Sunday, February 15, 2009

Absolute Kingdom Come

I wanted to point out the cover of the "Absolute" edition of Kingdom Come, which puts the story's religious symbolism right up front. It depicts the Spectre stepping out of a stained-glass window into the church pastored by Norman McCay. (McCay is modelled on Clark Norman Ross, the artist's father and a real-life minister.) Kingdom Come is mostly centered on Superman, but the Spectre is an interesting character in his own right. Created by Jerry Siegel (one of the creators of Superman) in 1940, he has over the years become one of the metaphysical/theological mainstays of the DC Universe. If there's a big mystical story to be told, the Spectre will usually get involved somehow. I mean, c'mon: a guy who can dramatically step out of a stained-glass window without breaking it is pretty cool.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Confession: A review and analysis (with spoilers)--Part One

Kurt Busiek's Astro City is unfailingly excellent. The series tells stories about a city densely populated with superheroes, many of whom are analogues of iconic superheroes in other comics. In Astro City, Busiek creates characters who occupy a familiar iconic space, without necessarily reproducing the powers or character traits of existing heroes. Samaritan, for example, is the analogue for Superman. He is the apex hero, supremely powerful, and unfailingly benevolent and noble. Jack-in-the-Box is a colourful, wisecracking hero, a stand-in for Spiderman. Winged Victory is a Greco-inspired feminist heroine and stand-in for Wonder Woman.

Astro City: Confession is a story about the Astro City analogue of Batman, told by the equivalent of Robin. Brian Kinney moves to Astro City with the hope of making something of himself and ends up as the apprentice and sidekick of the dark, intimidating, "Confessor".

There is a lot to like about Confession. It's clever, and thoughtful, and it's full of insight about the nature of heroism--treading some of the ground later covered in Marvel's Civil War. And because of the way Astro City's characters are mirrors of DC and Marvel characters, a lot of the insights offered about the Confessor hold true for Batman as well. But some of the most interesting things going on here are about religion. Religion in Confession isn't just a motif, it's a major theme, and Busiek's treatment of that theme is worth paying attention to.

There is an aspect, of course, that all stories about heroes have religious undertones, in that they are about good and evil, they are about salvation, they are often about belief. In Confession, all of these undercurrents are present, as are some more obvious and explicit religious concerns. The first heroes Brian meets in Astro City are a hero team called the Crossbreed. They believe that God has given them their power, and that they must respond by doing his service. Secondly and most obviously, religious themes come up the the character of the Confessor--not just because of his name and costume (emblazoned with a glowing cross), or because he makes his headquarters in the abandoned section of an old abbey, but even more because he is a vampire--and vampires always (say it with me now: ALWAYS) carry Christian resonance.

First, though, the Crossbreed. The six member team consists of David, who is a giant, Daniel who is a lion-man, Joshua who has a sonic scream power, Peter who has the power to manipulate rocks, Moses, who can control rain (and possibly weather in general), and Mary who has wings and can fly like an angel. The biblical Daniel, of course, was not a lion, but survived a night with lions. So while a lion named Daniel is an obvious reference to the story of Daniel and the lion's den, it is the antagonist's power and appearance that are manifested in the comic book character. Likewise, the biblical David defeated a giant, but the comic book David is a giant. Biblical Moses built an ark as protection from the rain, but the comic book Moses controls the rain. This suggests something about he character of the God who gave them these powers. Quite apart from the subversion of expectations that allows the most frightening, beastial character (Daniel, the lion) be the group's healer--a trope borrowed from X-Men and Beast--the Crossbreed's explicitly religious context suggests that these characters are about God's redemptive and transformative power. The antagonistic elements from their source stories are re-imagined as heroic. Even more, they are remade in God's service.

Brian's first encounter with the Crossbreed is on the bus into Astro City, as the bus driver expresses both his cynical attitude toward superheroes in general (and this will be an important theme in the comic) and his disdain for the Crossbreed in particular:

"It's the Jesus Freaks. Again. Why can't they pick some other corner, just once? Just once? A different time of day? I am so sick of those jerks..."

We see the Crossbreed evangelising on the street corner, handing out pamphlets and talking about judgment day. Brian is in the process of defending them, in his internal monologue, when Daniel confronts him:

"Have you been saved?
Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"

Brian stammers uneasily, until he is rescued by a passer-by, who tells him:

"Don't worry. The J.F.'s are annoyin', but they're harmless -- 'less you're allergic to Psalms and Preachin'!"

It would seem, on page 18, that we have seen the character of religion in this comic: it is annoying but harmless. Religious people are the people who accost regular people as they're minding their own business. And too often, that would be the final word. But in Busiek's hands the story is not that simple, and it turns out that the friendly passer-by was in fact picking his pocket. The Crossbreed save Brian and return his wallet, sending him off with:

"Welcome to Astro City, young man. God be with you."

So the street evangelists aren't nuisances after all. They are shown here seeking the bodily, as well as spiritual salvation of the people of Astro City. And the man who is so quick to dismiss them as annoying-but-harmless is in fact the predator.

The Crossbreed turn up twice more in this comic. They are seen being harassed by an angry crowd as anti-hero sentiment in Astro City rises. The crowd turning against their saviours would have been heavily resonant with the story of Christ regardless, but this resonance is highlighted by the explicitly Christian status of the Crossbreed. They are called the Jesus Freaks, and they, like Jesus, are rejected by the crowd.

Finally, the Crossbreed turn up at the climax of the story, swooping in to save Altar Boy from the newly revealed alien menace. They are a sort of Deus Ex Machina, coming out of nowhere with no warning or foreshadowing to save Altar Boy after his mentor the Confessor has died. Now, Deus Ex Machina are a trope of superhero comics, and you could argue that that is how superheroes themselves nearly always function. Still, in this case the Deus is a little more explicit than usual. There are any number of superheroes that could have showed up at the last minute to rescue Altar Boy, but the appearance of the Crossbreed signifies the intervention of God in this world. The Crossbreed, remember, believe that their power is a gift from God. So they are, at the least, a manifestation in this world of a certain kind of religiosity, and possibly even God's agents in the world. As Altar Boy is carried away by Mary, he muses: "I was saved by an angel".

Busiek presents here in minuscule an idea more fully articulated in his Superman story "Superman: Angels", where the suggestion is that God sends his gifts to protect us, and to inspire us: that since Superman does both, he is an angel--the agent of God on earth.

Whew. This is getting a little long. I think that for the sake of readability I'll leave it here and continue with an examination of the character of the Confessor in my next post, later this week.

Sita Sings The Blues

So this isn't exactly a comic. But animation counts too, right? Right. Check out this funky-fresh eleven-minute excerpt from Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, which is based on the Ramayana. It looks great. I would snap up a DVD of this, but unfortunately the use of old jazz songs has created copyright problems and so the film's distribution has been delayed somewhat. Though it sounds like they're making progress.

PS: Apparently Paley has faced opposition not only from copyright lawyers but also fundamentalist Hindu nationalists, who've threatened to hang her!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

At the Edge of the Mind of God

Whew. DC's epic Final Crisis event has come to a conclusion. I think it has certain flaws, but the main Grant Morrison storyline (laid out in Final Crisis & Superman Beyond) contains so many genius moments that I'll be re-reading it for years to come. One theme was divinity, and all the positive and negative variations of that concept. Morrison laid out some of his ideas in an interview over at IGN. Here are some of the more theological/metaphysical ones:

GN Comics: So if you'd go so far as to say the DC Multiverse is as real and as organic as anything, would you say that the story of Superman is its heart?

Morrison: Yeah, totally. Because it all derived from Superman. I mean, I love all the characters, but Superman is just this perfect human pop-culture distillation of a really basic idea. He's a good guy. He loves us. He will not stop in defending us. How beautiful is that? He's like a sci-fi Jesus. He'll never let you down. And only in fiction can that guy actually exist, because real guys will always let you down one way or another. We actually made up an idea that beautiful. That's just cool to me. We made a little paper universe where all of the above is true.

A bit further on:

IGN Comics: I want to get to the Monitors and their overall role in Crisis and Beyond, especially the role played by Nix Uotan - am I saying that right?

Morrison: It's pronounced "Wotan." Every one of them is named after writer gods from different cultures. So Uotan is named after Odin or Wotan from the Norse/Germanic tradition. Ogama is Ogma from the Celtic gods. Hermuz is after Hermes the Greek god. Tahoteh is after Thoth the Egyptian god. Novu is after Nabu from the Babylonian pantheon…there's a ton of them. The women's names, Weeja Dell, Zillo Valla, were inspired by the greatest lost love of them all, Shalla-Bal from Stan Lee's Silver Surfer.

IGN Comics: So that kind of answers my question, which is that the Monitors all seem like analogs for storytellers. There seems to be this never-ending cycle of the stories affecting the storytellers and the storytellers affecting the stories and on and on.

Morrison: Yeah, it's a bit of that. It's also the idea that they're like angels as well. For me, the cool, essential idea of all stories being real creates this great cosmology to play with. It's the notion that the white page itself is a void, and in the context of the DC Universe, well that's God or The Source. In the white page, or the void, anything can happen, everything is possible. As I dug down closer to the very root of the activity I find myself engaged in as a career, I was thinking "what is the basis of the comic book story? What actually is it?"

In the case of comic book stories, it's the war between white page and ink. And who's to say that the page might want that particular story drawn on it? [laughs] What happens if the page is a bit pissed off at the story that's drawn on it? So I thought of the page as God. The idea being that the Overvoid – as we called it in Final Crisis - of the white page as a space is sort of God. And it's condensing stories out of itself because it finds inside its own gigantic white space, self-absorbed pristine consciousness, it finds this little stain or mark, this DC Multiverse somebody has 'drawn'. And it starts investigating, and it's just shocked with what it sees, with all the crazy activity and signifying going on in there. It then tries to protect itself from the seething contact with 'story' and imagines a race of beings, 'angels' or 'monitors' (another word for angel, of course) to function as an interface between its own giant eternal magnificence and this tiny, weird crawling anthill of life and significance that is the DC Multiverse.

Morrison goes on to talk about dualities (or symmetries) and unity:

IGN Comics: You get into that in Superman Beyond #2 with the Superman and Ultraman dynamic.

Morrison: Yeah. Again, on the very edge of the art and the edge of the mind of God there are these two big concepts fighting – Superman and Mandrakk, Predation and Protection, Greed and Preservation, Ugly and Beautiful, Youth and Age, Good and Evil, Black and White, Is and Isn't and all the others. Beyond that crumbling ledge in Monitor-World, those concepts don't exist and it's all non-dual Monitor mind, or God, or Kirby's Source, in which all contradictions are resolved into unity. It's funny, the more I talk about it, the more I'm getting into it!

It's well worth reading - after you read the comics, of course!
[via Ian]

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Marvel's former president re-translating Genesis

Yes indeed. From the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

To millions of Americans fascinated by comic-book superheroes, Bill Jemas of Princeton is an industry legend who helped breathe life into Marvel Enterprises by pushing the wildly successful "Ultimate Spider-Man" series that rejuvenated the company.

These days, however, Jemas, a high-energy 51-year-old whose controversial four years as Marvel's president remain fodder for comic-book blogs, finds himself engrossed in a task far removed from dialogue balloons.

Each morning before sunrise, for the last three years, the Rutgers and Harvard Law School graduate has labored over the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis in Hebrew, the language in which it was first written.

His goal is to write an English translation of Genesis that is truer to the Hebrew text than are widely used English translations like the famed King James Version. He already has completed the first chapter, available online and in his book "Genesis Rejuvenated."

Later in the article we hear from a more conventional Bible scholar:

"There are already Hebrew dictionaries, and there are plenty of translations of Genesis," said Bruce Chilton, a religion professor at Bard College in New York. "There are commentaries on Genesis. There are books on Genesis. But what Bill has done here that's innovative is, he's put the materials together in such a way that a beginning reader can see the Book of Genesis as being filled with possibilities of meaning, and not just limited to a single meaning.

"What he is doing here is opening up the world of Genesis so that the reader is encouraged to read word for word, understanding that we're dealing with a major shift of language from Hebrew into English."

Jemas, who was raised Roman Catholic, married a Jewish woman and now attends a Reconstructionist synagogue in Princeton. He said he makes no claim that his translation is more accurate than others. But he wants readers to consider the possibility that decisions of past English translators are not sacrosanct.

Read the whole thing! (via Ian)