Gods and heroes

Comics turn to Jesus

Things get wild when Old Testament prophets meet cyber-tech punks in <i>Testament Vol. 4: Exodus</i>.

Things get wild when Old Testament prophets meet cyber-tech punks in Testament Vol. 4: Exodus.

He was sent to this world by his father in order to restore values, fulfill prophecy and save humanity. Jesus, right?

Not necessarily. It also could be Superman.

For decades, comic books have contained a modern mythology of redemption and salvation: Peter Parker, attempting to redeem himself for the failure of character that led to his grandfather’s death; or Batman, trying to make good his otherwise dark heart by fighting crime in Gotham. Far from merely entertaining, comic books (or, if you prefer, graphic serials and novels) have long been a narrative of our search for a moral center in a world that seems increasingly devoid of one. Bad guys have transformed from seemingly demonic supervillains to more tortured techno- or cyber-creatures and—more and more frequently—greedy corporate hacks and corrupt politicians, but always they represent the darker side of humanity itself.

We need gods and heroes to fight the demons and villains of our time, and comics have all four.

The form has been so popular (and it has a built-in audience of young males, otherwise hard to reach by religious proselytizers) that it’s also been used as a ministry by Christian comic artists as varied as the ham-handed, fear-mongering Jack Chick and Al Hartley, the guy who gave us born-again Archie comics in the ’70s. Hartley’s Archie-and-Jughead-come-to-Jesus books were sugar-coated crap lacking even the redemptive qualities of Archie-style “Sugar, Sugar,” but he also did graphic versions of The Cross and the Switchblade and The Hiding Place that hold up well, both as comic-book tales and as Christian testimony.

But some recent comics turn to Jesus not for salvation, but for a character. The presence of other themes from the Bible isn’t an accident, either, as the comics prove once again that the “good book” remains, as critic Northrop Frye said 30 years ago, “the great code of Western literature.”

One of the most popular recent iterations of Jesus is the tortured hero in Tim Seeley’s Loaded Bible. Released last month in a collected first volume, Loaded Bible is subtitled The ‘Jesus vs. Vampires’ Gospels. Yep, the Son of God takes on the spawn of hell in a no-holds-barred battle, with His holy spit turning Nosferatu-like creatures to ash. But things are a little more complicated for the Christ—and no lurking Peter denies His identity—for Jesus is not the Second Coming, but a cloned-from-the-Shroud of Turin secret weapon in the plan for world domination by the ruling religious hierarchy in a vampire-devastated future.

When Jesus finds out the priest’s plan, watch out. God doesn’t care much for liars.

Blasphemy? Perhaps. It depends on whether a literal reading of the New Testament’s central tale of redemption is more important than the concept of redemption. This Jesus is very concerned with salvation (humans, vampires and his own), as well as seeking and doing his father’s will—unencumbered by the interpretations of others. It’s a rather Protestant, perhaps even evangelical, approach.

But it’s not just the New Testament that gets the comics treatment. Due this week is Exodus, the fourth volume collecting Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament series, an intelligent and articulate analysis of morality in the age of cyber-technology. Rushkoff, who’s a bit of a Bible scholar in addition to writing about technology, media and popular culture, has put together a story in which time becomes less important than space.

Cosmic conflict, the battle between good and evil, between free will and predetermination, is waged in a variety of places, but always at the same time. Call it omni-temporality, or perhaps panchronicity. What it boils down to is that the narratives of the Bible are real and being played out constantly in human life. In that sense, Rushkoff has created a story that both reifies and problematizes the Bible. It’s relevant, but it’s also never finished, which means salvation isn’t a done deal. Ever.

Of course, since he’s only up to Exodus, it will be a while before Jesus shows up—for the first time.