catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 4 :: 2013.02.15 — 2013.02.28


Christians and comics

A call for new apocalypses

Creative impulse is at its first beginning connected with dissatisfaction with this world. It is an end of this world and in its original outburst, it desires the end of this world, it is the beginning of a different world. Creative activity is, therefore, eschatological.

Nicolas Berdyaev, The Beginning and the End

The Judeo-Christian tradition has a long history of imagining the end of the world. From Isaiah’s visions of swords being beaten into plowshares to John’s holy beings covered in eyes, a rich well of images, vocabulary and motifs has been preserved in both the biblical text and Christian history. Curiously, such apocalyptic literature is always written in connection with a clear disapproval of the current state of reality — whether it is a corrupt king awaiting judgment or the entire empire of Rome, the biblical response has been a combination of outright denunciation and argument and imaginative expressions of a future-to-come. Though the term has changed and morphed throughout its life, today “apocalypse” is interestingly used in connection with figures like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton. Though we do not always find cities descending from the heavens in these authors, we do find the heart of the Christian apocalypse — a deeply discontented reaction to the world as we know it and an attempt to literally destroy it in order to announce something new.

It is here where I want to introduce the strange world of comics (which includes graphic novels) into the mix. If there was ever a medium dedicated to articulating apocalyptic motifs, it is this one. I want to suggest that the current milieu of comics is in fact a wrestling with apocalyptic narratives, an attempt to discern the problems of reality and either curl up in the face of them or try to destroy them. It is here that Christians have a unique and legitimate place, and an opportunity that has been thus far sorely missed.

Of all the examples that could be given for this kind of literature, none is more obvious than the legendary Alan Moore, who is responsible for such classics as V for Vendetta, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and his most famous work, The Watchmen. It is The Watchmen that best expresses the apocalyptic genre in comics. Generally hailed as a systematic deconstruction of the superhero genre, Watchmen questions just about every hero trope developed in the previous decades.  We have just about everyone here: Dr. Manhattan, formerly called Jon, a nigh-omnipotent being whose power calls moral absolutes into question; Rorschach, a semi-Kantian vigilante whose deontological ethics cause him to lead a poor and meager life fueled by the sleep-deprived call of “Justice!”; The Comedian, a Vietnam veteran whose response to the meaninglessness of life is to start participating in the joke; Night Owl, a regular man who dresses up and invents his gadgets to fight crime, ultimately feeling embarrassed for creating such a strange and larger-than-life persona in the first place. The value of Moore’s imagination is that it cuts through just about everything. Much could be said about the book’s brilliant literary subversion, but for economy’s sake allow us to jump to the end: Alan Moore’s apocalypse (here I will give the customary “spoiler-alert”).

In Moore’s graphic novel, after a series of existentially devastating glimpses into the lives and pasts of his complex characters, we are finally confronted with an irrevocable Event. The book’s main “villain” (the term must be in quotes), Dr. Ozymandias (or Adrian to his friends), has concocted a plot to unite the world in perpetual peace. In order to stop the nations from fighting with one another, he enacts an elaborate scheme that creates the illusion that the world is under attack from a mysterious other-worldly and inter-dimensional enemy, an illusion that requires the killing of millions in New York City to succeed. The plot seems to have worked, as the nations rally their forces and call an end to their disputes in order to cooperate on facing this larger threat, an enemy that poses a danger to all of earth, regardless of arbitrary country borders. We are faced with an ethical dilemma, to which the characters respond in a variety of ways.  Is Ozymandias justified? The killing of millions in New York could equal the inauguration of peace in the world. Ozymandias appears drunk with success initially, but his final conversation with Dr. Manhattan is revealing. Ozymandias, with an uncharacteristic reticence, says “Jon, wait, before you leave…I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” To which Dr. Manhattan responds in two dedicated speech bubbles: “‘In the end’?” “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”

Moore’s apocalypse culminates in a dismal series of ethical quandaries. It successfully accomplishes one aspect of the Christian apocalypse by suggesting that there is something wrong with the world, and he spends pages expressing exactly what that is through the tortured lives of his anti-heroes. And, indeed, this aspect is overtly endorsed by Moore, being a committed anarchist and neo-pagan in his private life. Nonetheless, a pervasive nihilism and Nietzschean hope sustains his work, providing not an inauguration of something new but rather a pronouncement of eternal chaos, a return to that which cannot extricate itself from the cycle of violence. Moore successfully undoes the world. It is arguable as to whether or not he ever creates a new one, even in his most optimistic moments.

In this milieu, where comics are deeply shrouded in apocalyptic questions that remain infinitely pensive about any kind of answers, Christians have a unique opportunity to begin to re-write apocalypses of their own. I do not mean for a moment to suggest, here, an “us” vs. “them” mentality with regard to comics and apocalypse, but rather a point of convergence. Comics have a complicated history with religion; many characters in mainstream comics are explicitly religious (Superman is Methodist, Nightcrawler is deeply Catholic), and the very first graphic novel ever produced was entitled A Contract With God by Will Eisner. The trend has not gone away, and it is not likely to. Writers in comics and comic theory are obsessed with dealing with all aspects of life, not just acts of outrageous machismo or whatever events grant the most “POW!” balloons. Comics also support a highly unique reading audience, generally made up of society’s marginalized who find solidarity with losers like Peter Parker and hope in figures like Superman, an audience that could find quite a bit of help from a Christ who came for precisely such a group.

Increasingly, comic fans have been finding resonance with the nihilistic postmodern voices of Moore and others, and rightly so: there is something deeply wrong with the world. Nonetheless, it is time that Christians enter this discussion explicitly, offering a taste of what Christ offers—not only an end to the corrupted world, but also the inauguration of a new world, a world in which swords are turned into ploughshares rather than turned against a new, cosmic enemy, as in Moore’s eschatology, which is merely a perpetuation of violence, as Dr. Manhattan implies. At this juncture, we stand in a unique place to produce another Dostoevsky, another St. John, another Isaiah in the world of comics. And, frankly, with all of the gods, monsters, aliens, explosions and experimentations already going on in comics, we would probably be responding to an invitation long lost in the mail.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus