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.
Many comic stories are about conflict. Their themes regularly revolve around good guys trying their best to overcome bad guys and keep the world from being completely and utterly destroyed. A variation on that might be a character struggling with inner demons or a personal weakness that they have to overcome within themselves. In any case, hero comics usually feature a fight of some fashion in the form of a violent, sometimes graphically bloody battle. While such stories can be entertaining, they usually leave a residue of despair, loss, or pain within their pages. Even after the battle is won, the hero is still hurting.
This last week I read three stories, two of which match the description above. Thor (Jane Foster) is saving the entire universe but fighting cancer in her body. Meanwhile, Superman has been corrupted by some strange black goo that reminds me of Venom from the Marvel comics. This corruption has led him to be utterly grumpy and controlled by the villain Wrath. However, the third story didn’t wander down those dark streets and that was a refreshing moment for me.
Mark Millar is one of the greatest modern comic book writers. His work includes some of the most culturally iconic stories in both print and film, including the Kick-Ass series, Marvel’s “Civil War” run, and Kingsman: The Secret Service, among others. He’s sat at the helm of one of Marvel’s best lines, The Ultimates, which in many ways inspired the stories and character qualities of the current Avengers line-up in the Marvel films (including Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury).The lightheartedness in a comic book tells us of the more complete and lasting lifting of our burdens when Christ comes again and makes all things new.
If you’re familiar with any of these stories, then you know that conflict surges from Millar’s stories; there is often a violent and bloody tale ahead of us. Yet that hasn’t sat well with Millar lately. Last week, Millar’s newest comic story — Huck #1 — was released by Image Comics. This story departs from the brooding, bloody mess of Millar stories that have come before. As Millar wrote last week:
I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes lately. No real surprise considering it’s how I’ve made my bread and butter since I was nineteen years old. But more specifically I’ve been thinking about the exponential growth in superheroes getting darker and more brooding and blurring the lines between the good guy and the bad guy to the point where there really is no line.
The headline: “How Man Of Steel traumatised me so much I created Huck.”
The first issue of Huck’s story is actually very quiet. The opening pages introduce us to a character who looks like Mr. Incredible without the suit. Millar describes Huck’s story thusly:
Imagine a town with a unique secret, a gas station attendant with special abilities who does one good deed every day. This can be as small as finding a lost necklace or as enormous as rescuing a hostage in Afghanistan, but the world doesn’t know he exists and the locals in the town aim to keep it that way. I gave Huck learning difficulties because I like heroes who have a quiet vulnerability.
And so we meet Huck and explore a world of simple “do-gooding.” Huck makes a list every day of good things he can do for other people. He takes out the entire town’s trash (by his bare strength), pays for everyone’s lunch in the drive-thru window (even though he’s not driving any car), and even gives the abducted girls he rescues from Boko Haram candy to “cheer everybody up.” In return he only asks to live in anonymity and solitude. He doesn’t want the world to know about his secret.
While Huck might possesses superhero powers, he doesn’t act like it. If anything he’s a normal guy, even “slow” by some accounts. And there is no nuance between what is good and what is evil. Huck’s simplicity is its joy. He does good things. He does them with a naivete that makes the rightness of his actions obvious and clear. We don’t have to ponder over the moral dilemma of an incursion into North Africa to rescue abducted teenage girls; he does it, he gives them candy, and we see this is good and right.
Huck causes me to ask what drives a writer who has received fame and fortune off hard-hitting, violent, angst-ridden stories and characters to deviate from that successful formula and produce something lighthearted, simple, and safe. It’d be like Quentin Tarantino deciding to write and direct the next Pixar film — completely out of character.
I suspect, and Millar confesses, that his reasoning is due to the necessity we have as creatures for lightheartedness. With the recent global conflicts, terrorist attacks, political fights, and advancing diseases, as well as a host of smaller, more personal conflicts, struggles, and battles, our hearts can be easily weighed down with despair. The writer of Proverbs 17:22 understood this when writing that “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” The weight of the world often crushes our hearts and leaves us dead and dried up.
Out of this crushing world we cling to a need for our burdens to be lifted. Like a person tossed overboard and drowning, we struggle and fling and grasp to break the surface of our problems to gain just a breath of relief. Sometimes little stories like Huck give us that gasp. I find these stories to be glimpses, albeit very small and faint glimpses, of the ultimate joy that is promised in Christ. These little joys come from the hand of the Father of lights who gives us “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). The lightheartedness in a comic book tells us of the more complete and lasting lifting of our burdens when Christ comes again and makes all things new.
Today’s American Christian subculture seems bent on a narrative of defeat, despair, anger, and fear. We can’t enjoy a cup of coffee in a red cup because it doesn’t preach. We fear our neighbors because of the terror that we suppose they will bring upon us just because they come from a different part of the globe. We have become people who can’t find joy, who can’t laugh, who can’t allow the small delights of life in a fallen world to lift our spirits and remind us of a greater ultimate joy in Christ. So everything becomes a fight, life becomes carnage, and we betray the calling of Christ to be people who “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4, emphasis mine).