Jewish World Review
July 11, 2006
/ 15 Tamuz, 5766
Caped crusaders bust heads, talk to the Divine
More and more superheroes are coming out as creatures of faith
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In the fifth issue of "Infinite Crisis," a recent comic book miniseries from DC Comics, the heroes meet in a church to gather their forces and seek help from a higher power.
"We ask you, Lord, to take care of those who have already fallen," says Zauriel, a fallen angel and a former member of the Justice League of America. "We ask you to watch over those that have been injured and those that are missing."
"Lord, hear our prayer," says Blue Devil, a human turned demon and "a good Irish Catholic."
Outside, Ragman and Mr. Terrific discuss faith. Ragman is Jewish; Mr. Terrific reveals he's an atheist.
"Atheist?" Ragman asks. "I thought Mr. Terrific was supposed to be the smartest man in the world."
The two-page scene is an unusual acknowledgment of religion and faith among the superheroes of the DC universe. And it's a sign of how comic book creators have become more open in exploring religion in the colorful, action-packed world of superheroes.
"I think you have to touch upon the aspect of religion because it is such an important part of people's lives," says DC executive editor Dan DiDio. "We had to show that there is some level of belief that takes place with our characters."
In the foreword to "The Gospel According to Superheroes," a book examining superheroes and religion, legendary comic book writer and editor Stan Lee says he always avoided any mention of specific religions in his stories.
"I thought of myself as an 'equal opportunity writer,'" he says.
But a few writers have brought religion into the mix when taking on some longtime characters. Frank Miller, for example, established Marvel's blind Daredevil as Catholic many years ago.
"From a story point of view, a guy that dresses up like a devil but is devoutly Christian is interesting," says Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics editor in chief. "Just the same way that the fact that he is a lawyer by day and practices vigilante justice at night is interesting and makes for great storytelling."
More recently, Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic Four, was revealed to be Jewish.
It had long been established that Grimm grew up in an eastside New York neighborhood that was, at the time the character was created, "a very Jewish area of New York City," Quesada says.
"It just seemed to make sense for Ben," he says. "If it makes sense, we'll absolutely go there. If it's just frivolous, what's the point?"
The growing acknowledgment of religious beliefs reflects a cultural shift, says Douglas Rushkoff, an author, media critic and writer of "Testament," a comic book series with religious themes.
When comic books appeared in the late '30s, "America was supposed to be a melting pot," Rushkoff says. "That was our cultural metaphor. Religion and ethnicity were supposed to be subordinate to our role as Americans.
"I think now we're much more in a multicultural phase where people are trying to discover their roots."
But don't expect most superheroes to suddenly start going to church or synagogue and discussing their religious beliefs.
In the growing subgenre of Christian comics, usually the province of small, independent publishers, religious themes are freely explored.
Larger publishers such as DC and Marvel have a wider readership to worry about.
"I don't know of any mainstream publisher who would bite that bullet too hard, not in fear, but in concern of not wanting to divide their audience," comic-book writer Fabian Nicieza says.
With or without overt references to religion, superhero stories resonate for people of faith, says Greg Garrett, author of "Holy Superheroes! Exploring Faith & Spirituality in Comic Books."'
Garrett, a professor of English at Baylor University in Texas, is seeking his master of divinity degree at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest.
He says comic-book readers can find a powerful Messiah figure in Superman, who was created by two Jewish teenagers. Kal-El, Superman's name on the planet Krypton, roughly translates to "All that is G-d" in Hebrew. Spider-Man teaches lessons about power and responsibility. Batman can be seen as "an avatar of G-d's justice."
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© 2006, The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services