Review of The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture ed. B.J. Oropeza
Owed, perhaps, to the recent interest in religious-centered self-help guides and popular comic book criticism, three books examining the religious implications of contemporary popular superhero comics have been released over the past three years. While Greg Garrett's Holy Superheroes: Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books, H. Michael Brewer's Who Needs a Superhero?: Finding Virtue, Vice and What's Holy in the Comics and B.J. Oropeza's edited collection The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture all offer some measure of insight into the role of religion (Judeo-Christian religion, in particular) and spiritual faith in contemporary superhero narratives, only Oropeza's collection provides comics readers and comics scholars alike with any true critical insight into how superhero comics negotiate and interact with matters of faith and spirituality. Both Garrett and Brewer's books offer simplistic and unoriginal arguments that concentrate on examining how a number of popular superheroes each represent some aspect of divinity or biblical legend. The biggest problem with both of these texts is not only their lack of any discernible scholarly apparatus or intention, but moreover their downright heavy-handed attempts to force a particularly Judeo-Christian perspective upon their readers that insists, rather naïvely, on superhero comics being merely adaptations of biblical myths designed to offer religious instruction to their readers. At worst, both of these books are works of religious propaganda masquerading as popular criticism.
On the other hand, B.J. Oropeza's collection is not intended for only the devoted and faithful. All of the essays in this collection show a genuine interest in exploring the theological and ideological implications of superhero comics from a decidedly scholarly perspective. Oropeza's thorough and stimulating introduction to the volume, "Superhero Myths and the Restoration of Paradise," carefully considers and justifies the relevance of the comparative study of superhero myths and theology. While Oropeza states that the collection "instructs the inquirer on how biblical message . . . has been revised and retold through the superhero genre," (4) unlike either Garrett or Brewer, none of these essays forget that comics are a "multilayered medium" in which "many religious and secular voices may be heard" (18). Oropeza insists that "while the characters themselves might not always speak outwardly about religion and the gospel, their stories make implicit and sometimes explicit, points about theology" for their "adventures portray what is latent in mythology, biblical narratives, and philosophical ponderings" (4). The theme of "restored paradise," as he contends, serves as "a prime example of how superhero stories cross over mythical, religious and ideological boundaries" (4). Oropeza argues that at the center of every human spiritual or intellectual journey is a quest for ever-lasting paradise, for, as a whole, "humanity has lost its original paradise and wants to be restored to it" (6). At the core of every superhero myth – from that of Batman and Superman to that of Spiderman and Spawn – is a tragic loss, be it a loss of homeland, life, love, or peace. Nearly every superhero is figured as a fallen soul, desperate for a reason to carry on in the wake of world- or psyche-altering traumas. But despite their losses, Oropeza contends that "superheroes normally come to an epiphany in which they are commissioned to help others and do battle against evil forces" (7). Oropeza argues that superhero narratives frequently tap into the sense of a coming apocalypse that can be averted or at least abated through the slaying of some sort of monstrous form for the purpose of restoring an Eden-like paradise to Earth. As cultural icons, superheroes ultimately serve as "secular agents" through which people can "alleviate some of their anxieties about the future of this planet" (9) by insisting that the forces of good will ultimately triumph over those of evil. Oropeza suggests that for Western society, superheroes function as immortal spirits and that, in their refusal to die or stay dead, "the superheroes echo humanity's latent desire for life everlasting, a benefit of unfettered communication with the giver of life in the new paradise" (10). For Oropeza, superheroes serve an important cultural function; they allow readers to, in essence, vicariously fight injustice and evil and live on through reading or viewing the otherworldly exploits of their superheroes, a contention that is difficult for any comic reader to dispute.
C.K. Robertson's excellent and highly informative chapter "The True Ubermensch: Batman as Humanistic Myth" is an exceptionally strong critical reading of the Batman myth. Robertson argues that Batman, whom he positions as being among the most iconic figures in American popular culture, "can be understood as a prime example of Nietzsche's ubermensch" (49). According to Nietzsche, the figure of ubermensch is that of a healthy, independent and strong individual who operates in the "real world" and "affirms life precisely because he understands suffering and 'the eternal recurrence' of events" (51). Robertson, much like Frank Miller and a variety of other modern and postmodern comic book creators, views Batman and Superman as being fundamentally separate from one another both spiritually and ideologically, with Batman serving as "the perfect counterpart to Superman" (53) and his ideals. Robertson insists, quite adeptly, that the "gospel according to Batman would be a Nietzschean message" (54) and that Batman's origin story "contains all the elements of the Nietzschean ideal of the superman" (54). Unlike Superman, Batman is ultimately an ordinary man, self-made and hardly in need of any sort of saving by any outside ideological or spiritual forces. Robertson contends that Batman's "tale is the ultimate humanistic myth . . . the mythology of the Batman is a mythology of the strong, the healthy, the independent" (60) and that his mythology holds particular meaning and importance for the modern individual, perhaps more so than any other popular superhero. The myth of Batman is rooted in the existentialist notion of making one's own destiny in the world by relying entirely on one's inner strength, endurance and ingenuity. Robertson contends that "against such a Nietzschean 'superman,'" the Man of Steel, for all his powers, looms pale in comparison," (61) which might help to explain Grant Morrison and Frank Miller's seeming inability to allow Superman to mentally or even physically overpower Batman.
In his chapter "Superheroes in Crisis: Postmodern Deconstruction in Comic Books and Graphic Novel," Thom Parham argues that D.C.'s 1985-1986 universe altering Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series served as the end of the silver age and the start of the modern (or postmodern) age of deconstructive and reconstructive (two concepts which Parham links closely to each other, viewing them as two sides to the same coin) superhero comic books. With their thematic mixture of realism and surrealism and open questioning of any existing moral and artistic systems, books such as Alan Moore's Watchmen and Swamp Thing, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross's Marvels and Busiek's Astro City all demonstrate particularly deconstructive ideological and artistic ideals, styles and impulses, rejecting previous cultural and comic master narratives and utterly restructuring superhero myths from the inside out. These books, as Perham wisely contends, demonstrate that superhero narratives are not by any means artistically or culturally passť and that thanks to the rise of deconstruction in Western thought and art, "traditional standards of morality may be difficult to cling to" (210). Seeing as how "science no longer hold a privileged position for postmodern audiences . . . people are willing to explore the spiritual, the mythical, the neo-pagan, as a mean of designing a semblance of order in the chaos of twenty-first century life," (211) a cultural impulse to which superhero comics, perhaps more so than any other popular art form, have been willing to attach themselves to and explore over the past twenty-five years.
Unlike Garrett and Brewer's books, all thirteen of the essays featured in Oropeza's collection sufficiently demonstrate the cultural and intellectual relevance and significance of superhero comics beyond the realm of the spiritual. Each of the essays in the volume recognize that superhero comics are capable of not merely imparting messages but can also provide critiques of society and grant readers a variety of intellectual and emotional experiences. None of the essays in this collection resort to simply perpetuating any particular ideology. Instead they allow for the operation of a variety of ideologies in superhero comics to be thoughtfully explored in a critical, scholarly manner, unveiling the ultimate philosophical and cultural depth of modern and contemporary superhero comics.