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Monday, April 04, 2005

My Higher Things article on Comic Books


“Crazy curmudgeons Batman! Higher Things magazine is doing a piece on comic books. What does this mean?”

“Don’t fear, Robin. All the forces of goodness and justice have to stick together in this world,” responded the dark knight.

Ever since Superman made his 1938 debut in Action Comics #1, comic book superheroes have been a major feature in American pop culture. Consider movies and television, for instance. Comic book superheroes, old and new, have been translated to the big screen in such examples as: Superman, Batman, Daredevil, Punisher, Hulk, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, X-Men, Spiderman and Hellboy. Most recently, I heard a vague rumor that the Fantastic Four movie will be released 295 days and 9 hours from the time I’m writing this article.

But even with all that eye-candy to look at on the screen, the good ol’ fashioned printed page is where it all began, and according to many fans, where it still works the best. For a long time, movie special effects were so primitive that two-dimensional illustrations were simply far more impressive. And though computer graphics have made almost anything possible on-screen, seeing real live human beings dressed in superhero costumes can brink on the edge of silliness. But on the printed page, it still works.

While comic book superheroes come in a wide variety of forms, there are generalizations that could be made about them as a whole. Usually you have a pretty ordinary person who one way or another acquires special abilities which leads them to fight crime, defend the weak, and just basically set wrongs right.

The X-Men are human mutants with extraordinary powers such as being able to control the weather, pass through solid objects, spontaneously heal, read minds or transport from place to place instantaneously. Spiderman is just an ordinary teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains spider-like abilities. He can scale smooth surfaces, possesses a heightened sense of danger, and has remarkable strength and agility. Batman has no superpowers. Instead he relies on his superior scientific knowledge, technology, physical strength and detective skills.

Superman, a.k.a. the Man of Steel, a.k.a. Clark Kent, is the exception. He’s not an ordinary human being at all. In fact, he’s not a human being. He’s an alien from the planet Krypton who was sent here as an infant to escape his home planet’s destruction.

Probably very few comic book writers are trying to convey any overtly Christian themes. In fact, a case could be made that they contain many elements which go counter to the Christian faith (ie. bad language, graphic violence, titillating sexuality, rebellious attitudes, a fascination with the occult). There is some truth to that argument, but as is often the case, there is also something more. At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to stretch my point too far, I would like to highlight some features of some comic books that, surprisingly, resemble basic Christian teachings.

First, the comic book superhero world has a strong sense of right and wrong. Justice is possible. Moral outrage is admirable.

Secondly, while a few superhero types walk around in costume (ie. the Fantastic Four), most of them want to keep their identities secret. Their powers are hidden by their everyday ordinariness. And they only reveal themselves when it becomes necessary. This should ring a little bit familiar to Christians Who worship a God who routinely hides His glory in humble forms – in the flesh of a Man, in bread and wine – and Who cloaks His majesty in human weakness.

Thirdly, the overarching theme is that the superheroes have a mission, a duty to fulfill. They realize that they have been given unique gifts and that it would be wrong to use them for personal gain. The great line from the first Spiderman movie put it this way: “In this world, with great power comes great responsibility.” Jesus expresses a similar idea: “To whom much is given, much shall be required.” In our world where people live to serve only themselves, comic books have caught a whiff of this counter-cultural theme that runs through the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Fourthly, a lot of these characters are misunderstood and even persecuted by the very people they are trying to help. Similarly, Christ tells his followers that the world will not accept them any more than it accepted Him. They will be hated and rejected for doing good. But we don’t respond in kind. We respond to hatred with love, to evil with good.

And finally, young people are attracted to comic books for many reasons, not the least of which is their desire to believe that there is something, Someone, who is larger than life, Someone with terrific powers who – though appearances may deceive – is going to be there for us when we need Him most.

I can sympathize with this longing. I share it. Many comic books are quite offensive, to be sure. Many others are quite fun, but it all boils down to something very serious. Our need for a savior, a champion who can overthrow every foe for us. Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But he’s only fiction. When you put the comic books down, look at the real live God-Man, Jesus Christ, who can save us and has, in fact, already done so.

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