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Forgive me, Father, for I am Daredevil

20 Apr

I’ve been rushing to consume the first season of Netflix’s release of Marvel’s Daredevil before someone comes along and spoils things for me. In part, this is a conceit. I’ve read quite a bit of the Daredevil plot-lines that seem to drive this production, so I have a pretty good idea what to expect. And I’m not here to discuss the looming plot beyond this first season of episodes, but rather to point out one of the main talking points about the show: Daredevil aka. Matt Murdock and his Catholicism. This post collects some of the writing that has emerged discussing the new series and its main character’s religious identity.

Daredevil-

Plenty has been said about Daredevil’s Catholic history at Adherents.com where the religious affinities of comic book characters are explored in great detail. Their preference for genealogical details–the gritty line where serial plot holes and back stories are filled in by meticulous attention to decades of comic content–are extremely welcome. The new series, however, seems to assume that, on the whole, their viewers know next to nothing of Murdock or Daredevil.

If the character is a veritable blank slate, then what has been written by viewers now about Murdock’s Catholicism?

Daredevil-Born-Again-Madre-e-hijoSome writers have tried to link the TV series with its former incarnation as a feature film. There’s this short piece over at the Christian TV and film review site, DecentFilms, for instance, that worries that the Netflix series, while a superior production to the 2003 Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck, hasn’t clarified “the sacramental theology issue” the Murdock opens when he pre-emptively asks for forgiveness of sins he has yet to commit.

Such concerns become a serious contention over at ComicBookBin, where Hervé St-Louis asks “Is Daredevil Really Catholic?” The author’s reading of 20th century America’s religious history has some significant issues, which make Daredevil’s Catholicism sound, alternately, like a byproduct of WASPish hand-waving to lowly Catholic masses or trite cultural folklore. In the face of complaints that Daredevil simply isn’t Catholic enough as a character, we would do well to remember the story-arc Born Again, one of the centerpieces of the Daredevil canon. Though I am somewhat loathe to have a fight over canonical authority, this central work seems to be not an issue at all for St-Louis, who ignores the rich theology and symbolism that Miller embedded in his narration of Murdock’s discovery of his mother. (A better attempt at this argument is made over at “The Other Murdock Papers,” a blog devoted to Daredevil. The twisting knife of this argument, however, remains the unsustainable line between a lapsed cultural Catholic and “authentic” Catholics. How are we to judge? And whose verdict of Catholic authenticity shall we trust?)

World Religion News seems to buy Miller’s intentions toward the Catholic side of Daredevil’s character. WRN even identifies Patheos’ blogger Kate O’Hare as one viewer who has taken up the challenge of writing about Murdock’s Catholicism (with extensive links to the works of others before the series premiered earlier this month).  As O’Hare quotes her fellow Patheos‘ writer Jonathan Ryan, I find myself sympathetic to viewers who see Catholic theology in the cross-hairs of Daredevil’s actions if not his words. “This comic is devotional reading for me,” writes Ryan in 2013. “Sin. Redemption. The power of being helpless. Sacrificing yourself so others might live. All concepts that go deep to my heart.”

Other acute readings of the new series (rather than the comic book that were its inspiration) include the New Republic’s (predictable) account of the show as a anti-gentrification hero. That this might go hand in hand with the Catholic ethnic communities embodied by the depiction of Hell’s Kitchen is ignored in favor of other socio-economic angles. (For you academic-types, try John T. McGreevy’s excellent Parish Boundaries.) Surely there is still much to be said of the way in which the ethnic community surrounding Daredevil is not represented by the other characters that immediately surround Murdock. Is his lawyer buddy Catholic? What about their secretary? What about the villains?

dardevil-depressed

Salon pulls out the stops when writer Charles Moss declares that “Daredevil’s Greatest Superpower is his Catholicism.” The twist (as the inevitable click-bait and switch must have)? “It’s also his greatest enemy.” As Moss says, the Show “tries to reconcile the lawyer who defends the law with the Daredevil who breaks it. Murdock’s brutal justice is more than his way of taking personal responsibility for the sins of others; it’s his way of atoning for his own.” Which sins are these, we might wonder. How many sins does the blind lawyer really have at this stage of the story?

If the debate is about whether Catholic viewers see Daredevil in Catholic ways, then the answer is a far more sympathetic yes. Though Catholic Vote identifies the inevitable weaknesses in production elements of the show’s portrayal of Catholicism, the takeaway from their review is their appreciation that the series took the Church “seriously as a positive actor in a world, a voice of justice and conscience in a crime-ridden city and a light in a blind man’s darkness.” The CV seems to be taking whatever it can get. I wonder whether it shouldn’t ask for more. Why haven’t we seen the priest do more in the community? Is his only task to be the quiet, gentle conscience of the brutal justice Daredevil is handing out? Is his promise of redemption one Daredevil can take?

What do you say? Are you a Daredevil comic enthusiast who sees new religious layers to Murdock’s character? Are you a Netflix series newbie who is being drawn into this world? What do you think of Marvel’s Catholic superhero?

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Viral Religion — Twitch Plays Pokemon, part 2

21 Mar

In Neal Stephenson’s famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, religion is presented as a kind of virus capable of rewriting the basic operating system of the human brain. With recent works such as T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, the sense that religion re-writes the mind and its perception of reality has received new legs. (It’s an very old argument that can be seen in the works of Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.) What’s notable about Snow Crash and the point that Luhrmann and others have revived is that religion is a product of intentional effort. We may speak of religious experiences as emerging from places beyond reason, but institutions of religion are conscious creations.  Religion rewires us. When we play at religion we get better at understanding the game we participate in and its rules. We are practicing our practice. That effort makes us adepts, experts, and professionals.

The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) phenomenon, which I wrote about last week, continues apace. It takes serious effort to follow TPP. It runs 24 hours a day as players around the globe control the game from their home computers. I manage to follow along only by the generous updates offered by community members online. The latest version of the game, Pokemon Crystal, took nearly two full weeks to finish. At every moment fans are creating new interpretations of the game and its awkward, halting game play. Fan art occupies more than half of the popular subreddit for TPP. Participants in TPP exert continuous forward pressure on the TPP mythos. They actively elevate the game play into the religious realm. It is their effort that spurs the complex narratives. And like a virus replicating in a healthy culture–TPP creates its world and in that effort has become more adept at creating that world. Much like the world occupied by the evangelicals Luhrmann describes (or the cult followers of Asherah in Snow Crash), this is an environment that nurtures itself.

It is on this point  of effort and conscious invention that I want to dwell today (as TPP begins its journey on the next game in the series, Pokemon Emerald). First, let me outline a point of pre-existing mythology in Emerald. The world occupied by the protagonist has two major forces vying for control–Aqua and Magma. Team Aqua wants to expand the oceans of the world; Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmasses. As a creative, productive force, magma is contrasted with the chaos that would emerge with a return to the sea. In the game both sides are ridiculous. They are the kind of bumbling evil that pervades Scooby Doo. As mythical forces, however, they are the division of earth and water. What’s missing is the tempering force of sky. The give and take of water/earth is an endless cycle. It’s a literal eternal battle, too, between two legendary Pokemon. Only a third force can break the stalemate that rocks the world.

As fans of TPP brace themselves for the start of a new adventure, they already know several layers of mythology. Nearly every one of them will have played Emerald themselves. They will be aware of its pre-existing canon. So too are they aware of the canons of the games that precede Emerald’s myths within the Pokemon world (having played both Crystal and Red in TPP already). And yet there are further layers added from the playing of Crystal and Red in the community. The deities and myths that have been elevated in the last month are now givens for the new TPP world.

I think the community is getting much more than they bargained for when they signed on for the first play through. The creative outlet that the game gave to its fans is now a recognized as one of the exercise’s benefits. It is as much an exercise in the formation of mythology as it is a social experiment about the limits of cooperation within a limited digital medium.

Last week my brother asked whether I saw any religious studies potential in the affair. I replied immediately and without hesitation that I did see scholarly promise in TPP. Part of me sees the exercise’s contribution as time compression. Where else can you see the birth and evolution of mythology laid bare before your eyes with such precision? Another part of me recognizes that it is the virality of experiment and its memes that renders it immediately useful for religious studies. So often we lack a good case study to explain the way in which digital religious lives operate today. This is religion online as opposed to digital religion, I know, but I think there is a mix of both here that makes TPP so exciting.

Update:

This post was set to post Friday, but some technological glitch held it up. Since the TPP Emerald game has already begun, let me say a brief word or two about the latest version. Users were initial struggling with the option of choosing a boy or a girl character. With no democracy mode in this play through–full anarchy mode all the time so every command is executed–the first hurdle appeared when a boy was selected, then a girl, and then a girl again. The failure to sustain the initial choice led the community to speculate on the psychological or even criminal events that might have led to the final selection. The following items, posted on Reddit, highlight these and other developments over the weekend, including the permanent release of the character’s starter Pokemon, the capture of multiple versions of a hyena Pokemon, and the repeated failures to make game progression due to a rock-paper-scissors battle that had the community in perpetual loss.

[All images linked to their original posts on Reddit.]

 

A is for Anarchy

http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/comments/213btf/torchic_was_a_fitting_choice_for_a/

Definition of Insanity?

 

Only Doge?

 

After the community released Torchic, the Pokemon they started the game with, there was quite a lot of mourning. This comic, for instance, summarizes the complex emotions some of the community was feeling.

Farewell Torchic

 

And then folks started arguing that another pokemon, which evolves like a cicada and leaves a ghostly pokemon shell behind, was really hosting the lost Torchic’s spirit or soul. You can read more about that in this post which references the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

The sense of loss and anxiety is palpable, while the number of posts emphasizing a community in decline suggests the initial period of euphoria of the new adventure is wearing off and moving on to other darker emotions. Needless to say, it’s a wild time over at TPP Emerald.

 

 

All Hail Helix! Religion in Twitch Plays Pokémon, part 1

10 Mar

Recently, a social experiment in the form of a community effort to play a video game became the platform for the swift birth of a viral religious mythology. The details are complex, so let me take a few moments to get you up to speed on the details you need to know.

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Fan Art depicting the religious aspects of Twitch Plays Pokemon

1. Twitch.

  • Twitch is an online streaming site where the content is video games. (The content is called a “stream” and the content creators are known as “streamers” because they are live-streaming their gaming content.)
  • Just as folks recently enjoyed watching full coverage of their favorite Olympic events, Twitch offers full access to gamers who are sharing their experiences playing games. Popular games such as DOTA2, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo 3 have all been featured by major Twitch streamers. Monetization for the site and its content producers occurs through the display of advertisements and monthly optional subscription fees. Just as more YouTube videos are watched every day than all of cable and public access television, at some point in the future, it’s likely that the streaming experience will become another major form of content for media consumers. For serious (and even casual) gamers, Twitch is a normal part of today’s gaming experience.
  • The best way to understand Twitch is to simply head to their site, pick a stream, and watch for a few minutes. I recommend whatever the stream is with the most views at the time when you open the site. Right now that’s 50,000 folks watching a professional competitive League of Legends player practice.
  • Alongside the main window of Twitch’s content stream (where the game play is broadcast) there is a continuously scrolling bar of viewer conversation. These are often moderated (to prevent spam), but any Twitch user can post comments, questions, or whatever occurs to them to share with everyone else watching the stream. This chat window can be hard to follow because it posts continuously. With 10,000 or more viewers, stream chat windows can get nearly impossible to read as you might read any other kind of text. While some instinct in me says “don’t bother,” other instincts in me say to find a smaller stream to see the value of the text chat for devoted fan interaction with streamers.

2. Pokémon

  • In 1996 Nintendo released a game for its handheld Gameboy console titled Pokémon. Players became trainers of animal creatures called pokémon. Over a series of nearly a dozen iterations of the game, players rehashed the game’s simple mechanics– capture pokémon, train them to become more powerful, and defeat all other pokémon trainers to become champion of a competitive battle league. The game stands as one of the most enduring contributions Nintendo made to popular culture. The franchise’s slogan “Gotta Catch ’em All” belied their intelligent marketing to young consumers. The video game birthed action figures, printed manga, multiple animated television series, several generations of collectible card games, and more merchandise than you could really even fathom. No, seriously, take whatever amount of merchandise you think would be utterly ridiculous and absurd and multiply it by 50 or a 100. You still wouldn’t be there yet. (The only game franchise more lucrative and loved by gamers around the world is Mario Brothers.)
  • Within the mythology of the Pokémon world, one of the early games required players to choose between a pair of end-game pokémon creatures. The Dome and Helix fossils were mysterious pokémon believed to be extinct. During game play, players resurrected one of the two fossils, and could, if they so desired, add the pokémon to their collection.

Now you have all the pieces you need to appreciate the way in which things have all come together in Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter TPP). Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, a “social experiment” began on Twitch that allowed the community to play through a game of Pokémon Red together. By entering commands into the live-stream chat window, players would be controlling the actions of the character in the Pokémon game. It was a complicated system featuring options for more or less chaos in the way the community controlled the game. In “anarchy mode,” commands inputted to the chat were executed by the game in the order they were received. As you might expect, this meant a huge volume of wasted commands. The character in the game spun in circles, opened and closed menus, dropped important items on the ground, released pokémon that it had caught, and so on.

In “democracy mode,” commands were executed with slightly more control. Each command went up for a community vote, and after a short time the command with the highest vote was executed. This meant a deliberate effort on the community’s part could result in significant game progress. (Anarchy mode, while chaotic, also made game progress, although this progress may have been due to collections of Twitch accounts controlled by a single user and programmed to rapidly enter a series of commands. This kind of botting appears to have been involved in the game, but I’m not sure how reliable any of the information on this is or what its effects might have been.)

During the first TPP run-through of Pokémon Red, players began to speculate about the motivations of the game character for constantly entering the game menus. Consider this for a second. The way in which the community’s control of the game affected game play became an object of speculation for the community about why the in-game character would do such things. Why, they wondered, was the character always looking in the menus of the game? What did it mean?

The “let’s go along with it” attitude is not especially odd for the group of gamers playing this game. Pokémon is at its core a role-playing game. Community participants in TPP were simply being good role-players by asking what the game was doing when its play seemed not to fit the established roles. (I’m trying so very hard to avoid using theory here, but obviously Geertz, Bordieu, Smith, Bell, Douglas, and others would have extreme relevance on this point.) They filled this gap–consciously, deliberately, and knowingly–with religious and mythological content.

Toward the end of the game, after players had collected a Helix fossil, selecting the fossil in the inventory resulted in an error message that informed players they couldn’t yet use the fossil. In an effort to explain why the in-game character was consulting the fossil so often, players began to claim that Helix was a kind of deity to whom the character was turning. When the community finally turned the Helix fossil into a pokémon, all hell broke loose.

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Evangelicals for Helix?

Community members that supported the choice rejoiced and proclaimed that the character’s most powerful pokémon was in fact the champion or protector of the deity. This spawned the instant meme of “Bird Jesus” because the strongest and first pokémon on the community’s team was a bird. That spawned images like this:

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Lord Helix’s protector, Bird Jesus.

Community members that rejected the choice argued that the un-chosen fossil was the real deity. A religious schism expressed the community’s lack of explanation for their collective game play. It was the backstory that game randomness meaning. And because they saw it this way, the deity Helix became an incarnation of the value of chaos.

(Sidenote: In the second play-through the TPP community appears to be working out a solution to Chaos’ reign that may result in a battle between order and chaos. This is being actively supported by the TPP leaders through their “hacked” version of the game. They seem to be saying they’ll rig the final battle in the second game to be against the team from the first play through. I’ll update this when I know more.)

If you’ve come this far, you might be ready now to appreciate the kind of madness (in a good way) that this has spawned. Pokémon fans are nothing if not utterly devoted to their game. Their nostalgia and sense of play (in terms of role-playing) has created a serious virality of religious innovation that acknowledges pre-existing in-game content and real-life religious influences. Not only are their products syncretic–combining both real world elements and pre-existing franchise approved mythology–but they also have explanatory power over the community’s experience of the chaotic play-through. These are smart readers of culture and religion and they’re using that skill to create mash-ups that are just astonishingly inventive.

Take this Reddit post by user aseanman27 as your gold standard. In it you’ll find an utterly fascinating image that details all of the steps and missteps of the emergence of TPP mythology. The image is enormous or I’d include it here, but stop reading right now and open the image. Really.

Should it all make sense to you? Absolutely not. If it does, I can guarantee you were about 10 or 12 when pokémon came out and that you had access to a Game Boy Advanced or Game Boy Color. I’m actually working myself to get far enough into the game itself that I understand all the elements that make up this chart. I’ve got about 6 hours of gameplay on a iOS Game Boy Advanced emulator version of Pokémon Emerald that I understand far better the kinds of things happening on the stream than I did previously. Should you do that? Probably not. But I will be posting a series of explorations of the TPP mythology that delve a bit further into the convoluted fray. After all, upon completing Pokémon Red, the folks behind TPP jumped right back in again began another play-through of Pokémon Crystal. The mythology continues apace right this second.

It’s not often we get to see even a pseudo-religious mythology arise. To see it happen over the course of the last few weeks has been astounding. If it has been too far out of your comfort zone to register, I hope I can help. Feel free to comment below on whether you’ve been watching, what you’ve seen, or to ask any questions that have occurred to you about this phenomenon.

Just to stimulate that appetite a bit more, here are a few more viral image compilations:

For more on TPP, I suggest

But above all visit,

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Winning the Internet? New Media @ the AAR 2013

27 Nov

[Apologies for typos or multiple posts of this blog. WordPress seems to be having a technical issue preventing me from updating it successfully.]

Winning the Internet: Religion and the New Media

In the circles of the New Media, you couldn’t have assembled a bigger set of rock stars than the panel K. Reklis gathered at this year’s American Academy of Religion. Here was the lineup:

Kathryn Lofton, Yale University

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, The Huffington Post Media Group, New York, NY

Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council, Brooklyn, NY

Diane Winston, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

The simple by-lines don’t really quite capture the value of this panel. Raushenbush, for instance, built the Huffington Post’s Religion division from the ground up. He’s the senior editor of a unit that gets 250,000 hits a day for topics on religion.

Jonathan VanAntwerpen has been more instrumental than any other figure in facilitating pushing the scholarly dialogue on secularism into the public sphere. The Immanent Frame, the Social Science Research Council’s multi-faceted blog, contains some of the most dynamic thinking on religion anywhere in print or online.

Kathryn Lofton edits one of the affiliates of The Immanent Frame: Seek | frequencies. This is collaboration with unconventional religious webzine Killing the Buddha (whose editor Jeff Sharlet was scheduled to appear but was replaced with Winston) extends the topics to prayer and spirituality. Lofton also has her hands into the editing side of Religion in American History, Religion Dispatches, and once upon a time was a contributor to Patheos.

Diane Winston, perhaps more than any of the previous figures, was on the ground floor of the development of earliest online collaborations between religion scholars and journalists. She is now the head of Religion Dispatches, which has become part of USC’s Annenberg School, and I have a feeling she’ll find a way to make RD an even more critical online magazine for religious studies informed discussions of faith and politics.

These folks are at the heart of the New Media. They are expanding the boundaries of journalism, publishing, academic writing, and religious studies. Of all many issues they raised during the panel, however, one stood out: Paul Raushenbush’s claim that HuffPost Religion’s goal is to “win the internet” by being at the top of the list when people search for religion.

Raushenbush made an excellent case for why it is vital for someone to want to “win.” It is necessary, he said, to preserve the quality and integrity of information. This is the internet as the Wild West. Can a dark stranger ride into town and save the day? Will they bring righteous violent justice? Will they offer tempered lawfulness? In short, will our savior be benevolent?

The issue with HuffPost, as so many colleagues perceive, is not just the danger of a for-profit journalism source funded by tabloid gossip. It is the danger of a consensus by what so often appears to be mob rule or whimsy or click-bait. It changes content—“explainer” pieces are the HuffPost’s most popular—and it changes the kind of people who are entitled to create the content. In some ways, what HuffPost has done for content and creator is radically progressive. They put basic educational content, often by insiders, at the forefront. That has value.

The desire to win, however, strikes me and many others as off-putting. Is religion something we win with? How does that make our scholarship any different than evangelism? Or in less coded language, aren’t we risking putting the popular reception of our work ahead of the work?

Then again, perhaps one of the reasons the humanities is in so much trouble (and the academy generally) is that we haven’t fought to win. [I’m not even sure we all agree that we’re playing the same game.] We’ve been content to pretend that sincere work merits attention on its own, and we have far too often forgotten to frame that work in a way that will attraction attention. This is more than vinegar and flies. Playing to win means taking control of the rules of the game. HuffPost undoubtedly uses meta-tagging and writes its posts to please search engines. Search Engine Optimization is a part of the game that can be rigged and cheated.

Of the rules that the HuffPost has set for its victory, one of the most curious is that its authors and content be relentlessly positive. Don’t disparage other faiths, Raushenbush advises his authors, elevate your own faith. This is not turn the other cheek; it’s pretend you aren’t being slapped. It’s a very significant obstacle to serious journalism. Criticism is necessary. An attempt to identify the truth, to pursue it aggressively, is the hallmark of excellent writing. Being positive is mostly okay. In most circumstance and for many things, we should attempt to elevate the good and not denigrate the bad. (My wife would say I’m terrible at this.)

The problem comes when your desire to be positive limits your ability to be negative when negativity is called for. Sometimes one must call a spade a spade. Homosexuals do not cause climate change. Or, given the recent announcement of the Supreme Court birth control case, one must recognize that scientifically the morning after pill is not an abortifacient.

As a religious studies scholar who specializes in American history, I have a variety of ways of being cautious. I give my subjects the benefit of the doubt. I validate their perspective and write about it honestly. In my work my goal is never to disparage the groups I’m studying. It’s counter-productive. It doesn’t get at the truth of the questions I’m asking.

The crucial thing about the New Media, however, is that if it is really attempting to win the internet, then its questions have become the kind that make truth claims possible for authors. We have room to make these as secular citizens writing about religion. It is no longer the domain solely of religious believers to make explicit the faith claims of their analyses. (Sure, ethnographers have been doing this for longer, but religious studies has always had a confessional problem.)

Winning in the new media means asking questions that are winnable. As far as I can tell, those questions aren’t the ones that we’ve been trained to ask. This placed us (religious studies) at a disadvantage. We’re on our way to overcoming it. We’re certainly not there yet, nor do we want to casually let others determine where we end up.

So take this time to consider your participation in the new media’s reconstruction of discourses about religion. No doubt some are exceedingly positive; others have hidden risks that reveal the costs of this new landscape. Explore freely, but tread carefully. And don’t forget to SEO your site.

Happy Academic Writing Month!

4 Nov

Since it’s NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month, I figured it would be an apt time to talk about writing. I don’t believe I am an aspiring novelist. Right now I want to be a more widely published academic writer, so for me November is Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo). Along with moving from Ventura to Orange County and heading to the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Baltimore, I’ll be trying to dot some i’s and t’s on projects that have been progressing too slowly.

Below you’ll find 1) Information about the blog and the content of its posts, 2) some thoughts about my book proposal, and 3) comments about an article I’m revising that I haven’t found a good title for.

Continue reading

Witch Doctor — The Biology of the Supernatural

29 Oct

Despite packing all my books up recently, I finally managed to pick up two volumes of Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner’s Witch DoctorThis comic, published by Image, features the adventures of Dr. Vincent Morrow, a licensed doctor of the occult. As the comic’s byline says, he’s “looking for a vaccine — for the apocalypse — and in his quest to understand the biology of the supernatural, he faces vampires, demonic possession, faeries, and more!”

Recent conversations on Twitter and in the blogosphere (with A. David Lewis and Jeff Bracket) have highlighted the dynamic content available in graphic media for religious studies scholars. A core of secondary literature is emerging, focusing especially on Lewis‘ newly released Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels.

I’ll compile an Amazon recommendation list eventually, but don’t miss out on Jeffrey Kripal‘s Mystics and Mutants: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the ParanormalChris Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex, or Greg Garrett’s Holy Superheroes!  And be sure to check out Jeff Bracket’s reading list for his “Religion and Popular Culture” course’s 7 week Comic Book unit.

Cover of "Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secr...

Cover of Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex

Judging by the growing body of literature, we’re increasingly recognizing the secular manifestations of religious themes in popular culture. Comics are especially sharp meditations on what it means to be human. Because superheroes act in the human world, they are always resolving the tensions implicit in their paranormal abilities.

In the hero sense, Vincent Morrow, the Witch Doctor, is remarkably frail. He is not cowardly, but he is human. It is his special knowledge of the occult that drives his victories over his supernatural enemies. I’m only two volumes in, and while there appears to be a messianic subplot that may reveal Morrow as uniquely destined to save the world, it doesn’t hinge on superhuman power. In the end, Morrow is a specialist who relies on hired guns for the heavy lifting.

If there’s one thing that fascinates me about this series, it’s the invocation of a biology of the supernatural. Straight from Wikipedia, (the horror!) “Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.” In this series, the supernatural is positioned taxonomically as another extension of natural life. This both makes it “natural” and gives readers a way to understand Morrow’s approach. It roots and validates the scientific process as well as the supernatural. It is a both-and approach that denies neither side of the enlightenment divide. How easy it is to make the mistake of drawing the line between reason and superstition? This series plays right on top of that line, erasing it as it tap dances its way merrily along dealing with demonic possessions with magical steampunkish medical devices.

WITCH DOCTOR #3 (of 4) Cover

WITCH DOCTOR #3 (of 4) Cover (Photo credit: Brandon Seifert)

Morrow has a particular appreciation of supernatural taxonomy. In this respect, he plays the role of both naturalist and explorer. He dashes boldly along because it is thrilling to be the first to discover the unknown, to stand where no one has stood before, to see with your eyes what you have never seen before. This is unlike the naturalist, who delights in discovery as an extension of pre-existing knowledge. A new plant? Marvelous! Where does its genus fit on the taxonomical tree? (For more on this distinction see Paul Carter’s newly reprinted The Road to Botany Bay.) Morrow appears thrilled by both sides equally. It’s another tap dance.

In other moments, the Witch Doctor finds himself less medically oriented and far more invested in the patchwork elements of the new age. In Volume 2, for instance, Morrow astrally projects. A complex evocation of this religious practice (out of body experience) includes nods to chakras, blood magic, voodoo dolls, and spirit possession. It’s an impressive mashup of religious content. The reviewers from Publishers Weekly called it “a dizzyingly imaginative romp” that combined equal parts Doctor Who and Lovecraft. I couldn’t agree more. It is medical horror done with enough wit and cheek to keep the horror from becoming overwhelming. And Morrow certainly seems like a madman with a box that’s bigger on the inside, only in this instance it is a medical briefcase where he keeps Excalibur. (No, I’m not kidding. In another moment, Morrow casually says he has the Holy Grail in his possession. I’m looking forward to that reveal in future issues.)

In conjunction with Hellboy, which I have written about it before, I think we see an important thematic approach to the supernatural: It is not lightly discarded or freely ridiculed; it is accepted. That embrace can appear gnostic–as in Hellboy, which begins with a secret paranormal ritual on the crumbling ruins of a Christian abbey–but the trend is to present the supernatural as normative. After all, Hellboy’s personal journey is one of his desire to be normal. Witch Doctor does this as a medical horror story, but it is the medical and not the horror that makes the supernatural normative. In Hellboy, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense proclaims its members as those who “bump back” against things that go bump in the night. There the horror must be accepted first. The premise is that all of our secret fears are true. In Witch Doctor, our fears are presented as scientific fact.

Overall, I think I’m quite fortunate to be working at a time when the scholarly community is coming to recognize the true vitality of religion in popular culture. I think we’re still in for a rocky road as we continue to battle over what constitute “popular.” At least this means it really is not a battle for legitimacy any longer. It is a battle for effectiveness and representativeness. That’s a turf war, not a rejection of the merits of method or content.

Witch Doctor probably doesn’t make the category of what’s popular in a meaningful way. (Perhaps because it is only two years old and printed by an independent comic publisher and not DC or Marvel.) Nevertheless, I offer it as an excellent instance of fictional supernaturalism. Its direct evocation of biology only adds to its intelligent manipulation of religious material(ism). Its playfulness is its strongest feature and very suggestive of the broader range of supernatural elements in comics. When we find that Doctor here means something more like mad scientist and witch means cunning folk, I think we get material that lays right at the heart of the American experience.

Inverting these elements–and those of science and the supernatural–is intensely rewarding. It imagines a world that is not divided so arbitrarily as ours has been. (It’s also evidence of the growing rejection of the secularization models that fostered that division, which isn’t to say that the secular world is any more ready to accept the supernatural as fact. It is, however, ready to discuss the ways in which religion continues to permeate the secular world and its cultural products.) Morrow’s world appears to have never had a culture war, never truly separated science and the supernatural. That alone is a premise worth exploring.

If you’ve got the time and $10.35, consider giving it a shot. Here’s a juicy cover image to entice you.

Witch Doctor: Mal Practice, Issue #1

Witch Doctor: Mal Practice, Issue #1

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?