Could Jesus Beat Up Superman?
This week’s newsletter reprints my introduction to the trade paperback collection of Second Coming: Only Begotten Son, a comic written by Mark Russell and drawn by Richard Pace and Leonard Kirk. It’s the second volume of Second Coming, which revolves around Jesus being sent back to Earth and rooming with Sunstar, a superhero with powers similar to Superman. You don’t have to have read either volumes to understand my introduction, which focuses on Superman and Jesus, who I assume you have a passing familiarity with. If you like superheroes or religion, however, I would highly recommend the series.
For the longest time I just couldn’t accept that people believed the patently stupid fantasies they would build their identities around.
The story: A miracle baby, who is Jewish (though his followers tend to forget that part), arrives and eventually is killed — he died to save everyone, in fact — and then he miraculously comes back to life. The faithful never doubted he would. His story is complicated by different and even contradictory accounts of what we are told is his canonical history. Fussing over the details isn’t the important thing, adherents say, it’s his message. What he represents.
I’m talking about Superman, of course. The refugee from Krypton, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who serves as our culture’s Ur-Superhero, the one who always saves the day and makes the right decision. It’s Superman’s incorruptible moral compass and Boy Scout demeanor that make him so goddamn annoying. A man who saves the Earth a hundred times over without ever causing a stray casualty or making a morally gray decision seems unbelievable to many today and is regularly subverted, yet the character remains as popular as ever.
It is through Sunstar that Mark Russell explores Superman and the superhero genre, which, much like religion, serves up allegories about how to act morally. So, say you find a half-dead man on the side of the road and have somewhere to be, or an alien needs to be punched through four occupied office buildings while you are on deadline at the newspaper, Jesus and Superman are letting you know that you have some responsibility to intervene. Key tenets of the Christ story go back even further in history if we want to get real about origin stories, but Ahoy gets enough angry letters about Second Coming already. The point is, Russell is carrying on the long tradition of religion and comic books, which riff on eons-old archetypes and constantly reinterpret them for new generations of readers.
I don’t think I’m the first person to note some similarities between these two moral lodestars of Western culture, but they have a lot of differences too. Jesus never had a mullet phase or a period where he was a being of blue electricity, though he could probably pull off both better than Clark Kent. Superman’s most ardent fans, meanwhile, have never started any wars outside of message boards.
In Only Begotten Son we see Sunstar’s home planet, Zirconia, destroyed and little Sunnie sent to earth in an escape pod purchased by his father to become his peoples’ last survivor. (Spoiler if you never read a comic before.) Meanwhile, God is a tremendous asshole. (Spoiler if you never read the Bible before.) You could say Jesus and Sunstar are both grappling with some daddy issues in this story.
I am a longtime non-believer and reader of comics, both commitments I made as a child and have never been deterred from. And I hated them both for a long time, Jesus and Superman. Their ideologies were simplistic and their fan bases comprised of idiots — “True Believers” as Stan Lee dubbed Marvel’s flock. Nothing in the world was as simple as these guys professed. Kid shit.
I was for grown-up stuff. You know, uh, really violent comics with cynical protagonists who pummeled their foes into red slop on the pavement of a brutalist dystopia. The deep stuff. But a strange thing happened to me as I got older and wiser and the world got worser and worser: I wanted some hope in my stories. I wanted a vision of morality that shows we can overcome our worst impulses and actually succeed against all odds, because we’re going to need to in order to survive on this planet. (Dibs on sending my kids off on a spaceship as the last survivors though!)
The brilliance of what Mark Russell does with both of these characters is he simply asks us to take the ideas behind both of them seriously. Just not too seriously. It makes for some hilarious situations, but also sincere ones — ones where we are shown what it would mean to help others without judgment or punching them in the face.
I’ve come to appreciate how radical both these characters can be. Jesus with a message of love and radical acceptance with damn-near socialist implications. And superheroes in their original, earnest iterations as populist champions with damn-near socialist implications. It’s all so positive and corny it grates on me! But I have to admit that I like this vision of the world better.
So yes, I’ve grown soft and thrown out my Richard Dawkins God Delusion and The Dark Knight Returns: Extra Dark Deluxe Knight Edition and replaced them with SECOND COMING. It is this new interpretation of power and humanity’s foibles that we will use as our sacred texts for a radically humanist future. Upon this rock! And we will kill the blasphemous scum who disagree!
Wait, no, no. I’m getting worked up. We will not give up too much of ourselves to mere stories that seek to illuminate the world and how to live in it. We will simply enjoy Second Coming’s second coming. Or as I like to call it: The Book of Mark.
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