Typically comic books and theology sound odd together in conversation. They represent two separate camps; one’s stationed beyond the trees in the land of pop-culture and superheroes. While the other is found amongst the cloud-covered mountains. And never the twain shall meet. This summer I sunk my teeth deep into the comic book cosmos. And after some exploration, I understand comic writers, artists, and producers as theologians. Comic books construct theology with intricate eschatologies, varying cosmologies, and present us with new paradigms to fathom the divine.
But before I dive into some detail about comics, I must confess I am not a fan of the comic philistines, Marvel and DC Comics*. Their ontological and eschatological perception is shallow, to say the least. Rather, I hone in on comic publishers, which allow for creator ownership, i.e. Image, Dark Horse, and Boom!. These publishers allow for artists and writers to go their own creative direction. This also allows for variance in styles, characters, and universes, unlike Marvel and DC.
My absolute favorite series is Image Comics’ Saga. It takes place during a galactic war and recounts the story of a little mixed-breed girl (a horned head and a wingéd back) named Hazel and her family. Her parents, Alana, who is part of the wingéd colonizer planet, fell in love with Marko, a colonized magical horned moonie.** The first issue, Alana, beautifully, bearing all, gives birth to Hazel. And thus begins the journey of this sci-fi Romeo and Juliet hiding from their respective planet–peoples. Along the way, we meet bounty hunters, a planet of sex-workers, and creatures with computer monitor as heads. This is certainly not your parent’s comic book.
At the 2014 San Diego Comic Con, Saga not only won 3 Eisner awards, which is the highest achievement in the comic book world, but they hosted a stellar panel. The writer Brian Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples discussed how Saga began. During Brian’s first discussion with Fiona about the characters, he objected to another redhead in space claiming there are just too many in science fiction. Fiona replied by asking why do the characters need to be white? The outcome of that conversation is the current series with the majority of the cast with darker skin and an array of hair and body types. For Fiona, the future is not made up of only white people like such recent sci-fi films as Lucy or Her portray. Rather, the future, like the present, is full of many diverse populations, creatures, and hopes.
Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann claimed in his magnum opus, Theology of Hope, “Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present” (pg. 16). Or simply put, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past,” as sung by Rage Against the Machine. The ways in which we construct our eschatology determines how we treat others and the Earth now.
For instance, premillennial dispensationalists believe God will one day rapture those who declare Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, and for the next seven years God will torture those left behind and torch the Earth. For them, if God is already going to destroy the Earth, then they should not be concerned about her fate today. Sadly, many congresspersons and businesses have jumped on board secularizing and Americanizing this idea allowing them to destroy our Earth. But we cannot give up hope!
Because science fiction, normally, orients future-forward, they have the opportunity to breathe new life and vision. The question for religious institutions, then, is how can we understand a beautiful future and participate in that future now? And this is where comics can lend a hand. Comic artists and writers can guide us in broadening our theological imagination.
Here are a few tips for theologically imagining:
There are no theological crossing guards!
In the Christian Scriptures we read “with God all things are possible.” And this phrase is found in different contexts throughout the Gospels (Matt 19:26, Luke 1:37, Mark 10:27) that it can be a broad framework for how it was being used. Could this mean that all things are possible with God including disrupting the laws of physics? Possibly. Or it could also mean a world where no one is hungry or has to live on the streets? I sure do hope so. Unfortunately, our religious institutions have not stretched their theological imagination. Many of the same cataphatic dogmas have not changed for centuries. Yet, no one is stopping us from crossing into new theological territory.
Humans are part of creation, not the end of all creation.
Genesis 1 beautifully describes that when God had finished creating, God saw that all of creation was very good. This does not mean that it was humanity that made creation especially good, rather its fullness made it very good. This breaks a crack in our normalized anthropocentric theology and helps us to imagine and include non-humans. We can start to imagine new theologies of tigers, otters, and iguanas. We can theologize with clouds, volcanos, and bumblebees. Or even soaring in the Milky Way and beyond with planetary theologies of galaxies, black holes, and quarks. No-thing is the limit!
We are shaped by our surroundings, and shape our surroundings.
Our mere presence changes group dynamics, neighborhoods, churches, and the room. This gives us the chance to inspire new thoughts, to sing new songs, and change ourselves and the world for the better. Although, we need be conscious in our participation in creating these spaces within ourselves for transformation.
Better futures could arise with dialogue between comic books artists/writers and theologians.
*There are exceptions including Ms. Marvel (2014) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
**He lives on a moon colony adjacent to the colonizing planet.