Most people don't normally associate comic books and superheroes with religion. However, Roshan Abraham, a comics studies scholar and assistant professor of religious studies and classics, reveals how religion is actually in the DNA of comics. He traces the many ways religion influences, shapes, and appears in comics, and how scholars in both religious and comics studies face very similar problems.
Rebecca King: Hey there, listeners! Thanks for tuning in to Hold That Thought. I’m Rebecca King, and today I’m talking about an unlikely pairing: comic books and religion. My guest is Roshan Abraham, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and he is also really immersed in the new field of comic studies. In his reading, he’s often found overlaps between the two seemingly disparate. So, where do we start when we talk about religion and comic books?
Roshan Abraham: In a funny way we end up starting the same place we do when we start with the question, “How do we study religion?” Namely, we first have to define our topic of study, and defining comics ends up being almost as sticky—and at the same time as useful—as trying to define religion. There are numerous different definitions of religion out there, and none of them are all encompassing. But all of them are still useful in specific contexts. For example, Durkheim, Émile Durkheim, defines religion (I’m paraphrasing here) as beliefs and practices that unite a group of people together into a community. That definition focuses on both the idea that religion is a set of beliefs and that religion involves practices, but more importantly, it emphasizes religion as a communal activity—it creates community. On the other hand, you have William James, whose definition of religion is something along the lines of: religion is the feelings, the acts, the experiences people have in their solitude in relationship to the divine. Now that makes religion something very personal, focusing on the psychological element of religion. It is in some ways very much a protestant type of definition of religion. Both are useful in particular contexts.
RA: The study of comics is much younger than the study of religion, but there still is this problem of definition. Will Eisner was not only one of the early comic artists and comic writers, but he was probably the pioneer of comic studies. He defined comics as sequential art. That is a great starting point, but then that also includes things like film. Film is images put in sequence, so film could be included in that definition. Also, picture books: picture books are a sequential series of art. Well Scott McCloud in the 90s offered a different definition. Scott McCloud defined comics as, “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader.” That definition seems much tighter than Eisner’s definition of sequential art. But then that opens the door to thinking about any type of juxtaposed sequential images. Do we consider tapestries that have pictures that give a narrative a type of comic? Now for McCloud, he definitely thinks so. He says this definition allows us to think about the form more broadly. For me, the problem you get with a definition that includes all these things like—you know, you could argue that the Stations of the Cross is a type of sequential narrative that’s graphically depicted. You could go so far as to say cave paintings are sequential narrative. But, when we are talking about comics, we are talking about something that is a unique aesthetic expression of the 20th and 21st centuries. So I try to think of comics as static images that may or may not be complimented with words that are created to convey a narrative, convey information, or convey just an aesthetic response. And this is not an official definition; there are things that are left out in this kind of definition. For example, the Far Side and Family Circus comics—they’re one page, so there is no series of images.
RK: OK, so even just defining what we mean when we say “comic books” or “religion” can be tricky. From there, the two fields of study actually share a particular problem: when there are so many stories and so many sources, many of which contradict each other, what sticks? What becomes canon?
RA: With superhero comics, there is this problem of continuity, which can be reframed a problem of canon. The big two, Marvel and DC, have been rebooting their whole lines again and again, essentially erasing everything and starting from scratch. The question becomes, “We have 75+ years of stories. Which one of those stories count? Which one of those stories are a part of the canon of Batman?” And it is not just a question of, like, “Which stories are still true?” In the very first Detective Comics, Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed, so that part of the story is always there. That part of the story is canon. There have been different interpretations of who killed them. At one point it was this guy named Joe Chill. So that part gets changed. That’s the continuity question. But then there is the other question of, “Which Batman stories are important?” Everyone would say Dark Night Returns, Batman: Year One are part of the Batman canon. But there are thousands of Batman stories. One author, Mark Waid, dealt with this by creating this idea of “Hypertime”. The idea of Hypertime is that all of the stories count, because ultimately they are just stories. The Clark Kent who was played by George Reeves counts. The Clark Kent from Smallville counts. All of these stories count, and they all exist at the same time. So you could draw upon any of them at any time. Again, with a comparison to religious studies, when we are doing biblical studies or when we are studying the New Testament or if we are studying early Christianity, all the Apocryphal texts count, because they help us reconstruct the history of early Christianity, even if it doesn’t make it into the New Testament. Likewise with comic studies, all of the stories count, because all of them is another piece of data that we could use to study.
RK: Comic studies is a young enough field that there is no New Testament—there is no accepted canon of works that defines the field—and Professor Roshan Abraham says those in comic studies are actively fighting back against the pressure to form one.
RA: With comic studies, there is this idea of a developing canon, which everyone in comic studies is really aware of and pushing up against. Because inevitably, when you teach a course on comics, it’s like, “@ell you have to cover this, this, and this. You have to read Will Eisner’s Contract with God. You have to read Blankets. Definitely have to read Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” So there is this idea that as this discipline is growing, things are becoming canonized or becoming thought of as part of the canon, even though all of the scholars are aware of all the problems of the idea of canon and are very, very self-conscious about this potential formation of canon.
RK: Aside from the similarities between the two fields of studies, the ties between religion and comics grows even stronger when you start looking at the stories and the characters. Even if you go back to the earliest days of the superhero comic, you can see some of the traces of religion.
RA: Superman Action Comics #1, 1939, was not the first comic—was not even necessarily the first superhero comic—but it was the start of something new. The earliest superhero comics were dealing with almost mythic characters. For some, Superman is a retelling of the Jewish myth of Moses, or at least inspired by it. In the Superman comic, you have the story of an alien baby put on a shuttle by his parents, sent to earth where he grows up, takes on the name Clark Kent, and as they say, “fights for truth, justice, and the American way.” In Moses, you have a baby put into a basket (now instead of going through space, he goes down a river), and then he grows up to free his people. Superman, later, is named Kal-El, which is Hebrew and means “voice of God”. So in one sense, if we are talking about comics and religion, religion is in the DNA of comics. Now, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman, were Jews themselves who lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and they stated their more direct influences were mythic heroes like Hercules and Sampson. But they were also influenced by this new genre of pulp heroes, for example, Flash Gordon, a comic strip at the time who had a special little costume that he wore, just like Superman. Since then, there have been reinterpretations of Superman. Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns—there is definitely imagery of Superman as Jesus, and if you watch the trailers for the upcoming Batman v Superman movie, there are images of a statue of Superman that says “False God” and the image of Superman in the air coming down with the sun behind him and he is just a shadow gives this angelic or Christ-like picture.
RK: Aside from the mythic and sometimes messianic figure of Superman, religion and comic books are intertwined in a number of different titles and in a number of different ways, subtle or more obvious. For example, the superhero Thor is himself a god. And if we look beyond even just the characters, some comic books try and grapple with what religion means and is, like the popular series The Wicked and the Divine, which compares celebrity and divinity, worship and fandom as ancient gods are reincarnated as pop-stars. Then you have Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? which considers Batman as a myth or a mythic character who becomes timeless like Hercules. In Punk Rock Jesus, which is a newer title, scientists use DNA from the shroud of Turin to clone Jesus and make a reality show about his life. And I have to mention the new Ms. Marvel series, which made headlines because the normally blond-haired, blue-eyed heroine, in her latest incarnation, became a Muslim Pakistani girl, and this change in demographics really upset a lot of people. And this is really just to name a few examples.
RA: The point is there are lots of different ways to think about religion and comics. You could think about the superhero as a mythic character. You could think about the religious background of some of these early comic book creators, for example, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster (both Jewish), Will Eisner. Actually, a lot of the early comic book creators were Jewish. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who are responsible for the Avengers and most of the Marvel superheroes, they were both Jewish, also. Stan Lee specifically made The Thing in the Fantastic Four Jewish. He seems to have been modeled upon the Golem, which is a creature that protects the Jewish people. You could also look at specific religious themes covered in comics. For example, something as obvious as R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, which is an illustration of the book of Genesis, or something like Preacher by Garth Ennis, which has a really deep theological reflection about the absence of God. It’s a large gambit of things that you could talk about when you are talking about religion and comics.
RK: Many thanks to our guest today, Roshan Abraham, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis. And thanks to all of you, too, for tuning in to Hold That Thought. If you are interested in this topic and are interested in some of the titles we talked about today, you can find a full list of reading recommendations on our site: holdthatthougt.wustl.edu. And we want to hear from you! Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter to share your own recommendations or your thoughts on religion and comics.
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