STEVID CUSTOMS

Subtitle

HERO WORSHIP:

Robert M. Price                          

                                                          Defenders/JLA

Did any of you grayer fans notice anything odd, any sense of deja vue, the last time you viewed the Justice League cartoon, “The Terror Beyond”? I know I did. It did not take me long to recognize that what I was seeing was an homage to, very nearly a paraphrase of, a 1978 Defenders story (#s 58-60) in which the non-team entered a sort of Cthulhu Mythos dimension to rescue Dr. Strange who had somehow been marooned there, plugged into a Shoggoth. Which super heroes are we talking about? The non-roster of the Defenders, as you may remember, could vary from issue to issue. Well, there was the Hulk, Nighthawk, the Valkyrie, Hell-Cat, and the Devil-Slayer. Conspicuous by his absence was charter non-member Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. You couldn’t help noticing he wasn’t along for the ride.


            A moment’s digression for a word about the Devil-Slayer. He was himself a cameo of inter-company crossover and cloning such as we are talking about here on a larger scale, for the Devil-Slayer was clearly a slightly retooled and made-over version of one of Larry Lieber’s Atlas Comics heroes, the Demon-Hunter. Larry had attempted to revive the old Atlas Comics name with his own stable of heroes. Larry was Stan’s brother, and I guess he felt, if one Lieber can do it, why not another? Larry had worked at Marvel in the early days, doing SF and horror tales. His other Atlas characters included the Brute (a blue-skinned thawed-out cave man who looked suspiciously like the Hulk); Phoenix (like Captain Atom), who three lackluster issues later morphed into the (one-issue!) Protector (much like Captain Paragon over at Americomics); Tiger-Man by Steve Ditko, whose costume paled next to his foe the Blue Leopard (I made a custom figure of the latter, but not the former!); the Destructor (generic masked and agile hero drawn by Steve Ditko and inked at first by Wally Wood!, then, I would swear, by Mike Sekowski); and the Demon-Hunter, a hit-man hired by the mob, and who then joined an occult terror group for whom he functioned as a “harvester of eyes.” I have always thought this last business gave rise to an obvious feature of the TV occult hero Ezekiel Brimstone, who had returned from hell to send other escapees back there by blasting their eyes, the windows of their souls.


Anyway, when Atlas went under, Marvel begged, borrowed, or stole the last of these characters, changing both his super hero and secret identity names, and retooling his costume. He still had a huge, flowing cape (from the folds of which he would withdraw any sort of weapon, usually a huge, two-headed silver axe) and a head-concealing skin-tight hood, which nonetheless left his face framed and exposed. He non-joined the non-team for a few issues in the early 80s. The Hulk (whose Lou Costello persona in The Defenders I never cared for) used to call him “cape-man,” while he dubbed Nighthawk “bird-nose.”


            In the Justice League cartoon I have in mind, we witness a team of improbable companions entering a Mythos dimension. They are the closest DC analogues they could think of to the Defenders. In this version, Namor was on the job, disguised as it were as Aquaman. Dr. Strange was represented by Dr. Fate. Solomon Grundy inevitably made you think of the Gray Hulk, while Hawk-Girl combined the roles of Hell-Cat and Nighthawk. Wonder Woman was the Valkyrie’s counterpart (just Greek myth substituted for Norse). Superman had little in common with the Devil-Slayer, but Grundy did call him “cape-man” (which is more than enough to justify my theory). And instead of the Hulk joining the others to save the Dr. Strange analogue, Grundy teamed with Dr. Fate in order redeem himself from his nightmare existence as the undead behemoth he had become after his corpse (originally he was a mobster) had been dumped into a swamp (an idea borrowed, most folks think, from Hillman Comics’s The Heap. 


            We can only hope that Grundy will rise from his grave in the classic monster style, especially as they draw him so well and Mark Hamill does his voice so great! Wouldn’t it be terrific to see him back in a match-up against Doomsday?

            Anyway, this “Defenders/JLA” episode is just one of many inside-joke masterpieces to be found in the “pocket universe” of the cartoon series Justice League



HERO WORSHIP:

Robert M. Price

A Comic Book World 


One of the most interesting quips in the hilarious movie Men in Black is where J tells K that the public must at all costs be protected from the knowledge of extraterrestrials among them, since, if they knew everything that was happening around them, they’d never be able to sleep peacefully again. They would come to realize, but probably not to accept, the fact of their precarious position in the scheme of things (symbolized brilliantly at the end of the sequel, where an opened door reveals our whole stinkin’ universe to exist within a bus station locker in another, larger universe!).


            And this raises the question of whether the world would continue pretty much normally in comic books if people knew what the stories show them learning about metahumans, oft-returning super-villains, and incessant invasions from other dimensions. You see, the comic writers need the world, whether the fictive New York of Marvel Comics or the Gotham and Metropolis of DC, to seem like our world, so we can identify with the heroes and their exploits. The pathos of threat and tragedy would be lessened if the danger were not to our own flesh and blood. Superman rescuing space aliens is just not the same as his rescuing a soccer mom from a carjacker, or from Luthor’s giant robots.


            But would the world and society be at all like ours if people had witnessed the events of repeated Galactus encroachments, Kree and Skrull invasions, the depredations of Brainiac, Thanos, Mongul, etc.? Had they lived through the Infinity Gauntlet, the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and so on? Not a chance. No way.


            For one thing, there would be constant vigilance and constant terror. Just look at the shock-waves unleashed by September 11, 2001, and that was “just two airplanes.” Suppose Galactus’s or Brainiac’s ship had appeared in the skies? Orson Welles, move over! Agent J was obviously right. And you couldn’t even comfort yourself with the thought that the superheros would surely make things right, since they seem to win it every time only by the skin of their teeth! Of course, it has to be that way for purposes of narrative tension, but we are asking another question about narrative, namely that of verisimilitude, equally important.


            Another problem would be that of advanced technology. I think one of the clever things about Star Trek: Enterprise is the initially uneasy relationship between the earthlings, impatient to be off into space, and the patronizing Vulcans, who do not believe we are ready. So they withhold needful technology from us, creating a lot of ill will. The same thing, it seems to me, would happen in the universe of comic books. Wouldn’t the public sooner or later demand that Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and so many other geniuses drop the repulsor rays and start working on improved medical technology? Remember when the Martian Manhunter told the paralyzed Oracle, Barbara Gordon, that he thought she must resent him and his team-mates for not using their expertise to find a way of healing her? That’s what I’m talking about.


            In Alan Moore’s wonderful two-part  story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” we learn that for a decade or so Superman had stayed out of the public eye, mainly doing space exploration work for NASA, hand-delivering space probes and satellites and stuff. But, when you think about it, why bother with all the expensive technology? Why not just interrogate him about all the worlds and galaxies he’s visited in person? Hell, just give them a library card to the Fortress of Solitude for Pete’s sake!


            Have you ever chewed over the old stumper: if Jesus were supposed to have literal omniscience like his heavenly Father, why the heck didn’t he save missionaries a lot of trouble by inventing the airplane (or for that manner, the Star Trek teleporter)? Why didn’t he invent modern medicine and medical technology? He sounds like he’s bound by the Federation’s Prime Directive of Non-Interference, only in his case, interference would seem to have been the whole point of his visit! It’s the same with the superheroes.


Why don’t they act like the Kanamits from the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”? The issue has actually come up in the four-color pages once or twice that I know of. Long ago, the great “Imaginary Story” of Superman Red and Superman Blue opened with the elders of Kandor calling Superman on the carpet for not solving all the world’s problems. It was time, they said, for him to trade places with one of them and let somebody else have a whack at it. Instead, he asked for one more chance and put on a helmet designed to increase his brain power, which it did. But it had a side-effect: he split into two Supermen. Together the new Dynamic Duo did cure all the world’s ills. They wisely recruited Lex Luthor (after slipping some super-fluoride into the oceans so as to wipe out all evil from humanity, including Lex!), and old baldy found a cure for cancer in half the time it would have taken Leonard McCoy had it been some Andromeda Strain popping up on board the Enterprise!


More recently, the White Martians story arc in Grant Morrison’s Justice League cast the Martian honkeys in the role of the Kanamits when they disguised themselves as the Hyper Clan and seduced the earth’s population by making deserts bloom, curing diseases, etc. People demanded to know why the self-absorbed Justice League had never done these things for them. And it’s a darn good question! Why clean up after the disasters that plague mankind if you can prevent them? And there are three answers that the comics offer.


First, to beat this Kanamit thing a bit closer to death, remember the premiere episode of the Justice League cartoon? It was a clever combination of the Hyper Clan White Martian story with the premise of the movie Superman 4: The Quest for Peace (itself a kind of remake of the old Superman versus Atom Man). Superman went to the United Nations and announced he would rid the world of nuclear weapons. He pretty much did it. Then it developed that the politician who suggested it was a White Martian spy who had duped Superman into getting rid of earth’s defenses, to make the Martian invasion easier!  There’s reason number one! If you place all your hopes in the hands of powerful but still fallible mortals, you’re taking a big risk! Suppose they make a super-size mistake? Yikes.


Second, to go back to Superman 4, the Man of Steel learned something of a different lesson. He had undertaken to disarm the world by destroying their nukes, but he finally realized that just wasn’t his prerogative. He had to let the human race make its own mistakes and live with them, or they would never reach their full potential. I think of the SNL skit where Superman (Jerry Seinfeld) is interviewed by Larry King (Kevin Nealon), who points out that the citizens of Metropolis are complaining he hasn’t done anything about the garbage since the sanitation workers went on strike. Superman replies indignantly, “Hey, I’m Superman! I’m not pickin’ up the garbage!” And it wasn’t really Superman’s dignity that was at stake, but rather that of Metropolis: the more dependent they grow, the more childish and petulant they grow. It is no favor for Superman to encourage that attitude in people. And in case you hadn’t noticed, this is one of the major answers to the question of why God does not interfere to fix our mistakes. It is called “the Free Will Defense.”


Third, think of the great Justice League episode in which the Justice Lords, the JLA’s counterparts on a parallel earth, are sort of like the Crime Syndicate anti-heroes of Earth 3, only they are well-meaning fascists, not petty crooks. The junta of the Justice Lords is the result of a systematic undertaking to solve the world’s problems. Just one thing: that’s going to mean that you also rule the world. That’s always the temptation of fascism: in a time of crisis, people are willing to trade their freedoms for security. Leftists in America post 911 imagine that the Patriot Act is such a trade-off, but they are wrong this time. In my view, their leaders, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, etc., are like the politician taken over by Martian conspirators in that Justice League cartoon, softening us up for the depredations of our enemies. But the issue, the ever-tempting devil’s bargain of exchanging freedom for security, is real enough.


The comic book writers have to adopt some kind of rationales like this if they are to keep setting their stories in a world that will seem familiar to us, not some futuristic utopia. But, come to think of it, the reasons make a bit of sense, too. And that’s equally good writing.


HERO WORSHIP

Robert M. Price 

                                             Why I Stopped Customizing


I love action figures. I treasure the ones I have, and I eagerly anticipate those scheduled to appear in the next months. I just bought a couple yesterday: the 10 inch Flash and Green Lantern from the animated Justice League TV series.  Two more came in the mail today: the Joker and Robin from the Yamato collection. I?m hoping Batman and Harley Quinn get here tomorrow.


I am always hoping and dreaming that Marvel Legends or DC Direct will make some figure I want. It was this fanatical obsession with figures that led me, first, to pay artists to make custom figures for me. I was fortunate to have met a couple of extremely talented young men at a toy shop in Bayonne, New Jersey, and they did fantastic work for me. They are Chris Gowrych (no relation to the Avengers government liaison as far as I know) and Bill Kern. You can see some of their work on Tim Priebe?s Cool Collecting website, where I posted photos of many of the figures in my collection.


            Before long, these guys, as well as a couple of others, had made me a couple of hundred figures, many of which have since also been produced by the big companies (e.g., Crime Syndicate, Legion of Superheroes, Tomorrow Woman, Blue Beetle). Many others have not. I was hoping I?d be able to replace my THUNDER Agent figures with DC Direct versions, but that looks less and less likely. I know I?ll never get a professional Supreme. I expect I will get pro Watchmen figures in 2006, but in the meantime, my 5 inch scale Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Hooded Justice, Niteowl, and Comedian figures look pretty neat! Ditto Infinity, Inc.


            Eventually I began customizing figures for myself, starting with the version of Starman in the series DC One Million. I wound up doing, I think, around 300 of them, including the most obscure and ephemeral characters from dead, flash-in-the-pan comics companies. It was quite a bit of fun. But now I have sold most of the collection on eBay, though that still leaves a number adorning some of my shelves, albeit relegated to a closet.


            All of a sudden, I guess marked by the debut of the 6 inch lines from ToyBiz and DC Direct, I lost all interest in customizing. Why? In a word: inflation. On the one hand, the possibility of making, or having made, any figure I wanted pretty much whenever I wanted it destroyed the fun of the hobby. There was no more anxious waiting to see if they would ever make your favorite, hence no joy when at last they did. Every day was Christmas, so Christmas became commonplace.


On the other hand, if you admitted the pro figure was better than the custom, you vitiated the value of all the custom figures. It seemed never to have been worth it after all. A waste of time, since they were mere place-holders.


Back when I was obsessed with customizing, my daughter Victoria took up the hobby, just to help me out. She made me an unbelievable Elongated Man (original costume) and an Alan Moore Supreme. More recently she made me a Miss Liberty to complete my All-Winners Squad. (Bill Kern had already made me a beautiful Whizzer, as well as a terrific Hitler from a J. Jonah Jameson figure.)


HERO WORSHIP:

Robert M. Price

                                                Why the Long Underwear?


I remember the first time I learned that comic book professionals commonly refer to their super-protagonists as ?long-underwear characters.? I was miffed. I thought it disrespectful, near blasphemous. Of course, I don?t anymore, but neither do I cultivate a sense of ?oh-so-professional? disdain for the characters, as if I were trying to evade the onus of liking ?kid stuff? that other, more mature adults, frown upon. I do not like it when fans refer to Superman as ?Supes? or to Batman as ?Bats.? I love the scene in ?The Reign of the Supermen? when the Last Son of Krypton warns a cowed Guy Gardner, ?And, Gardner, that?s ?Superman,? not ?Supes.?? I respect the superheroes.


            But that question about the long underwear is still a good one: isn?t it a bit silly to picture these grown men and women parading around in such outfits? Like when Cyclops says to Wolverine in the first X-Men movie, ?You?d prefer yellow spandex?? Remember, Stan Lee first intended the Fantastic Four to wear civilian clothes, and their predecessors, the Challengers of the Unknown weren?t really wearing costumes?just matching jump suits. The Challengers wore real uniforms (that is, clothes all on the same pattern, a ?uniform? look), and Jack Kirby preserved as much of that look as he could with the FF by assigning them, too, matching suits of a sort. Even the Thing had a blue suit, not just trunks, at first.


            But fans, readers, wanted the variety of colorful costumes, and soon they got them. So our question is whether the device of colorful costumes is supposed to have verisimilitude within the story and for its characters or rather only for the reader.


            This issue, which we usually ignore, begins to surface in superhero movies and TV shows when we notice how difficult it seemed for costumers for a long time to get it right, for the costumed characters not to look silly now that they seemed to appear in more of a real world setting. The seventies and eighties Marvel TV movies just couldn?t pull off the trick. They gave up trying. The Hulk wore tatters anyway, but for hair they gave a him a cheap fright wig, as if they were trying to do something wrong just for good measure. Thor, reduced in stature to a motorcycle thug, just wore fur. Daredevil had a black scuba suit, or something that looked like one. The Punisher lacked any attempt at a costume. What did Stan think he was doing, prostituting his great creations to hacks like these?


            A similar, and no less important, issue in live-action superhero representations was the physique of superheroes. I loved Adam West as Batman, but he did look kind of puny. It was wise to equip Michael Keaton with a muscle suit so he would look the part. The costume equals the appearance. Clothes make the (Super or Bat)man.


            Alan Moore showed great insight into the costume question in Watchmen when he asked, implicitly, just what sort of individuals would wear masks? What kind of folks wear masks in real life? Well, let?s see: there are vigilantes who take the law into their own hands, whether their aims are noble or not. Thus Hooded Justice smacked of both the traditional executioner figure and the Ku Klux Klan member. And then, oh, there are sexual perverts, hence the leather mask the Comedian wore (as well as one of DC?s half-baked Watchmen rip-offs, Major Force). Maybe a flamboyant homosexual might enjoy camping it up a superhero, hence Captain Metropolis. And so on. All in all, I thought it was a brilliant take on the possible reality of costume heroes. But not the only explanation.


            Individual heroes have different reasons for wearing their loud, tight costumes. Batman is the most obvious and the most explicit: he wants to look pretty much like Dracula to scare the bejesus out of stupid and superstitious thugs. Captain America is a human flag, embodying the colors and the values of the United States. The Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) is just wearing an alien police uniform.


            But some costumes are not so utilitarian. Let?s face it: the heroes wear them just for the reader?s sake. The super suits are eye-candy. But nonetheless, I think there remains a completely plausible intra-narrative rationale. The costumes are like priestly vestments, setting apart the heroes by virtue of their special servant role on behalf of the general population of civilians. I hope you don?t think it odd or silly when you spot a Catholic priest sporting all black with a tab collar, or a chef in all white with the mushroom hat.


            The name of a superhero has much the same function. It is really his title. I like it when, in X-2, Magneto asks the flame-mutant for his name, whereupon the kid answers, ?John,? and Magneto says, ?Your real name!? And he answers ?Pyro!? Thus it always seems to me entirely fitting and not at all contrived, to hear the Justice League (or whomever) addressing one another by their official names, ?Flash,? instead of ?Wally,? for instance. Mundane names, secret identity names, would be okay if the heroes were gathered informally after a long day?s work saving the world (as when Oliver Queen was the only one with the social presence of mind to show up for JLA/JSA Thanksgiving dinner in civilian clothing).


I remember in an old issue of The Protectors (anybody remember them, the modernized Centaur Comics characters?), when they were first assembling their line-up, Mighty Man protests the admission of The Witch to the team, and Amazing Man rebukes him: ?You?re way out of line, Mighty Man!? This struck me as paradigmatic and appropriate, as when Senators address each other as ?Senator? during sessions of Congress, but by first names or nicknames in bars, brothels, or hashish dens. In costume, behind masks, the heroes are implicitly engaged in a kind of elaborate play or ritual, and they should use their totemic character names. If there were superheroes in real life, this is what they would do.


Comic Book Christs

Robert M. Price

 

I have a special section in my comic book boxes for overtly religious comics, the pride of the collection being, I guess, the hysterically paranoid Crusaders comics of Jack Chick. Besides this, there are Marvel Comics biographies of Jesus, Pope John Paul II, and Francis of Assisi, plus comics printed in India, including Tales of Durga and Tales of Indra. But most comics are deeply religious, or at least I think so. At least, as a theologian, I have no trouble at all detecting in the pages of mainstream super hero comics many an analogy to Christian doctrines about Jesus Christ. In what follows, I want to share with you a brief historical menu of beliefs widely held at one time or another by Christians in the early church. And I will illustrate them by reference to well known comic book heroes. This is not going to be a joke. Don't think I am trying to dishonor religion here. That is the furthest thing from my mind.

 

Son of Man and Superman

Let's begin with God. In all traditional religion, including most of the Bible, God is depicted essentially as an individual, male person, humanoid in form, though having a body made of sterner stuff than ours. The gods of Olympian myth can even die, and some do, though no mere mortal is strong enough to do the job. Even the depiction of Yahve Elohim ("the Lord God") in the Eden story has him with a human body and limitations. He waits till the cool of the evening to take a walk with Adam and Eve. He is surprised not to find them and yells out, "Where is everybody?" Finally he expels them from the Garden because he fears they will eat some of the fruit of immortality, which we must suppose is the very ambrosia of Yahve and his fellows (to whom he speaks with a note of desperation in Genesis 3:22) which gives them immortal life. At any rate, such an anthropomorphic God concept is, as Ludwig Feuerbach saw, simply the projection onto the sky of human ability, minus the limitations of individual humans. Thus making God in our own image, we attribute to a single individual the collective attributes of humanity as a whole, including its virtues, and the longevity of the species as a whole. This tallies very closely with Superman, who is likewise a human being without limitations. The whole idea of the anthropomorphic God/god is the super-man. Even his native name, Kal-el, is reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible, where "el" denotes "god." "Kal-el," then, means "Kal the god." You know, of course, that Superman was the brainchild of two Jews, Joe Schuster, artist, and Jerry Siegel, writer.

            But we have to jump over to the Christian New Testament if we want to trace the biblical linkages of Superman all the way out. The Superman origin myth makes him a modern Jesus Christ, sent into our mortal world by a loving father hidden in heaven, Jor-el (= "God of the Jordan"?) on Krypton (which means "secret place" in Greek). Superman: The Movie (1978) makes this, if possible, even clearer, as Kal-el's space ship is shaped like a star, blazing in the night sky as in Matthew's nativity story. Scriptwriter Mario Puzo (he wrote the Godfather; here he's writing about God the Father!) even made sure Jor-el's voice-over is heavily laden with the cadences of the Gospel of John about "the Father and the Son."

            We can trace a common myth-making pattern in the case of the early lives of both Superman and Jesus Christ. Originally, both premiered as super-powered adults, Jesus appearing in the earliest Gospel, Mark, as an adult at the Jordan baptism. But both attracted such enthusiastic devotion that people began to wonder what their favoirite heroes had been doing before that. So early Christians spun the tales of the miracle-working kid Jesus, alternately saving and blasting his young playmates (you find these tales in books like the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, etc.), and of course in Adventure Comics, where one began to read "Superboy, the Adventures of Superman When He Was a Boy." And just as Matthew and Luke added nativity stories where Mark had none, so did DC Comics finally add the exploits of Superbaby.

            For Superman's first sixty-five years, his exploits were precisely those of the Greek sons of gods, divine men (the theios aner). He flew almost effortlessly from one astounding victory to another, like Hercules, Theseus, Apollonius of Tyana, his occasional setbacks and seeming limitations serving merely to accentuate his triumphs. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is depicted pretty much as a theios aner, walking on the water, revealing his true form on the Mount of Transfiguration, and performing miracles. His crucifixion? Merely nothing, the stage lights going down, the darkness before the dawn of his greatest triumph of all. In 1993, the parallel was made complete: Superman gave his life in the battle for good, to stave off Doomsday. And then he rose from the dead. No one can miss the Superman/Christ parallel in all this. So far I am telling you nothing you don't already know.

 

Jesus' Secret Identity

But Superman and other heroes are mighty useful in explaining something more obscure: the options of early Christology, the doctrines about the person of Christ. One early version was Adoptionism, the notion that Jesus, an extraordinarily righteous mortal, was adopted as God's Son, elevated to divine honors, though not necessarily to divine nature (whatever that would mean anyway!). This view is represented in Acts 2:36 and 13:33, as well as Romans 1:3-3, where Jesus becomes God's Son as of the resurrection. Or it might have happened earlier in the story. Mark's baptismal scene implies, as we know many early Christian "heretics" believed, that Jesus was already adopted at his baptism, which is the point of the declaration of the heavenly voice: "You are my Son." Superman entered this world as the powerful Son of Krypton, so he is not an example of, or a parallel to Adoptionistic Christology. His counterpart Supreme is a case of Adoptionism, though, as he was the ordinary mortal Ethan Crane, given super powers by a series of experiments, like Captain America. (I am ignoring the cutsey revisionism of Alan Moore and sticking to the real thing, thank you.) And how do we know this about Supreme's biography? He himself tells us as much in his own account, called "The Gospel According to Ethan Crane." The parallel is not unintended. You may recall that eventually Supreme eventually started speaking in pseudo-biblical idiom and spoke of himself explicitly as God's Son.

            We can understand Superman as an Adoptionistic Christ figure if we think of John Byrne's retooling of the character. Here Superman grew up believing himself to be Clark Kent, and he had no inkling of super-powers till the onset of adulthood. Byrne retroactively did away with Superboy and Superbaby. So in this version his calling came upon him, and he accepted it, just like Spider-Man. Spiderman and any other superheroes who received their powers only in adulthood and shouldered the implied responsibility would be Adoptionistic Christ-counterparts, too. The Silver Surfer is perhaps the best example of the Adoptionistic Christ analog, since he is recruited by Galactus, whose creator Jack Kirby (another Jew, and another true myth-maker!) admitted is simply supposed to be God in a costume. Galactus is the angry Jehovah whose wrath must be placated, and Norrin Rad saves his world by placating him, agreeing to serve him. (And just to bring Superman into this again, remember that he becomes another Silver Surfer, or rather a Golden Surfer, for Galactus in the 1999 graphic novel or whatever it was, Superman/Fantastic Four: The Infinite Destruction).

            Among the tribes of early Christians who accentuated the spiteful villainy (as they understood or misunderstood it) of the Hebrew God were the Marcionites and the Gnostics, both of whom believed that the world was created by a cruel and self-aggrandizing deity who issued commandments to govern his cowed slaves, humanity. They believed that a higher God, the Unknown Father, sent Jesus Christ to earth to rescue the poor humans. The Father would gladly adopt them as his sons and daughters if they would turn away from the servitude of the Creator. Upon death they could escape his prison of a world and return to the Godhead. Among superheroes, Adam Warlock is almost explicitly Gnostic, entering a false and evil world created by his evil archenemy. (For a good Gnostic movie, take a look at the Christopher Walken flick Prophecy, though the less said of its sequels the better!)

 

Man of Steel

Most Gnostics, the Marcionites, and many other Christians believed that Jesus Christ only appeared to be sporting a body of flesh and blood, while really existing as an insubstantial spirit. The point, as my old teacher Robert F. Streetman used to say, was exactly like the Organians on Star Trek. Kirk wonders why they meekly refuse to fight when the Klingons invade. They insist there is no danger. Finally they reveal themselves as vortices of blinding light, super-advanced beings who long ago threw off the burden of physical existence. They only feign it now for the sake of communicating with mere mortals like Kirk. And that's what Gnostics imagined Jesus had done. He could not have assumed a genuine fleshly body, because that would have been defiling and sinful. These are the folks mentioned in 1 John 4:2-3, and the doctrine is called "Docetism," from the Greek word dokeo, "to appear, to seem." Sometimes Docetists pictured Jesus as being ghost-like, so that one's hand would pass through him. Other times he appeared, they said, to have the hardness of steel. The latter describes Superman, the Man of Steel. Superman may appear human, but he is not. As in Larry Niven's short story "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex," this is why he should never have been able to marry Lois Lane. His sperm would be like machine gun rounds tearing her fragile form to shreds.

            The Docetic Christ of, say, the Acts of John, could change density at will, like the Vision. Apparently Superman couldn't, or, more likely, no one ever thought about it.

            But Superman's humanity is a surface sham in a more significant way when we consider his disguise as Clark Kent. In the Silver Age of Comics, and in the Superman movies, Superman wore his Clark Kent persona as a second costume, nothing more. He didn't mind being thought a coward and a bumbler as long as it would avert suspicion from his secret identity. There was no real Clark Kent. Things were only a bit different in the George Reeves Superman TV series, where Kent always had an ironic twinkle in his eye when he fed dull mortals like Lois and Jimmy his casual excuses for not being around when Superman showed up. "What fools these mortals be." But it was still false humanity.

            By the early fourth century the major controversy in Christology was between the partisans of Arius and those of Athanasius. All alike believed that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word (John 1:1-5, 14), but Arius understood this Word (Greek: Logos) along the lines of personified Wisdom as in Proverbs chapter 8. In verse 25, Wisdom tells how God created her before the foundation of the world. Colossians 1:15-17 seems to understand the heavenly Christ this way, as "the firstborn of all creation." Thus Arius taught that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of the highest creation of God, the Word, and that through his life of hard service, he had earned the titles Christ, Son, and Lord. Athanasius, on the other hand, understood the Word to be of the same essence as the Father, and thus as truly God, not a creation of God, not even the highest. Athanasius reasoned that Christ must have saved us by taking on our humanity, beginning a process whereby, through faith and the sacraments, his divine nature would permeate our mortal nature. We would come to share in his divinity and so be saved. The Emperor Constantine, a fan of Athanasius, convened the Council of Nicea (325 AD) which, not surprisingly, voted with Athanasius and the Emperor.

 

Human, All Too Human

But if Christ was truly divine as the Word, what about the incarnation business? That is, how human was he? Just a suit of flesh? This key question came to the fore when Apollinarius, a student of Athanasius, championed what he took to be the implication of his master's teaching, that Jesus Christ possessed a human body and a human soul, but not a human spirit, since we have to find someplace to plug the Word into the single organism of Jesus Christ. But three theologians of Cappadocia, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil of Caesarea, disagreed. They reasoned that, since Christ saved us by assuming our humanity, he could not have saved human spirits if he himself lacked one. He must therefore have had the full complement of what makes us human: body, soul, and spirit. The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) settled this one in favor of the Three Cappadocians. So Jesus Christ must have been not half-and-half but rather fully God and fully human at the same time.

            But how? Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, cringed at what seemed to him the grotesque idea of a newborn baby, needing its diapers changed, being the very God of the universe. So he suggested that in Jesus Christ there were two subjects, two persons, one of them human, the other divine. Against him, Cyril of Alexandria argued that such an arrangement would make Jesus Christ, at best, into a prophet like Isaiah, a man with the voice of God speaking in his head. Yet we don't call prophets incarnations of God. On the other hand, at worst, Nestorius' view might imply Jesus was a schizophrenic with multiple personalities. Instead, Cyril insisted, Jesus Christ must have been a single person with two distinct natures: divine and human. But there was only one of him. He might act out of the human nature at one moment (fearing for his life in Gethsemane, dying on the cross) or out of his divine nature at another (walking on water, rising from the dead).

            But back to the comics. You have the Nestorian Christ in a Superman analogue: Captain Marvel. Though they seem to share memories, Captain Marvel and Billy Batson are hardly the same person. Same deal with Captain Mar-Vell and Rick Jones, Firestorm and the Professor, Thor and Dr. Blake, Dr. Fate and Nabu. Two persons sharing one body or alternating in the same position of space. You can see Cyril's Christ in the so-called Electro-Superman. Here was a single person, a single psyche, but he alternated between the two natures he possessed. When he was the flesh-and-blood Clark Kent, he was vulnerable like any human. When he turned into an energy-being, he was superhuman. If Metallo had managed to kill him while he was Kent, he'd really be dead. The Council of Ephesus voted down Nestorius' view (which was easy to do, since they didn't wait till Nestorius' delegation got there!) in 431 AD, though Nestorian churches still exist in Iraq and Iran.

 

One Plus One Equals One

The theologian Eutyches taught that, not only were the two natures in Christ firmly and inseparably joined, but that they had mixed, the divine nature swallowing up the human, so that Christ had but one resultant nature. This was called the "Monophysite" (one nature) doctrine. Pope Leo and others argued against it. They didn't want Christ to be considered some third, unique sort of  entity. It was important that he should remain both human (one of us) and divine (like the Father). So Leo argued the two natures were inseparably united but still distinct, just like oil and water in a common container. You can put the two of them in a blender, but the two substances are just not going to mix into a third one, unlike, say, salt and water, which do mix into a new hybrid. In 481 AD the Council of Chalcedon voted against Eutyches. Many churches in the Near East are still Monophysite, however, like the Copts of Egypt.

            Thor, in his later stages, when he seemed to absorb his secret identities, would be a Monophysite Christ-figure. In the version whereby Don Blake retroactively turned out to be a human life created for Thor to live forgetful of his Asgardian nature, in order to humble him, we have a good example of the Neo-Chalcedonian Christology of Leontius of Byzantium (sixth century AD): the enhypostatic humanity of Christ. The idea was that Jesus the human being, while a full human with all the equipment, would never have existed but for God's plan to send his Son to incarnate as a human. So this vessel was prepared. The humanity of Jesus existed solely for the sake of the union of natures ("hypostases"). It was only in his union with the Word that Jesus of Nazareth could have taken on genuine personhood; thus the personhood of Jesus Christ, his ultimate integration point, was strictly divine, even though he had all the components of human nature. This Jesus, engineered for the purpose of incarnation, albeit a real man, would be just like Don Blake.

            Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Piet Schoonenberg (The Christ, 1971) made the interesting suggestion that we ought to reverse the Neo-Chalcedonian doctrine and speak instead of the enhypostatic divinity of Christ. In this case, there would have been no Trinity of divine persons prior to the incarnation. Originally the Word would have been impersonal, just an aspect of the Godhead, until the incarnation, the union of the Word with a human being, a Jesus who would have been born and grown up in any case (and here we are verging on Adoptionism). Once this union was effected, we could speak for the first time of a Word or Son of God as a distinct person sharing the divine nature. For Schoonenberg, it was the humanity that made the difference, that grounded the Second Person of the Trinity. Here we have a parallel to the Spectre, an aspect of the divine nature, the embodied Wrath of God, who gains personality only once he joins with the psyche of a dead person, first Jim Corrigan, then Hal Jordan. 

            To tell you the truth, I don't know whether it's the comic book characters that help elucidate the Christological models, or the other way around! Anyway, I hope it        Truth, Justice, and the Post-American Way

 

Zarathustra Speaks:

For one thing, the current flap over Superman renouncing his American citizenship attests the wide and deep hold the Man of Steel retains on the public consciousness. He has, in less than a century, become a genuine myth. One cannot escape references to him in popular songs, TV commercials, on Seinfeld, and in political discourse. That’s fine with me! I love the character and always have. In fact, if they ever had the epic battle kids speculate about, where Jesus squares off with Superman, I’d be rooting for…

            In Action Comics # 900, Superman finds himself surrounded by stereotypical federal agents, at least one of them aiming a Kryptonite bullet at him. The trouble is that he had recently flown to Teheran in the midst of popular demonstrations and stood there between the crowds and the gun-toting thugs, a silent witness for peace, for twenty four hours. Then he flew away, the Ahmedinejad regime screaming “provocateur” behind him. The feds want to know what Superman was thinking. Did he mean to create an international incident? The U.S. Government wanted to disassociate themselves from his actions, lest he draw us into a war. But Superman understands this and indeed has already surmised as much. So he tells them he has decided to “renounce [his] American citizenship” to make it clear he is an extension of no one’s foreign policy, no one’s weapon or ambassador. I doubt that would be very reassuring to the government, either, as it would seem to make Superman a near-omnipotent loose canon.

            The decision sure discomfited lots of Superman readers. There was hoopla in the media including DC Comics’ message boards. Memories are short, but you may recall the same furor erupting briefly over the scene in the movie Superman Returns when Perry White tells reporters to find out if Superman, just back from five years of space exploration, still stands for “truth, justice, and…” The rest is dropped or drowned out. Was the script trying thus to omit the traditional connection of the hero with “the American way” (a tag line added to the Superman mythos as part of the 1950s George Reeves TV series The Adventures of Superman)? They did the same thing explicitly in the comics back in the post-Watergate “dazed and confused” 1970s, when patriotism was libeled as chauvinism; DC replaced Superman’s slogan with “Truth, Justice, and the Terran way,” whatever that might mean. Many were sure the omission was designed to denote the hip post-Americanism of liberal “world citizenry.” Maybe so. Is it now the real meaning of Superman renouncing citizenship? I think so.

            The narrative motivation of Superman’s decision makes sense. I mean, the story logic. But that is a different thing from what the writers had in mind by introducing the element, which they were by no means obliged to do (unlike, for instance, the question of whether Superman would eventually marry Lois Lane, which had to be addressed sooner or later). I think it is a safe bet that the renunciation of Superman’s American identity is a political statement by people who think America is not good enough to have Superman represent it anymore. One reason to think so is the liberal agenda of DC Comics, especially under the regime of Dan Didio, who has repeatedly and unwittingly made clear just what a sick joke Political Correctness is. For instance, DC pursued his explicitly stated goal of increasing so-called “diversity” by killing off various iconic characters to replace them with minority versions. In this case it was so blatant that the writers clumsily backed into rank stereotyping. Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle was shot in the head and replaced by a Hispanic youth. The Beetle becomes the Cucaracha? Vic Sage, The Question, already renamed “Vic Szasz” to make him less of a WASP, dies of cancer (not even in battle!) and is replaced by a Lesbian, who is sleeping with the steely-thewed Batwoman (Bull Dyke stereotype). Ray Palmer, the Atom, vanishes for a while, to be replaced by a “typically” diminutive Chinaman. Worst of all, The Spectre, abandoning his previous mortal hosts, takes up with a new one, a freshly murdered African-American police detective. Get that? The black man becomes The Spook! It wouldn’t be this bad if the whole thing were meant as a parody! When a company that engages in this sort of political ineptitude pulls the phony issue of Superman’s citizenship out of their rear, you have to assume it’s because of an elitist, Left-wing disdain for America.

            It’s not as if this kind of thing hasn’t happened before. It was even more overt in the case of Marvel Comics’ Captain America, where it has happened three times, though perhaps with more forgivable reasons. In the 70s Cap became disillusioned with the corrupt, corporate bosses who “really” run America, so he ditched the red, white, and blue and donned a mediocre costume and called himself Nomad since, like the Son of Man, he felt he no longer had a place to lay his head. A man without a country. Eventually he got over it and resumed the Captain America persona. In the mid-eighties he was fired as Captain America by the government who replaced him with a bigoted roughneck named John Walker, who, in the guise of the Super-Patriot, had previously fought Cap. The latter now took on the identity of The Captain, period, with a costume black where his old one had been blue and with no star on his shield, no ”A” on his cowl. The stripes on his chest, formerly vertical, were now horizontal, and an empty black space gaped where his chest star would have been. Again, he and the government soon reconciled, and Walker became the U.S. Agent.

            The next decade saw a reboot of Captain America in which we learn that Cap did not spend the years between World War Two and the present locked cryogenically in an iceberg till rescued by the Submariner and the Avengers (the traditional version). Rather, his eternal youthfulness was the result of the Super Soldier Serum that gave him his might and prowess. But where was he for all those years? Seems that President Truman had summoned him to the Oval Office, explaining his plan to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and expecting his support. Horrified, Cap refused, and Truman sicced the goons on him and had him injected with drugs. Under their influence he lived the next decades in Pittsburgh as an amnesiac steel worker until an old war veteran, a co-worker, recognized Cap and gave him his shield, which the man had kept for him all these years. Captain America lived again, no thanks to his ungrateful and intolerant masters in Washington.

            It is too bad that, as Nomad and The Captain, he did not contest the red, white and blue, yielding his colors to those unworthy of them. In the same way, to depict Superman as renouncing his American citizenship is not to bemoan America’s sometime failure to live up to her own ideals. It is worse: it is to reject American ideals as unworthy. To reject and to hate one’s own identity as an American is neurotic, very much like hating your parents. You may even have some kind of reasons for doing so, but unless you go the second mile and reconcile yourself with the rock from which you were hewn, you will remain alienated not only from your roots but from parts of your own psyche, your own self. It is unfortunate that Dan Didio and company are thus degrading Superman as a symbol as well as that for which he stands.

           

So says Zarathustra,

Awaiting the Superman

                      Somewhere over the Rainbow (Bridge)

 


 

All the waiting paid off: the movie Thor was better than we might have hoped! The representations of the great Jack Kirby characters was very good, though I might have suggested Crispin Glover for Loki. Heimdall looked a bit darker than one might expect of a Norse god, but that was okay: like the TV series of The Mahabharata some years back, in which they purposely did not make all the characters Indians, the producers of Thor realized these beings were supposed to be the gods, i.e., of humanity. They were once depicted as white Norsemen just because the old Vikings and Germans lived within a very narrow cultural range. Had they ever seen an African or an Oriental? My only gripe about the very nifty Heimdall was the absence of his horned helmet and his huge firs. But who cares? And Hogun the Grim—an Asian? Don’t tell me he hasn’t always been drawn as something of a Hun, which is pretty close.

            I was impressed by the ingenious and judicious combination of elements from various classic story arcs in Thor comics. The central premise of Thor’s needful humiliation came from a 70s Roy Thomas sequence in which Thor was sent to earth to play the role of the hero Siegfried, not that such a persona would teach anyone humility! But years later the same theme was repeated in a retcon of the relationship between Thor and his earthly host , Dr. Don Blake. Originally, Blake was Blake, his own man, much like Billy Batson, and, again like Billy, he stumbled upon an ancient power and was deemed fit to wield it for the good of mankind. It was really Don Blake beneath all those muscles and that long hair. He had been found worthy to bear the power of Thor, not to be Thor. But it wasn’t long before Lee and Kirby saw many new possibilities in the heavenly realm of Asgard. “Tales of Asgard” as well as many in-continuity stories were set in the Realm Eternal, and we were to understand that Thor, the same guy as Don Blake, had experienced all sorts of adventures there, fighting Frost Giants, Dwarves, what have you. This eventually led to a reexamination of the relationship between Thor and Dr. Blake.

            As I recall, Dr. Blake, while not a phantom or a mere role, was a secondary mortal identity into which the high-handed Thunder God had been incarnated to teach him humility. Born on earth as baby Don, and doomed to hobble with a cane, he only later came to recall his original identity, once he found his hammer Mjolnir in a Scandinavian cave. He remembered who he was! And this realization, of course, coincided with his having learned humility the same way mortals learn it. Of course the film does not utilize the Blake character as the vehicle of Thor’s penance and education.

            The appearance of the Lady Sif and the Warriors Three was perfect, even though Volstagg (Stan Lee’s Falstaff) wasn’t fat enough. And they retained the gross anachronism of making Fandral the Dashing into a cavalier from later times. But the greatest anachronism, if you want to call it that, was perfectly reproduced from the comics: Asgardian architecture and armor were at the same time futuristic and ancient looking. Techno-barbarism!

            Why did the movie take place in rural New Mexico? That was an attempt, I think, to recall the Oklahoma setting of the latest Thor story-arcs, written by co-script-writer Michael Strazynski. But the appearance of the Destroyer in conjunction with the Odin sleep, just like in the 60s comics, was brilliant! Thor’s greatest foe, as no one can deny! The Wrecker? Ulik? The Absorbing Man (and his son, Absorbing Junior!)? All great, but no one comes close to the Destroyer!

            We are, of course, quickly working up to The Avengers movie, and it was good to see Hawkeye get a brief cameo appearance. But the walk-on that tickled me the most was that of the venerable Stan Lee! I couldn’t help noticing how fitting and awesome it was: here we were finally watching a film version of our beloved Thor epic, and there was the modern Homer who created the saga for us! How wonderfully appropriate!

 

Robert M. Price

May 17, 2011