Comics Theology

The guys who made that comic I keep talking about and writing devotionals on also wrote a Marvel series back in 2013 and for some reason it’s taken me till this month to start it. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that I found more excellent comics theology there and couldn’t wait to talk about it. Normally I try to give myself a week to process before I review something but I finished this yesterday and I have things to say now. So I’ll probably forget things and get a bit rambly, making this more about comics and why they matter to me in general rather than an actual review. Review maybe later?

Actually, I’ve been saving pics I took from things I’ve been reading in and about comics for awhile now, all circling around this concept. So I’ll share some of those here. This post wound up a little long and I know “people don’t like long posts” but whatever. I get that, I can’t read things this long in one go either. But if I find them interesting I usually leave the tab open and come back to it when I can, so I’ll assume others have similar methods and ignore silly post length guidelines.

Quote from “She Changed Comics” by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
This is probably the first time I took a picture of plain text I was reading. The words just struck something inside of me and I needed to save and revisit it. The question of why comics mean so much to me had been running around in my head for quite awhile at that point and, while I don’t necessarily agree with this entirely, there’s definitely something there for me. Having just carefully entered a description so this image can be understood by people who can’t see it, I’m very aware that images aren’t available to everyone and so they can’t be everything, they aren’t what makes life worth living.

And in fact, images alone do very little for me in most cases. I need the words too. That pairing of image and text, for me, opens up something in my mind. It lets my very literal verbal mind connect to the visual world in a way that I don’t on my own in most cases. One answer to my “why comics” question that has come up again and again is that I have difficulty interpreting the visual world, particularly facial expressions. The exaggerated versions on cartoon and comic characters are easier to identify, but still often require me to pause, replay, or stare at a panel for quite awhile to really understand. And this is a game I played often while watching or reading as a young teen and sometimes even today – when something, typically an expression, catches my eye I stop, go back, study it and try to identify what the character is feeling until I feel like it’s my feeling. This has helped me to understand others and even better identify my own emotions. I couldn’t do that as well without the words as a clue.

Text alone often tells me exactly what a character is feeling so that I don’t have to imagine it and it doesn’t add any understanding, images alone tell me what it looks like but not how it feels. I need both. So I think in a similar way, comics have helped unlock a lot of theological ideas for me as well. Things I believe or think on an intellectual level have more meaning when I see them repeated by characters i love. Questions I’ve asked myself a million times seem easier to answer (or at least more comfortably unanswerable) when they’re asked by someone else in a way I can access as easily as I do comics. So I suppose it makes sense that I sometimes think I learn much more about my own theology and about the nature of God(dess) and the world from comics than from any overtly religious text. Examples!

A panel from the recent “Jem & The Holograms” annual.
Sometimes it’s pretty overt, as in this panel where Jem is talking about the importance of music. Music is another thing that’s important to me, though not nearly as important as it seems to be to the people who write a bunch of the comics I love. (I don’t know why I wind up reading so many comics about music, it’s not really a conscious choice but it just keeps happening.) But that’s cool because reading them helps me like it more. I relate to words and pictures the way some people seem to relate to words and notes and I love this sharing of things that are meaningful and life-giving to us. That’s a big part of what the word God means to me, both the loving of certain things and the sharing with other people. Words and communication are so great, I’m so glad I get to share my thoughts and ideas and things I love with you all and vice versa.

A few panels from the “Big Moose One-Shot” recently published by Archie Comics
Oh look, here’s Moose talking about words and connection. I read this comic because I expected it to be funny and fun. I was not expecting to relate so much to Moose, to see him struggle through a very difficult week and then push himself even harder to do the things he wants, explaining that it’s worth the extra effort because he knows now that he can do whatever life gives him. I appreciated this view into his thoughts, the asking of questions like “Who’s Atlas?” as he does in these panels not for information (which he already knows) but to enjoy the way someone else communicates that information. I love that Midge just answers his questions and doesn’t judge him for asking, and I love that he listens without an agenda beyond hearing her talk, that he’s thinking about her instead of planning his next move/line. The relationships with Midge and his family and friends in this comic, contrasted with the bullying and assumptions from others that he’s unintelligent, make me so grateful for that ability to connect and remind me of how important it is to form those relationships. Who cares what people think who don’t know or love you when you have friends like this? It’s just not worth the effort worrying about other people’s opinions when you could be focused on the people who care about you and enjoying their willingness to share with you instead.

Lucifer and his new traveling companion, from Mike Carey’s “Lucifer Vol. 1”
The Lucifer comic I just read unsurprisingly dealt with Christian themes, with angels and demons as characters, the Christian God not actually appearing but still strongly present in the dialogue, and things like this scene where Lucifer explains a particular myth and the nature of myth in general to his reluctant travel guide.

This series really kind of deals a lot with divine agendas and therefore sort of indirectly with theodicy (the problem of evil and God coexisting), but I really liked this explicit analysis of myths and meaning. And the summary of basic theodicy as “Well, people. People are jerks and they messed with the natural order by being jerks and so now everything’s confused and broken.” I have issues with prayer and with any idea of a God who can but doesn’t fix the world. I’d much rather take responsibility and say it sucks because we suck, so the solution is to try and understand each other, develop compassion, generally just keep confronting our worst selves and choosing to be better.

Note: That’s not necessarily an explanation that excludes God. In my theology, God is present in all things, all things are in fact a manifestation of God, and therefore you could say the world sucks because we suck because God sucks (sorry God). And that our purpose as manifestations of God existing in physical space is to work out the contradictions that cause evil and do the best to keep building a world that makes us happier and that we don’t keep wrecking. Like, we all want to be better and do better and have better but none of us is perfect and we’re often the cause of our own unhappiness and the unhappiness of others, and wishing for a better world doesn’t take that away. You have to work at it, every day, forgiving yourself and acknowledging that imperfection and trying to work with it.

And that brings me, finally, to Young Avengers. Gosh I love this comic. Like, literally everything about it. But especially these panels I’m about to share that summarize my soteriology (theology of salvation). Let’s look!

America Chavez, everybody!
I need this on a t-shirt or something. No, a t-shirt and a poster, and maybe even a tattoo. Just, wow. America freaking Chavez. I knew I liked her. Even knowing that I was going to post this panel and having the words in it just about memorized before I started writing, it took me like three paragraphs to say what she (well, her writer, but hey) said in one sentence. Bravo.

Why is there evil? Because we do it. How do we find salvation from evil? Simple, just save the world. How? Just choose to. Just care and pay attention and do better. It sounds so simple and so profound. But it can be really hard to do. There’s just so much and it gets overwhelming and it’s hard to figure out where to start. But hey look, Prodigy’s got us covered!

Prodigy! He’s a super smart former mutant who absorbed all the knowledge and feelings and EVERYTHING from everyone around him and he’s awesome.
My captions are kind of falling apart here. 😀 But seriously, Prodigy is pretty great. Here he is comforting someone who is being super hard on himself because he saved the world but only because he almost broke it. Can it really count as a heroic action if you’re the threat too?

Of course it can. Prodigy says so, and Prodigy knows basically everything so you should believe him. We all screw up, the world around us is always in danger from the things we do to ourselves and those around us, so the first and most important thing we can do in any given moment is deal with our own damage.

I get kind of frustrated when people refer to superheroes as being just for kids or talk about how people today are stuck in childhood because we still care about these characters and stories as adults. Like instead of finding new and interesting ways to expand on our childhood heroes to explore real world grown-up issues we should abandon them and move on to Big Important Reality. But people, not just kids but whole communities, have been telling stories for basically forever. And these are the stories we know. It makes sense we’re going to keep using them to figure out bigger and scarier issues as we grow up. The world’s not saved yet, we still have work to do and we still need heroes to inspire us and make us believe it can be done.

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