Since we celebrated Easter recently, I decided to explore the modern Passion Play commonly found in many mainstream comics.
A narrative of victimization and empowerment is an inherent part of mythology and by extension, superhero comics. Even as religion fades from the lives of the masses, religious imagery – in particular Biblical imagery – remains widespread in pop culture.
In the past, fantasy and sci fi writers who incorporated religious imagery and metaphors into their work often did so knowingly. A prime example of this is C.S. Lewis and his Narnia Chronicles. Most of the events that take place in these books mirror Biblical events as well as important spiritual benchmarks in the life of the average Christian.
These books were written by a Christian apologist and therefore their imagery and message makes sense. They were an outpouring of his faith into the vessel of fiction.
Anne Rice’s early Vampire Chronicles were rich with Catholic imagery and repeated motifs of sin and redemption. The fact that those characters reborn as vampires were damned by their very nature can be seen as a contemplation on the concept of Original Sin.
Whether or not the writer was conscious of this, her Catholic background lent these works all the lustre of a holy icon.
What is more puzzling is the repetition of religious imagery in books and comics written by atheists, agnostics and those who are ignorant of religious motifs and their meanings. There’s something profoundly thought-provoking about images of faith employed by the faithless.
Are religious images so ingrained in our collective unconscious that they still carry impact even when removed from their original meaning?
A Christ-figure is a common literary technique used in comics. Superman himself can be seen of one of the original comic book messiahs. Like Christ, Superman was dispatched to Earth by his father and his powers, used almost exclusively for good, can be seen as a convenient stand-in for miracles.
However, since most comics are a serial form of storytelling, they either lack the conclusion of most Messiah narratives (death and resurrection) or find new ways of repeating the final stages of sacrifice and resurrection indefinitely.
While the Christ-figure literary device can be applied in different ways, it tends to follow certain steps in the world of comic books.
1. The Messiah-figure is set-up as different and isolated from their peers (Peter Parker by his bookish nature, Clark Kent, raised in a small isolated town, by geographical distance, Bruce Wayne by his wealth.)
2. The Messiah-figure often receives a spiritual awakening in the form of trauma or the gift of power or both (the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the murder of Peter Parker’s uncle etc.)
Often trauma and the gift of power are inextricably linked. The traumatic event is but the first of many in the ongoing cycle found in most superhero comics.
It’s interesting to note that in the case of anti-heroes, the traumatic event is often very degrading, sexual, disfiguring or visceral and the power they receive as a result may be a realization of their own potential for unrestrained violence in service of their cause (as seen in Punisher Born, V for Vendetta and the manga series Berserk.)
3. Aware of their holy quest, the Messiah-figure now embarks on a life-long mission to make the world a better place (in the case of superheroes) or to punish the wrong-doers/sinners (in the case of the anti-hero.)
Their quest often isolates them further from those around them, even those who should be natural allies, echoing the hostility encountered by Saviour-figures from organized religious figures i.e. Jesus and the Pharisees
4. The next stage is self-sacrifice. In the most basic form, the character sacrifices his life to save others. They become a martyr to the good fight. But the protagonist’s death would mean the end of a series – an unacceptable outcome since most American comics are ongoing.
Therefore the hero sacrifices other less material things – their happiness, their peace of mind, their chance at a normal life. Part of the dramatic tension in a comic comes from the choice that a hero must make between their personal desires and being a hero.
In the case of the anti-hero, the sacrifice is often their humanity, their capacity for empathy.
If the hero is called upon to sacrifice their life, the writer quickly finds a way to return to status quo by utilizing the last step:
5. Resurrection. The hero is resurrected, either literally (as in Superman’s case after his demise at the hands of Doomsday) or emotionally if he’s been called on to sacrifice personal happiness rather than his life ( i.e. Peter Parker’s realization in the first Spiderman movie that protecting a city must take precedence over his love life. He was then reborn by fully accepted his role as Spiderman.)
Once resurrected, the hero is ready to begin the cycle anew.
He or she loses something (it can be as impersonal as control of their city through a crime spree to something as major as a love interest), is defeated/victimized/rendered impotent by an antagonist (a new form of trauma) and the comic book Passion Play is once again underway.
It’s interesting to note that many comics with anti-heroes skip the final stage of resurrection. The anti-hero dies and the story ends. There is no resurrection, no return to status quo. In some comics, the protagonist’s death allows others a chance in life.
In other works, the sacrifice accomplishes nothing. Whether this can be seen as an inversion of the Christ-figure trope is up to the reader.
Personally, I’m waiting to read a comic that follows the narrative of the thief who was crucified beside Christ. Or perhaps that can already be applied to sidekicks.