Superhero Shamans and Magickal Scribes: Appraising the study of Religion and Comics

"Wright (2007), for example, has suggested that, “the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). While Pedler has argued that, “Morrison’s mission [...is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264), making them, in effect, shamanic fictions."

By Scott Jeffery

Scott Jeffery recently completed his PhD thesis at Stirling university. Entitled, Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human: Mapping the Production and Reception of the Posthuman Body, the thesis uses the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari to explore the 'rhizome' of the posthuman body, demonstrating how the comic book superhuman has developed in conjunction with the discourses of speculative Transhumanist philosophy and critical-theoretical Post/Humanism. Secondly, the thesis investigated reader-responses to the posthuman body, and how comic book readers felt about the perils and promises of the posthuman body. Scott works as a part-time lecturer and Teaching Assistant in sociology at both Stirling University and Perth College. He also performs stand-up comedy on a semi-regular basis and writes about posthumanism, the occult, comics, and more besides at his blog www.nthmind.wordpress.com. He can be contacted via twitter as @sjzenarchy, or via e-mail at: sjzenarchy@gmail.com

Scott Jeffery

Scott Jeffery recently completed his PhD thesis at Stirling university. Entitled, Superhuman, Transhuman, Post/Human: Mapping the Production and Reception of the Posthuman Body, the thesis uses the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari to explore the 'rhizome' of the posthuman body, demonstrating how the comic book superhuman has developed in conjunction with the discourses of speculative Transhumanist philosophy and critical-theoretical Post/Humanism. Secondly, the thesis investigated reader-responses to the posthuman body, and how comic book readers felt about the perils and promises of the posthuman body. Scott works as a part-time lecturer and Teaching Assistant in sociology at both Stirling University and Perth College. He also performs stand-up comedy on a semi-regular basis and writes about posthumanism, the occult, comics, and more besides at his blog www.nthmind.wordpress.com. He can be contacted via twitter as @sjzenarchy, or via e-mail at: sjzenarchy@gmail.com

In response to:

Religion and Comic Books

What better way to end our series on Religion and Cultural Production than with a podcast combining two of my favourite topics - religion and comic books (and we will have none of your middle-class renaming "graphic novels" round RSP HQ)! Today, RSP assistant editor Per Smith talks to A. David Lewis and attempts to delineate an emergent and very rich sub-discipline.
Published by the Religious Studies Project on 24 October 2013, in response to A. David Lewis’s Interview on Religion in Comic Books (21 October 2013).

“What does a study of religion and comics look like?” A. David Lewis is asked at the beginning of this podcast. His answers, along with the wealth of essays in his co-edited volume, Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels, suggest that, happily, its boundaries have yet to be defined. In his broad-ranging conversation with Per Smith, Lewis highlights the many connections between religion and comic books; connections which arguably stretch back through woodcuttings and illuminated manuscripts to Egyptian hieroglyphics. This sometimes tempestuous relationship has given rise to some peculiar ironies. For instance, as Lewis points out, Chick Tracts have become the best-selling independent comics of all time, but are barely known outwith of the evangelical communities that utilise them. Another strange connection: Max Gaines founded Educational Comics by publishing Picture Stories from the Bible. When his son William took over the company following Gaine’s death, Educational Comics became Entertaining Comics, soon becoming infamous for its gore-ridden horror comics such as Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a startling about-face from Picture Stories from the Bible! But the strange relations between comics and religion go beyond just these odd, amusing facts.

For instance, in Alvin Schwartz’s metaphysical memoir An Unlikely Prophet, the former Superman and Batman writer describes his encounters with a seven-foot Buddhist monk who is in fact a tulpa, an individual who was thought into being by a Tibetan mystic. This monk proceeds to teach Schwartz that Superman is also a tulpa. Schwartz’s memoirs point to a fascinating history of what Kripal (2010) and Knowles (2007) have described as the “surprisingly intimate ties” superhero comics have to “the histories of occultism, psychical research, and related paranormal phenomena” (Kripal, 2010:6). Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Lewis is now turning his attention to the depiction of death in superhero comics. Lewis’s description of this sub-genre, and it’s six recurring features – journey to the after-life; encounter with family member; dream/hallucination; opponent; heroic reversal; and liberation – inevitably calls to mind Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, opening the way for a fruitful dialogue between the study of comics and religion to other disciplines such as the study of mythology and folklore.

Certainly we might suggest Lewis’s closing statements, in which he highlights the capacity of the secular medium of comic books to introduce the reader to the transcendent points beyond just organised religions towards shamanism and other pre-modern spiritualties. Wright (2007), for example, has suggested that, “the modern superhero is a contemporary manifestation of the ancient shamanic role” (2007:127). Pedler has argued that, “Morrison’s mission […is] to make our reality as interesting as theirs, as surreal, full of every potential and possibility” (Pedler, 2009:264), making them, in effect, shamanic fictions. In this regard it is interesting that Lewis only briefly mentions Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, as it is another of those strange coincidences that two of the most prominent creators in the field are self-confessed magical practitioners. Certainly their work and philosophies extend far beyond the realm of Paganism mentioned by Lewis to include the Thelemic teachings of Aleister Crowley and the postmodern practices of Chaos Magick.

Lewis correctly points out that superhero comics have used invented religions to interrogate real-world religions. However, the work of Moore and Morrison demonstrate that comic books have been surprisingly welcoming of more ‘fringe’ spiritualities, or at least an intimation of more esoteric religious teachings, as in Klock’s (2004) suggestion that contemporary X-Men comics reflect what he calls a “Gnostic, or pessimistic, Post-humanism”, or the wealth of ascended Tibetan masters that populate superhero universes, such as the Ancient One who taught Marvel’s Dr. Strange to become ‘master of the mystic arts!’ Moreover, superhero comics present to us worlds in which the transcendent and the material are intertwined. Unlike our world, the universes that superheroes inhabit see no mutual exclusivity between science and magic. As Bainbridge says, “the premodern, the sacred, the mythological are replaced with science and technology […] in images like the Cosmic Cube, ego the Living planet, the scientific mythology of Asgard and the towering figure of Galactus” (2009:74).  It is arguably this blurring of categorical distinctions that has led many to note the affinities between superhero comics and modern spiritualities such as the ‘New Age’ Human Potential Movement, which itself combined Eastern spiritualities with the methodology of Western science.

As Lewis points out, Possamai has posited that superheroes comics may constitute a kind of hyper-religion, encouraging the reader to develop a manifest a vision of their ‘super-self’ (Possamai, 2006:60). Meanwhile, Kripal (2002) highlights the synchronicity of the foundation of the Esalen Institute coinciding with the introduction of the “evolutionary mythology” of Marvel’s X-Men in 1963. Indeed, Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the think tank-come-retreat set up to investigate human development and informed by a kind of “evolutionary mysticism”, cites Superman and other science-fictional texts as expressing, “intimations of capacities that are available to us” (Murphy, 1992:213), much as Jules Verne anticipated atomic power in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or H.G. Wells’ placement of The First Men on the Moon. Murphy wonders if such images, “might prefigure luminous knowings and powers […] that can be realized by the human race”.

As both Lewis’s book and interview demonstrate, the study of comic books and religion remains a rich and fertile field, from which our understanding of both comics and religion can only benefit. Certainly there is a thirst for such knowledge. The bewilderingly detailed website, comicbookreligion.com – where we discover that the Fantastic Four’s the Thing is Jewish, the Incredible Hulk is a lapsed catholic, while the X-Men’s Wolverine was “raised Protestant; sometimes atheist; has practiced Buddhism; sceptical seeker”- suggests that this interest is true of even non-academic audiences. The impetus for such studies can only be bolstered by the self-confessed interest in religion and transcendent experiences expressed by writers as varied as superhero comic luminaries Steve Engelhart, Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith, as well as the aforementioned Moore and Morrison and independent creators such as Craig Thompson (whose Blankets is an autobiographical account of his Evangelical Christian upbringing) and, surely, the unique and apocalyptic creations of Jack Chick.

This multiplicity of approaches and texts is to be celebrated. While still a young discipline the study of comics is now gaining momentum. As such there has been a tendency to study comics in the light of religion (and, more commonly, mythology), as a way of legitimating their object of study. As if to say, “look at this illegitimate art-form, it’s like something respectable that you are familiar with!” However, as the interview with Lewis, and, one hopes, this reply, demonstrate, if we take comics on their own terms, rather than as a shadow of some original source, they can also allow us to cast the shadow of comics onto those original sources, allowing us to discern or reclaim even the most illegitimate of religious experiences.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Bainbridge, J. (2009) “‘Worlds Within Worlds’: The Role of the Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes” in Angela Ndalianis (Ed.) The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero New York pp. 64-85
  • Klock, G (2004) “X-Men, Emerson and Gnosticism” Reconstruction 4:3 available online: http://reconstruction.eserver.org/043/Klock/Klock.html
  • Kripal, J. (2010) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred University ofChicago Press
  • Murphy, M. (1992) The Future of the Body: explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature Los Angeles: Tarcher
  • Pedler, M. (2009) “Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality…and Other Parallel Worlds!” in Ndalianis, A. The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero Oxon: Routledge pp.250-269
  • Possamai, A. (2006) “Superheroes and the development of latent abilities: A hyper-real enchantment?” in Hume, L. and Kathleen Mcphillips (eds) (2006) Popular Spiritualities: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment Ashgate Publishing pp. 53-62
  • Schwartz, A. (1997) An Unlikely Prophet Vermont: Destiny Books

 Fund the RSP while you shop! Use an Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com affiliate link whenever you make a purchase. There’s no additional cost to you, but every bit helps us stay on the air! 

We need your support!

Want to support us directly? Become a monthly Patron or consider giving us a one-time donation through PayPal

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Podcast

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, ...
The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Podcast

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a widespread in the region shaping not only the political power plays of religious institutions but the people's daily experience of the world. Recently, however, neoconservatism has managed to develop a language of its own that blends science and philosophy with historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape to become an significant religio-cultural force.
Editors’ Picks 1: Losing Religion

Podcast

In this, the first of four summer break Editor's Picks "repodcasts", Louise Connelly reintroduces Chris's interview with Callum Brown, first broadcast on 30/4/2012. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.
Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Podcast

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, ...
Bruno Latour, Talking “Religiously”, part 1

Podcast

Professor Bruno Latour is one of the most respected scholars in the social sciences today. In this first part, Latour and David Robertson discuss the broader relevance of his work for Religious Studies. They discuss actor-network theory, of which Latour was instrumental in developing. This includes some discussion of phenomenology and religious “essence”.
Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism

Podcast

Usually one of the first associations upon hearing ‘Sri Lankan Buddhism’ is either the religious violence that swept across the island in the recent decades, or the Pali canon and Theravada Buddhism. In this interview with Anja Pogacnik, Dr. Stephen Berkwitz doesn’t really speak of either.

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).