Panel Discussion: Comic Books as Modern Mythology
Every Friday in Panel Discussion, Jeremy Writebol considers how the latest comic book releases intersect with the Good News of Christ. This piece may contain spoilers.
If you haven’t noticed, the number of movies with their origins in comic books has grown rapidly. In the last three decades, Hollywood has borrowed, adapted, or — in more recent years — wholly incorporated many of the best graphic novel stories and characters into full-length feature films. The medium has been so influential that one of the main comic book publishers, Marvel Comics, is now owned by The Walt Disney Company. As the number of comic book films have increased each year, the readership of comic books themselves has grown also. What was once seen as a juvenile boy’s hobby thirty years ago has become a billion-dollar industry with broad demographic appeal.The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.
Even though there is greater interest in the comic book medium — and more money with it — this doesn’t mean that comic books have become plastic, cloned, stories with nothing to say but everything to sell. Instead, they have become more pointed, gritty, and specific about the world in which we live. Instead of a singular noteworthy character that has no flaws, saves the world from all evil, and gets the girl by the story’s end, today’s comic book “hero” is tainted by all sorts of flaws, insecurities, and weaknesses. They live in the real world and even as they confront super-sized, extraterrestrial challenges, today’s comic book characters fight the same real dilemmas that you and I fight each day.
Today’s characters deal with emotions like regret. When embodied in the character DNA of a superhero, the ramifications of that pain are maximized beyond normal. And this is why comic book heroes and anti-heroes resonate so deeply with us. More than just juvenile stories of good versus evil, the comic book medium has become a portal to another universe that mirrors our own and allows us to stand as spectators in the moral and ethical dilemmas of super-powered heroes, villains, and everything in between. Comic book stories are moral dramas that allow us to examine, learn, and understand ourselves within a real world, but within a world that is unique because of the super abilities of its characters. The comics of today are American versions of Greek mythology complete with origin, philosophy, psychology, and religion.
I enjoy comic books. I’ve always been intrigued by the imaginative characters that writers have produced. For instance, the stories of a wealthy, orphaned boy who witnessed his parents’ murder and now fights to bring justice to a lawless city while wearing a cape and cowl have always captured my imagination. Not only that, but comic books have also been a form of leisure reading for me. While some would argue that a comic book can’t contain the beauty and lasting literary weight of Shakespeare, I would argue that comic books can carry the weight of deep philosophical discussion in 500 words instead of 70,000. The visual nature of a comic book can quickly tell a story that may take some writers hundreds of pages to develop.
Comics are modern cultural artifacts that deserve our attention. Not only do they serve as a major storyteller in our culture, but they also occupy an important common ground for philosophical and religious dialog. Visit any established comic book store and ask the staff or resident “comic book guy” about the plot twists of their favorite story and not only will you be in for a long discussion, but a pretty serious one as well. A writer of fiction novels has a submerged worldview that influences their characters’ lives and so does a comic book writer. The challenge of the comic book story isn’t just to entertain, but to efficiently weigh in on the public discourse happening with in culture all around.
Batman #44, which was released on September 9th, is one such relevant cultural talking-point. The story centers around the case of a murdered teenage black boy. More than just a vigilante out to bring justice to the criminal underworld, Batman is a detective. He doesn’t just jump to fast conclusions so that he can go lay out a quick and painful beating on Gotham’s criminals. He’s looking for clues to lead him to the right villain. As the story unfolds and Batman begins to shake down those who could be responsible, the boy’s story begins to reveal a disturbing reality.
The boy wasn’t a pawn in the schemes of organized-crimes mob bosses, and he certainly wasn’t a sinister villain out to ruin Gotham. If anything, he was the victim of the entire failure of the city. Bruce Wayne’s capitalistic tendencies altered the boy’s future. A healthcare system failed to care for his father’s health, and left the boy an orphan. The police failed to “serve and protect” their own and a white cop ended up shooting this boy. All of it leads to a final decision on the part of the boy to finish what the system itself had started. If you don’t see the issues in this story interacting with the real headlines of our day, then your head is in the sand. Batman writer Scott Snyder picked up on those headlines and used Batman as a way to explore them.
As a Christian, stories like these are worth engaging and analyzing. People are reading comics and talking about them. They’re becoming more ingrained in the social fabric and discourse of our time. Not only that, but comics are also talking about the stuff of life: religion, philosophy, justice, good, and evil. Comics today are tackling the issues of morality, sexuality, gender identity, politics, and everything else under the sun. Because these stories and writers are laying bedrock in our cultural foundations, it’s wise to engage, learn, and dialog with one another over these stories.
I’m excited to write and work on this column as a way to cultivate my own thinking and worldview as I interact with these stories, as well as to help you, the reader, along. I will admit that I’m not a sophisticated expert or well-informed comic book industry pundit. I’m a pastor who has been reading comics for a while (primarily of the mainstream DC/Marvel variety), and has found that their best stories are worth interacting with and commenting on. If Anselm is right that our faith is seeking understanding, then our faith should be seeking to understand the discourse of our world and to engage and answer it in a winsome way — especially in those media that our culture is embracing.
Each week I’ll run down to my local comic book shop (Blaze-Thru in Plymouth, MI), grab a new release, and interact with it. Comic book stories are usually published on a monthly cycle with every Wednesday being “New Comic Wednesday.” Occasionally, I’ll stick with a certain arc to engage with the broader story a writer is telling but by and large, I’ll be engaging with single issue stories (one-offs) and a diversity of characters, writers, and themes. I hope to be a sort of tour guide to discussing and engaging this pop-culture format.
If comic books are a looking glass through which to see the spiritual and ethical realities of our world more clearly then I want to see all that I can. I want to take the Bible in one hand and Captain America in the other, and have a substantive discourse with those who are trying to process what is really “good news.” I want to see how our modern mythologies and hero stories ultimately whisper to the actual Good News of Christ as the real hero of our everyday stories.
I am in. I am so in. Particular once you used the word “mythology”. That’s exactly it. Larger-than-life, powerful characters who reflect and sometimes challenge a culture’s values.
Thanks Julie! I hope to be able to really engage these stories and our faith well.
Great post Jeremy. On a related note, have you seen this project from the UK which aims to faithfully present the Bible ‘word-for-word’ for today’s comic book fans? http://www.wordforwordbiblecomic.com/
Thanks Dave. I’ll check that project out. Looks pretty cool.
This is a great documentary that digs even deeper into the background of most of the comic book characters, in particular their connection to mythology and pagan gods in general.
I was listening to the Iliad on the way to school today and had the exact same thought: “This is Avengers, 2000 years earlier.”
Yep. Nothing new under the sun. Thanks for reading.
I’ve seen comic books as modern mythology for a while as well. Both today’s superheros and the ancient ‘gods’ share the same fallen nature as we do… jealousy, rage, etc. Here’s my take on this from a ‘made in the image of God’ perspective: http://dtjsoft.com/like-versus-like/
Jeremy, nice article, I too have noticed comics are a great medium for tackling ethical issues. As an interesting point, it is said that westerns of old had the good guy with a white hat and the bad guy with a black hat signifying the characters. Now the hats are various colours with the good guy having some character imperfections and the bad guy doing some good…..mixed morality is more present and aligns with the trend in graphic novels.
Check out Jason Brubaker of ‘Sithra’, he writes graphic novels from an openly Christian point of view. They are very well done and Jason admits he writes with a Christian bias in his books.
Thanks Chris for pointing out Brubaker’s material. I will look his work. I love the way that comics deal with the tension of depravity within all of us. The good guys aren’t always perfectly good, and the bad guys aren’t always the deepest villains either. Such is the human heart, both in the Christian and in the non-Christian.
There’s a podcast I listen (and sometimes contribute) to with a few Reformed guys (of various stripes) that discuss everything comics related with a focus on Batman. Thought I’d mention it, if you’re interested and, though I haven’t mentioned it to the hosts yet, maybe you might even come on for an interview or something!
Cool! I’m a Batman fan for sure. Scott Snyder’s latest run on it has been some of the best writing around.
Great article! As a Christian and rabid comic fan, I live your perspective and insight. I also helps that you’re from my home state of Michigan, dang I miss home. God bless
Clark Ross made the same comparison of superheroes and mythology in the introduction to one of the versions of “Kingdom Come,” the 1996 comic from his son and Mark Waid. The elder Ross said people of his generation had looked at some of those characters, such as Hercules or Jason, the same way his son’s generation saw Superman and the others.
I agree, Brett. And there is much for us to learn and understand about ourselves from them. Thanks for reading.
Great and thought-provoking article!
I’m not an avid comic reader, but on the rare occasion that I do pick up a comic book or watch a movie based on a comic it is usually Batman. When I told a pastor friend of mine that Batman was my favorite his tongue-in-cheek response was “You’re dead to me!” He’s a big fan of the X-men. He and I are friends but have different personalities and styles of worship and arrive at different theological emphases sometimes and our preaching styles are different too. I would love to know if there might be any correlation between worship style or theology and comic preferences. On the other hand, maybe it’s just personalities that draw us to one narrative over the other?
Thanks for writing this!
You’re friend needs to expand his horizons Jeff. I doubt there are correlations between worship style or theology and comic book preferences, but I could imagine someone making a lot of money off a super-hero based personality test. Have fun!
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