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.