Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
Last year, Eisner-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang began a run with one of DC Comics’ oldest and most beloved titles, Superman, in an arc that brought the Man of Tomorrow face-to-face with the unforgiving realities of life in a post-Snowden society. Having completed his journey with the Metropolis Marvel earlier this year, Yang set out on an ambitious new project: a monthly comic series entitled New Super-Man. The new series centers on Kong Kenan, a Chinese teenager from Shanghai who is imbued with Superman-like powers. But Kenan is more than a repackaged, retooled Man from Krypton. More importantly, in the very capable hands of Yang, this New Super-Man offers hope to the marginalized and gives a voice to the outcasts of twenty-first century society.
The opening pages of New Super-Man #1 show us a frightened school-aged boy, Lixin, who is running, running, running. We see his pursuer’s giant shadow on the walls of a dingy Shanghai alley. The narration is tonally disparate: “In the whole history of China, there are maybe three people as I am,” boasts a faceless voice. We think to ourselves, “This self-important pontificating can’t possibly be coming from the child on the page.” Then, shortly after a fist appears on the panel, knocking Lixin’s glasses off of his head, Yang delivers the punchline, a clever reversal: “Hold up,” the narrator cries in disbelief, “don’t tell me you think I’m the tubby kid with the glasses and the punchable face!”New Super-Man offers hope to the marginalized and gives a voice to the outcasts of twenty-first century society.
In the next panel, we finally get a look at our so-called “hero,” Kong Kenan. An arrogant bully who is not especially handsome, tall, or physically fit, Kenan is far from extraordinary and certainly doesn’t meet the traditional expectations for a superhero candidate. But as we learn more about our protagonist, we see that his braggadocio is just a facade that covers up his overwhelming desire to please his negligent father, as well as his inability to cope with the loss of his mother in an airplane crash. (This bravado is most transparent when he meets Laney Lan, a reporter for Primetime Shanghai.)
In spite of his rather questionable character, however, Kenan surprisingly and inexplicably rescues Lixin from the clutches of the super-villain Blue Condor, attracting the attention of the mysterious Dr. Omen and her shadowy organization, the Ministry of Self-Reliance. She tells Kenan, “My colleagues and I have developed a way to replicate Superman’s abilities in the right person.” And thus the bully becomes the hero.
With New Super-Man, Yang sets up a narrative that directly confronts and subverts the traditional American superhero origin story. The dominant arc in comic book narratives—be it books or films—suggests that superheroes typically start from a position of basic goodness (or at least innocence) before they are imbued with fantastic powers or take up the mantle of public defender. Before he became Captain America, for instance, Steve Rogers was a plucky kid with loads of heart, courage, and determination. Barry Allen was an affable, if absent-minded, forensic scientist completely dedicated to solving crimes and making the world a safer place. Bruce Wayne was a kid enjoying a night on the town with his parents. And Superman, of course, is often criticized for being too good. But Yang introduces us to the new Super-Man by showing us just how different he is from his predecessors.
If Superman is a Moses/Christ figure, a leader and national symbol who was found in the middle of a Kansas field in a vessel sent by his Kryptonian parents as a gift to humanity, then Kong Kenan is Saul of Tarsus. Both are remarkably unsavory characters. Saul was, of course, known for his relentless, merciless persecution of the early church (The author of the book of Acts counts him among those presiding over the stoning of Stephen and “ravaging the church”). Kenan is similarly—albeit to a less severe extent—shown to be a persecutor of the weak and defenseless via his interactions with Lixin. Yet like his analogous former Pharisee, Kenan has his very own Damascus road moment—accompanied with a flash of light and the presences of the supernatural in true biblical fashion—that will presumably set him on an alternate trajectory.
This vivid anticipation of Kenan’s redemption makes New Super-Man uniquely poised to speak to Christian readers. We initially dislike Kong Kenan upon first encounter precisely because we are remarkably like him. We, like Kenan, often live our lives in desperate searches for approval and acceptance. When we see Kenan’s interactions with his dismissive and uninterested father, our hearts rightly ache, for we too know the heartache and debilitating sense of emptiness that results from our attempts to measure our worth by the opinions of family and friends. Like Kenan, we too project a tidy, self-confident image of ourselves to those around us. We, like him, are unqualified to be recipients of superpowers or saving grace. But New Super-Man gives us a space, a not-so-fictional-universe in which damaged, wounded, and prideful outcasts are given both a new identity and a call to push back against the very darkness and injustice out of which they were redeemed.
Of course, many superhero stories make use of some sort of redemption narrative in varied ways. One reason why New Super-Man is distinct, however, is that Kong Kenan is a strong, central Chinese character, which is by no means a small or insignificant fact in an American society where Chinese citizens have historically been ostracized, mocked, and vilified in media and literature. Yang isn’t only subverting the American Superhero story; he’s doing it via a character whose ethnicity was once considered deeply problematic to a comic book industry that, as Yang has pointed out, struggles with its perception of foreignness.
As a mainstream American comic written by an Asian-American author centered around a Chinese character in a Chinese setting, New Super-Man can thus speak presciently to our need for a Savior who not only redeems us from our sin and heals our wounds, but also calls us to love God and neighbor. New Super-Man is not simply a Damascus road story, a tale that ends with what Flannery O’Connor would call a “moment of grace”; it is also—and more fundamentally—about the holistic redemption of Kong Kenan.
In the end, Yang’s subversion of the American superhero origin myth can be read as a much-needed reminder to the church that social and political issues like racial injustice are Christian issues (or issues for Christians) that do not, as one pastor recently suggested, simply disappear when salvation is bestowed upon an individual. Instead, this first step in Kenan’s story of redemption reminds us that our lives are formed around a continual outworking of the salvation demonstrated through tangible, practical, and generative acts of kindness and love.
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