Tag Archives: comic books

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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In RGST? Get a Comic Now.

26 Nov

Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table

Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.

In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.

Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.

Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.

The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics.  The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout.  Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)

So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.

So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.