What do you believe?
Faith and religion can be used in fiction, speculative or otherwise, to show how your characters are or are not like others in their society, how faith or lack of it shapes and forms them and their reactions. This is true even when your world is this one at a slight remove. (Or not so slight, as the case may be.) But sometimes, the mix of comics and religion can just be . . . odd.
Disclaimer: Most of my reading is off in the indie comics at Image or Dynamite or IDW and places like that. I tend to read in the main DC and Marvel universes in very limited ways. To the extent that I read the Big Two, I'm stronger in DC than in Marvel. I'm also not discussing specifically religious comics, since using religion to illuminate their characters and their world is precisely what those comics exist to do.
The first question is: belief or faith in what, exactly? In DC, you have Olympians, you have New Gods, you have a few Norse and Egyptian gods running around, a few alien pantheons and whatnot, and all of them seem to be vaguely, generically subordinate to the Heavenly Host (we will ignore the fact that for a time, the DC universe was apparently being run by Donna Troy; she was technically more powerful than the gods in which she believed). Marvel has its Olympians and Norse gods and others, though the Judaeo-Christian version seems to take a somewhat less active role. (Somewhat. After all, God has talked to Peter Parker.) Few outside Wonder Woman and the other Amazons seem to believe in the Olympians; few seem to believe in all the gods who periodically wander around in the incarnate flesh. Then again, maybe the fact that there are so many metahumans and aliens with god-like powers who don't claim to be gods might complicate that whole belief issue. After all, surely it's easier to believe in Superman and his good will, given that he's right there (relatively speaking), than in some strange god.
For the most part, comics try to avoid having their main characters observe or espouse particular religions. If Superman stands there and proudly declares his devotion to one particular faith, a lot of readers might not be all that thrilled, and might stop reading—though if he proclaimed a belief in the Kryptonian gods, it probably wouldn't matter as much, since they're entirely fictional. It also leaves writers with a lot to explain if the hero acts in ways directly counter to the precepts of a religion that we know more about. That said, certain characters have religion simply built into the character design. Wonder Woman and Donna Troy believe in the Olympian gods, for example; they're essentially ancient Greeks in a modern world. You also have characters, like Marvel's Thor, who actually are gods, and don't have to believe in anything; they just are. For the most part, however, major characters only observe religions that are functionally dead in the modern world. It's hard to find an Olympian adherent and ask, "So, how does this worshipping Athena and Artemis and all those people work these days, anyway?"
When the issue of faith comes up for major characters, it can get very interesting. Take Superman and Batman, for example. Canonically, Superman was raised Protestant but then left the church at age 14 (Action Comics 849).
And, of course, he's seen many other peoples and many other forms of belief, and the Fortress has also told him about the Kryptonian gods. That's left him believing . . . well, it's not entirely clear what he believes now.
Batman and belief have a more tortured co-existence, these days. Batman was also raised some sort of Protestant, but no longer believes—or, more precisely, no longer wants to believe. How could he? He saw his parents murdered in front of his eyes; he wound up taking on crime in Gotham because its police department was so corrupt that it both couldn't and wouldn't; he saw Dick Grayson's parents murdered in front of him; and he's seen two Robins murdered. Between the various supervillains and all the horrible things that have happened to Gotham, how could he possibly believe? And yet . . . and yet. Sometime after Jason Todd, second Robin, comes back to life, in the "Under the Hood" storyline in Batman, he and Superman have a truly agonized conversation about how Superman can believe, and how he can't bring himself to. Not surprising; all this resurrection running around has to be hell on a secular rationalist.
Mind, you do kind of wonder how Batman manages not to believe in the existence of something when the Justice League has worked with a voluntarily fallen ex-guardian angel, Zauriel. At one point Zauriel and the Justice League even fought a rebel arm of the Heavenly Host; the JLA actually took arms against Heaven, so to speak. Later, Hell froze over. (The "Days of Judgement" storyline.) Of course, if Batman then does let himself believe in a god, any god, then depending on how far down the predestination path he took it, he'd have to believe that said god deliberately caused all the horrible things that he's seen and experienced, including, at a minimum, the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents in front of him. That leaves you with a god that is not merciful, that does whatever is necessary for some end that isn't obvious to anyone but that god. Who wouldn't choose a comforting atheism over a belief that harsh?
For all their careful tiptoeing around issues of belief and faith, there's one heresy that some comics engage in with wild abandon. People get resurrected right, left, and center. The most famous in the DC universe is Superman, of course; that said, Superman is rather emphatic about not having been dead (see above), no matter what everyone else believes; he says that he'd gone dormant because he'd fought so hard and hadn't had any chance to recharge from the sun. (How he managed to recharge inside a mausoleum is left as an exercise for the reader.) Hal Jordan (second Green Lantern), Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), Red Tornado—an android with a soul, even—and Wally West (second Flash) and his family have all been brought back to life in the past few years. Resurrection is part of the Spectre's character design, since he needs to bring back a recently dead character to make manifest the vengeance of God. Over in Marvel, the best known resurrectee would be Jean Gray, who dies, gets brought back by the Phoenix Force, wreaks havoc, eventually settles down and becomes herself again, dies, lather, rinse, repeat—a minimum of 16 times so far, according to The X-Men Fatality Timeline (4th draft). In order to make this work, writers and readers have to agree to willfully ignore standard theology on the practice—primarily, that it happens extremely infrequently, and only with the quite direct intervention of God and/or his designated agents (or to His designated agent, in the case of Jesus). Comics fans seem to be remarkably willing to allow this type of heresy without getting too exercised about it. To the extent that some resurrections are clearly caused or directed by the Judaeo-Christian god and His agents, it's probably technically not a heresy; it's merely very unusual that He would choose to reincarnate superheroes with such a surprising frequency when he hasn't done it all that often. It usually happens in the Bible for specific religious cause—to illustrate His power, or to spark a religion—and it somehow doesn't seem like bringing back superheroes from the afterlife has quite the same heft, so to speak.
Over in indie world, the less stringent editorial control and lack of a continuity tail allow creators to take more liberties, and take them they do.
- In IDW's first continuing series, Fallen Angel (brought over from DC), the main character, Liandra (Lee), is in fact a fallen angel, an origin that was only vaguely hinted at when the series started at DC. She retains certain abilities and powers, and serves as the balancer of Bete Noire, the city that moves the world. She also has conversations with God, although we only hear her side clearly. In her universe, God is tired of running things, and only wants to die. He's prevented from that by the fact that people still believe in him, no matter what disasters he sends to plague them to make them stop believing. Over a beer, he and Lee appear to reach an agreement that he will stop plaguing her, if she'll help him die.
- In a horror series called Purgatori, an old Chaos Comics title briefly rebooted by Devil's Due, Purgatori starts off life as a simple Egyptian slave girl; she becomes the lover of Nefertiti, who persuades her to kill the pharaoh. This displeases the Judaeo-Christian god, who had planned for that pharaoh to become the new messiah (!), so he curses Purgatori by turning her into a vampire-bat-demon, cursed to forever wander the world, slurping blood and killing people. Other gods also exist in Purgatori, and it seems the whole vampire-bat-demon thing is a common curse. One wonders what exactly everyone else in the world has done to deserve such things being visited upon them.
- In The Atheist, Phil Hester's mistitled and peripatetic book from Image, Antoine Sharpe proclaims that he will believe in God when he is presented with verifiable evidence. He is then almost immediately presented with verifiable evidence of the existence of Hell, when souls manage to escape and take over the bodies of people on earth so that they can do very bad things. Logically, this also implies the existence of Heaven—Hell only exists because of rebel angels, after all—but the storyline hasn't quite gotten that far.
- In Paul Jenkins' Revelations (Dark Horse), the question is: does faith count? Does it matter if you don't believe in the apocalypse and the book of Revelation and the Church and all those things if gods and demons actually exist, and the apocalypse is determined to happen anyway? The answer is, apparently, that it doesn't.
- In Jim Valentino and Jason Rand's Emissary (Shadoline/Image), we see one take on what happens to religion when a superhero—actually, an emissary brother from another planet—appears in mid-air in post September 11 New York City. We never really hear from the mainstream Protestant religions or some of the others; conservative religions and Catholicism spin themselves apart, some considering that he must be the messiah come again, some deciding that he must be the antichrist, primarily if not purely because he's black. He's able to persuade the pope that he's not the antichrist—we never see how—but the other religions remain unconvinced.
Every now and again, you see smaller stories about the intersection between faith, the superpowered, and your average person. In Virgin's Devi, a normal woman, Tara, has been forcibly merged with Devi, a goddess, entirely without her consent. Devi is a goddess of the people, which means that she has to go where she's most needed. People pray to her, to portraits and icons of her, and if the cause is dire enough, she appears.
The downside of being an incarnate goddess in whom people actually believe, it seems, is that you then have to respond to that belief, even if you might rather not and the body you're currently inhabiting has no idea what's happening. It's a comforting view of faith from the point of the worshipper, if sometimes rather inconvenient for the goddess. It's also probably easier to believe when you know that, when you really and truly have need, you may get a response, especially if you've seen it happen for someone else. (Mind, so far, Devi being responsive seems to involve the incidental destruction of large portions of the city slums, but nobody said that having a responsive god would be all fun and games.) Because it's fairly early in Tara's merging with Devi, the focus is more on how Tara/Devi reacts to being called, rather than on the person doing the calling; nonetheless, it's an intriguing portrayal of the relationship between worshipper and worshiped.
In Superman #659, a one-shot called "Angel," Superman saves Barbara Johnson, an elderly black woman, from being killed in a traffic accident. This makes her decide that he's an angel sent from Heaven—almost, but not quite, her particular guardian angel.
Her faith in him as an angel or agent of God is only further confirmed when he saves a derailed commuter train in Chicago, right as she was praying for help for them.
This leads, somewhat predictably, to Mrs. Johnson going out and looking for trouble as a way to do good.
She gets rescued by Superman, but eventually she decides to tackle something at a time when he can't be around to save her, and gets shot for her troubles. And yet, this somehow turns out to be a good thing.
Mrs. Johnson reappears in a storyline in Action Comics #848-849, where Superman discovers that the power of faith can be a very real thing, literally giving power to a metahuman called Redemption, who may be either a hero or a villain. She helps him understand the nature of faith as used for good, versus faith used for one's own purposes.
Nice to see that she's able to help him in her own way, after everything.
I will admit, the Superman "Angel" story bothers me. Granted that it takes place early in Superman's career, that he hadn't been around that long. Nonetheless, Mrs. Johnson herself said that she'd heard of him, of what he and other superheroes had done. Despite having heard stories of Superman's derring-do, purely because he saves her, she decides he's an angel from heaven. I understand that saving her personalizes things in a way that she hadn't thought about before; nonetheless, it makes her sound oddly self-interested, at least oddly self-actualized.
It's also just very strange; she knew for a fact that he saved people all over the world all the time, and there's only one of him, so why wouldn't she think that he might be busy saving someone else just as deserving when she was out being an agent provocateur? It also makes her sound terribly credulous, somehow. I've known many women like Mrs. Johnson—I'm related to a few, and I grew up with a church in the back across the alley, and my family once ran a church in town. I have known these women, and I find it hard to believe that they would throw themselves into the line of fire so foolishly. Then again, distinguishing between bravery and stupidity can sometimes be very difficult. I also find the reaction of people to her shooting impossible to believe. Granted, again, that it took place early in Superman's career, whenever that was supposed to be. Right here and right now, when people are being intimidated from going to the police over crimes that they witness, when testifying is considered "snitching" and people are killed for it . . . it's just very hard to believe that the attempted murder of one woman would make that sort of difference.
And here's the big question: in these comics universes, these universes in which gods wander around having the odd war between pantheons in your back yard, just how much does faith matter? In some cases, the answer is clear, that in particular worlds, belief makes a difference. In Virgin's Devi, as mentioned, it matters a great deal; there's truly a mutual relationship between goddess and worshippers. In Mark Smylie's Artesia series, Artesia prays to her gods and they respond—they carry off the spirits of the dead, they imbue her with powers, they occasionally cause the odd full-grown tree to appear; believing in them actually matters for Artesia and her people. In the DC and Marvel universes, the answer doesn't seem to be so clear. Given that the superheroes have periodically taken arms both for and against various gods, most don't seem to be the gods' agents—allowing, of course, for beings like the Spectre and Zauriel who rather plainly are, or were. Marvel's Thor and DC's Isis may have been wandering around this earthly plane, but worshipping them doesn't seem to really get anyone anywhere—and Isis is dead again, besides. If the idea of faith is that it is belief in things both seen and unseen, regardless of evidence, what do you do when evidence exists, and it tells you that faith may not matter?
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