Six graphic novels every humanist should read
There is a decades-long tradition of secular heroes battling religion in comic books and graphic novels. Dale DeBakcsy picks out his favourite godless superheroes
For the last few months, atheist comic readers have had the delightfully guilty pleasure of cheering on a new character, Gorr, in the pages of Jason Aaron’s Thor: The God of Thunder. Gorr’s mission is simple – to free mortals from subservience and mental anguish by ridding the universe of all gods. His set speeches are Hitchens Gone Cosmic and, while he will almost inevitably be defeated by Thor in the end (the book is called Thor, not Gorr), his message that to believe in the gods is to poison the self is one that stands to have profound repercussions for how comics approach their more divine characters in the future.
Many reviews have treated this appearance of a largely sympathetic humanist anti-hero as something unprecedented in comics, but really it is more the full flowering of a process that began over three decades ago. While film and television were busy sensibly side-stepping the issue of atheism in media, the comic book industry took the initiative in producing a string of uncompromising narratives focusing on the problematics of divinity and the religious mindset. They make for powerful reading still. Here are six of my absolute favorites, with as few spoilers as I can possibly manage.
1. Preacher (1995, Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon)
God’s gone – ran off in 1994 and left a crew of too-righteous-to-be-bothered angels in charge of watching after Creation. And so it comes to pass that an unlikely trio consisting of a lapsed minister possessed by an angel-demon hybrid, his assassin ex-girlfriend and a persistently foul-mouthed Irish vampire head off on a mission to find Jehovah and make him answer for his gross negligence.
Deftly weaving between the barbarity of Christian theology and the camaraderie to be found in the very human pleasure of watching Laurel and Hardy with a good chum, Ennis turns the Bible inside out and lets its hidden twisted characters run wherever their fundamental natures dictate (the story of Jesus’s last living descendent is so wrong it’s delicious). In following those natures, he gives us often breath-taking insights into the tortured depths of theological creativity, and makes us wonder how such structures sprung from our collective fancy in the first place.
Ultimately, he shows us that all of the forces of Heaven and Hell, the mammoth machinery of religious belief, are as nothing next to the bonds of friendship and dependence that link man to man. At turns hyper-violent and crushingly beautiful, thought-provoking and tea-spewingly hilarious, comics don’t come much better than this.
There are also lots of boobs in it, so maybe not the best thing to read at work…
2) X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills (1982, Chris Claremont & Brent Eric Anderson)
The one that started it all? Claremont had already been writing The Uncanny X-Men for seven years when he penned this tale of the Reverend William Stryker and his evangelical crusade to rid the world of mutantkind. Its insights into the psychology of religious intolerance are things we have largely grown used to as they have been elaborated in decades of X-Men films and cartoons since, but there are scenes in this book that still have the power to chill. For me, the most visionary is a set of three pages in which Reverend Stryker is attempting to break Professor Xavier’s will and convert him into a believer.
The cycle of inflicting psychological agony and then proffering all-encompassing salvation is really the story of all religious conversion broken down to its brutal essence. The Church as a global scale case of Münchhausen Syndrome. These themes have been revisited since in the X-Men titles (particularly in the current run of Uncanny Avengers), but there is an intensity and purpose to the original that has yet to be truly matched.
3. Archer and Armstrong (2012 and ongoing, Fred van Lente & Clayton Henry)
From the man who brought us Action Philosophers comes a tale of a 10,000-year-old Epicurean fat man (Armstrong) who is well-nigh invulnerable and the Bible-Theme-Park-raised adolescent (Archer) who has been sent to kill him. The back and forth between Armstrong, who has seen a few world religions come and go in his day and Archer, who believes with all the fervent righteousness of never having known differently, is consistently quick and clever, but what I love most is the scope of the narrative.
By seeing the world through Armstrong’s eyes, Christianity becomes the blip in history that it in fact is. There was life and purpose before Jesus, and there will be such after. And that’s something that, particularly here in the United States, where Christianity is often seemingly omnipresent, we need to be reminded of from time to time.
4) Supergod (2011, Warren Ellis & Garry Gastonny)
Perhaps the most bleak but poignant sustained meditation on man’s drive to craft deities even unto self-annihilation that has yet been published in comic form. It tells the tale of several nations’ secret programs to create protector deities which instantiate various existential ideals.
Once released, they act out to the fullest degree the consequences of the core beliefs that have been thrust into them, with chilling and disastrous effects for mankind. Ellis stares deep into the nihilistic, thoroughly anti-humanity core of our deity-smithing processes and forces us to confront the parts of ourselves that are so dependent upon these life-negating principles made divine.
The great highlight for me is the confrontation between a British scientist and the god his team has developed. The god lays bare the grasping collective neurochemical dependence that forms the core of religious experience before defining the essence of the gods in the single sentence, “We are your STASH.” That says almost everything that needs to be said.
5. Thor: Lord of Asgard (2002, Dan Jurgens & John Romita Jnr)
More Thor? Yes, more Thor. With over 600 issues released since its inception in 1962, Thor is easily the comic of note when it comes to parsing the relationship between divinity and mortality. Many writers have used the platform as simply a stage for galactic-level fist fights. And those are fun, but every once in a while a writer comes along who sees the potential in Thor to tell a story that shines a light on something profound and disturbing in the order of the gods.
Jason Aaron is doing it with devastating insight now, but a decade ago Dan Jurgens spun a story of such complexity that it’s still difficult to craft a definite statement that captures all of the subtleties of his position. In this arc, which essentially starts in issue 553, Thor decides to stop serving humanity piecemeal and start devoting the full resources of Asgard to the betterment of life on Earth. Starvation, natural disaster, war – all are eliminated under the enlightened supervision of Asgard.
The people, who find themselves no longer starving and oppressed, embrace the good work that is being done for them, particularly the creation of schools that allow them for the first time to learn the extent of their human rights and the nature of the world. Meanwhile, the heads of state and religion react savagely against the weakening of their power base, while religious zealots sabotage the new Asgardian clean energy plants and stage acts of martyrdom to discredit the new order.
As you might have picked up, in these issues Jurgens is essentially retelling the trials of the Scientific Age. A new force arrives that heals you, makes your life easier and longer, connects the world in bonds of mutual interest, provides the sublime tyranny-defying mechanism of education, and calms the rage of the elements themselves. Science, though here it’s called Asgard. Along the way, it makes a few old ideas seem awkward and unhelpful. By connecting people to each other, it works against the state’s claim to absolute power and wisdom. By removing unnecessary suffering, it disarms the primary means of seduction by which religions gain followers. Their basic weapons taken from them, religion and government team up to undo the work of Asgard in a story that has been repeated again and again when science has threatened to give birth to new ways of thought.
By casting gods in the place of the usual forgers of Enlightenment and progress, Jurgens is able to tell stories about this recurring dynamic of progress and self-serving reaction to ears which would have rejected it in a more clearly positivist setting. In issue 557, when Thor addresses the UN for the first time, it is hard not to feel indignation at the wild accusations heaped upon Thor by petty tyrants. Such would not have been the case had it been, say, a lab-coated scientist on the podium. But the most brilliant stroke is yet to come, for this new Enlightenment IS being pushed forward by gods, gods who have not reckoned with the consequences of their own habitual lack of self-review (this is where Asgard most clearly parts ways with the scientific ideal) or with the impact their presence will have on a humanity given over all too easily to extremity in worship. How these oversights play out amongst the good intentions of the Asgardians makes for potent reading that is the perfect prelude to the extreme solution to the god problem that we see in the current story of Gorr, the God Butcher.
6. Silver Surfer: Parable (1988, Stan Lee & Moebius)
The Silver Surfer has always had a special place in the legendary Stan Lee pantheon. While Lee used to employ the Fantastic Four to talk about issues of family and friendship, or Spider Man to plumb the depths of personal ethics, Silver Surfer was always the character he brought out to sound the biggest questions of mankind’s goals and direction on the largest scale. In the first series, which ran for only eighteen issues in the late sixties, these questions tended to be resolved in a somewhat black and white manner. In issue three, for example, the Surfer faces off against Mephisto, who familiarly portrays himself as responsible for all the greed and suffering in the world.
Not particularly nuanced. But then, two decades later, in 1988, Lee teamed up with the artist Moebius to write a two issue mini-series, Silver Surfer: Parable, in which the planet devouring force known as Galactus descends on the Earth. Having made a pact not to directly harm our planet, Galactus plans to use man’s religious instincts to do the job for him. He lets the humans worship him and tear each other apart in their interpretations of his will. Central to the story is the character of Colton Candell, an evangelist who sees in Galactus the chance to become the greatest prophet of all time.
Lee’s conclusions about man’s almost genetic need to worship resonate with those Ellis would express 23 years later in Supergod, and the final pages express a pessimism about the human capacity for Enlightenment that all but smother the usual Lee ebullience. Within two years of Parable, the comic book industry threw itself into a Dark Age of foil holographic covers and style-over-story glitz that persisted for a half decade. But in those shimmering last moments of the old order of storytellers, a giant stood up, shook the dust from his pen, and poured forth the full measure of his concerns about the increasing sway of mass media based religion in public life. To many of us, it’s the best story he ever told.
There are enough graphic novels, webcomics (I hear that The Vocate is pretty good… ahem), and single issue comics in a deeply humanist vein to fill out a list several dozen titles long, but in these six I see the germ of the several approaches that the medium has evolved since 1982.
From the trust in humanity’s ability to save itself through friendship that we find in Ennis, van Lente, and Claremont, to the dire scepticism born of man’s chemical addiction to deities that Lee and Ellis evince, to the grand structural concerns of Jurgens and Aaron, the comic industry has given us a myriad of lenses through which we might observe the complexities of religion in a narrative context that makes you feel the weight of these issues in your very marrow.
So, head out to your local comic store and pick up a couple of titles, then loan them to a moderately theistic friend when you’re done. Because there are few gateways to humanism so reliable as a couple of beers and a good comic.