O Death, Where Is Thy Sting

The powers that be at Marvel Comics decided to kill the Human Torch; at least the most recent incarnation (the Human Torch originally appeared in the 1940s as an android, then was reintroduced as a cocky young kid in 1962 as on quarter of the Fantastic Four).  At least, for the time being, he is dead, gone, and will be missed… until he returns.  This is the mythic dynamic of the realm of superheroes — good always wins, even over death.  Barry Allen died (the Flash) – he’s back.  Superman died — not a problem, he returned better than ever.  Batman/Bruce Wayne — R.I.P./R.F.B.T.D (Rest in Peace/Returned From Beyond the Grave).  Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel — toss in minor characters “cleaned out” from time to time, then brought back and the message is clear.  Death is a wimp that can’t keep track of his/her possessions.  Our bright and shiny superheroes need have no fear of death (and don’t get me started on the villains — they come back almost as frequently — making most of what I am going to say here oddly contradictory…) because it doesn’t last.  Time and slumping sales will conspire to bring resurrection.

Comic books — pardon me, graphic novels (and my favorite, illustration art narrative) — construct for themselves a mythos and a reality.  Comic writers/artists assume godlike powers in creating and destroying at will, anything and everything in their path that might stimulate interest and boost sales.  The death of Superman was significant in its time because it opened the flood gates — even the invincible icons were fair game.  No one was safe from death, but that’s okay because in the realm of the superhero, death is no more bothersome than getting stuck in traffic at rush hour.  Things will clear up soon and go back to “normal.”  What a grace and comfort it must be to dwell in a realm that believes in eternal life, new beginnings, second chances, hope, trust, loyalty, team work, etc.  Wow!  Sounds like what the church is supposed to be like, doesn’t it?

Christians should have an easy relationship with the world of the graphic novel superhero.  In the grand myth of human reality, we have always sought heroes, and we in the church have found our hero in Jesus the Christ.  Maybe he isn’t faster than a speeding bullet, but he can appear and disappear at will.  Just ask the guys on the road to Emmaus.  We have no story of Jesus leaping a tall building in a single bound, but we do have him wandering across the waves on a stormy sea.  More powerful than a locomotive?  Well, he moved an empire to action (albeit to destroy him).  Death at the hands of evil villains?  Yep.  Burst out of the grave shaking off the shackles of death?  In grand super-hero style.  Continues to change the world for the better?  Truth, justice, and the Yah-way.  (Sorry…)

The best comics of the post-modern era are not those reflecting the cynicism, angst, and anger of the present day, but those that honestly confront the issues of law vs. justice, the place of mercy in the world, ethical order vs. moral law, meaning and purpose, death and life, light and darkness — the authors of the Johannine corpus would be right at home writing for Marvel Comics.  Authors and artists of today’s graphic novels are creating cultural narratives that explore power and the abuse of power, trust and trustworthiness; responsibility and accountability; synergy — where together heroes are greater than the sum of their parts, and much better than any one individual.  Marvel’s Civil War, Skrull Invasion, and Siege dove between the clear-cut lines of good and evil to wrestle with life in the gray areas — where it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust, who to follow, who to respect, and ultimately who to BE.  DCs Blackest Night (the ultimate “death is illusion” tale) examined the entire rainbow spectrum of power from a “seven deadly sins” perspective.  Nothing in our world is a simple black-and-white, but a complex palette of rich colors — each with a light side and a shadow side.  Now, Marvel is dealing with cataclysm that tears a family apart and changes everything forever (temporarily).  But in context (we know Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch will be back, but sister Sue, bro-in-law Reed, and love-hate buddy Ben don’t) Marvel is tackling grief, loss, brokenness, relationships, and family in a raw and real way.  These and other “big” life issues are of interest to our younger generations, and comics are one avenue through which they are finding guidance.

When I was conducting the spiritual seeker study for the General Board of Discipleship, I met with literally hundreds of men and women between the ages of 21 and 40 to talk about faith matters.  These younger adults were not regular church-goers.  When asked where they found places to wrestle with life issues, it was interesting to note that friends came in first — far and away; family was second, movies were third, the Internet was fourth, but comics and graphic novels rated higher than television — for both males and females.  When we asked the same question among regular church attenders, the startling fact is that those in the church rate family, friends, movies and the Internet higher than church, but even comics/graphic novels made the church list. (Footnote: I found it interesting that books and magazines didn’t make the top ten of either list, though comics/graphic novels did on the non-church-goer list…  My research found that television and books simply don’t occupy much of the time of 21-30 year-olds.)

This seems like a great opportunity to me when it comes to the church.  Aren’t questions of justice, mercy, meaning and purpose, appropriate use of power, responsibility and accountability, trust, loyalty, community, and on and on, exactly the topics WE should be addressing?  It used to be that we would punish a child for sneaking a comic book into church to read during the boring parts — today, perhaps it might be a good idea to hand them out with the morning bulletin and have some time to talk about the messages — both positive and negative — they contain.  We might just find that many of them are telling the same story we are trying to communicate in culturally relevant and powerful ways — new wineskins, as it were.  When young people are engaged in the ideas of life and death, family ties, justice, goodness, ethical behavior more often in their comic books than in their congregations, we need to pay attention.  It has been my experience that the readership of graphic novels is no longer the nerd/geek stereotype, but Wall Street attorneys, neuro-surgeons, school teachers, college students, Starbucks barristas, corporate executives, truck drivers, and custodians — in other words, just about everybody.  I think we have a new avenue on which to journey and explore the core tenets of our Christian faith.  I think we’re missing a grand opportunity to build bridges with a segment of our culture not currently in church.

On the day that Johnny Storm returns — and mark my words, the Human Torch will be back — I hope there are people of faith ready to draw comparisons and contrasts that bridge the gap between a 2,000 year young story and the cultural mythos of the post-modern age.

12 replies

  1. It’s a little disingenuous to note that every dead character returns to its DC/Marvel world. Yes, they do; on the other hand, they don’t return in the same continuity. Periodically, the telling of a comic “resets.” It starts over. It’s an utterly clean slate with none of the joys, triumphs, sorrows, or losses of the prior arcs. In short, they didn’t happen. The series reboots.

    We have every reason to believe that Johnny is completely, utterly dead, not to be brought back in this continuity. This Sue, this Reed, this Ben may be completely right in thinking they’ll never see him again. When he returns, it will be to a different version of the same family in a separate reality (gotta love the multiverse).

    I don’t think that necessarily negates the larger point about cultural relevance and dialogue, but it’s not entirely fair to the comics to suggest that death is cheap and powerless there.

  2. I didn’t know anyone in the church was actually paying attention. I went to a church a few years ago and tried to ask questions about God and things I didn’t understand. I was essentially told to shut up. I go to Great Escape ( a comics store) and I get into deep conversation with intelligent people about all kinds of things. There is a lot more open exchange in a comics store than in any church I have ever been in. Spawn, Locke & Key, Gaiman’s Sandman, and Kirkman’s Invincible have done more to get me thinking about good and evil, right and wrong, and wanting to make my life mean something than anyting I ever got from a church. But if church wants to meet me halfway and talk about the things I am struggling with, I’m there. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

    • I’m sorry you have had the experiences you have, but I do think there is hope. I am discovering a whole army of pastors and lay leaders who are closet comic-junkies. Getting them to openly admit it is a challenge, but we do exist. Is your Great Escape the one in Nashville? I spent many hours browsing the racks and bins of a great store on Broadway near the Vandy campus.

  3. Great article. I’ve thought many similar things over the years and appreciate your mention of Blackest Night. The spectrum of moral issues that comics deal with is often greater than those we’re willing to talk about in the church.

    Keep up the good work and, remember, comics are still for geeks. 😉

  4. I love this (& your previous writings on comics & ministry), Dan. At my campus ministry, we’ve begun a Geeks & God study to create a space for precisely those who want to have the bigger conversation about life & death, good & evil…but cannot find it in church. (Derek, Blackest Night is on the curriculum!) I’m excited about relationships between cultural “minority reports” — represented by sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, comics, and the like — and the subversive Gospel narrative. Thanks again, Dan.

    • I’ll put it on my list. I wrote an article years ago on The Lord of the Rings, and I have even written on Magic: the Gathering. I think it is about time I returned to my cardboard roots and reflected on D&D. My first D&D set came in the original gray cardboard box with the name stenciled on it. I have seen these on EBay for around $10,000 — what an idiot I was. I actually played mine until it was worthless. Ah those golden Fritos, Hormel Chili, Dr. Pepper-soaked weekend spell-fests that ended only as the sun came up. Thanks for the reminder.

      • I am a tabletop gamer and have written a little bit about D&D style gaming and spirituality. I enjoy your posts, Dan. It’s nice to see other Methodist ministers with similar interests.

        I will be going to Lake Geneva in March….the original home of TSR which is the company that published D&D in the early days. I’ll be attending GaryCon III which is held in honor of Gary Gygax. His family sponsors the Con and it is a lot of fun.

      • Fantastic! I grew up in the MIdwest where many adults looked askance at RPGs as harmful and occult and violent and all that jazz. What I discovered is that they are a perfect vehicle for teaching critical thinking, decision making, resolving ethical dilemmas, teamwork and strategic planning — as well as raising issues of good vs. evil, occult vs. supernatural, and the perils of individualism where community synergy is a smarter way to go!

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