Collateral Story Lines — Method & Comics

28 Oct

Today I want to share an observation about comics and ask whether it has any relevance for the way we study of religion.

Background: I joined a Coursera course on Comic Books and Graphic Novels from UC Boulder Professor William Kuskin. This isn’t the time for my thoughts on MOOCs, although I’m sure that time will come eventually. (For what it’s worth I’ve found the Coursera platform to be pretty user-friendly.)

Green Arrow

Foreground: I’ve been making my way through the first season of CW’s The Arrow. It’s a superhero drama based on the DC Comics figure called the Green Arrow. I can’t say I was intimately familiar with the Green Arrow before this show, but I have been enjoying the TV adaptation. To help you wrap your head around the show, just imagine Bruce Wayne (Batman) as Robin Hood. Sometimes it really is that simple.

One of the big reasons why I like the show is its thorough development of the many figures that surround Oliver Queen, aka the Arrow. His intimates include his family–a mother, father-in-law, and sister–and his former love interest and friends. His rich family has also given him a body-guard, who is soon to become his sidekick. The former love interest’s father is on the police force and begins to uncover the Arrow’s identity. And so on.

Here’s the takeaway: the collateral story lines make this character work. We care about the supporting characters because the hero cares about them. We care about the hero because the supporting characters care about him. The dynamics of those relationships build a satisfying world for viewers. Weaker characters–Oliver’s shallow friend who dated his ex in his absence–are easy to spot and will likely be pushed aside as the story develops.

If we think more broadly about superheroes as a genre of storytelling, it is often the case that the most endearing characters are those whose narratives are hopelessly entwined with supporting figures. Batman’s relationship with Alfred or Commissioner Gordon, for instance. Superman’s love affair with Lois Lane. Spider-Man’s love triangle with Mary Jane and Harry Osborn.

While the heroes take center-stage, readers are often encouraged to care through the development of human-sized consequences. The moral struggle at the core of the origin stories for Batman and Spider-Man are excellent examples that play both sides of the human/super-human divide. We feel Peter Parker’s pain–not Spider-Man’s. We know the boy Bruce Wayne’s agony. It’s easier to distance ourselves from the grim and determined adult Batman who willingly risks his live. That makes him noble, not necessarily excessively human.

The turn: In religious studies we often focus on the central figures. Consensus history was built on what could be agreed upon by the majority of historians. (Yes, consensus is a misnomer.) When the cultural turn came for religious studies we increasingly saw studies of religion “on the ground” as it was lived by ordinary folks. The best of these studies–say David Hall’s Days of Judgment–work because they weave the central figures into the stories of the supporting characters. Consensus history is Spider-Man’s story; lived religion is Mary Jane’s story. Both are excellent in their own way, but naturally we want the best of both worlds whenever we can get it.

The fateful spider bite that gave Peter Parker...

The fateful spider bite that gave Peter Parker his powers. Amazing Fantasy #15, art by Steve Ditko. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not a new insight that comics work by weaving effective webs of significance around their starring superheroes. Instead, I want to re-affirm that the way we study religion has a lot to do with the kind of stories we want to tell. Just as the superheroes primary tropes wore thin and gave way to new versions of old stories (compare Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Burton’s Batman), I think in religious studies we have been disinclined to attempt to tell the old stories in new ways.

Perhaps our field’s moderate disinterest in re-narrating our central stories is a consequences of the structure of the academy. We value new methods and new data. Re-interpreting old data is welcome when it is iconoclastic (Butler’s The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction), but if the story seems the same we’re just as likely to wonder what the big deal is. The “so what” is a brutal query against these efforts.

In lectures to our students we may tell the same stories over and over again, but those retellings are to new audiences. This has its own kind of merit for academics as storytellers. We get to re-imagine the stories and their relevance for new generations. We should all be so lucky to think of our lectures as “rebooting” the significance of certain supporting characters and weaving our own webs of significance for the starring figures. It certainly is the opportunity we can take to explore the ways narration matters in our lectures.

In printed scholarship, however, we’re less likely to tolerate these innovations. We can see them generationally if we look to the significant textbooks on, say, religion in America. Pick up Schaff’s 1855 America and compare it with any textbook published in the last 10 years and you’ll find a host of differences. There are far fewer differences between Corrigan and Winthrop’s Religion in America (8th ed., 2010) and Albanese’s America: Religions and Religion (5th ed., 2012). Both of these recent editions, however, feel very far from Alhstrom’s 1972 tome. And so on.

In American history, as I imagine it is in most disciplines, the obvious examples are polemical–Howard Zinn’s People’s History vs. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen Patriot’s History. Would that more of us were willing to find retellings so shockingly divergent on such well-worn material. We need more scholars willing to take the leap to reinvent the core of our discipline. We don’t lose very much by trying, so long as enough of us can agree that it is the effort of re-imagining these stories that will produce long-term gains for our understanding of religion.

We have to be willing to take the risk because the rewards many:  clarity of what matters, visibility to new audiences, openness to new inquiries, and methodological flexibility. We get very little holding on to the forms of the past. In the end, our subjects are not oaths to be recited. We have to be willing to take the leap to imagine them differently even when we want to keep so many of the elements the same. This is a lesson that comics has learned over and over again. Seems a shame not to follow their excellent lead.

So which of your darlings would you kill first? And how would you bring it back to life?

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