Views & Reviews
No. 18 Copyright (c) 1993 Biblical Horizons November, 1993
by James B. Jordan
Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns (DC Comics/Warner Books, 1986), 200 pages.
Alan Moore & David Gibbons, Watchmen (DC Comics/Warner Books, 1987), 410 pages.
Timothy Truman, Hawkworld (DC Comics, 1989), 150 pages.
Comic books, or illustrated narratives, were _rst published in 1933. Before that time there had been comic strips, but not comic books as we think of them. Because these were humorous, they were known as "comics," a name that has remained to the present, even though most modern comic books are not funny.
The "Golden Age" of comic books began in June of 1938 with the publication of the _rst issue of Action Comics, which introduced the character of Superman. A year later, May of 1939, saw the _rst appearance of the Batman in Detective Comics. Both of these were published by DC Comics. These two ushered in the kind of clean, action-oriented, adventure tales that most of us associate with comic books. Characters like Green Lantern, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, and others _lled the pages of 1940s and 1950s comics.
In 1961, Marvel Comics began its line of slightly more serious superhero comics. These were heroes with problems not moral problems, but tragic complications that rendered their lives more realistic and di_cult. The Fantastic Four, the Amazing Spider-Man, the Hulk, and others followed this approach. After a while, DC Comics permitted its writers to add the same kind of depth to its characters.
Around 1986, a new phase of comic books came to the fore. These were aimed at an older audience, and were more adult in tone and content. Now some characters lived rather immoral lives, generally o_ the page, but sometimes on the page as well.
This has led to the development and adoption of a rating system, which we can compare to the rating of movies. Comics that are G- or PG-rated carry the stamp-like Comics Code Authority seal of approach. Comics of a PG-13 character do not have this seal. R-rated comics carry a warning stating that these are for mature readers only.
While a lot of this continues to be either nonsense or something close to trash (in the more "mature" comics), there have been a couple of interesting and far more artistically advanced pieces of illustrated narrative produced of late. I think that Christian writers and artists, as well as educated Christians in general, may _nd it pro_table to take notice of this development.
Many Christians read novels and see movies produced by non-Christians, and these novels and movies often have "mature" aspects to them that make them unsuitable for children and that re_ect artistic conventions unacceptable to Christians. Christians are forced to "read past" or "_lter" these objectionable elements. This being the case, some of the more artistic graphic novels may also be read, especially by Christians interested in the arts.
Illustrated narrative is a worthy and possibly useful _eld for Christians to pursue. If we are concerned to make good Christian _lms, to answer Hollywood, perhaps we could also produce good Christian graphic novels as well something besides Archie and his friends.
While there have been a number of more serious illustrated narratives published in the past couple of years, such as Lex Luthor: An Unauthorized Biography, Hawkworld (about Hawkman), and Batman: The Cult, nothing has come close to Miller’s Dark Knight and Moore’s Watchmen.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is what started the current rage about the Batman. Miller posited a future about ten mythical years distant in which society has broken down and gangs of thugs roam the streets. An envious population has driven the superheroes of the past into retirement. Superman remains active, but only doing what the government allows him to do. Bruce Wayne _nds his solace in drink, and Batman is no more. Then one night, watching the crime reports on the news, Wayne can stand it no longer and Batman lives again.
There is little point in trying to summarize the plot from here on. Miller takes up the question of vigilanteism in the course of his narrative, and a number of other matters. Primarily, though, he presents a great story, which climaxes in a _ght between Batman and Superman. As has been pointed out by others commenting on the comic book genre, Batman and Superman, after _fty years, have become like Paul Bunyan and John Henry: folk heroes who are larger than life. Miller manages to retain this element, while telling a good yarn.
The Dark Knight Returns is not o_ensive in its portrayal of Batman he even rebukes a small boy for cussing at one point. Unlike the movie Batman, Miller’s Batman still uses rubber bullets and does not sleep with any girls. The novel does, however, deal with some of the seamier sides of underworld life and includes a number of murders committed by the Joker. Parental caution is advised.
Watchmen, co-produced by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons, is a far more ambitious work. At four hundred pages, Watchmen contains around 3000 panels and requires quite some time to read. In terms of content it is de_nitely "rough stu_," and if considered in terms of _lm categories would be R-rated. Watchmen does not contain graphic sexual pictures, but it does deal at some points with sexuality and sexual perversion. It is de_nitely not for kids.
At the same time, compared to modern best-selling novels and popular _lms, Watchmen is relatively clean. As with modern _lms and novels, Watchmen would have been just as good without the sex and violence, perhaps even better. I suppose it’s because we think of it as a "comic book" that we are surprised to see such rough content in it. Nevertheless, the warning still stands.
While I cannot provide an endorsement of Watchmen as a Christian novel or even as a novel intrinsically of interest to Christians, I can recommend a study of it by Christians interested in the arts. In terms of technique, Watchmen is one of the best yet. It fully integrates the verbal and the visual aspects of its presentation, so that if you only read the words you will miss half the story. As in great _lms, the transformation of visual imagery from panel to panel is just a important as the dialogue.
Additionally, in terms of content, Watchmen is extremely complex and sophisticated. It is a true novel presented in illustrated form. Miller’s Dark Knight is actually four hero stories about the latter days of the Batman, analogous to the stories about the last days of Robin Hood. Watchmen, however, is a completely uni_ed novel both thematically and in terms of narrative.
Unlike Miller’s Dark Knight, Moore’s Watchmen contains no familiar faces. The watchmen of the title were a group of masked vigilante heroes of the `40s and `50s. They had no superpowers, and only brie_y _ourished. A second generation of masked avengers _ourished in the `60s, but also gave up. Only one of these, Dr. Manhattan, possessed super powers, and he has gradually become estranged from human feelings.
Another ex-hero of the second generation, Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man, has concocted a scheme to save the world. It is the gradual uncovering of this scheme that provides the background for the novel’s tapestry. Ozymandias is concerned with salvation, regardless of truth, and regardless of cost. His foil is another aging hero, Rorschach, whose concern is with truth at all costs. Rorschach is the novel’s hero in some ways an anti-hero because he is almost universally hated by police and criminals alike and in the last panel he emerges triumphant through his literary legacy. There are elements to this the triumph of truth over lies as a result of the work of a humble and despised person that Christian readers can appreciate.
Watchmen guard the city. But watchmen are also little gods, for it is God who is the Watchmaker of this universe. Dr. Manhattan, with his superhuman godlike powers, creates a watch-like world, but then allows it to crumble when he realizes that there is a Higher Power who created and governs all things. It is ultimately the providential superintendence of the Supreme Watchmaker that ensures the triumph of truth. This semi-religious theme is much more deistic or pantheistic than Christian in its presentation, but again is one the Christian reader can appreciate. In terms of literary development, Moore does a _ne job of winding together the two senses of "watchmen" (guards and gods).
Rorschach wears a mask devised by the superhuman Dr. Manhattan. The mask looks like a Rorschach Ink Blot Test, with black globs on a white background. The globs continually change, reacting to the situation (and thus providing a Rorschachian commentary on the action). At the end, the mask is a butter_y, symbolic of resurrection. Rorshach is the "Christ _gure" in Watchmen.
All the details have been thought through. What would comic books be like in a world with real masked heroes? What would advertising copy be like? Design? Transportation? These and many other elements that form the tapestry of the presentation are all well constructed and believable.
All in all, Watchmen is a remarkable work, and one that Christian artists and writers can examine with pro_t. But it is not for everybody.
Although Hawkworld is not as ambitious as Watchmen, it is of equal interest to Christians because the author, Tim Truman, is a professing Christian of sorts. Katar Hol is a policeman on the planet Tranagar, a world of tyranny and cruelty. His story is powerfully presented in this graphic novel, in the course of which he learns the uniquely Christian virtue of sacri_cial love and comes to identify with the downtrodden and oppressed. Often visually stunning, Hawkworld is worthy of your attention.
The continuing story of Katar Hol was presented in the last several years in the monthly Hawkworld comic, authored by Jim Ostrander. It is basically the story of the developing love between the "Christian" Katar Hol and his rough, harsh partner Shayera, who in previous comic book incarnations of Hawkman was his wife. The comics are themselves enjoyable reading. The previous run of Hawkman (mid-late 1980s) was unique in showing a crime-_ghting team of husband and wife, but the later series is more sophisticated.
Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992. Reviewed by Peter J. Leithart.
In the climactic scene of the beautiful 1987 _lm, Babette’s Feast, the austere inhabitants of a remote Danish _shing village gather to celebrate the memory of the founder of their small religious sect. Babette, a French refugee living with the daughters of the founder, has gained permission to prepare a genuine French meal with the money she won from the lottery, and her imports of quail, wine, and a large sea turtle scandalize the town and give Babette’s mistress terrapin nightmares. To resist the manifest dangers of French cooking, the villagers agree before the meal that they will make no comments on the food, and will eat while pretending not to eat. Their plan is an utter failure as course after course of delectable food, and glass after glass of _ne wine erode their determination to resist the pleasure of the art of cooking.
"Eating while pretending not to eat" is about as close as I can come to a one-phrase summary of the practice and worldview of gnosticism. The Church father Irenaeus said that one test of orthodoxy was whether a doctrine was consistent with the practice of the eucharist. By this measure, any religion that requires its disciples to "eat while pretending not to eat" can hardly be called Christian.
As Yale literary critic Harold Bloom puts it in The American Religion, the gnostic identi_es creation with the fall; the fall is not a fall into rebellion and sin, but a fall into the material and sensual. The gnostic believes, however, that within him is a spark of the original, non-material creation, a tiny bit of divinity, which, if cultivated in splendid solitude, can lead to his escape from the material and his reabsorption into the divine pleroma. Gnosticism, Bloom argues, is the basic faith of the American people. The American religion is not Christianity or Judaism or Judeo-Christianity, but a confused blend of patriotism and gnosticism. Bloom uses this hypothesis to explain how the American people can be so religious without being identi_ably Christian.
Bloom’s is a deeply _awed book. Bloom describes himself as an agnostic Jew with a_nities to the gnostic systems that he explicates. Biased interpretations are legion. He viciously claims that Southern Baptist fundamentalists are vicious. He calls Operation Rescue a violent movement. His prophetic credentials must be seriously questioned; throughout the book, published late in 1992, Bloom writes as if America will never see another Democratic President. Strangely, he says that George Bush’s advocacy of "_ag and fetus" symbolizes the American religion. Which raises the obvious question, if Americans place such high value on fetuses, why are so many slaughtered?
For all its many _aws, Bloom’s book is worth reading for several reasons. First, he gives thumbnail histories of several of the most obviously gnostic sects in America today. Several chapters follow the history of the Mormons, and he devotes one chapter each to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventism, and the New Age Movement. He provocatively argues that the Mormons and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two most typical sects of the American Religion.
The most detailed and interesting chapters of the book deal with the history and thought of Mormonism. The evidence Bloom presents of the growth and impact of Mormonism evokes a disturbed admiration for the persistence of the disciples of Joseph Smith. He perceptively dismisses the attempts of Mormons to enter the mainstream of American Christianity as evasions, and emphasizes Smith’s original polytheism, which has never been disavowed. I had never read before that Joseph Smith was, late in life, secretly crowned as "king of the Kingdom of God," but Bloom mentions the event several times.
Second, Bloom’s main thesis contains a great deal of truth. With e_ective irony, Bloom claims that America is now _ghting to "make the world safe for Gnosticism." All around he sees the burgeoning of a "religion of the self," which exists "under many guises."
This rings true to me. Americans are, in my judgment, far more gnostic than Christian. Of course, most do not accept the "doctrines" of gnosticism, but whatever there is of a common American worldview has a deeply gnostic tone. Even within the most conservative churches, gnosticism has dissolved classical Protestantism. The studied creedlessness of American Protestantism, its reliance on the guidance of the "inner light," its resistance to the speci_c authoritative claims of Scripture, its ignorance of the teaching of Scripture, its preoccupation with the millennium, its anti-sacramental and anti-ecclesiastical bias are all indicators of an essentially gnostic worldview.
In his chapter on fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Convention, Bloom mentions that he read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism with distaste, but with "reluctant and growing admiration for Machen’s mind." Perhaps, despite his own gnostic tendencies, there is still hope for Bloom after all.