Superheroes seem to be everywhere these days. Wonder Woman has just exploded onto the silver screen – and Spiderman and Thor are due to return to cinemas later this year. While on television Supergirl, the Flash and Green Arrow have their own ongoing series.
And although it seems unlikely, Christianity can be a major element of superhero sagas, along with the capes, spandex and underpants worn on the outside. Several superheroes profess Christianity – and others have come close to embracing it.
For example, the supernatural superhero Ghost Rider – who appeared on British TV screens this year in the fourth season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – almost ended up converting to Christianity despite gaining his powers through a deal with the Devil. But I’ll come back to that later.
The juxtaposition between God and the Devil has fascinated comics writers, as can be seen in Daredevil. A lawyer by day, at night Matt Murdock dresses up in a devil costume to serve rough justice on those who escape the law. As his family was obviously of Irish extraction, it had been hinted by a number of writers that he was Catholic. But in the 1960s and 70s Marvel Comics shied away from explicitly religious references.
It was writer/artist Frank Miller, who took over the strip in 1979, who brought out this aspect of the character. Speaking about his decision, he said: “Along the way I decided he needed to be Catholic, as only a Catholic could be a vigilante and an attorney at the same time.”
While hardly devout, Daredevil turns to his faith in times of trial, and when director Kevin Smith took over the writing chores shortly before the Millennium, he set the tone for his run by opening the story arc in the confessional. Since then scenes of Matt Murdock going to Confession have often been used to lay bare his inner conflicts, including in the recent Netflix series.
The X-Man Nightcrawler’s beliefs also stand in stark contrast to his demonic appearance. His Catholic faith is first revealed in a battle between the X-Men and Dracula (trust me, it’s better than it sounds). As Nightcrawler pulls out a crucifix, the Vampire Lord contemptuously declares that such things only work if those wielding them have faith. But Nightcrawler replies: “In that case Vampyr, your cause is lost – for I believe.” From there on Nightcrawler is often seen turning to prayer at some of the darkest points of the X-Men saga – and this was nicely carried over into the second X-Men film where he was seen praying the rosary.
But whereas Daredevil’s scribes have been fairly conversant with Catholicism, the X-Men’s have not. In a shocking display of religious illiteracy and just plain silliness, Nightcrawler is ordained a priest as part of a plot to overthrow the Church by getting him elected as pope. The idea was that his demonic appearance would shock people into believing he was the Antichrist, and simultaneously nanotech-laced Communion wafers would disintegrate communicants, making Catholics think the Rapture had occurred. The storyline is not well regarded by comics fans, who unlike the writers know that the Rapture is not a Catholic doctrine.
Ghost Rider was one of a number of superheroes with supernatural origins introduced after the Comics Code Authority, the regulatory body in the US, relaxed its rules in the 1970s to allow more depictions of horror
in comics. Gaining his powers as part of a hellish pact, Ghost Rider’s original writers had established that Satan could not claim the soul of the Ghost Rider, as his girlfriend Roxanne Simpson’s love provided him with a degree of protection.
When Tony Isabella took over the scripting, he decided to introduce more jeopardy into the strip by removing Roxanne’s protection. But he then “realised I’d written myself into a hellish corner”. A colleague half-jokingly suggested that maybe God could save Ghost Rider, so Isabella introduced Jesus into the series. When Satan comes to claim the hero’s soul, a mysterious stranger with long hair and a beard intervenes, saying: “[His] soul is beyond you, Satan. He has earned his second chance.”
The story arc was working towards a conclusion in which the Ghost Rider, discovering the mysterious stranger who has helped him is Jesus, embraces Christianity and is finally liberated from the Devil’s claim over him.
Unfortunately new editorial staff got cold feet over the proposed climax – this was the mid-1970s when religion was still taboo – and changed the finale despite Isabella’s protests.
This all goes to show that the interior clash between God and the Devil, the spiritual struggle in the lives of believers, is inherently dramatic. And that is why Christianity will continue to find a place in comics.
John Newton is a Catholic writer who owns more comics than it’s healthy for an adult male to possess.