Superhero comic books are a perennial target for self-appointed moral authorities of all stripes, and not always for the best reasons. Some, like Senator Robert Hendrickson (leader of 1953’s United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency) and comic book scare-monger Fredric Wertham (author of the 1954’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent) saw them as a source of perversion, violence and moral decay. (Check out David Hadju’s The Ten Cent Plague for a history of Wertham and Hendrickson’s shenanigans and the formation of Comics Code Authority.) Priests and pastors of all sorts heard Wertham’s spurious message and followed suit with mass comic book burnings.
Despite the burnings and hand-wringing hysteria, the birth of comic books and religion are entwined, to some degree. Many of the classic comic book heroes we still enjoy today – Batman, Superman, Captain America and many others - were created by Jewish artists and writers: People who were outsiders to mainstream culture. Some scholars believe that the experiences of these Jewish creators strongly influenced the ethos of their characters and their universes.
These days, more people than ever are looking at comic books and seeing value in them. They encourage people to read, bring fans together and even in some cases offer good lessons in bravery, sacrifice and individuality. Guys like Tony Kim, “Pastor of the Nerds”, see this and see no conflict between their nerdish pursuits and spiritual callings. Neither Does Rabbi Harry Manhoff, whose comic book collection is 17,000 issues in and still growing, or Mohammed Ali Vakil and Mohammed Arif Vakil, two brothers committed to using the comic book medium to communicate the values of Islam.
Now the Vatican is looking at comic books and seeing some things of value. The Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano recently devoted a full page to speculation regarding the religious identities of various comic book characters. Their findings? The Incredible Hulk is probably Catholic, as is Batman’s mother and most certainly The X-Men’s Nightcrawler. A separate review of Man of Steel paralleled Superman’s story with that of Jesus.
Meanwhile, many of our elected leaders have revealed themselves to be comic book fans, not least among them President Barack Obama. Senator Patrick Leahy isn’t just a Batman fan; he has had bit parts in the films. On a personal note, I have a friend who was a state legislator and owned a comic book store for many years.
Undoubtedly, Wertham and his fellow comic book burning crazies would be going out of their minds with terror and fury were they alive to see people of faith (not to mention educators and politicians) acknowledging the value of the medium that they so despised. Comic books aren’t universally accepted (See the fundamentalist church that comes to picket Comic Con every year – I have.) but they have certainly come a long way since the fifties.