Tag Archives: Witch Doctor

The Boy from Hell — From the Archive

30 Oct

[I wrote this post in 2010, but when I moved my blog to a new host, it didn’t get reposted. It seems a natural extension of yesterday’s post on the Witch Doctor comic series. -DWM.]

I get to watch all kinds of interesting things on Netflix: Watch Instantly, but right now I’m intrigued by “Hellboy: Animated: Sword of Storms” and “Hellboy: Animated: Blood & Iron.” These 2007 animated kids features add to the already impressive collection of Hellboy materials, which to date include two feature length films (2004 & 2008), a series of comics, trade paperbacks, novels, video games, and even a D&D style RPG. The success of the franchise is a not surprising in light of the success of many comics when brought to the big screen. Hellboy joins adaptations of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men, and that doesn’t even get into 300, Sin City, Watchmen, or Wanted.

I could go on, but the point I want to make about Hellboy puts it in a different category from most of these other flicks. While I could say that hardly any other series is really concerned with a group of monsters that fight the “supernatural and the occult,” this does sometime seem to be the m.o. of the superpower hero genre. Sure, heroes like Spiderman or Wolverine fight bad-guys with superpowers all the time, but these series often fail to provide a mythology to support their world that relies upon religious manifestations and suppositions.

Thus, it is the combination or grouping of the supernatural (which could be take to mean the powers comic book heroes are often blessed with) and the occult together that makes Hellboy different. Instead we see a world that is more like Indiana Jones than Spider man, more like Tomb Raider than Superman, more like Ghostbusters than X-Men. That is, one of the central components of the Hellboy franchise is its reliance on seeing our world as populated with monsters not of science fiction, but of religion. Demons populate this world, not byproducts of nuclear accidents or cosmic radiation.

In a given comparison you might find some weaknesses to this distinction, but I’m willing to wager that Hellboy (and Constantine based on the Hellblazer comic books) are one of the few features to deal so explicitly with the occult. The occult is not easy to pin down for in its most general sense it means “knowledge of the hidden.” This may mean things beyond our ability to quantify or measure, or it may mean secret knowledge. In this sense we are confronted with a confusing jumble of terms that sometimes includes not only esoteric and arcane but gnostic.

Many conservative Christians encourage general readers to avoid making refined distinctions among such words, choosing instead a path that renders all such things dangerous and forbidden. This is easily seen in many of the criticisms of Harry Potter, where no distinctions are made between real uses of “magic” as a form of religious practice and the magical world seen thanks to special effects studios. I don’t mean to pass judgment on whether or not magic exists. Magic itself is a slippery term that could just as easily refer to turning water into wine as love potions. It’s a dangerous road to walk down as a scholar.

I would more readily accept Christian suspicions and denigrations about Constantine or Hellboy than Harry Potter; I know many children who wish that we lived in Harry Potter’s world and that an acceptance letter to Hogwarts will whisk them away from our muggle world, but I don’t know many children who accept that world as the same world we live in. They can distinguish between the human appearance of its characters and their supernatural abilities. In Hellboy humans are simply human, which means that everything else, those “things that bump in the night and which bump back,” could very well be possible.

When superheroes populate Metropolitan or Gotham City, we know these are just copies of our world whose shadows are populated with impossible things. Hellboy operates using such shadows, but the basis of its approach is not scientific but religious possibilities. If the Bible is followed literally, then we must conclude that angels and demons both exist. Hellboy seems to accept that proposition and then take it several steps further down the road. Along the way the demons become humanized–speaking our language and taking human form–as well as capable of ethical decisions. This is a natural anthropomorphic step, and I see it as similar to making animals talk. It lessens the gap between fantasy and reality.

Bridging that gap, however, is never the primary task of these items. Hellboy’s mythology works without ever filling in all the pieces. This is the source of the difference between Hellboy and superheroes–the origin story is crucial to superheroes, who cannot exist in a world that is presented as ours without explanation, while the origin story seems secondary to Hellboy, who would exist anyhow but might be trapped on the other side. I don’t mean to imply that Hellboy is somehow more believable than any other product of the SF/F genre, but I do mean to suggest that it is lent extraordinary credibility by preying on a vague and generalized understanding of the “occult” and supernatural. We give such things credence in our daily lives, as least many of us do.

What is surprising to me is how unremarkable the presentation of the occult is in Hellboy. It just rolls naturally along without ever really considering its own existence or origins. Constantine wrestles endlessly with the conflict between “his” Catholicism and ours. His demons are torn quite literally from the Scripture, and his methods are drawn from religious folklore. That Hellboy works with unidentifiable sources and with relative immunity from the condescension given to such shows as The Dresden Files or Charmed, suggests that it has successfully populated a niche between those works and mainstream comic fantasies. That niche seems generated not only by renewed New Age visibility of channeling and other such phenomenon, but also by the vivid imaginations of fantasy authors looking to classical myths and religious templates. In the end I think it’s all enjoyable entertainment, but I can understand the dis-ease that many folks have with such flights of fancy. My only problem is that from start to finish Hellboy steals plays from their playbook–and I hate throwing babies out with my bathwater.



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