Monday, May 28, 2007

St. Wilgefortis & her bearded nuns

Medieval carvings of a tunic-wearing, androgynous, crucified Christ puzzled Northern Christians. They asked "Just who is this bearded woman and why was she crucified?" This in turn led to the creation of a legendary saint, Wilgefortis (from the German for 'Holy Face.') The legend stated that a beautiful teenaged noblewoman was promised to a pagan king in marriage. She prayed for deliverance and overnight was granted a beard, which ended the engagement. Her enraged father had her crucified. This fictional Wilgefortis became something of a feminist icon, and was known as the 'strong virgin.' Abused women prayed that she would free (or 'uncumber') them from cruel husbands.*

Linda Medley's hefty graphic novel Castle Waiting is a retelling of various fairy tales, generally from a female point of view. Generally humourous and occasionally moving, the story meanders hither and thither without much urgency, looping into flashbacks and stories within stories. However, the final two hundred pages focus on the actions and memories of Sister Peace, a zany 'Solicitine' nun. The Solicitines are an order dedicated to none other than Wilgefortis, and are made up entirely of bearded women. Peace relates a legend of Wilgefortis which is true to the medieval version but which adds on some interesting twists and turns. She explains the origins of her order and its tradition of good deeds, tells the stories of various Sisters, and reminisces about being a bearded teenage girl in a circus. Throughout the book she contends for the souls of the castle's inhabitants, trading scriptural quotations and put-downs with a smart-aleck demon. She also has a penchant for bad puns:

Sister Peace: What d'you think the good Lord would be doing on a beautiful day like today, huh?
Simon: Ummm... tending His flock?
Sister Peace: Nope! He'd be loafing and fishing. C'mon, let's go!

While it doesn't contain the epic conflicts of the even heftier Bone, those who enjoy humane and humourous fantasy with strong female characters (and bearded nuns!) will enjoy Castle Waiting.

*While Wilgefortis never existed historically, her mythology is somewhat reminiscent of the virgin martyrs, who did. In her book The Geometry of Love, Catholic writer Margaret Visser argues that these early Christian women symbolically resisted and overcame the misogynistic pagan culture that sought to control them, though later accretions and our own context make it hard to understand how radical their actions were at the time.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Afterlife reviewed at SF Gospel

At SF Gospel, I've just posted a review of a very interesting volume of manga—Stormcrow Hayes and Rob Steen's Afterlife, which offers a bleak but very interesting interpretation of life after death. Check it out!

Death's Sting: Stormcrow Hayes and Rob Steen's Afterlife

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wolfskin #3

Wolfskin #3
by Warren Ellis (writer) and Juan Jose Ryp (artist)
Avatar Perss

In this, the last issue of Warren Ellis's ultraviolent Conan homage, the eponymous barbarian antihero sees god. Having been severely wounded in #2, Wolfskin eats the flesh of his tribal god—that is, he takes some hallucinogenic mushrooms—and has a face-to-face encounter with the bloodthirsty deity. He's not named, but it's safe to assume that it's Odin, since he's only got one eye (and Juan Jose Ryp draws him without an eyepatch, so it's a pretty ghastly sight). Following an oddly Job-like dialog (and an offhand revelation about the torments in Wolfskin's past), the barbarian awakens into a berserker rage that lasts the remainder of the issue. The story just kind of ends, which is a bit unfortunate. But Wolfskin's disturbing encounter with his patron god lends the series as a whole a greater depth than many of the sword and sorcery stories to which it pays tribute. (Speaking of paying tribute, was this series intentionally based on Red Harvest/Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars, or am I imagining things?)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Action Comics #848

Action Comics #848
“Redemption, Part One: If You Believe, a Man Can Fly”
by Fabian Nicieza (writer), Allan Goldman (pencils), and Ron Randall (inks)
DC Comics

Fabian Nicieza—who, with Kurt Busiek, cowrote an excellent parable about faith and responsibility in Superman #659—takes a different approach to the same questions in Action Comics #848. The results, sadly, are frustrating at best. In the story’s opening pages we learn of a powerful metahuman named Redemption who serves as a protector to Christian missionaries in Nyasir, a small (imaginary) African country. The missionaries—members of the “First Church of Redemption”—have converted the Sakira tribe, but the government of Nyasir uses troops to systematically threaten and harass them. Redemption—whose powers stem from the faith that others have in him—accidentally kills several of these troops, prompting Superman to investigate the new superhuman and the church to which he belongs. When Nyasir’s government eventually kills the missionaries, Redemption attempts to avenge them, and Superman intervenes.

Unfortunately, the story is quite muddled, and its message is obscured. The setting—both temporally and geographically—is unclear. We know next to nothing about the missionaries, the Sakira tribe, or the government troops who threaten them. The story is structured as if we are supposed to view Redemption as the villain, but he is nowhere near as reprehensible as the jackbooted thugs he opposes. Superman muses that
"There is a fine line between having a belief, sharing a belief and imposing it. What happens if a metahuman crosses that line...?"

But is that what Redemption does? He’s not attempting to convert the Nyasirian troops, but rather to protect unarmed civilians from them. After he accidentally kills them (in self-defense), Superman states that “I don’t care to see carnage enabled behind the excuse of religion.” But given what the readers have witnessed, that’s a severe misinterpretation of what’s going on. Redemption seems to be, like Superman, a champion of the downtrodden; his only crime is lack of training. At the issue’s close, Superman confronts Redemption—who has just disarmed the Nyasirian troops without harming them—and declares “this ends now.” In this moment, Superman looks for all the world like the protector of a tyrannical dictatorship. How, exactly, does protecting unarmed missionaries from armed militias make Redemption a supervillain?

It’s possible that this story is intended to be a continued explorations of the themes so elegantly portrayed in Superman #659. But by neglecting to give us background, by failing to adequately explain the central character’s moral approach to the situation at hand, Nicieza turns this exploration into a confusing mess. The next issue will conclude the story, and it’s possible that some much-needed explanation follows. But given the bafflement of this issue, I have little faith that the saga of Redemption will reach a satisfying conclusion.

X-Factor #16 revisited

My review of X-Factor #16, in which mutant private eye Jamie "The Multiple Man" Madrox tracks down a duplicate of himself who has become an Episcopal priest, immediately preceded the foundation of Holy Heroes!! I was quite impressed with the story's strong characterizations and theological depth. And it looks like I wasn't the only one: in the lettercol of X-Factor #18, Rev. Jeff Jackson, an Episcopal priest from Savannah, GA, writes in to praise the story:

I cannot thank you enough for writing such a thoughtful story in issue #16. I am an Episcopal priest myself and Jamie Madrox has become one of my favorite characters, so to see Jamie & John's "dilemma" was a treat. But more than that, it was so good to see a religious character depicted in such a way. Usually, religious folk are portrayed as fanatical, or strict, or "holier-than-thou." John Maddocks was refreshingly real. A faithful person, sent to learn what he can about religion, and who finds the truest meaning in the bonds of his family life. I imagined what I would do if a duplicate of myself walked through the doors of my church, hoping to reabsorb me, and the sorrow that John experienced became so real.

On the other side, Jamie's character is only deepened by his acceptance of this dupe to continue what he's doing as a priest and as a husband and father.

Also, thank you for writing a piece that was theologically sound. Instead of John or Jamie raging at God because of this predicament, you kept the story within the bounds of a stewardship sermon, no less. Nothing is ours, not even our lives. What right to we have in taking another person's?

Keep up the great work.


The Rev. Jeff Jackson
Savannhah, GA

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Superman, Wish Fulfilment, and Eschatalogical hope

Superman's roots are undeniably Jewish.

The co-creators of Superman, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster are both ethnically Jewish, although according to Gerard Jones' excellent history of the origin of superhero comics, The Men of Tomorrow, neither were relegious. Likewise, Harry Donnefield, the founder and first president of DC. Even Donnefield's sometime accountant sometime vice-president Jack Liebowitz was Jewish. All of these people were secular Jews and Siegal and Shuster disavowed or downplayed any influence of relgious Judaism on their works.

Siegal and Shuster's first Superman was in a short story written by Siegal and illustrated by Shuster. This story, titled The Reign of the Superman features a scientifically enhanced Nietzschian superman who reaks havok before being finally overcome. In 1933, as Hitler ascended to power in Germany, calling himself the Nietzschian superman, Siegal and Shuster re-imagined Superman as a hero.

It may be a coincidence that the two Jewish young men's creation of a heroic superman coincided with Hitler's rise, or it may not. Regardless, Shuster and Siegal's creation eventually sold, and in popular consciousness the Superman was forever linked with protecting the weak, instead of with the use of power to dominate and destroy the weak.

Superman is the ultimate immigrant: he comes from some other place, and lands in America. He masquarades as one of them, but at his core he isn't. As Clark Kent he seems meek and weak and easily pushed around, but behind his secret identity he is a powerful warrior for good. He's not an American, but he fights for the American Way.

Even deeper than the political symbolism is the religious symbolism of Superman. Superman is rooted firmly in the talmadic injuction to do good for its own sake. He is, in short, a very Jewish superman, and his strength comes with a moral compass.

Kal-El's arrival in a basket is strongly reminiscent of Moses' appearance in a basket in Exodus. The Exodus is the central story of the Torah, and its most significant instance of salvation. As such, Moses is the most important saviour in the story of Israel. Superman is a Moses figure in more than his appearance as a baby in a basket, but also in that he is a saviour, whether that means in his very person symbolically saving Krypton from complete extinction, or saving an man from being wrongfully executed for a crime he didn't commit, as he did in his very first appearance. For much of his history, and especially in his original incarnation, Superman spent more of his time protecting the innocent than fighting supervillains.

Yet since Moses is a prophetic precurser of the Messiah, Superman is also a Messiah figure. He is a Messiah figure even before he is a Christ figure. This distinction requires some clarification.

Though as most Christians and Jews already know, "Christ" (Greek) and "Messiah" (Hebrew) both mean "Annointed One", the terms are, especially for Jews, not synonomous. I use "Christ" to refer to Jesus of Nazareth, but "Messiah" to refer to the promised savour of the Jews. As a Christian myself, I believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but a distinction is still helpful.

But Superman is a Messiah figure even before he is a Christ figure. He represents the Jewish eschatological hope of salvation, the hope of God's intervention, the hope that things will not always be as they are now. Superman symbolises the Jewish conviction that the world can be better than this.

Superman is often accused of being adolescent wish-fulfillment in action: a super-strong hyper-masculine muscleman created by two geeks, a bullet-proof man created by Jerry Siegal, whose father was shot dead by a petty thief. He is all of this. But even more than this, Superman, despite Siegal and Shuster's supposed secularism, is a Jewish messiah figure--a personification of the hope of Judaism. He is a protector of the weak and champion of good in a world with too much evil.

Superhero Spirituality Quiz

Beliefnet has a very interesting quiz in which you can test your knowledge of superheroic religious beliefs and practices.

For example:

In which of the following comic books series has Jesus Christ not made an appearance?

Ghost Rider
Fantastic Four

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Spider-Man 3 and Venom's ecclesiastical roots

There are certainly some things to say about the religious themes in Spider-Man 3, but most of them have been said elsewhere already. In addition to the review by Holy Heroes' own Sci-Fi Catholic, I found some intriguing reviews (of varying depth) on BeliefNet, The American Papist, The Dallas News' religion blog, and BeliefNet again. There's even a Bible Study Guide for the movie, written by Craig Detweiler of the Reel Spirituality Institute. The reviews tend to focus on the film's sin/redemption themes, and I don't have too much to add to those points. (Though I should probably add that many of these reviews are a little overly kind to the movie's many faults, such as the fact that those self-same redemption themes are occasionally shoehorned in at the expense of coherent characterization.) So instead of talking about those well-discussed themes, I'll give some background on one of the key moments in defining the film's religious landscape: the bell tower scene.

Here's what Spider-Man 3 gives us: our hero, who has been turning into an insufferable jerk on account of being possessed by alien goo, goes to a church steeple to brood. (In movieland, it's probably supposed to be a Catholic church. But sharp-eyed New York-savvy viewers will note that the exterior is actually Grace Church, which is Episcopal. Not that it matters much, especially since the interior is another church entirely.) And lo and behold, his rival Eddie Brock, another insufferable jerk, has picked precisely this moment to go to the same church to pray for Peter Parker's untimely death. As the bells toll, we discover that the aforementioned alien goo really, really doesn't like loud noises (or at least not church bells), and Parker is able to separate himself from the evil symbiote, just in time for it to descend the bell tower and answer Brock's prayer.

This scene is lifted more-or-less directly from the pages of Web of Spider-Man #1 (1985) and Amazing Spider-Man #300 (1988). Web #1 (written by Louise Simonson with art by Greg LaRocque and Jim Mooney, and a truly incredible cover by Charles Vess) was the original conclusion to the saga of the alien costume, and it's interesting to see that the story concludes with the same sort of redemption motifs we see in Spider-Man 3. In this story, Spidey enters the bell tower of a yet-nameless church during a battle with some C-list villains (The Vulturions, if you must know), and the sound of the bells separates the costume from him. But separation from the symbiote, combined with the overwhelming sound of the bells, nearly kills Parker himself. The costume, in its final moments, redeems itself by pulling Parker to safety before finally disappearing in a puff of smoke. As the costume took control of Parker, it absorbed some of his humanity and compassion, and in its final moments it atones for its sins.


It turns out the question of why the symbiote saved Parker does not "haunt him for the rest of his life," as the final caption in Web #1 states. In fact, it was retconned out of relevance three years later when Venom was introduced in Amazing #300 (written by Dave Michelinie, with art by the anatomically-challenged Todd McFarlane). The symbiote did not, in fact, die in the church (now dubbed, somewhat generically, "Our Lady of Saints"), but simply rested their, recuperating until another suitable host appeared. It finds such a host when Eddie Brock, a Catholic newspaper reporter who became a laughing stock over some shoddy reporting on the Sin Eater case*, goes there to pray about his desire to commit suicide. Like the film's Brock, Venom's appearance answers his prayer—but the religious symbolism doesn't end there as they do in the film. When Venom finally traps Spider-Man, the manner in which he attempts to kill his rival takes on a decidedly liturgical tone. Webbing Spidey inside the bell that had allowed him defeat the symbiote three years prior, Brock transforms the costume into a priest's robes.

It's tough to say how much significance there is to the religious trappings of this scene—are Michelinie and McFarlane trying to make some greater point about the misuse of religion for violent and worldly ends, or are they just being ironic? In any case, Venom's origins are rooted in religious symbolism that survived the transition to the big screen. (Too bad we can't say the same for the characterizations of, oh, the entire supporting cast. But that's another can of fish that I won't get into here.)

*You think this origin is convoluted? Don't get me started on Cable.