Before Neil Gaiman became a New York Times best-selling author, he wrote a comic book series called The Sandman. In the course of its 75 issues, which he began in the late 1980s, Gaiman explored issues of depth psychology, the relevance of ancient mythology, the sources of Shakespeare's inspiration, the subtleties of Oriental calligraphy, and the relationship between dreams and death. At its heart, The Sandman series explored the diminishment of faith in the modern world and the need for a reconnection with enchantment in our everyday lives.
Clearly not the "Biff! Bam! Pow!" comics of an earlier generation.
A new type of comic book has emerged. It's often visually edgy and sensitive to a niche market, and it's reaching new audiences. With this new brand of comic book displayed alongside titles of the large comic publishers in more than 4,000 comic shops nationwide, an aging fan base can find ideas and themes explored in more mature and visually sophisticated ways. Comics now explore issues important to adult readers - in some cases with more violence and sexuality. At the same time, many are more thoughtful and subtle in their storytelling than the traditional comic book. This genre has become so popular that even the publishers of such staples as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, and Spiderman have created comic lines that mirror this new style. It is in this context that comics have found an audience with which to explore issues of myth, religion, faith, and spirituality.
Prior to a boom in independent comic publishing in the 1980s, religion - especially Christianity - in comic books manifested mostly as evangelistic vehicles, Sunday school material, or maudlin stories of "good" boys and girls versus "bad." They were often sponsored by denominations or mission societies. It was, as one writer put it, Christian propaganda. At its very worse, it was Chick Tracts - a line of comics infamous for vicious anti-Catholic rhetoric and frightening and sometimes sadistic views of what awaits the "unsaved."
Now there are many small presses dedicated to the creation of comic books with Christian themes. Some are visual representations of storylines similar to those found in the Christian best-seller This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti - muscular, sword-wielding angels doing invisible and dramatic battle against hordes of demons who prey on believers and unbelievers alike. Some, like Pakkins' Land: Paul's Adventure, by Gary and Rhoda Shipman, find inspiration in fantasy with a moral context, along the lines of C.S. Lewis's Narnia tales.
PERHAPS THE MOST obvious use of comics as a religious vehicle is in the telling and translating of biblical stories. There have been "graphic Bibles" around for generations, but now fresh interpretations represent this new type of exploration.
The American Bible Society, a major religious publisher, created Metron Press as an experiment to communicate orthodox issues of faith through a modern means of graphic storytelling. Their most successful effort to date is Testament, a 120-page retelling of some of the Old Testament's most iconic stories by an unlikely religious raconteur - a bartender. The work is produced by 20 of the industry's best-known illustrators and written by Jim Krueger, an author of Marvel Comics' Earth X series (which explores issues of divinity, eternal life, sin, and retribution using the X-Men, the Hulk, Spiderman, and many other of Marvel's main characters). The artistic styles are diverse; some use naturalism and humor, others draw on inspiration ranging from classical art to Oriental history. Some of the artists are practicing Christians; others are not.
Beyond the direct biblical story, some of the most interesting explorations of religious life and faith in comics, such as those in The Sandman, are found in unlikely places.
Will Eisner, who wrote and drew a tongue-in-cheek detective story titled The Spirit during the 1940s for the Sunday funny pages, came back into the field of graphic storytelling in the 1970s after years in commercial art. His gift to the genre was the first self-proclaimed "graphic novel," A Contract With God. In it, Eisner explores the lives of the people he remembered from his youth among an impoverished but colorful immigrant community in the Bronx. His stories explore issues of life, death, faith, and failure with all the warmth and complexity one would find in fine fiction.
With Contract, Eisner broke the superhero mold. No costumes, no super powers; both the heroic and the villainous lived in tension within his characters. With this breakthrough came a new exploration of issues - including those of faith - that no one thought would be found within "funny books."
The offspring of Eisner's groundbreaking work is found in Vertigo Comics, an imprint of DC Comics, the home of Superman. These comics have had a love affair with Christian eschatology since day one, according to Vertigo writer Mike Carey. Titles such as Hellblazer, Preacher, Sandman, and Lucifer have all drawn on Christian imagery and ideas for some or all of their setup, characters, and backdrops.
But these comics aren't suitable for Sunday school. Often heavy with violence, Vertigo comics and others of their type deal with issues of salvation and damnation, and justice and retribution, in a visceral manner. Their characters live and often suffer greatly in an environment washed with despair. But against this backdrop, every occurrence of hope shines and every act of selfless love glows.
SOME OF THE most directly Christian characters in comics - and most interesting - are women. Catholic nuns have had numerous incarnations. A few years ago, Antarctic Press's Warrior Nun Areala drew much attention in the mainstream press. Employing the manga style of Japanese comics, Ben Dunn created a complete society within the Catholic Church of "magical priests" and "warrior nuns." They were equipped with traditional Christian as well as occult powers to fight the church's fight against evildoers throughout history, including an extended battle against Hitler during World War II. A darker manifestation of this idea is The Magdalena. Image Comics created a historical story that dated from the crucifixion when Mary Magdalene began a secret lineage of women warriors who fought against the enemies of the Lord while struggling with authorities within the church to control and manipulate members of their order.
One of the most interesting examples of the Christian message in comics is found in the character Shi, a young biracial woman. Her father was a Japanese Buddhist and her mother an American Catholic. After the murder of her father, young Shi is raised by her grandfather to become a vehicle for vengeance. But just as Shi is about to take revenge on her father's killers, the Catholic teachings of her mother return to her and call her away from a life of violence.
None of these comics directly call their readers to repentance or make demands about church attendance. In fact, few of them have much good to say about established religion in general. What they add to the experience of their readers is the call to a life lived with at least one eye open to the possibility of an enchanted universe - a place where the spiritual world is alive, active, and intervening in the affairs of humanity. This intervention isn't in the form of brightly costumed messiah surrogates who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but in the lives of fairly ordinary human beings, imperfect and often conflicted in their motivations, who are struggling to find meaning in their lives beyond the dulling drone of the culture's demands, the sudden storms of violence that threaten to overwhelm their worlds, and the limitations of life boxed in by not enough justice, not enough joy, and not enough hope. Out of this context, they become heroes. Just like you and me.
It's not just biff, bam, and pow anymore.
From: Leah Finkelshteyn, "Thwak! To Our Enemies", published in Hadassah Magazine, June/July 2003 Vol. 84 No. 10 (http://www.hadassah.org/news/content/per_hadassah/archive/2003/03_JUN/art.htm; viewed 19 June 2007):
...Today, there may be fewer Jewish comics creators than in the past, but they are still making their mark in what has become an American institution struggling for legitimacy. The hot list - talents whose names on the cover are likely to ensure a title's popularity - includes writer Peter Allan David (Supergirl, DC, and The Incredible Hulk, among others); British import Neil Gaiman, writer of the award-winning The Sandman (Vertigo, a DC imprint), a series subtly peppered with midrashim; and author-illustrator Brian Michael Bendis, who in an article on his Web site, www.jinxworld.com, talks about coming up with ideas for his crime-noir titles on Passover...
Gaiman's Sandman series received the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991 for "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which made the series the first monthly comic to win a literary award.
Sandman gives flesh to concepts like dream, desire and destiny, but it is really about stories and the people who tell them. "Three Septembers and a January," a tale about not giving in to despair, stars Abraham Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States of America and part of San Francisco legend. A perky anthropomorphized female Death, based on a kabbalistic description of the Angel of Death, comes to claim the Jewish Norton at the end of the story: "They say the world rests on the backs of... 36 unselfish men and women," Death, a popular character in an extremely popular series, tells him. "Because of them the world continues to exist."...
From: Rebecca Salek, "Spirituality In Comics", on "Sequential Tart" website (http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/dec03/tth_1203.shtml; viewed 27 June 2007):
For many people. December is a month which contains celebrations of religious, spiritual or cultural significance. For many people. December is a month which contains celebrations of religious, spiritual or cultural significance. In recognition of that, this month the Tarts pick out what they consider to be the best representations of spirituality in comic books...
Anisa: One of the greatest story arcs, and most memorable for me by far, was "Season of Mists" from The Sandman line by Neil Gaiman.
A quick recap for you uninitiated into the greatness that is Neil Gaiman: Lucifer decides he's had it being lord of the underworld and gives Morpheus the key to Hell (mind you, there's a bunch of in-between stuff I'm leaving out here). As the two entities are walking through the various aspects of Hell, Lucifer explains why he's leaving.
It all boils down to the fact that he's bored with Hell. Imagine doing the same job over and over again for ten billion years. Yeah, it was about as appealing to him, too, and he was desperate for a change and to get on with his life.
As you're strolling through various empty torture chambers, imagine talking with Lucifer and hearing his take on humanity's need for punishment and his role as keeper of sinners' souls.
"Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spend my entire day sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commit acts they would otherwise find repulsive. 'The devil made me do it.' I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them .... They talk of my going around and buying souls ?never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul? No. They belong to themselves ?they just hate to have to face up to it." - Lucifer, Season of Mists #2.
Hallelujah! Finally, there's someone out there who thinks like I do.
First, let me praise Mr. Gaiman for such a well written, realistic dialogue for Lucifer Morningstar. Oh sure, no one can really be sure of what Satan thinks, and I'm decently sure that he's not running a piano bar in the UK somewhere. Part of the reason why I think this arc, and especially this scene in particular, is such a spectacular example of how religion and religious figures are treated in comics is because Gaiman realistically looks at The Fall and points out that angels have free will.
With the gift (or curse) of free will, decisions can be made and not all of them are good. Lucifer obviously made a decision and dealt with the consequences of that decision, but Gaiman points out that leaving Heaven was not the last decision Lucifer can, or would, make. Gaiman takes the personification of Evil, and makes it/him tangible and realistic.
Gaiman also gets points for looking Humanity in the face and saying, "Get over yourself."
For anyone who is into comics, was into comics, or is a person who brushes aside comics as not being academic enough, Season of Mists is definitely a recommended read. The pacing is fantastic, as well as the dialogue and art, and is thoroughly engaging on so many levels. As a side note, the above quote taken from Season of Mists #2 is not the only little philosophical gem Gaiman puts in. Go read it for yourself and be amazed.
neoolongFrom: "Muslim characters in comics" message board, started 22 January 2006 in Batman discussion board area of official DC Comics website (http://dcboards.warnerbros.com/web/thread.jspa?threadID=2000059913&start=15&tstart=0; viewed 9 June 2006):
Posted: Wed Mar 02, 2005 3:13 am
In the DC-verse isn't there some weird thing where most if not all the religions are true if enough people believe? Or was that only for Vertigo?
Posted: Wed Mar 02, 2005 1:47 pm
I haven't read any of the comics which feature gods blowing up moons and [stuff], but I got the impression from Sandman that gods (like the Greek gods, Egyptian gods, etc) need people to worship them and believe in them, but God (as in Yahweh) didn't, since He was the creator of the universe. I decided this after reading Fables and Reflections where Eve tells a story about her and Adam, and Abel says that 'this wasn't on Earth'. I don't know how closely Vertigo is connected to the other DC comics, though.
killfaceFrom: "Religion in Comics" newsgroup thread started 8 November 2000 on rec.arts.comics.dc.universe (http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.comics.dc.universe/browse_thread/thread/bf82d29e106e876b/02d87d0cafe5e091?tvc=2&q=religion+comics&hl=en#02d87d0cafe5e091; viewed 12 June 2006):
Posted: Jan 24, 2006 11:17 AM
If you guys haven't read "The Sandman" in Vertigo, I recommend it, but on this topic, it has a ton of short stories that give acknowledgement to Muslim Faith.
It actually covers all faiths pretty thoroughly.
Good stuff if you are looking for Comic stories that don't have alot to do with Superhero's and DCU.
From: BHMarksFrom: "Claremont's 'Revenge' / CC Trademarks" thread on rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks newsgroup (http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks/browse_thread/thread/b6c76ad39ebedbac/82cfea80ebc7bade; viewed 12 June 2006):
Date: Thurs, Nov 9 2000 6:44 pm
I have heard people on this very newsgroup, and related ones, complaining about both Zauriel and Preacher.
The Christian Coalition and the Southern Baptists don't pay much attention to comics - Disney's more their size - but there was some "concerned Christian mother's group" (I cannot recall its precise name, and would be happy if someone could remind me) that decided to boycott Gaiman's SANDMAN. Mr. Gaiman had a well-written response, describing the happy day when the members of this organization would come flocking back to the book.
As is not entirely unusual, what prompted the reaction of this group (as of the Southern Baptists to Disney) was the presence and acceptance of gay people. They don't react very much when a straight person in a fictional story breaks one of their sexual rules and gets away with it (because then they'd have to deal with Lot and his nieces and all that other stuff in the Bible), but give 'em a homosexual or two and they're rarin' to go.
Statistically speaking, that is.
From: alasdairwFrom: "Religion in comic books", posted 14 June 2006 on "Get Religion" blog website (http://www.getreligion.org/?p=1679; viewed 14 June 2006):
Date: Thurs, May 14 1998 12:00 am
re: "Alright. Does anyone have any other instances of positive (or negative) portrayals of religion in comics?"
Preacher, Hellblazer, Books of Magic, Sandman, Invisibles, Swamp Thing, Hitman. Just off the top of my head. It does rather depend on what you define as religion.
[Comments section for this page]From: reader comments accompanying "Holy Superheroes" article, written by Steven Waldman and Michael Kress, posted 12 June 2006 on BeliefNet.com website; reprint of "Beliefwatch: Good Fight" article published in Newsweek, 19 June 2006 issue (http://www.beliefnet.com/story/193/story_19306_1.html; viewed 14 June 2006):
Posted by Jason S. Evans at 1:28 pm on June 14, 2006
I really appreciated the portrayal of Nightcrawler in X-Men 2 [X-Men: United]. He was never shown as being hypocritical or evil, but instead, he was penitential and devout.
I don't care for movies that are overtly "Christian" but it is nice when directors "Get Religion."
Posted by Avram at 1:41 pm on June 14, 2006:
...Neil Gaiman's Sandman dealt with religion mostly in mythological terms, but there are some issues of faith in there...
Posted by Avram at 11:16 pm on June 15, 2006:
Katie, the interesting thing about Cerebus from the point of view of this thread is the way Sim used the comic to espouse his own idiosyncratic religious views. Made more complicated by the fact that the world it's set in is neither the real-world-plus-superheroes used by superhero comics, nor the subcreative separate world used by most fantasy authors.
I've been thinking about the use of religion in fantasy thanks to this thread, and it seems to me that it seems to mostly fall into three categories: mythology, theology, and faith. With that third category being the rarest.
Hey, how about that scene in Sandman: A Game of You - the one contrasting Thessaly's drawing-down-the-moon ritual (which uses menstrual blood, and has real magical effect) with Foxgloves wiccan ritual (involving water and salt, which "felt empowering"). Does that remind you any of discussions of the relative powers of orthodox versus liberal worship? Neil Gaiman himself, though not a Christian, is a fan of GK Chesterton, who defended Christian orthodoxy at length.
Posted by Katie Q at 9:53 am on June 16, 2006:
...And, also, as we've stated multiple times, comics work best in metaphor. As plenty of you guys have noted, Superman is a messiah figure (though, personally I like to think of him more as the Ultimate Immigrant); and the two witches' workings in Sandman is a metaphor too. But actual, denominational, religious beliefs don't fit too well in the stories themselves.
I'd still like to see them in the characters, though, not metaphorical. That's all.
dplattFrom: "Any Christian Superheroes?" thread began 22 April 2004 on rec.arts.comics.dc.universe newsgroup (http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.comics.dc.universe/browse_thread/thread/4e5839f075fecf76/8821b5db671e7ce1; viewed 20 June 2006):
6/15/2006 11:25:06 AM
I agree, this is a great topic. Jestrfyl, thank you for mentioning Testament, which is a wonderful comic. I would also mention Promethea (paganism), Sandman (its own particular mythology, but it has lots of parallels to other religions), Kirby's New Gods (ditto) and even Hellblazer.
I'm impressed that comics have been so daring in this subject...
From: Gustavo Wombat
Date: Thurs, Apr 22 2004 12:03 pm
I can't think of any major superheroes that strongly believe in any real faith, and that surprises me. Certainly not in the DC Universe. I think there are more minority superheroes than religious ones...
From: Justin Garrett Blum
Date: Thurs, Apr 22 2004 3:15 pm
Martian Manhunter has been shown to venerate a set of Martian gods--the most prominent of which is H'ronmeer, the Martian god of, I think, death and fire. He also venerates his ancestors. I'd never have remembered this except I just reread a comic yesterday in which this is mentioned.
From: Brian Doyle
Date: Thurs, Apr 22 2004 3:23 pm
There's also a God of Dreams, IIRC, which is how he percieves Morpheus the Sandman (Morpheus was touched by his faith, and granted him a specific dream of a specific place, which J'onn seemed honoured by)
From: "Religion in Comics" forum discussion, started 17 May 2007 on official DC Comics message board website (http://dcboards.warnerbros.com/web/thread.jspa?messageID=2003785241; viewed 7 June 2007):
Posted: May 17, 2007 8:37 AM
Yesterday, I read Action Comics #849, and the issue had several religious references and implications. Because of this, I decided to discuss it with everyone else here. Does religion have a place in comic books?
Posted: May 17, 2007 1:36 PM
I'm fine with it if it's used interestingly, like in Sandman or Promethea or something.
I have no use for it when it's stupid, like that really dumb sequence in Infinite Crisis with the church service and Mr. Terrific the atheist.
From: "Gods and Champions" forum discussion, started 11 September 2004 on "HERO Games" website (http://www.herogames.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-21728.html; viewed 12 July 2007):
Sep 11th, '04, 04:46 AM
Doesn't it seem that religious based Superheroes get a sort of lopsided treatment? Characters like Thor, Hercules and others never seem to catch much flak for claiming to be pagan gods and such, but Christian based supers are either unheard of or portrayed as over zealous wack jobs. I'm not a particularly religious person so please don't take this a some sort of rant, just something I've noticed.
Sep 11th, '04, 09:49 AM
JLA had an angelic character for a time to replace the missing "winged guy" archetypes while the Hawks were in comic continuity limbo. Don't recall his name, but he was supposed to be from one of the Hosts of Heaven.
They also had that stupid Supergirl/Matrix merges with Linda Danvers and becomes a fiery angel plotline.
And the Spectre, as mentioned, has pretty much been defined as the Angel of Vengeance.
The Sandman and Vertigo runs aren't really mainstream comics, but God and the angelic Host played parts in many of those stories.
From: "Possible writers' cliche/prejudice: No well-adjusted athiests/agnostics in the DCU?" forum discussion, started 26 May 2005 on "Comic Bloc" website (http://www.comicbloc.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-5064.html; viewed 20 July 2007):
May 26th, 2005, 02:12 PM
It is hard to be a "well adjusted" Atheist when the Spectre is around or Etrigan or Neron or Deadman or the entire cast of Sandman. It is hard to be an Atheist when Zeus and Athena show up on your doorstep and people who have died come back later with tales of an afterlife. When you have Lords of Order and Chaos.
You most certainly cannot be a Skeptic in the DCU - Aliens, Magic, and psychic powers Do exist there. Superman is saving the world again. Chances are good if you lived in the DCU you'd have a chance to shake his hand.
Being an Atheist in the DCU is like being a Flat-Earther in our reality.