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Like many adults into comics, I am a born-again superhero enthusiast. My childhood relationship with superheroes peaked shortly after Todd McFarlane stopped drawing Spider-man. In graduate school, I picked up the Invincible trade paperbacks from my university’s library, which is a practice I think more universities should engage in. Graphic novels belong in libraries. Most graphic novels can be consumed easily in a day and then passed on. If you read graphic novels, you should be in a graphic novel sharing community. If yr. friend’s buy Batman, you can support an independent comic or at least experiment with yr. tastes, trade with yr. friend, and read twice the stories. I loved Invincible and still do, but the superhero love returned slowly. Again like many other people, the blockbuster movies, animated stuff, and tv shows fertilized the flowering plant. Probably more influential than anything else though, I started dating my wife and she really likes comic books. She prefers non-superhero comics- she goes more for stuff like Jason, Charles Burns, or Marjane Satrapi. She also likes a lot of Japanese comics. For superhero comics, I found my way back to the primary documents with some Silver Age Batman and Green Lantern collections, the Batman Hush trade by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, and All-Star Batman and Robin by Frank Miller and Jim Lee. My wife actually bought me the Hush TPB and I have to give that book a lot of credit for lighting the dynamite of my recent superhero obsession. I started to comics as an academic, consuming mad quantities of them, looking for a pattern. Academically, there are a lot of ideas from Green Lantern that I’m working out in my mind and I don’t think it would be totally unreasonable if I added Green Lantern Scholar to my business cards.

Last Spring, I taught courses on the histories of both superheroes and Islam. To teach both courses, I tried to bulk up weak expertise in both subjects. After all, I’m neither a Muslim nor a superhero. To be honest, I did not feel comfortable talking about two superheroes specifically. Also I must admit to still being largely ignorant about the rich legacy of Islam. The two superheroes that made me so nervous were Superman and Wonder Woman. To be a decent comic book historian, you really should know a bit about those two. Wonder Woman’s hard because her story’s always changing and you have sift through a lot of mediocre stuff to find the gold. Her life outside of comic books has a greater resonance than her life in the panels. She’s Marston’s radical gender experiment. She’s the Ms. magazine cover girl. She’s a TV star. She’s not my favorite, but she’s grown on me. I think her book in the New 52 is one of the best. I’m okay with what’s going on in Justice League even though he belongs in Lois’s arms.

Much more familiar with Superman than Wonder Woman, I felt the need to know the Man of Steel intimately and felt more comfortable in his world than Diana’s. I’d really enjoyed the Hush TPB, so I read a lot of Jeph Loeb’s work when I first got back into comics, so I read not only his run on Superman-Batman, but the entire series. It’s a good reintroduction to Superman. As I consumed more and more of the Superman narrative, I began to treat the research similarly to the research I was doing on Islam. While still looking at both subjects intellectually, I allowed myself to enjoy the spiritual element of the scholarship as well.

The spiritual content within the Superman myth is phenomenal. Not only is the story laden with religious archetypes, it functions in many ways as a faith, but uniquely. Unlike most major religions, the Superman mythology is growing and changing. Amidst this growth and change, the faith can be readily challenged because its followers know it’s contrived. We know Superman was conceived by Siegel and Shuster, but we accept Superman as something larger than the creation of those two gentlemen. With the internet, challenges to the Superman legacy can be voiced in a democratic forum and can have genuine consequences on the development of Superman, who he is and how he functions culturally. In this way, Superman is an organic spiritual institution.

Superman is a virtual religion in the DC multiverse. He is a cultural icon that has acquired metaphysical capital, an idol. At his strongest, he is an extraordinary religious parable.

His world is set up much like a religion, ornamented with easily recognizable iconography that is very often sentimentalized to such extremes as to resemble relics. This iconography includes the ship from Krypton, the Fortress of Solitude, the Daily Planet building,  the bottled city of Kandor, and the phone booth. In the first pages of Superman #1 in the New 52, the story opens with a fetishization of the Daily Planet glode. The symbol for the House of El, that unmistakable S, functions similarly to the Star of David, cross, or swastika. Like Jesus had his disciples and enemies, the Superman story features a pretty regular cast of recognizable characters. The characters in Superman are again more flexible than Jesus’ disciples, but one can imagine that an Elseworlds Bible would probably still have Judas collecting his purse.

Superman’s status as world savior and last son of Krypton add tremendously to the religious nature of Superman. Born in the heavens, Superman serves ungrateful even though we are weaker than him. Additionally anyone who grows up near an Abrahamic faith and misses the obvious similarities to Moses probably has trouble finishing poems that are greater than one page in length. Superman spirituality develops best when its subtler.

I particularly receptive to:

1) Paul Dini and Alex Ross’s Superman story “Peace on Earth” in The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes. In this story, Superman struggles with his ability to have an impact on world hunger.

2) The experience of Lois Lane not knowing Clark Kent is Superman. Much like us on the dim side of metaphysical knowledge, Lois does not realize her salvation is right in front of her.

3) Despite his service, Superman is an alien and is thus persecuted. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, this strikes at the core of my self-reflective arrogance and my White Christ complex. There is something almost universally spiritual about being hated for helping people. It’s the legacy of Dr. King, Gandhi, and other people better than me.

4) Despite his service, Superman is superior to us and that frustrates us. I think a lot of people have a relationship with their higher power that more resembles Superman and Lex Luthor than Superman and His Pal Jimmy Olsen. Exploring that relationship, that jealousy of the gods, provides great fuel for spiritual wrestling matches. I really like Lex’s breakdown at the end of All Star Superman…okay, I love everything about All Star Superman.

This Christmas, I bought my father, a former minister, a few pop culture gospel books, published about the same time he performed the Lord’s work. ImageImage

In addition to the Superman study, I also got him one that sought the Message in Peanuts.  The author of this work considered Superman to be a “perversion.”

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