Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kirby on Gods New and Old

Via Beaucoupkevin, a snippet of the documentary Masters of Comic Book Art in which the King discusses the religious inspiration for Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and the New Gods:
"I went to the Bible, and I came up with Galactus...And there I was in front of this tremendous figure, who I knew very well because I have always felt him, and I certainly couldn't treat him in the same way that I would any ordinary mortal. And I remember in my first story I had to back away from it to resolve that story And of course the Silver Surfer is the fallen angel... They were figures that had never before been used in comics. They were above mythic figures. And of course they were the first gods. And I began thinking along those lines. And the New Gods evolved from those lines. And I began to ask myself, everybody else had their gods. What are ours? What is the shape of our society in the form of myth and legend? Who are our gods? Who are our evil gods and who are our good ones?"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Thor-ology


A top-five list on the Cracked Magazine website isn't exactly the first place you'd expect to find theological insight. But Thor grabbed the #2 spot on their recent list of "5 Upcoming Comic Book Movies That Must Be Stopped," and their rationale includes this discussion of his origin:
The origin of the comic god goes like this: The arrogant Thor needs a lesson in humility, so his father Odin, the ruler of all gods, sends him to Earth in the form of a crippled mortal to teach him to be humble. When Thor finally learns his shits do stink, his mortal form dies off and he is allowed to become himself again.

This spiritual lesson serves to confirm two things: Being handicapped is God's way of punishing you for religious transgressions, and to the son of God, Earth is essentially a giant time-out where instead of facing a corner for five minutes you live a short, challenging life rife with confusion and pain until you are eventually allowed to die.

Granted, Cracked got the origin story wrong—there's nothing about Donald Blake dying; he becomes Thor again when he finds his hammer—but the insight still stands. Something always bugged me about Thor's Don Blake persona, and it wasn't just that he was the most character-less alter ego in the Marvel stable. Blake is essentially the incarnation of a deity, and the nature of that incarnation says some dark things about the way the universe is run.

Co-posted on SF Gospel

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ex Machina #31 reviewed elsewhere

I have not yet received my copy of Ex Machina #31, in which Mayor Mitchell Hundred meets the Pope. But Don McPherson has, and he reviews it at Eye on Comics:
Really, this story arc is about the fundamental differences between the secular and spiritual worlds and how they hide common ground. Serving as a symbol of that approach to the storytelling is the story arc’s title — “Ex Cathedra” — which is a religious play on the title of this series; it’s different but similar.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Muslim superheroes: The 99


NPR's Studio 360 covers The 99, a comic about 99 heroes who each embody one of the 99 attributes of God (AKA Asma’ Allah al-Ḥusná, or the 99 most beautiful names of God). Conceived by Naif Al-Mutawa, founder of Teshkeel Comics, The 99 is written by Fabian Nicieza and illustrated by John McCrea and James Hodgkins. A preview issue (and a long one, 68 pages) is available as a free PDF here.
Hear Studio 360's coverage here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Battle Girlz Reviewed



Speaking of women and how they're portrayed in comics, I have posted a review of Battle Girlz by Rod Espinosa over at The Sci Fi Catholic.

The Battle Girls are a walking collection of comic book clichés, and Espinosa apparently doesn't care if you know it. They are Mech Girl, a mecha pilot with a troubled past; Mighty Girl, a super-strong girl expelled from school for thrashing bullies; Temptress, a femme fatale with the power to make men do anything she wants; Priestess, a half-elf who casts magic and wields a mace; and Gadgeteer, a genius inventor who holds 65,987 patents and spends the battles sitting in a control room from which she babysits Mech Girl. Leading them all is the enigmatic and creepy Saintly Perfect Goddess, of whom Temptress says, "She's so gorgeous...even I'm in love with her!" (p. 49). And when the Battle Girls aren't defeating evildoers or saving the universe, they're usually eating ice cream or shopping at the mall. [more...]

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Warrior Nun Areala



The Sci Fi Catholic peeks into the seamy world of Catholixploitation comics.

Warrior Nun Areala Color Manga #1, written and illustrated by Ben Dunn. Antarctic Press (San Antonio): 2005. ISBN: 1-932453-82-2. $9.99

Ben Dunn is known in some circles as the "godfather" of American manga, mainly for founding Antarctic Press and for creating Ninja High School. His artwork is impressive and sometimes innovative, and his writing is at least slightly above average. Warrior Nun Areala is possibly his second-best-known title.

The comic opens in Norway in 1066 where a nun is running from a group of especially ugly Vikings. Just as the Vikings are about to finish her off, a Valkyrie named Areala appears and announces that she has left "Valhalla to serve the only true God!" She then infuses her power into the nun and gives her a magic sword. After kicking some serious Viking butt, this "Sister Areala" goes on to found the order of Warrior Nuns. The story moves from there to the present, when the Warrior Nuns' mission has changed somewhat. No longer permitted to kill regular human enemies, they instead battle demons who have found their way to the material plane.

The central character is Sister Shannon, a novice Warrior Nun recently assigned to New York where she takes up residence at St. Thomas' Church and meets Father Terrance Gomez, a kindly, overweight priest who occasionally packs a flamethrower when the situation calls for it. Other characters make regular appearances, including Shotgun Mary, a motorcycling vigilante who left the Warrior Nuns because of her "unorthodox" demon-slaying methods, and Father David Crowe, with whom Sister Shannon had a romantic relationship before they both dedicated their lives to the Church (if we believed comics, we'd think every nun has an unrequited love interest somewhere). Father Crowe is a "Magic Priest," member of an order that provides spiritual and magical aid in the various battles while the Warrior Nuns provide the muscle. Hovering in the background is the demoness Lillith, an ambiguously evil but unambiguously goofy character whose motives are vague (and whose name is misspelled).

The Warrior Nuns work in standard, goofy comic book ways. To prepare for battle, Sister Shannon recites a Hail Mary (incorrectly), and then a magic sword appears in her hands while her regular habit is replaced by--*ahem*--a less restricting outfit. If you're annoyed that the nuns in your area wear pantsuits, you can at least be glad they don't dress like this.



Early in the story, Sister Shannon loses her left hand and has it replaced with a cyborg arm. She also becomes the new bearer of Areala's spirit, though that doesn't seem to mean much. She also gains access to the "God Armor," a magic armor suit with possibly the dumbest name of any magic armor suit ever, which she can make appear instantly at any time.

The world of Battle Nun Areala is a simple one where magic is commonplace, slavering demons show up out of nowhere to make trouble, the best way to fight villainy is in tights or leather, and simple-minded villains bent on taking over the world always speak in exposition, as in, "NO! Without that we can't infiltrate the Vatican's 'Gabriel'! As long as that computer is in operation we will not have total control of the Earth!"

The story could have been significantly cooler if Dunn did a little research. Apparently, Warrior Nuns govern certain "sectors" in which they are responsible for keeping demonic activity in check. If Dunn referred to dioceses, deaneries, and parishes instead of sectors, I might have believed he knew what he was talking about. A few references to actual Catholic practices or maybe a little use of Vatican politics might have enriched the story immensely. For example, instead of creating an oddly named order of Magic Priests, Dunn could have assigned magic powers to our exorcists, who already have less spectacular demon-fighting rituals.

It's hard to say from this first volume exactly what the comic's attitude is toward religion in general or Catholicism in particular. It seems to be taken for granted that Heaven and Hell exist, that the universe is monotheistic, and that Catholicism is the true religion, though creatures from a number of other religions and folkloric traditions comfortably coexist, but the comic doesn't seem particularly interested in religion as such; rather, it uses it as an excuse for its plots. Similarly, putting the word "Warrior" in front of "Nun" is probably a gimmick meant to grab the eye, much as putting "Battle" in front of "Pope" grabs the eye. We can also guess from the lurid, bloody, and sometimes sexualized artwork that Dunn isn't on a particularly holy mission.

And really, if you're planning to exploit a religion for a comic, Catholicism is an obvious choice. For one thing, we've already got the monster-fighting equipment: as I write this, I have a full bottle of holy water at my elbow in case the vampires or zombies show up, I have several icons nearby, and I can lay my hands on a rosary or crucifix pretty quickly if the situation calls for it. It's also easier to imagine the Catholic Church with a supercomputer and demon-tracking satellite network than it is to imagine, say, the Conservative Baptist Association with the same (though some author should get on that). However, I can't help but think the Catholic Church has by now been a little over-exploited. As I read Warrior Nun Areala, I kept thinking to myself, "Didn't we cover this same ground in Hellboy?"

I'm also displeased with the costuming. I'm displeased with women's costumes in comics generally, but I'm extra displeased with this one. In addition to wearing a goofy Warrior Nun outfit, Sister Shannon appears naked in a quick panel whenever she changes into the God Armor. Oh, pardon me--I thought I was reading about a nun, but it seems I've accidentally stumbled into an episode of Cutey Honey. Come on, Dunn: even if you won't show her some respect as a woman, at least show her some respect as a religious or even as a warrior. I invite all comic illustrators to pay attention to what actual soldiers in combat wear. You will notice they don't run around with bare legs or exposed cleavage. There is a practical reason for this.

The last time I was in the Shady Bookstore Down the Street, I walked into the comics section and looked around. From every shelf, I saw lascivious women giving me come-hither gazes while their volcanic bosoms exploded from their metal or leopard-print bras, and I said to myself, "I'm bored." I'm bored! I came here to get a good story, not an anatomy lesson. I already know women have breasts; the fact does not fascinate me. Comics are so rife with this garbage, whenever I find an author--especially a male author--who can actually create strong, well-realized female characters instead of taking the easy way out and sticking them in bronze bikinis, I instantly latch onto and adulate him. Ben Dunn could learn a lot from the likes of Jeff Smith, Paul Sizer, and James Robinson. If you're wondering why the comics industry has drooping sales or why it isn't attracting women and children, try not writing crap for a change and see what happens.

Okay, I realize it's my own fault. After all, I of my own free will picked up a comic with the words "Warrior" and "Nun" both in the title, so I get I what I deserve. But it's a mistake I won't likely make twice.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Spiritual Solicitations, August-October 2007

Have 3 issues of PREVIEWS piled up already? Dang, I'd better get posting. Some of these are probably even out already. It's a long list, for which I apologize in advance. In no particular order:

SUPERMAN: REDEMPTION TP
Written by Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza
Art by Walter Simonson, Carlos Pacheco and others
Cover by Al Barrionuevo
Collecting Superman #659 and #666 and Action Comics #848-849! The Man of Steel travels to hell and back in this collection of stories that touches on the supernatural side of Superman.
Advance-solicited; on sale January 2 • 112 pg, FC, $12.99 US

Oh, the conflict: This collection contains Superman #659, which is one of my favorite Supes stories ever. (Read my review here.) But it also contains Action 848 and 849, which were dreadfully bad. (Read my reviews here and here.) Were they bad enough to want to stick on a bookshelf as a sterling example of how not to do religion in comics?

INDIA AUTHENTIC VOLUME 1: THE BOOK OF SHIVA TP
Virgin Comics
Created by: Deepak Chopra
Written by: Saurav Mohapatra
Art by: Virgin Illustrations
Cover by: Abhishek Singh
Acclaimed author Deepak Chopra and Virgin Comics invite you to a world of exotic legends and alluring myths, a land called India. Featuring the origin tales of some of the iconic deities in the Indian pantheon like Ganesha - The God of endeavors; Kali - The primal facet of the Indian Mother Goddess; Indra - The King of Gods; Uma - The All-Mother; and last but not the least, the enigmatic and powerful Shiva – The Great Destroyer.
Collects issues #1 thru #5 of the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed series from Virgin Comics. Featuring an introduction to each tale by Deepak Chopra, every foreword enumerates the significance of the myth to the modern world and explores the archetypes and themes with respect to current times. Volume 1 – THE BOOK OF SHIVA is written by Saurav Mohapatra (DEVI, SADHU : THE SILENT ONES) and features art by Abhishek Singh (RAMAYAN 3392 AD) and Satish Tayade (KAMASUTRA, RAMAYAN 3392 AD).
SC, 7x10, 144pgs, FC $14.99

Has anybody read any of these Hinduism-Reloaded things from Virgin Comics? And are they any good at all? And does Deepak Chopra's name really bear any weight with your average comics fan? (Or anyone else?) A couple more collections (Ramayan 3392, Devi) are due out later.

MYSTERIUM FIDEI HC
Last Gasp
by Daniel Martin Diaz & Michael M. Brescia
Mysterium Fidei, Latin for "Mystery of Faith," is the new collection of art from Daniel Martin Diaz. In this collection of oil paintings, drawings, and prints, Diaz contemplates human suffering and one's undying faith in the afterlife. His mystical imagery reflects the influences of Byzantine iconography, Retabalos, Ex Votos, the Illuminati, ephemera, alchemy, and 16th-century anatomical engravings. Collected in a beautiful clothbound hardcover. (C: 0-1-2)
MATURE THEMES
HC, 10x10, 184pgs, FC SRP: $39.95

Intriguing. I hadn't heard of this artist before reading this solicitation, but he's pretty interesting, especially if you're into medieval art (I am).

CHRONICLES OF WORMWOOD: THE LAST ENEMY GN
Avatar Press
by Garth Ennis & Rob Steen
Wormwood, Jimmy, Jay all return and the world hasn’t gotten any better since their last adventure. Wormwood still produces questionable TV shows and pines for Maggie, his lost love. The boys all share drinks at their favorite pub and try to get on with their lives, but Pope Jacko has his own plans for Wormwood. In order to dispatch the Anti-Christ once-and-for-all, he dispatches his finest Holy assassin, Brother One, the Killer Eunuch! If you loved the original series, then you don’t want to miss the next chapter of Garth Ennis’ new sacrilegious masterpiece!
MATURE THEMES
SC, 48pgs, FC SRP: $7.99

I've been cutting back my comics budget, and Garth Ennis is one of the first writers under the knife—I'm increasingly convinced that he doesn't have another Preacher in him. Still, if this series must have a sequel, I'm glad to see it's a standalone graphic novel rather than another miniseries.

DEATH OF THE NEW GODS #1-2
DC Comics
Written by Jim Starlin
Art and covers by Starlin & Matt Banning
Variant cover issue #1 by Ryan Sook
The title says it all! For months now readers have witnessed the unimaginable and unthinkable as New Gods across the DCU have seemingly died, with Lightray’s death in COUNTDOWN the biggest of them all. Now, the carnage continues but the mystery and adventure is just beginning! Jim Starlin — master of the cosmic odyssey — writes and illustrates this epic tale of death and destruction on a scale never seen before. With a cast of hundreds and cameos by the entire DCU, this intergalactic 8-part series cannot be missed!
Retailers please note: Issue #1 will ship with two covers that may be ordered separately. For every 10 copies of the Standard Edition (featuring a cover by Jim Starlin & Matt Banning) ordered, retailers may order 1 Variant Edition (featuring a cover by Ryan Sook). Please see the Order Form for more details.
Issue #1 on sale October 17; issue #2 on sale October 31 • 1 and 2 of 8 • 40 pg,
FC, $3.50 US

I never got into the New Gods, but this and the recent Eternals revival have convinced me that Jack Kirby's wacky '70s cosmic theology is probably worth looking in to.


OUR GODS WEAR SPANDEX SC
by Christopher Knowles; illustrated by Joseph Michael Linsner
Was Superman's arch nemesis Lex Luthor based on Aleister Crowley? Can Captain Marvel be linked to the Sun gods of antiquity? In Our Gods Wear Spandex, Christopher Knowles answers these questions and brings to light many other intriguing links between superheroes and the enchanted world of esoterica. (6962/1-578634-06-7) (C: 0-1-2)
SC, 7x9, 224pgs, B&W SRP: $21.95

A book about religion in superhero comics? Why would that interest the readers of this blog? We may need to look into doing a full review of this one, methinks. It looks like they didn't take the approach I would have—which is fine, since I eventually want to write a book of my own on the topic, and don't want to retread too much ground.

GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: ARTHUR AND LANCELOT HC
by Limke & Yeates
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: BEOWULF HC
by Storrie & Randall
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: ODYSSEUS HC
by Jolley & Yeates
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: SINBAD HC
by Croall & Hilinski
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: THESEUS HC
by Limke & McCrea
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: HERCULES, THE TWELVE LABORS SC
by Storrie & Kurth
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: ISIS & OSIRIS, TO THE ENDS OF EARTH SC
by Limke & Witt
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: KING ARTHUR, EXCALIBUR UNSHEATHED SC
by Limke & Yeates
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: THOR & LOKI IN THE LAND OF GIANTS SC
by Limke & Randall
GRAPHIC UNIVERSE: THE TROJAN HORSE SC
by Fontes, Fontes & Purcell
Lerner Publishing Group
Hardcovers: $26.60; Softcovers: $8.95

A Classics Illustrated-style take on assorted myths. If you've heard of the artist, it's probably only available in hardcover, so these are almost certainly too pricy to consider. PS: This is one of 3 versions of Beowulf coming out this month. Only one of them has anything to do with the Neil Gaiman-penned movie. Just conventient timing, I suppose.

LEGION GN
IDW Publishing
Salvador Sanz (w & a)
Bloody rain is falling over the city of Buenos Aires. The sky opens, dropping demons on the city. It’s the legion: the dead and their destruction. The architects from Hell build a huge tower of human remains on the city's horizon. Why have they come? What do they want? Nobody knows, but only Felix—a guitar player from a local band—has the key to find out. Presenting a special standalone tale of demons and destruction, courtesy of film director/writer/artist Salvador Sanz (Gorgonas).
FC • 48 pages • $7.49

Sounds kinda like The Six-String Samurai, which is a great movie that nobody's seen.

THE ATHEIST #4
Desperado
by Hester & Volley
Sharpe and Nguyen face the horrifying reality that our world is being invaded by the restless spirits of the dead. The only thing capable of stopping this ghostly army is a doomsday device so terrible that even the Department of Defense has tried to destroy it. Sharpe does not share their compunctions, but will he be able to use it if it means the death of those closest to him? By the new creative team for the upcoming 2008 series sequel Antoine Sharp.
RES. from Previews Vol. XV #8 (AUG051667)
32pgs, B&W SRP: $3.99

I was intrigued by the title when the first issue of this came out a while back, but I haven't actually read it, so I don't know if it has any real bearing on the content. Anybody out there read it?

CRIME BIBLE: THE FIVE LESSONS OF BLOOD #2
DC Comics
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Jose Saiz
Cover by John Van Fleet
The Dark Faith spreads throughout the DCU as the Daughters of Lilith take the forefront in a recruitment drive to convert people to the Religion of Crime through the Lesson of Lust. And only The Question, who must work under cover, can stop a United States colonel from sacrificing his life — and his country.
On sale November 7 • 2 of 5 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US

The Crime Bible was one of the more intriguing ideas to come out of 52, but it didn't have much room to develop within the cramped pages of that series. Perhaps this will give it some room, though my faith in Rucka is not as high as it could be.

JUDAS VOLUME 5
Tokyopop
Creator: Suu Minazuki
Judas, cursed for his sins, is the spirit of Death--he is without form, and has enslaved young Eve to carry out the most heinous of acts. Together in spirit and body, they must slay 666 people so that Judas can regain his humanity. Using Eve as his vessel of destruction, the dark, blood-soaked journey will leave a trail of sin, death, and--hopefully for Judas--redemption.Salvation may be at hand, but now is the time for prayer...
ISBN 978-1-4278-0204-0 $9.99

The description above is from the first volume of this manga series; this is the final one. Intriguing concept with a LOT of room to turn into something dreadfully bad. Has anybody read it? Is there any point to the religious symbolism, or is it just "bload-soaked"?

RAMA TP
Arcana Studio
by Dr. Barbara Jackson & Ashok Bhadana
Ramayana is not just a literary monument, it is held in such reverence that the mere reading or hearing of it can set individuals free from sin and grant every desire to the reader or listener. In this retelling of Ramayana, author Dr. Barbara Jackson enlightens and enables the reader to understand the righteous path - dharma - for the life on earth."

Another comic based on Hindu mythology. Lest you be confused, this is the one that doesn't have Deepak Chopra's name on it.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Superman and divine love

Courtesy of BeaucopKevin, Garth Ennis (should I say "of all people"?) writes Superman as an omnibenevolent demigod. From the pages of JLA/Hitman, here it is:

Friday, September 28, 2007

Maggin for Congress

This is not an imaginary story: Elliot S! Maggin is running for Congress in the 2008 election in the 24th district of California. Of particular interest to us here at Holy Heroes will be his working out of his religious convictions with the comics experience. This quote says it all I think:

“Truth, justice and the American way” is my personal torah and I'll say so everywhere I go.


Whatever your political beliefs you've got to admit that's just too weird/cool. I wish I lived in California.

Find out more about Elliot S! Maggin's bid for the U.S. Congress

Iron Man Lives Again

It is foolish to judge a movie too extensively by the trailer. I absolutely loved the first trailer for Superman Returns:



And the movie was, frankly, disappointing. Or consider the shock undoubtedly felt by anyone who went into the recent Bridge to Terabithia film (a film I highly recommend, incidentally) with only the trailer to prepare them:



Despite all of this, I want to talk about Iron Man. The teaser trailer to the upcoming Iron Man film is currently available on youtube. It is fairly likely to be taken down soon, but in the mean time, check it out:



In original publication, Iron Man (Tony Stark) was a billionaire industrialist and weapons manufacturer during the Vietnam War who was kidnapped by the North Vietnamese. He was forced to build weapons for them, but secretly and simultaneously built an armoured suit for himself. Calling himself "Iron Man", Stark fought for capitalism against communism in Vietnam. As Marvel began to realize that public support for Vietnam was waning, Iron Man fought less and less for American interests in Vietnam and more and more for his corporate interests against industrial espionage. Most recently, Iron Man has gained prominance in the Marvel Universe event Civil War as Captain America's enemy, leader of the pro-registration superheroes. In the course of Civil War, Captain America was killed. More on that part in a minute.

In this updated version, it looks very much like Iraq has been substituted for Vietnam. I can't help but wonder if this is, on Marvel's part, a subversive move--comparing Iraq to Vietnam and implicitly condemning both, or is it a remarkably shortsighted repeat of the exact error made with Iron Man's first origin story. Is Marvel once again behind the trend of popular opinion, making a hero support a war the American public is rapidly becoming disillusioned with?

On the topic of "Civil War", originally Marvel apparently attempted to impartially portray both sides, to encourage readers to choose a side without either side being "good". As time went on, however, it became increasingly difficult to side against Captain America and the superheroes fighting for civil liberties. Civil War became a commentary on the state of American politics, and the creators of the Marvel Universe seemed to support freedom over safety when forced to choose.

Iron Man was on the wrong side of that fight. As Civil War went on, he and his side of the conflict became increasingly Fascist and increasingly difficult to support. When they killed Captain America (and symbolically the spirit of the nation), it became almost impossible to stay on Iron Man's side.

It is into this context that a new movie is being released: a movie in which Stark proudly manufactures weapons, in which he calls for those weapons to be used "ONCE!", implying that their destructive power is such that they invoke fear in all enemies (remind anyone of any historical weapon?). In the trailer the sadistic glee with which he sprays fire at his enemies (Iraqis? at least arabs) while Black Sabbath (Iron Man, of course) plays in the background makes me wonder, once again, whether this is a subversive and ironic critique of fascism, or a wholehearted approval. We'll see when the movie comes out.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Courageous Princess Reviewed



Princesses and talking animals and dragons, oh my!

Over at The Sci Fi Catholic, I have posted a review of The Courageous Princess, an Amerimanga by Rod Espinosa, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite author/illustrators.

After the picture-book introduction, the narration ceases and the story moves to a more conventional comic book format in which we meet Mabelrose as an adolescent. She's excited because she's been invited to her first ball in another, more powerful kingdom. But when Mabelrose arrives at the ball, none of the princes will dance with her and all the other princesses make fun of her shabby clothes and her freckles. [more...]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Batman and a Protestant Work Ethic

Batman's origin story is a different kind of origin from Superman's, just as Batman is fundamentally a different sort of hero from Superman.

Superman is the sole survivor of Krypton. When his planet was destroyed, he was sent to earth and raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent. He possesses amazing powers, and uses them to defend Truth, Justice and the American Way. But aspects of his story could be (and have been) changed, and he would still be a hero.

In Mark Miller's Superman Red Son, Kal-El lands in Russia instead of in America, and is as idealistic about communism as the traditional Superman is idealistic about democracy. He makes terrible mistakes along the way, but he remains a hero, doing everything he can to work for the good of all human beings.



Elliot S! Maggin, in The Greatest Green Lantern of All, suggests that had the planet not been destroyed, Kal-El would have been the Green Lantern for Krypton.



In other words, Superman is a hero, in some essential way. He is not the merely product of his circumstances. There is something heroic about his very nature--something ethereal that makes him heroic.


Batman, by contrast, has always been very straightforwardly the product of his circumstances. His parents are murdered in front of him, and he responds by vowing to battle criminals. This is the cornerstone of Batman. As Frank Miller (who for all his faults is probably the writer who best understands Batman) says "no murder, no Bat-Man".

This difference of dependance on circumstance explains why, though both characters have tragic pasts and both have been portrayed as tortured heroes, the tragic history of Batman has always been more palatable and memorable than the tragic history of Superman. Superman, the lone survivor of his race, utterly alone in the universe, somehow doesn't seem to be as tragic or as tortured as Batman, the multi-millionaire philanthopist. It even explains how it is Batman, not Superman, who has a reputation as a loner, even though Batman's Batcave is full of allies (Alfred, Nightwing, Robin, Huntress, Batgirl, Oracle, occasionally Catwoman and more) and Superman's Fortress of Solitude is, well, not.

Batman is not, however, solely a product of his circumstances. Above all, the heroic example of Batman is the ability to better oneself, by hard work and perseverance. Batman is an exemplar of a "protestant work ethic". Batman is not only enabled by grace to turn the evil situation of his parents' murder into good, he is ethically compelled to do so. He works because it is right so to do. Batman's training and work do not constitute a quest for redemption but rather an ethical imperative.

Together these two seminal heroes of the DC Universe encapsulate the paradoxical command of St. Paul: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, to will and to do."

So as Superman is a transcendent figure of divine intervention--salvation we have not earned from we know not where, Batman is a figure of the moral imperative to work out that salvation ourselves.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Repent

Åka points out a Canadian graphic novel which is described as one man's "take on the dark fantasy world established in the Holy Bible's Book of Revelations." The title is Therefore Repent.
Let us now observe a moment of silence so that Gabriel and D.G.D. can groan in frustration at yet another incorrect reference to "Revelations." (The 's' is superfluous.)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Sacred & the Profane



Over at The Sci Fi Catholic, I have posted a discussion of the comic book classic, The sacred & the profane, written by Dean Motter and illustrated by Ken Steacy. This comic features an interesting take on the time-honored subject of Catholics in space.

The Sacred and the Profane depicts a future in which the discovery of life on another world has swelled religious interest around the globe so that the Catholic Church and numerous other religions are flourishing. Readers will probably recognize this as a sharp contrast with numerous other science fiction works in which the discovery of extraterrestrial life is a challenge to religious faith or even the source of its extinction. [more...]

Jehovah's Witness joke in Countdown #37

I mention this primarily for Elliot's amusement and/or frustration: Countdown #37 contains a jab at door-to-door evangelism when stage-magician-themed heroine Zatanna shows Mary Marvel around her mansion:

Monday, September 10, 2007

Up, up and Oy vey!



The Amazon blurb reads, in part:

From the birth of Krypton in Cleveland to the Caped Crusader, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and more, Up, Up, and Oy Vey chronicles the uncanny story behind the story about the origins of the planet's most famous superheroes. While the Jewish contribution to film, theater, music, and comedy has been well-documented, the Jewish role in the creation of the All-American superhero has not been--until now!

Indeed! There were a lot of Jewish writers and artists involved in early superhero comics, some in pivotal roles: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Shuster, Jerry Spiegel,* Joe Kubert, and Will Eisner, to name just a few. These creators weren't necessarily devout Jews, but their background and values were still reflected in the stories they told. More recently we find people like Elliot S! Maggin, Rabbi Cary Friedman, Art Spiegelman, and Douglas Rushkoff reimagining Jewish history, culture and religion through comics. Rabbi Weinstein's book looks very interesting.

While you're waiting to get your copy, you might want to check out Paul's post on the Jewish roots of Superman.

*Just the other day someone explained the possible Hebrew roots of the name "Kal El" to me.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Leave It to Chance: The Lost Chapter



What's the secret to failure?

I, like many people, love Leave It to Chance, the critically acclaimed, award-winning comic from James Robinson and Paul Smith. The three collected volumes from Image (pictured here) left me hungry for more. It never occurred to me when I finished them that there might not be any more.

It probably never occurred to Robinson and Smith, either. After all, they had a solid high-concept idea, the talent to pull it off, and an ambition to get more women and children, a market the industry has struggled to attract, to read comics. They also had the acclaim of critics. What they apparently lacked was good sales.

Leave It to Chance is easy to grasp: it's a cross between Nancy Drew and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In brief, the setting is the city of Devil's Echo where the paranormal is the norm. Defending the townsfolk against endless threats from demons, monsters, and other bogeymen is the Falconer family. Every generation has had one Falconer to be the town's paranormal investigator and protector, and the tradition has passed from father to son in an unbroken line.

But Lucas Falconer is the last male heir. His battle with occultist Miles Belloc left his wife dead and his face deformed, and he has had to raise his only daughter, Chance, alone. Now Chance is fourteen, the traditional coming-of-age when male Falconers become apprentices of their fathers. Chance wants to follow in Lucas Falconer's footsteps, but he has forbidden it. As you would expect, Chance decides to do some paranormal investigation on her own. Havoc ensues and Chance saves the city multiple times. Lucas is angry with her but secretly proud.

How awesome is that?

I thought I would never again have the joy of reading Leave It to Chance since its last two issues have not been collected in paperback and probably never will be. But then I visited that shady bookstore up the street--you know, the one with New Age books on the shelves and posters of naked anime characters on the walls--where I found a copy of the very last issue, Issue 13 (perhaps an unlucky number for a comic about the paranormal). It opens strong, swiftly informing us that Lucas is dead, murdered by a car bomb. Grieving, Chance has given up on paranormal investigating. But she won't have long to mope because a bumbling psychic trying to resurrect a famous jazz singer has accidentally created a city-wide zombie uprising while in the background a collection of villains with a grudge against Chance are forming a conspiracy.

And that, unfortunately, is where it ends. This last issue came out only after the comic had already been through trouble, and now the series is once again on a permanent hiatus. What went wrong? Why couldn't such an easily likable, fun, all-ages comic succeed?

Earlier this week on The Sci Fi Catholic, I argued that some stories we associate with women are actually intended for men. Although Leave It to Chance was created with a young, feminine audience in mind, I strongly suspect it holds a greater interest for male adults.

I will never forget Paul Smith's introduction to the first volume, Shaman's Rain. It's clear he has a bone to pick with the comics industry, calling modern comics "dark, misogynist, convoluted...mean." Leave It to Chance is clearly meant to be the opposite: bright, simple, and girl-powered. But readers aware of Chance's intent might be a little bemused to discover that everyone working on the comic from the writer to the inker to the letterer is a man. Certain "feminine" scenes in the series seem forced, such as in Issue 8 when Chance and her girlfriends have a slumber party during which they sit around and talk about their favorite comic book heroes. "Hellboy is way cool,"* Chance announces, almost more to the reader than to her friends, as if she's trying to nudge the audience to go pick up a Mike Mignola comic. To my eye, this moment--when the curtain is drawn back on a feminine scene and the reader discovers the girls are really fanboys--is likely to appeal more to a male readership than a female one.

And then there is Chance herself. She has a boyish haircut, thick eyebrows, and a decidedly androgynous body she usually covers with overalls and a bulky trench coat. Again, this appears to be a reaction against the stereotypes of comics in which crime-fighting women are typically voluptuous and underdressed. The reader may get the sense that Robinson and Smith have carefully and consciously de-sexualized their heroine. Even her extremely low-key, G-rated romantic tension with sixteen-year-old, scruffy-chinned criminal mastermind Archie Lightfoot is non-sexual in every sense of the term.

Through most of Leave It to Chance, Chance is generically spunky and able to handle anything, though a few issues end with suggestions that her brash actions may have serious repercussions later on. On one occasion, Chance accidentally kills a man, but never shows shock or remorse. In another instance, she intentionally tosses a "trogg" off the top of a building and again seems unfazed (though the trogg may have survived). When it's over, she's always ready for the next big adventure. Her psyche receives no exploration.

This contrasts intriguingly with another male-authored teenage girl-centered comic, Paul Sizer's Little White Mouse. Its protagonist, Loo Th'eng, frequently dresses in a manner similar to Chance: her typical attire consists of overalls, a vest, and a backwards baseball cap. Loo, in contrast to Chance, is a fully developed character. Her personality is believable even if her abilities are exceptional. Loo, like Chance, engages in reckless behavior enjoyable to watch, but she sometimes feels guilty and frequently suffers consequences. Also in contrast to Chance, her femininity is never lost in spite of her behavior and dress, which might be considered "masculine" in many respects, although Sizer accomplishes this partly by depicting her in romantic or quasi-romantic relationships with much older men and by putting her in a number of skimpy outfits, all of which I considered unfortunate when I read the series.

The only character in Leave It to Chance who really exudes feminine sexuality in a typically comic book way is Ms. Longfellow, one of the villains, who packs a large handgun and wears black tights and cat-rimmed glasses. The issue in which she appears ends with her rendered powerless after a male villain abandons her. Similarly, in Issue 13, the bumbling psychic has a beautiful, air-headed woman on each arm. When the dead start rising from their graves, we see a shot of one of these women running away and shouting, "Don't ask me. Otway just hired me to look pretty!" The matronly-looking maid at the Falconer estate, Quince, is generally Chance's antagonist who tries to get her to be more lady-like and prevent her from pursuing her dream, whereas the butler Hobbs is Chance's enabler. Besides Chance herself, the strongest female character in the comic is Officer Margo, a policewoman who works in the Arcane Crimes Unit. Although presumably intended to champion womanhood, Leave It to Chance generally depicts femininity as powerless. Women succeed in the comic largely by imitating men and learning to move in a man's world. Women who are openly feminine are vulnerable and eventually become helpless.

Issue 13, however, adds some much-needed complexity. Chance struggles with her father's death and feels unable to live up to the Falconer family name. At the story's climax, Chance saves the day partly through a creative use of lip balm, a feminine item, and at the issue's end, even though Chance has succeeded as always, we find her in the arms of Quince the maid, who is consoling her over her trying experiences. Meanwhile, a couple of male characters are clueless and even insensitive.


When he complains about convolution, darkness, and misogyny in the modern comics industry, Smith yearns for a past when comics were fun. Leave It to Chance appears to have the goal (if not the success) of Star Wars: it is supposed to be innovative, yes, but more importantly it is supposed to bring fun back to an artform that has largely forgotten about it. I suspect the most avid readers of Leave It to Chance are probably not young girls but older fanboys nostalgic for the comics of yesteryear.

The cover of Issue 13 is an image of Chance surrounded by zombies and staring at her own grave, containing this epitaph:

Here Lies
CHANCE FALCONER

An Ungrateful Whelp
Who Died this Night
A Coward and a Quitter


Any hope that Chance will be back? It's impossible to say. For now, we'll have to leave it to chance.

*On the off chance James Robinson or Mike Mignola ever read this blog, I would pay good, good money to see a Leave It to Chance/Hellboy crossover.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Scanner Darkly


Readers of Holy Heroes!! may be interested in the graphic novelization of PKD's A Scanner Darkly. The recent movie adaptation consisted of animation overlaying live action, and this graphic novel version works with images taken directly from the film.
And the religious connection? I've never read anything by PKD that didn't have religious symbolism! Scanner is sprinkled with quotations from St. Paul; the characters muse on good, evil, life and death. And one unfortunate soul attempts suicide, only to be confronted with a list of all his life's sins, read to him by an interdimensional alien.
(Hmm... some brave soul should produce a mash-up of Cordwainer Smith and PKD entitled "A Scanner Darkly Lives in Vain.")

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Spiritual Solicitations: Sensational Spider-Man #40

As a new feature for Holy Heroes!!, I will scour Previews for forthcoming books dealing with religion and give everybody a heads-up on books that may be of interest to readers of this blog. First up:
SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #40
WRITER: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
PENCILS, INKS, COLORING, & COVER: Clayton Crain
LETTERED BY: Chris Eliopoulos

THE STORY:
Above all else, Peter Parker is a decent man. With a good heart. Who has given his life over to the service of others. And in exchange…what has he gotten? Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy…His Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy, the list goes on and on…And why? In his darkest hour, Peter demands answers. And the only person who can give them to him is…God?

32 PGS./Rated A …$2.99

IN STORES: August 22, 2007

Peter Parker has definitely gone through some Job-like suffering (does he have any family members left that haven't died at least once?), so a spiritual showdown makes sense. I don't really like the dark direction the character has taken lately (and this from a guy who loves Kraven's Last Hunt!), but if this issue is good it may make up for it.
See preview pages here.

Spiritual Solicitations: Ex Machina #31


EX MACHINA #31
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Tony Harris and Jim Clark
Cover by Harris
DC/Wildstorm

"Ex Cathedra," Part 2 of 4. Summoned to Vatican City by the Pope himself, superhero-turned-mayor Mitchell Hundred must cross the line between church and state in a thriller that will pit him against a terrifying new group of villains.

Wildstorm Universe | 32pg. | Color | $2.99 US | Mature Readers

On Sale October 17, 2007

DC was coy about a "major world leader" in the solicitation for #30 (part 1 of this story), but they showed their hand here. This is one of my favorite books right now, and I'm definitely curious to see how Vaughan writes the Pope.

Hellblazer #233



Hellblazer #233
by Andy Diggle (writer) and Leonardo Manco (artist)
DC/Vertigo

Five issues in, Andy Diggle's run on Hellblazer is well on its way to becoming the stuff of legend. The opening two-parter proved that Diggle understands John Constantine's character, and the second story displays both knowledge and affection for his history. But the real strength of Hellblazer #233 for me is its development of a truly interesting metaphysics.

Diggle's goal with #232-233, set in the Ravenscar asylum where Constantine spent some time following his first experiments with magic, is to clean up the character's history. In his early appearances in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Constantine constantly referred to Newcastle, where soem mysterious, horrible event had happened years before. In Hellblazer #11, Jamie Delano revealed what had happened at Newcastle. It was a story that needed to be told, perhaps, but it symoblized the main difference between Constantine's Swamp Thing appearances and the required paradigm of a solo book: he lost much of his mystery.

In this story, Diggle metaphorically undoes some of the messy continuity that has built up in the 222 issues since the secrets of Newcastle were revealed. In the character's 20-plus year history, he has damned, indirectly killed, or otherwise screwed over everyone in his life. That's led to a lot of guilt—the accumlated sin of two decades as a bitter antihero. Diggle physicalizes that sin, making it manifest so that Constantine—and the book—can purge themeselves of the baggage. The catharsis is fascinating, and it shows more attention to metaphysics than Hellblazer has shown in a long, long time. Add the always-incredible art of Leonardo Manco, and this is easily the best Hellblazer has been since Warren Ellis' unjustly-truncated run.

Chronicles of Wormwood #4, 5, and 6


Chronicles of Wormwood #4, 5, and 6
By Garth Ennis (writer) and Jacen Burrows (artist)
Avatar Press

The second half of Garth Ennis' miniseries about the Antichrist starts strong. The "afterlife road trip" announced on the last page of #3 ends up being the best bit of the whole series. It culminates with a heartbreaking scene in which Jesus (who would be the true Second Coming if he weren't brain-damaged) expresses his sorrow at the world's pain. Of all the things I expected from this series, a moment of honest to goodness Christology wasn't on the list, and it's a pleasant surprise.

Elsewhere in the issue, there's a clever take on church history as Satan reveals that he was the inspiration behind the conversion of Constantine:
"By that point, you see, the Christians were obviously here to stay. Crucify them, boil them, throw them to the lions—for every one you did away with, a hundred signed up to take his place. People love the idea of martyrs. The idea of something grand, something spiritual inspiring sacrifice—which is the point I made to Constantine. Adapt and survive, I told him. If you can't beat them, join them. Or lead them. Declare Rome Christian. Take the whole empire over to Jesus. Re-brand: once the taxes are tithes and the wars are crusades, you'll get away with more than you ever did."

Add a hilarious scene involving the Beast of Revelation and you've got the makings of what I wish this series had been for all six issues: a clever critique of religion that doesn't descend into nastiness for its own sake.


A pity, then, that Ennis spoils it in the last pages of #5. When God finally shows up, he's an idiot who can neither speak nor keep his hand out of his robe. The thing that irritates me isn't the ugliness of the image (though it is more than a little ugly)—it's the unoriginality of it. Ennis is retreading old ground with this caricature, which is essentially the same thing as the inbred heir of Jesus that appeared in the pages of Preacher. It doesn't bother me overly much if Ennis wants to say nasty things about God—that's what I expected from page 1 of this series. But I hoped it would be much, much more clever than this. (Not to mention the fact that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, logically. If this is what God is like in this universe, how could he have devised any kind of plan for Wormwood to oppose? But I digress.)

Anyway, the conclusion mostly makes up for it, with Jesus and Wormwood refusing to give into their parents' plans. In spite of everything, Wormwood ends up delivering a message of hope. He gives an inspiring speech to Jesus that concludes:
"You have to hope things'll get better. D'you know why? Because it's eactly the kind of hope in the face of unimaginable despair that you've always asked of everybody.

Though Ennis paints a truly ugly picture of God, he obviously has a great deal of affection for Jesus. The dual defeat of God and Satan at the book's conclusion is presented as a victory for humankind. Despite its intention to blasphemy, Chronicles of Wormwood ends up delivering a moral message that's almost... well... Christian.

Exasperated, nitpicking note: Dear comics industry, Hollywood, etc. The Book of Revelation IS NOT PLURAL. Please leave out the final "s" from now on.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The New Shazam!



What's the magic word?

Since my fellow bloggers on Holy Heroes!! have more comics in their little pinkies than I have in my whole body, this is my first post. You may think of me as one of those minor heroes or maybe a sidekick: I squeaked onto the team because just once I did something worth noticing, an overlong and overwrought essay on Bone. Of course, those wimpy sidekicks and underdog superheroes do usually do something worthwhile somewhere around the climax; however, I don't know when the climax of this blog will be, but this probably isn't it.

Hopeless fan that I am of Jeff Smith, I forewent my usual habit of waiting for the paperback and bought all four issues of Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, the new Captain Marvel comic he has recently completed for DC. DC has been in the process of creating new origin stories for its superheroes, perhaps the most notable of which is Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. Shazam! is a new origin story for Captain Marvel.

Smith's easily recognizable, Walt Kelly-inspired art style proves quite effective for recreating a much shorter version of Marvel's battle with the Monster Society. The highly cartoony but unquestionably excellent look of Smith's art, and especially his young Billy Batson, who has a perfectly, slightly oversized head, are ideal for the story.

To make a long and sometimes nonsensical story short, Billy Batson is an orphan living on the streets, pestered by a thug named LaGreen. After following a mysterious man into a subway station, he boards a train and finds himself in a cave occupied by a figure known only as "The Wizard" who gives Billy a magic word ("shazam") that will cause lightning to strike him and turn him into a full-grown, muscle-bound, tights-clad superhero, Captain Marvel. Soon after, Billy learns he has a sister, Mary (approximately six years old), and he also accidentally brings into our universe a nefarious misanthropic villain, Mister Mind, from beyond the edge of time, and Mister Mind brings with him a host of anthropomorphic man-eating alligators. No, really. And somewhere in there, a talking tiger named Talky Tawny shows up and...oh, forget it.

Smith has quite a task here, telling the origins of all the major players in four short issues. Somehow, the comic never quite feels crammed, but it does feel too short. It would have been nice, for example, if Smith spent more time developing Billy's hopeless schoolboy crush on beautiful news reporter Helen Fidelity, because nobody does schoolboy crushes quite like Smith.

I confess to having never read the original (I will use my tender age as my primary excuse for this), but I am aware that one of Smith's biggest changes is in the character of Mary Marvel; originally, Mary was a teenager. In Smith's version, however, Mary is about six years old and acts like it. Much of the second issue of the new Shazam! features Mary dealing with her superpowers and Captain Marvel dealing with Mary: upon finding herself a superheroine, Mary does what most children would do and bounces around New York like a rubber ball while Captain Marvel, now a parent figure, chases helplessly after her. Smith's flair for expressive faces and good humor serve him well here. A smattering of reviews suggest some diehard fans are uncomfortable with the new Mary Marvel, but I suspect they will warm up to her if the series continues.

I must complain that Smith's alligator monsters (crocodiles in the original) do not get enough time on the page. Though not particularly challenging opponents for Marvel, the alligator monsters, determined to devour children but perpetually unsuccessful, are downright hilarious. Marvel himself is also perpetually funny. New to our world and generally oblivious, he has some great scenes; on his first appearance, rather than saving a man from falling out of a blimp or rescuing a girl from lions or doing any of the other acts that generally start a superhero's career, Marvel begins by eating a hot dog and declaring hot dog vending the greatest achievement of modern civilization. When a bystander asks sarcastically if he's off to find a phone booth to change in, he replies, oblivious, "No... I'm off to see the wizard."

I must also complain about Smith's attempts at--ugh--political relevance. Not content with one supervillain, Smith also gives us Dr. Sivana, the U.S. attorney general, who's head of the "Department of Heartland Security." In the second issue, Sivana gives us this wonderful statement: "You have my PERSONAL ASSURANCE that the DEPARTMENT OF TECHNOLOGY AND HEARTLAND SECURITY will go through the credit accounts of every citizen until we find something SUSPICIOUS!" You know, I'm not a fan of the current White House either, but honestly, I'm getting bored with all the satire: Marvel is doing its "Civil War" thing, DC, last I checked, had Lex Luthor in the White House, and Hollywood has been turning out movies with negative views of the presidency at almost the same rate it turned out positive views of the presidency during the Clinton years. I'm bored already! Why is a reference to the War on Terror in Shazam!? That's almost as bad as putting one in The Last Mimzy.

Smith is a great author/illustrator, but he'd be better of leaving the political satire to his master Kelly and sticking with the mythological stuff because, frankly, Smith isn't very good at political satire. As evidence, I refer the reader to the Cartoon Books publication of Bone volume 9, Crown of Horns. After it's all said and done, Smith inserts a one-shot featuring Smiley and Phoney Bone washing dishes in the Barrelhaven Tavern. When Phoney demands to know why everyone dislikes him, Smiley answers that it is because he's greedy. As the little comic develops, Phoney proposes creating a combination religion and political party founded on greed, but then gives up the plan with the words, "Nah, it'll never happen." I have wracked my brains, but I honestly can't figure out what Smith is referring to; my best guess is the Republican Party, except that's not a religion. Someone should tell Smith that good satire has to make sense.

Besides, Kelly was at least taking something of a risk by criticizing Joseph McCarthy. By criticizing the Bush White House, Smith is only at risk of having his back patted.