Reading: 'Kingdom Come' (Comic Book) By Mark Waid & Alex Ross
I’m going to start this morning in America, prior to the American Civil War, with the religious group the Universalists. As most of you will know, the Universalist Church believed in universal salvation, believed the love of God was greater than any sin we human beings were capable of committing. In other words they believed that everyone would go to heaven, whether they were little Hitlers or little Gandhis.
The doctrine of Universal Salvation by its very nature frees people up a lot. What you believe or what you think matters far less, if your underlying assumption is that everyone is going to the same place. To Heaven. The Universalist Hosea Ballou summed it up best when he said ‘If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavour to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.’
The Universalist Denomination was growing and flourishing. And then there was the American Civil War. The American Civil War was unbelievably bloody. More Americans died in the Civil War than died in WW1, WW2, and Vietnam put together. After such a horrific war, believing everyone was going to heaven was a difficult pill to swallow. As a result there was a shift towards more conservative theological perspectives: a desire in the face of the horrors of war to see cosmic Justice.
Clear cut answers to questions are naturally more desirable when the world around us feels more chaotic. We want that anchor to hold on to, when everything else is up in the air. In times like this people desire a God who feels more present, is more tangible and practical, a God that they can relate to more easily.
So what does any of this have to do with Superman? To explain this I have to take you back to Superman’s first appearance in June 1938 – to the Action Comic book Issue #1.
As you will all probably know, Superman is a culmination of many figures; he is in some ways Sampson from the Bible, Hercules from Greek mythology, Tarzan, the innocent who doesn’t know his own strength, and of course, Jesus, the Son of God, the Saviour of humanity.
Superman’s parallels with Jesus are implicitly and explicitly made throughout the comic books almost from day one. He is sent from his father Jor-El, as Jesus was sent from his father in Christian mythology. Superman has two natures, two identities: Clark Kent, the more human, quaint side, and Superman, the more divine, Godlike side, again like Jesus does in classic Christian mythology. The Christ, and the historical Jesus. The man and the God.
Throughout the comic books and films, this imagery is repeatedly played upon. Superman arrives on earth in a star, as Jesus’s birth is heralded by a star. Jesus and Superman share a mission to help humanity. And Superman in a few notable stories even dies, and rises again; rises again as a symbol of hope for humanity.
Superman in 1938 was ground breaking. Never before had there been a comic book solely devoted to one character. Over the next two years there was an explosion of superhero popularity in the United States. By the end of 1939 there were 50 comic book titles; a year later there were 150. It was a booming industry.
And then World War 2 broke out in Europe. Throughout the war superheroes remained popular, but by the end there had been a cultural shift. Superheros were largely replaced by romance comic books, teenage adventures, westerns, crime and horror stories. These American mythologies weren’t working for people anymore. People wanted the literature they read to be more true to life, more down to earth, more gritty.
In a weird way I think the decline of the superheroes after World War 2, and the decline of the Universalist Denomination after the American civil war have some close parallels. When the world feels more threatening, we can no longer abide the lofty idealism of a God that will put everything right in the end, or a flying hero that can do anything. We have accepted the hard reality of the world and we want that to be reflected in what we read.
Kingdom Come is in some ways a retelling of the book of Revelation; much of the imagery is drawn straight out of that last book in the Bible. The book of Revelation is a book with such obscure and extravagant imagery, it has throughout history been interpreted in many ways.
Some believe its symbolic language is describing events which were unfolding in the time it was written, in the first century. Some believe the book contains future prophecies of how the end times will come about. And some believe it is an allegory of the spiritual path and the on-going struggle between good and evil. It is this final sense that the comic book writers are drawing upon, painting in the process their own allegory, their own mythology of this on-going struggle. The central point of Kingdom Come is the moral dilemma it frames. How can the righteous defeat the wicked without becoming the wicked?
Wonder Woman wants to bring the hammer down hard upon those unethical metahumans, but Superman cannot bring himself to agree with this. He is ever the Christ-like figure; he refuses to use deadly force. As we prayed Let thy Kingdom Come, the prayer of Jesus, we seek and hope for a world in which love, peace, and human dignity, can overcome the more trite concerns of money, or image, or respectability. But as much as we might hope and yearn for such a world, we are always dragged back into the now, into the gritty reality we are faced with.
Unable then to live out the pure ethics, the lofty ethics, the Kingdom, unable to fully realise Jesus’ way of love, we are forced to reconsider our ethics, to find an ethic which strives after the way of love but is compatible with this world now.
This comic book – which many consider the greatest comic book ever written - could not have been written in the that pre-WW2 golden age. At that time the superheroes were one dimensional, indestructible champions of the good. Like Jesus, like the Universalists, they represented a lofty, unachievable, unworldly optimism, which just doesn’t seem to square with what’s around us.
We need the paradoxes, the moral dilemma, the character complexity, because that is the world we know. That is what makes sense. We cannot be bought off with cheap answers, or shallow theology. At the end of the comic book the heroes, the justice league, becomes fully integrated into society - and I mean fully, it is the end of the heroic age. The finale of finales.
In this new age we see the coming together of all people, the human and metahuman becoming one. It’s not a magical new world, or a quick fix, but there is a hope in what is to come. And that really is the bottom line, as we reject the false narratives, which act more like cotton wool across our eyes, or holographic decks of imagined pasts, and confront the reality of now. We must guard against cynicism. And embrace the hope found in our coming together.