticism within that fictional universe.

If you live in a reality that also includes super-hypnotism and telepathy and shapeshifting aliens, being skeptical of any figure who comes along saying "I am an angel of Yahweh" or "I am the Lord's divine retribution" is still the only sane response. In fact, even more so than in reality, where any "supernatural" occurrence would be mind-blowing all by itself. In Metropolis, they see that stuff every single day. They should see a Zauriel and think "Is that a Thanagarian? Did Hawkman become a religious nutter?" Come to that, the religious types should be even more skeptical -- on the grounds that empirical proof is the opposite of faith, so any physical manifestation of "divinity" could only be a lie by the internal logic of religion. Some would believe in a Zauriel, but more of the faithful would try to banish him as an alien deceiver or an agent of Satan.

Where it goes wrong in superhero comics -- and this is what you're talking about here -- is the approach of writers and editors to stating that, say, the Spectre's Voice really and truly is God instead of leaving it open to other rationalization like "he's an otherdimensional being" or whatsit. I was also none too keen on Mike Barr writing an origin for the Phantom Stranger revealing that he's the Wandering Jew, condemned by Jesus to walk the Earth in penance for reviling his savior. And then there was the unpublished Swamp Thing meets Jesus story...oy vey iz mir!

Maybe I'm offended by the misrepresentation of atheism in comics for the same reason a devout Christian might well be offended by Zauriel or the Spectre or by Jesus hanging out with superheroes -- because they get the root concepts so spectacularly wrong, and that wrongness can be damaging to people's understanding of the real world issues.
I'm reminded of an issue of Robinson's Starman where Ted Knight encounters The Demon, and has exactly the response you suggest--to assume that the creature must have a non-religious basis. But again, we are given the privileged information that Ted is wrong. Then there's the scene in Infinite Crisis #5, clumsy even on its own self-consciously ridiculous terms, where Ragman and Mr. Terrific discuss religion at a superhero church service.
Gee, I hadn't even thought to be thankful that Civil War didn't end in a Power Of Love prayer circle, but I guess I am!
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