Panthers and Prophets

Prophetic is a word I seldom use for movies. Prophetic, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy was about establishing rightness on the earth. Dress it up with God or dress it down to a girl being shot for wanting an education, prophecy is a necessary ingredient in being human. Black Panther is a prophetic movie. I don’t keep up with comic books, and many regions of the Marvel Universe are unexplored by me. I have no idea if the comics bear the strong message of social justice that this film does, but I left the theater blown away. If those who have the power could only be interested in good rather than personal gain, what a world we could have.

The message of not making race, but humanity, central is one that we have yet to learn. It is so basic, so simple that a child understands it. Somehow world leaders don’t. Any secret advantage is kept in order to make things better for ourselves. To make us feel more secure. To put us in the place of making decisions for others. In Black Panther even the enemy isn’t evil. Humanity is it’s own enemy. We sometimes forget that we have it within our ability to make life fair and equitable. We can share what we have and end jealousy. The Gospel of Adam Smith, however, has supplanted that of Jesus Christ. Just ask the one-percent. The one percent who haven’t most assuredly seen this movie.

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into that theater, but it was nothing short of an epiphany. As it has been from ancient times, one can always tell when they’ve been in the company of a prophet. We’ve come to dislike prophets because they make us uncomfortable. They possess something we can’t have. Integrity. The dignity of the conviction of what anyone can see is rightness. Such things can’t simply be taken, crammed onto a boat, and sold. Prophets bear the burden of speaking the truth. Black Panther may be unlike most prophets in that it is reaching a huge audience. And rightfully so. It is the antidote to the poison that’s surging through the veins of this country for far too long. Even those who will dismiss it simply as another fantasy—it’s a superhero movie—need to see this vision of what a world can be. It’s not very often that a prophetic movie appears, but the days of prophecy, it seems, aren’t over yet.

The Good, Bad, and Human

VixensVampsVipwesMike Madrid may know more about women in comics than anyone else alive. I’ve commented about his Supergirls and Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and he’s now followed up his previous successes with Vixens, Vamps and Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics, due out in October. Despite the lament of many a parent that comic books are a waste of time, Madrid demonstrates through a close reading, that some of the most basic issues of society are featured in graphic format. Psychologists have long known that people are visually oriented. We have to learn to read, but we’re born with the knowledge of how to look. Comics, therefore, appeal to the young reader, illustrating the action with exaggerated pictures to underscore the tale. Although the early heroes were generally male, Madrid showed in his previous two books that girls and women were also superheroes, but, as in real life, competing in a world constructed by men for men.

Vixens, Vamps and Vipers flips the coin to see the role played by villains less known than Catwoman (whom he discusses), and torn between the human impulses to succeed and to be good. In fact, the first few pages of the book offer a profound consideration of the terms “good” and “evil” as they apply to the comic book (i.e., the real) world. As Madrid points out: if there were no villains, we would have no need of such colorful heroes. At the same time, evolution has embedded a desire to protect females in the minds of most males—Poe knew that the death of a beautiful woman was the among the most moving of literary images. Still, as Vixens, Vamps and Vipers points out, some of the villains here considered are beautiful and the allure demonstrates that something much more complex is going on beneath the surface. Despite the image of the hero, all people, male and female, constantly struggle with the impulses to do good and evil.

One of the complexities that religions attempt to codify is human nature: are we born good or evil? Are we totally depraved or inclined to strive for divinity? Any honest assessment of humanity, it seems to me, must take into account that we constantly struggle. Total depravity is totally disproved by the many good impulses shown by those of religions outside Calvinism and Christianity, let alone the tendency of humanists and atheists to help others. In fact, in many circumstances good and evil are intricately intertwined. Madrid explores this conundrum with women put in difficult, if fictional, scenarios who must decide which impulse to follow. He’s honest about this. Some will become superheroes despite the hurdles the male champions put in their way, while others will follow the trail that leads to his latest exploration of humanity through illustrated story. Look for Vixens, Vamps and Vipers and enjoy, if secretly, learning something profound about human nature.

Vampires Versus Science

Blade_movie

In keeping with my current explorations of vampire religiosity, I watched Blade for the first time. I’m aware that the figure of Blade is based on a comic book hero, but it is a series with which I’m unfamiliar. The movie is the basis of my knowledge here. The first interesting connection, or more properly, disconnect, between religion and vampires is the fact that in Blade’s universe crosses and holy water do not work. Vampires do respond to garlic and silver, and even to chemicals developed in medical labs. The faith-based origins, however, have disappeared. At one point Karen tells the vampire Frost that he’s just infected, like with a virus. Vampirism was, historically, based on diabolic influence and the signs of the “one true faith” had the ability to destroy them. In the modern worldview, however, organic chemistry holds greater promise. These seem to be secular vampires.

Still, not so fast—religion is not completely absent from this world. Frost conspicuously bears the cognomen Deacon, and he plans a revolution that will bring about the incarnation of “the blood god.” This is because of a prophecy in the book of Erebus, “the vampire Bible,” shown hanging in strips like so many Undead Sea Scrolls. Erebus, of course, is borrowed from one of the many Greek terms for sections of the Underworld. Hades is a general term, but an entire geography of the realm of the dead was speculated. Erebus may be translated as “deep darkness,” and thus is appropriate for vampiric faith. Religion is not absent, it is just that Christianity is irrelevant for vampires. They do, however, borrow the concepts of sacred scripture, sacrifice, incarnation, and even twelve disciples.

When Blade has his final showdown with Frost—now the blood god incarnate—it is the EDTA, the scientifically developed anticoagulant, that destroys him. A fascinating subtext lurks here. Although clearly intended as an action movie, the plot undermines the vampire religion with science. Frost believes that the ancient ritual, decoded from a forgotten language, will turn him into a god. When you need to bring down a god, science seems to be the best weapon. Vampires—Frost anyway—are believers. Karen is confronted with the existence of vampires by accident, yet she discovers the most effective means of killing them scientifically. In the bloody battle between science and religion, it is clear which side is most powerful in the vampire universe of Blade.

Gods in Spandex

OurGodsWearSpandexOne thing leads to another. Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics stirred an interest in comic books that I hadn’t felt since before my college days. Often excoriated as puerile, escapist doggerel for pre-pubescent boys, comics have grown to be respected members of adult society. I often wonder what the draw might be. Hollywood has certainly cashed in on it with any number of blockbuster flicks each year coming from the brains of the comic book writers and artists. So I picked up the quirky book by Christopher Knowles and Joseph Michael Linsner entitled Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. Reading it was kind of like looking in a mirror that has been buried in dust for a few decades. I hadn’t realized that my tastes in childhood comics was a reflection of a longing for the divine world with healthy doses of science fiction, and even H. P. Lovecraft, thrown in along the way. Knowles ties in a remarkable breadth of material to demonstrate that our superheroes are, in the final analysis, gods. That point may be taken in any number of ways.

The academic world suffers from a fear of respectability. That may seem a strange assertion, but I’ve spent a great deal of my life among academics and I know that many of them are insecure and tentative. Does all this reading, writing, and analysis ever get read by anybody? Does anybody take me seriously? Academics are haunted types. So when a subject as vulgar as comic books arises, scholars are reluctant to touch it. It might look like we actually enjoy reading the funnies. Still, popular culture has demonstrated an unexpected depth to much that we read in the strip world. As Knowles points out, a deep undercurrent of the occult and esotericism runs through many hero story lines. Several heroes began their lives as classical gods, only to assume the spandex and become incarnate humans with special powers we long to have ourselves. We would fly, if we were given the chance.

Our Gods Wear Spandex may never be viewed as an academic book by most. It has too much visual interest and not enough recondite footnotes. All the same, it is a profound look at what people really desire. We worship gods because of their special powers. If God were one of us with our humiliating weaknesses and limitations, would we ever worship him or her? Of course not. We only seek to appease those who are stronger than we are. Entire governments and ecclesiastical bodies are built on that very principle. Heroes are like us. Mortal, and yet, with something more. They die. But like the gods, they can come back. Reading Knowles it becomes clear just how much religious thought pulses through the veins of the comic book world. We may be grown up and sophisticated. We may have left behind childish things. But when our backs are to the wall, who doesn’t secretly wish they were Wonder Woman or Superman? And maybe that wish is a prayer.

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.

The Religion of X

X2While I never considered myself comically deprived as a child, as an adult I have come to understand that I missed quite a bit. Much of this comes through the Marvel Universe that I discovered through various superhero films that have captured the interest of the movie industry. Initially I felt a little silly looking for profundity among all those bulging biceps and impossible pecs, but I’m beginning to understand that just because a book is illustrated doesn’t mean it’s facile. All of this is a way of saying that I watched X2: X-Men United over the weekend. With my understanding of evolution and genetics, minimal though they be, I always find the “mutant” explanation a bit hard to swallow. Nevertheless, these heroes have such a multiplicity of gifts, and the movies are dark enough to suggest something deeper than guys running around in tights. All I know of the X-Men I learned through the first movie, and I’ve never watched the extras. X2 introduced a new character (to me) that seemed to have been designed for a blog like this.

Nightcrawler is portrayed as demonic in shape and coloration, resembling Iblis more than anything else, is the most religious X-Man I’ve so far encountered. His hideout in the movie is an abandoned church in Boston, and when he is discovered he is in the midst of praying. During the course of the movie he prays the rosary and recites Psalms, making him a truly conflicted character—demonic in form and devout in soul. Comic book writers have long drawn on religious themes, but the shaping of “profane” characters as “religious” would appear a venial kind of blasphemy to many. If cartoon characters, however, are to resemble the real world at all religion must play into the Marvel Universe. After all, it plays into the fantasy world of the Tea Party on a regular basis. The concept of a religious demon is biblical, as James notes in his epistle, “the devils also believe, and tremble.”

There is something deeper going on here, however. Nightcrawler not only believes, but worships. The issues of prejudice and racism are clearly present throughout the movie(s). And as the story comes to its climax, Phoenix—whose name already suggests resurrection—rescues her X-compatriots in an act of self-sacrifice. Religion, as it plays out in X2 is messy and ragged around the edges. But it is clearly present. In the Marvel Universe gods and humans mix with unnerving ease, and the gods aren’t always the most powerful of the heroes we meet. After seeing the movies I’ve come to realize that a developed backstory exists for this universe and some scholars of religion have begun to notice. And once that happens, a theology is never far behind. I suspect it will remain a matter of debate whether the book is better than the movie or vice-versa. In the meanwhile, I’m thinking I’ll need to find the third member of this trinity and see how the story ends.

Mutants, Mystics and Memory

MutantsMysticsParadigms. These patterns of thought are self-reinforcing and very useful. As anyone who’s studied foreign languages knows, paradigms are an effective way to keep all those impossible verb tenses in mind. Until you encounter an irregular verb. Once you discover irregular verbs, you start to find there are more of them than you wish. As with language, so with life. Like most boys, I grew up reading comic books. We didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t as fluent in super-heroese as some kids were, but I felt that irresistible draw to garish colors inking exaggerated muscle-tone under a costume that held a body capable of extraordinary things. Everything seemed possible. Then adult responsibility hit. Who had time for comic books and heroes?

That’s why I was delighted to discover Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. The three sub-topics just about summed up my childhood. But, like Paul declared to Corinthians, the first time around, “when I became a man I put away childish things.” Turns out, maybe my desire to be grown up was premature. I commented on Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible earlier this year. In his work I’d finally discovered that academics can sometimes get away with asking unorthodox questions. Perhaps it was my exposure to biblical studies, a discipline which goes one of two ways—overly facile attempts to maintain a literal reading, or a staid, solid approach tied to serious linguistics and archaeological records—that forced me into a reductionist paradigm. Well, everybody else was doing it! Academic thought had little room for the unusual, the bizarre, the irregular verb. The same applies to our no-nonsense, money driven society. Just shut up and do your job.

Mutants and Mystics, however, shows that our repressed unusual experiences, like a freudian phobia, will find ways into daily reality. It is a mind-stretching book. As for Authors of the Impossible, Kripal is to be congratulated on allowing himself to consider walking down paths that most academics assiduously bypass. Coming to his work as a fellow student of religious studies, I see that he has arrived at similar conclusions to mine, although clearly more advanced. I’d just assumed that since I never had the serious backing of a serious university my way was the low-way. The way of the kid who just couldn’t bring himself to grow up. There is a reason we spent our formative years reading about heroes for whom the impossible was daily reality. Perhaps we were in training after all, and comic books prove the point of old Isaiah that a child may indeed hold knowledge adults often just can’t see.