Faith and the New Gods

This is a little something I’ve whipped up for a radio show – I’ve no idea when it will be going out, and I think it is probably on the long side for the time slot. I was asked for 300 words and I’ve gone over 700. But you know me, I’m somewhat loquacious.

“We saw you as gods…” The words of UN Secretary General Wyrmwood in the DC Comics’ 1996 mini-series Kingdom Come. He speaks them to Superman, shortly after ordering a nuclear attack that destroys four fifths of the superpowered population, in an attempt to stop a superhero war that threatened to destroy humanity.

From the Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s, through the Silver Age of the 1960s to the Modern Age now, the superhero has been an icon for generations of young people. More than human, beyond the mundane realities of normal existence, above the law, with fantastic powers – superheroes are more than men and woman in brightly coloured capes; they became the new gods.

But not godly in the way we would instantly recognise. They are not perfect – some are villains, some are heroes, yet all are capable of acting for good and for evil, regardless of their nominal status. They have tempers, they have vices, and whilst death may only last until a new writer takes over, comic book characters are still mortal. They are not like the gods we would recognise from the major world religions, instead they are more like the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon (petty, squabbling, flawed, vindictive) or the demigods and heroes legend (Hercules, Goliath, Achilles).

In fact, some superheroes explicitly lay claim to being demigods. Heroes such as Hercules and Thor lay claim to being, if not the actual gods, at least to being possessed by them.

With such phenomenal powers, it might not be immediately obvious that religion would have a place in comic books, but it does. In some stories a profound influence, in others a mere background detail, like nationality, or marital status. But our heroes are mortals, not gods, and religions is part of their world, and they each have a faith, or a lack of faith. So how can you tell the religion of a comic book character?

Helpfully, there is a site that has meticulously compiled the religious affiliation of almost every comic book character.

The Comic Book Religion Database lists superheroes by religion, superhero team, publisher and individually, and is fully searchable. From the major religions such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam, to the less well known, such as Druze, Yazidi and Santerian, and even includes non-religious and philosophical affiliations, such as Atheism, Agnosticism, Humanism and Communism.

There are many strong examples of superheroes who have been identified as not only belonging to a religious denomination, but also practising it. Superman, although from the planet Krypton, was raised as a Methodist. The Thing, from the Fantastic Four, is Jewish. Nightcrawler, from the X-Men, is a Catholic. Dust, another member of the X-Men, is Sunni Muslim. Quasar, from the Avengers, is an Atheist. The Green Arrow is Buddhist.

This is just a small selection from over 60 religious categories and thousands of characters featured in the guide. Even if you aren’t particularly religious, or not particularly interested in comic book characters, the site is worth a look and may surprise you with revelations of which character belongs to which religion, how strongly they adhere to that faith, and how that faith has affected the characterisation or the storylines.

For example, Batman was raised by Catholic and Episcopalian parents. After their deaths, the young Bruce Wayne prayed daily for the strength and means to avenge them, taking his encounter with a bat as the sign he was looking for. Although the character is now lapsed in his faith, that background contributed to the character he became – his attitudes towards justice and violence would have been different had he been raised in a different faith, or even a different denomination, just as much as they would have been different had other aspects of his upbringing been different.

Nightcrawler, an X-Man character with a strong Catholic faith, found himself struggling to reconcile his friendship with fellow X-Man Colossus, and with his faith’s teachings on homosexuality, when Colossus came out as gay. This is a recent example where faith played a particularly strong role in a storyline.

The “new gods” of the fantasy realm have not replaced the faiths of the real world. It is tempting to say that as faith, and the emphasis placed upon it, have diminished in recent years to be replaced with a more materialistic society, celebrity and superheroes have stepped into the social void once occupied by deities. Whilst comic books may be analogous to myths and legends, whilst fantastic characters with amazing powers may fulfil the functions of gods and demi-gods in the post-modern world, superheroes are not the new gods.

“We saw you as gods…” said Wyrmwood to Superman.

“As we saw ourselves,” was Superman’s reply. “And we were both wrong.” Even superheroes bow their heads and pray, give thanks, and place their faith in something greater than themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Faith and the New Gods”

  1. Religion and superheroes are something that I”ve never given a whole heap of thought – though obviously someone has to have created an online data base merging the two. I can see that super heroes and most major religions explore and try to make sense in their own ways the ideas of good and evil.

    I think it’s interesting to see the proliferation of super hero movies since the Western world ‘went to war again.’

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the whole super hero thing. As a kid I loved the League of Justice (and the Wonder Twin) and it’s only now as a mother, and traversing the superhero path with Dylan, that I see that so much of the superhero realm is really quite dark.

    What is it about superheroes that charges the large imaginations of small boys?

  2. This is something I could go into all day long (and my brother, who is a comic book artist, even longer). An interesting idea was provided by the film Unbreakable, where comic books are merely a way of acknowledging a collective unconscious memory about people born with uncanny powers – whereas before we had legends like Prometheus and Gilgamesh, now we have the X-Men.

    They are also vehicles for addressing the anxieties of the age – many Superhero origins are nuclear. Spider-man is bitten by a radioactive spider, the Hulk is irradiated by a military weapon. Others address issues of race. Marvel comics would never have been able to sell a comic stating that those who are different from you are still deserving of your respect in the 1960s if the difference had been skin colour. So instead, mutants were created, the X-Men were born, and it has addressed racial issues from the inequalities of American race politics, to the apartheid regime (in the X-Men there was a country called Genosha which used the mutant population as slaves).

    As for why superheroes attract the imagination of boys (of all ages) – I don’t know if it is nature or nurture, but we aspire to something higher – we have heroes, be they real or fictional. And superheroes represent an ideal that is non-threatening, because we know that we can aspire to be like them, but there is no jealousy because nobody can be truly like them.

    Although, this is why I like Batman so much. He has no power other than a trained mind and a body at the peak of what a human can do, and no more.

    I addressed this in another post ages ago – http://www.paulanthonyanderson.com/2007/03/heroes.html

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