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Musing on religion and comic book heroes

Heh, if my recent blog posts are any indication, it’s not hard to notice that I’m somewhat preoccupied with the upcoming release of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Part of that is because I’m a fan of director Guillermo Del Toro’s work, but if I'm honest, it’s mostly because I really enjoyed the first Hellboy film, both for its story as well as for the religious imagery and God-talk splayed throughout the story.

So, as I was thinking about comic book heroes in film and their propensity to elicit God-talk, I started to ponder how two of the more devoutly religious comic book characters (or at least two comic book heroes whose stories are drenched in religious imagery and God-talk) are Catholic and look like demons: Hellboy (who actually comes from Hell) and X-Men’s Nightcrawler (who only happens to look like a demon).

The interesting thing to me about Hellboy is that he's influenced less by his origins and more by the influence of the father who raised him, Professor Trevor Bruttenholm who is a devout Catholic himself. In the film, the Professor’s faith and love have a huge impact on Hellboy’s choices at the end of the film. While Hellboy seems most overtly influenced by his adopted “Father” rather than his heavenly one, there is a lot of double entendre that plays throughout the film with that word. And interestingly, it is the Professor’s love that seems to draw Hellboy towards the Professor’s faith—a striking echo of biblical truth, as it is how we love others that has a lot to do with illuminating God’s presence and work in the world.

Nightcrawler is the more devout of the two (at least in their film versions). He is drenched and immersed in his faith (even if he does have some misguided tendencies). What I find most resonating about Nightcrawler is how his faith in God gives him hope in a world blindingly dark and enables him to be compassionate even for those who want to hurt him. It affects not only his actions but also his heart. And that is how our faith or trust in God should work: as we walk with him, we are changed into the likeness of Jesus—even to the point of loving those who hate us.

So, what about those demon looking personas? Among other things, I think it connects with some things about the way God and faith work. I can’t help but think of the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he throws open the gate to Kingdom to those who would not normally be thought of as “blessed”—those who mourn, yearn, and at the end of their ropes. In the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt put it this way:
The Beatitudes give us a radical inversion of blessedness in God's order. Jesus takes those people ordinarily thought to be unblessed and unblessable and shows that there is something about life in the kingdom of God that makes them blessed. Many people simply cannot wrap their minds around Jesus' radical inversion here. For example, in the first Beatitude ("Blessed are the poor in spirit"), the phrase "poor in spirit" (hoi ptokoi in pneumati) simply means "the poverty-stricken in spiritual things"--the simpleminded, the untalented, the religiously unsophisticated. This is contrary to our human way of thinking about what makes people well off . . . . And what it is about life in the kingdom of God that makes these unblessed and unblessable people well off? It is the loving, accepting, affirming presence of Jesus Christ, who freely welcomes and receives "the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on," to use the words of singers Simon and Garfunkel.
Hellboy and Nightcrawler are among those "sat upon, spat upon, ratted on"; they are at the fringes and edges of society and definately don't fit within what our culture (and even religion) would call eligible—exactly the kind of people to whom Jesus opened the Way. If we're honest, most of us have something in common with the characters and thus resonate with Jesus' Beatitudes. And that's part of what makes comic book stories and characters attractive to these open spaces.

In addition, these personas also reflect that it is not what we look like or where we came from that determines our fate but the choice we make on who we follow. Interestingly, the Professor at one point acknowledges to agent John Meyers Hellboy’s origins: “He was born a demon; we can't change that. But you will help him, in essence, to become a man.” In some ways, this is a good image of our own birth, bent as we are by selfishness and pride (sin). But we, like Hellboy, have a choice in our destiny. We can go with our bent nature or we can work with God to become the people—the “man” or “woman”—we were originally intended and created to be. And like Hellboy, those choices often involve sacrifice for others—doing what is best for others and not ourselves.

All this thinking made me curious about what others might say about comic book characters and their religions, and lo and behold, there is a gaggle of stuff out there online. I’m the first to admit that my comic book experience and knowledge is at the novice level (and mostly with film adaptations rather than the comic books themselves), but there are plenty of folks out there—from professors to bloggers—whose mental (and physical) tomes are filled with expertise. Here’s a comprehensive list of every comic book character in the universe with their religious affiliation—and a look at those who are Catholic. And did you know there are some comic book heroes who’ve actually met God? There are books written about the subject as well as articles online, like this one in the NY Times and this one in which the author suggests the presence of religion in comic book heroes “reflects religion’s continuing role in providing resources for people engaged in quests for meaning or caught in struggles of good and evil.” There’s a resource for journalists writing about the subject, and the subject even spawned a great conversation at one of my favorite sites, GetReligion.

And that’s only the tip of a very mammoth iceberg. Well, at least it’s good to know I’m not alone in my current preoccupation, heh.

(Images: Hellboy, Universal; Nightcrawler, 20th Century Fox via Wikipedia)