Superheroes and faith: How religion plays a role in the comic book industry
Even the most avid comic book reader might not know that The Thing, that orange and bulky hard-hitter from the Fantastic Four, was Jewish, or that at one point Batman was raised Christian.
In fact, religion has played a part in a superhero's character development for decades.
Now, religion is becoming the story itself where biblical tales told in the comic book format have been on the rise in recent years. And with the introduction of the new Muslim Ms. Marvel, who is poised to hit comic stands this coming February, religion has become a drawing point for readers of more mainstream comics published by Marvel and DC, rather than just a subtle reference within the pages.
Kingstone Comics, started by Art Ayris in 2010, is a new brand in the emerging field of faith-based comic books and graphic novels, which are books presented in comic book format. Joining Kingstone in publishing religious comic books is HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which recently decided to offer graphic novels and comics, and Zondervan, an Evangelical publisher.
“Comics have been a fairly reflective medium," said Preston Hunter, founder of ComicBookReligion.com, which keeps a database of all comic book characters’ religions, as well as a count of what stories have religious themes. “It’s representative of pop culture in general."
And with the new Ms. Marvel preparing to hit the comic stands in February 2014, attention to comics and graphic novels with religious themes and characters has increased, experts say, as comics help people transcend past the pages and delve deeper into their own faith and religions they don’t understand completely.
Kutter Callaway, an affiliate professor of theological and cultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, said comics are extensions of religious learning.
“It’s really something that appeases people’s imagination and hearts more so than a sermon ever could,” he said.
Religion has long influenced comic books, said A. David Lewis, a comic book writer and scholar in religion and literature. He authored “Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels" (Bloomsbury, 2010), where he detailed the role religion plays in comic books.
He said many of the popular superheroes of today, like Batman, Captain America and Superman, were created and colored by writers and artists of Jewish immigrant descent. These writers also penned themes and stories based on Jewish immigrant ideals of being a hero in disguise, Lewis said.
Religion has also played a crucial part in character development, Hunter said.
Hunter said some heroes, like Marvel’s Kitty Pryde, who has the power to make objects intangible and is of Jewish descent, was written with her heritage in mind. It was planned ahead.
Writers will “fill in the blanks” in later stories if they don’t give a character a religious identity to begin with, Hunter said. Marvel’s The Thing (also known as Ben Grimm) was given a Jewish background decades after he was first published as writers wanted to explore his history a little deeper, Hunter said.
“People wanted to explore how hard he can punch, and then where he grew up, and then his background, and then his religious affiliation,” he said.
Similarly, Superman/Clark Kent’s Methodist background was included in later works and characters like Batman — who was originally written with a Christian upbringing, but recently has been identified as a lax Protestant or atheist — are continually being explored from a religious standpoint, Hunter said.
Newer characters are often introduced without a religious affiliation, he said. But when these recurring characters become popular with readers, the writers will come up with a religious back story to keep the character in the story and to provide some depth to the character's history.
But for Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, her religion is at the beginning of the story. Much of the marketing and promotion for Kahn, who is set to hit comic stands in February next year, surrounds her Muslim heritage and faith.
A lot of this has to do with mainstream culture, Hunter said.
Comics are a “survey of the pop culture medium,” Hunter said, adding that the religions brought up in modern comics reflect modern society.
He said mainstream culture is talking about Muslims. According to the Pew Research Center, the Muslim population in the United States is projected to rise from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million in 2030, which shows Muslims are a growing market and topic in the U.S.
And even though there have been a variety of Muslim characters in comic book history before, Ms. Marvel’s Muslim heritage was chosen as a reflection of what the mainstream culture is interested in, Hunter said, tapping into a new market of readers.
“People pick (comics) up and they’re interested, and I think there’s some interest because of the religious affiliation,” Hunter said.
Publishers are not just appealing to certain religious markets, however. They're also using religious comics as a way to tap into the market of unbelievers, too, Lewis said.
Comics, both religious and secular, have the power to transcend the reader past the pages into a new world, he said.
For example, Alan Moore, who wrote the “Watchmen” (1987) graphic novel, also penned “Promethea” (1999) in which the main character gained powers based on readers flipping through the pages and reading the story.
“Because they want to read the fiction, they feel like a power source for her,” Lewis said.
He said it’s the same for faith-based texts. When a reader flips through a Bible-based story — like “Eternity” by Randy Alcorn, a Kingstone comic that tells the biblical story of the rich man and Lazarus — they’re getting immersed into the Bible’s text, Lewis said.
“The reader connects in a narrative and spiritual way with a religious experience that had they not opened the book they might not have necessarily encountered,” Lewis said.
Building a narrative
The business is simply responding to a growing market of readers becoming more interested in religion or religious stories.
“More often than not, I think these comics are being used as gateway narratives, either to hook an audience to the story or to deliver in a succinct form,” Lewis said.
Ayris said comics are “a safe medium for people to really learn about religion and faith. People don’t mind picking up a comic book. It’s a gateway. Comics and graphic novels are a medium where people can capture the essence of a story in serialized art form fairly quickly."
Lewis said for a visual society, religious comics allow viewers to understand the scripture and religious text better. They can hold the images in their heads as they read actual scripture, he said.
“I don’t think these comics have any threat of replacing scripture, but I think they’re quite useful for introduction to faith, reminders of stories, artistic embellishment of stories and linking to the modern visuals,” he said.
Callaway doesn't see comic books instead of Bibles at church either, but he said religious comics are a nice addition to studying religion. Not only can people learn from the text, he said, but they can visualize and grasp the message because of the animation seen on the pages.
Lectures and sermons don't always work, and "the Bible can be difficult, boring and hard to understand," he said. But comics are easy to understand and extend the learning experience, he said.
More churches are noticing this, too, Callaway said, and stories told through images, animation and comics are becoming more common.
Ayris doesn’t see faith-based comics, or Kingstone’s publishing company, as a fad that will go away anytime soon.
“God’s not done with us yet,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of strong reports about people meeting Christ through comics.”
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