In this wide-ranging interview with A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, ...

About this episode

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife. A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?

Related Resources

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Podcast

Aaron Hughes, the keynote speaker for the #JZSatNTNU Conference in Trondheim, Norway, talks with the RSP about the legacy of Jonathan Z. Smith's work for the field of religious studies.
Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Response

The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith. But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem? Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses. To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door.
Buddhism in the critical classroom

Podcast

How do we deal with different cultural languages when teaching an Introduction to Buddhism course? Is cultural familiarity something to be broken immediately and displaced by new concepts and perspectives? Is it to be leveraged as devices for easy onboarding to other, more unfamiliar terms and ideas? Are they to be outright ignored? David Robertson is joined by Matthew Hayes

Responses to this episode

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

Comic books frequently include alternative or heterodox religious ideas, something underscored by the fact that two of the most acclaimed writers working today (Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) are practising magicians, and their work frequently contains references to their practises. At several points during his most recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, A. David Lewis alludes to the prominence of religious themes and images in comic books.

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Spiritualism and Shamanism

Podcast

Wilson's 'apprenticeship' model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West.
Preserving identity and empowering women. How do Canadian Muslim schools affect their students?

Podcast

In this interview, Dr. Jasmin Zine talks about Muslim schools in Canada and their impact on their students’ identity development and integration in the society. Having served for decades as a tool to preserve a particular religious identity, Islamic schooling also plays a crucial role in empowering female students. In some cases, Muslim schools have become a safe haven, especially for women, “a place where their identity is not in question, where they can feel safe and comfortable”.
From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

Podcast

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone "West", some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the "Understanding Unbelief" banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of "unbelief", and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.
Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

Podcast

Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories.
Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

Podcast

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.
Roundtable: Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Podcast

Ninian Smart was a proponent of the idea that Religious Studies should be "poly-methodical"; but should Religious Studies as a discipline incorporate theories and methodologies from multiple other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology or history? When RS departments have run on an interdisciplinary basis, have they been successful?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).