Archives for posts with tag: religion

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I found out the exact time I’ll be presenting at this year’s Dragon Con. It may very well be the worst time to be scheduled to speak as it coincides with one of the con’s main attractions- the parade. Every year the parade seems to get bigger and bigger, both the participants and the swelling and sweating crowd of on-lookers. With so many of the con’s attendees enjoying with the parade, there should be plenty of seating available for my discussion. If you’ve ever been looking for an excuse to get out of sitting in the sun and squeezing in tight with the masses, my presentation is a great excuse! Truth be told, I’m pretty happy to have this excuse to get out of watching it myself. The only thing I’ll miss about missing the parade is sharing the convention with Atlanta residents who don’t join in the actual con- the bystanders, the henchmen, the non-playable characters.

My presentation will be held on Saturday August 30, 2014 at 10am, presumably in the Comics room and I will presumably be presenting with two other scholars with a somewhat similar focus- the shared focus bit will likely be a little forced. My presentations looks at the multiple mythologies, religious in nature, that appear in the DC universe, specifically in the New 52 and more precisely involving Wonder Woman, the Phantom Stranger, and Green Lantern Simon Baz.

Think of the panel as a parade for people who don’t like parades. It should be fun, but if you choose the parade over my panel, take pictures for me because you know where I’ll be (at my panel AKA the parade for people who don’t like parades AKA the grenade for people who don’t like Gatorade).

Was the scheduling of my presentation at the same time as the parade an act committed by a secret organization (or cabal of secret organizations) worried that I might reveal truths that would send their pervasive institutions into paralyzing shock, essentially crippling the most powerful and sophisticated network of control ever put into practice in the history of the world? Is the EU worried my revelations on changes to Wonder Woman’s lineage could fuel an economic rebirth in Greece- a Wonder Tiger for the second half of this miserable decade? Will the 700 Club have to change its name to the 701 Club after I expose the Phantom Stranger for the strange phantom he is? How will OPEC react to my forgiving portrayal of the oddest of Earth’s Green Lanterns Simon Baz? Will they share my appreciation his unlikeliness? Or was it the Freemasons all along… worried about how Killer Croc is going to look when it’s revealed he’s been pulling the strings in this puppetshow ever since Brentwood!

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Phantom Stranger 1,1 cover

I found out last week that I will be presenting at this year’s Comics and Popular Arts Conference at Dragon Con. Last year I presented on Cold War ideologies in the Silver Age Green Lantern. This year I will be discussing how different religions have been employed in the world-building of the New 52. In preparation, I’ve been reading some back issues on the Phantom Stranger- trying to figure out who he was before he became the Judas Iscariot doppelganger that is his present form.

The Phantom Stranger v1 issue 2

I’ve seen other blogs showcase cover galleries before. Much of my aimless internet searching arrives at such places and I enjoy the art I stumble upon. As a bit of a payback for the folks out there regularly posting galleries from old comics, I thought I could share the covers from The Phantom Stranger’s first series back in 1952 and a few from his second series which began in 1969. Despite these two series being published nearly 20 years apart, the Phantom Stranger has changed very little. In fact, many of the first stories in the second series are simply reprints from the first series.

phantom stranger 03 cover

Unlike his more metaphysical modern day counterpart, this Phantom Stranger is into science. He spends most of his time exposing frauds who employ scientific knowledge to deceive the innocent.

phantom stranger 04

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You can see some of the changes in the overall look of comics, horror comics, DC Comics, etc. as we look at the covers from the 1969 series.

the phantom stranger (1969) 01 - 00 - fc

the phantom stranger (1969) 02 - 00 - fc

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the phantom stranger (1969) 07 - 00 - fc

the phantom stranger (1969) 08 - 00 - fc

the phantom stranger (1969) 09 - 00 - fc

the phantom stranger (1969) 10 - 00 - fc

 

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Upon the announcement that Jesse Eisenberg would play Lex Luthor in the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel, I’ve felt a slight discomfort with the casting. I like Jesse Eisenberg, Lex Luthor is one of my favorite characters of all time, and more importantly, I think Eisenberg will do a great job as Lex Luthor. My discomfort comes from the difficulty is separating Eisenberg from his Jewish heritage. Eisenberg is not the first Jew to play Lex Luthor- Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum played an incredible Lex- but part of Eisenberg’s charm is how well he personifies many of the characteristics that pop culture finds endearing about the way Jews behave. He’s not Woody Allen, but he played him once in a movie. Does he play up to Jewish stereotypes? Sure, to some extent, but he’s also embraced roles that challenged popular conceptions of Jews, such as playing an Orthodox Jewish MDMA smuggler in Holy Rollers. Eisenberg is Jewish and deserves a certain amount of consideration when he portrays Jews positively or negatively as it is his own culture he’s representing. From Shakespeare to Star Wars, Jews has suffered negative portrayals by gentiles and while it is a generally accepted dramatic trope, negative Jewish stereotypes are usually identified by the Anti-Defamation League swiftly and often make news. As a person of Jewish heritage myself, I’ve come to tolerate the negative depiction of Jews as unavoidable symptom of a larger systemic social problem and rarely make a crusade about the way Jews are presented. As the husband of a Chinese woman, I’ve probably become more sensitive to the portrayal of Chinese people in Western media than I am to representations of Jews that reinforce stereotypes.

So……………………

what’s wrong with a Jewish Lex Luthor?

Lex Luthor plays to some very specific Jewish stereotypes

1) Lex Luthor is the smartest man in the world. This point may be argued by Michael Holt or Ray Palmer, but it is generally accepted in the DC Universe that Lex Luthor is the smartest man on Earth. When I was living in China, the most common reaction to the discovery of my Jewish heritage was: “This is why you are so clever.” or “The Jews are very clever.” While this is not really a negative stereotype, it is a stereotype and one that makes the lives of Jewish children with learning disabilities doubly difficult. Is unforgivable to portray Jews as intelligent? No. Is it racist to portray Jews as intelligent? I’m not sure if it is. The belief that Jews are somehow smarter than others is rooted in the Jewish tradition of revering scholarship. Many cultures place an emphasis on education, but there is something special about the role education plays in the development of Jewish identity, both communally and for the individual.

2) Lex Luthor is the richest man in the world. Lex is not only one of the richest people in the DC Universe, but he has obtained his wealth through the type of ruthless business behaviors that non-Jews have frequently accused Jews of engaging in. Of course, Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor won’t be as damaging as Bernie Madoff or any of the very Lex-Luthorian types of Jewish descent that the US government has an irrational fear of prosecuting. The stereotype that Jews have lots of money is hardly new. The phenomenon of Jewish wealth can largely be traced back to the limiting of opportunities for Jews by the gentile populatins in which they lived. The inability to own land and Christian opposition to usury can both be credited with encouraging a tradition of finance and trade in Jewish communities, making both finance and trade elemental to the Jewish economy and to Jewish social mobility.

3) Superman is Jesus. As we all know, Superman was created by a couple of nice Jewish boys from Ohio and the comic book industry itself was largely created by Jews, borrowing many of its production strategies from the garment industry where Jews were also prevalent. Why did these Jews make a caped Jesus? The Christ-like nature of Superman has always been there. While Superman’s origin story greatly mirrors the story of Moses, we should pay attention to some differences in the two stories. Moses liberates his people from the tyranny of the Egyptians while Superman liberates a foreign population from the tyranny of themselves and external forces of Darkness. Superman is Jor-El’s only son. Jor-El gives his only son to the people of Earth- people he largely look down upon while simultaneously adoring them (sounds like any god you’ve heard of?). The messianic nature of Superman is well-documented and generally accepted, so I won’t go into too much detail here and will assume that you accept that the idea of “Superman as Christ” has legitimacy. Lex Luthor hates Superman- perpetuating the idea that Jews hated Jesus or willfully contributed to his crucifixion is an irresponsible assessment of the relationship Jesus had he with members of his own community.

For these reasons, I’m a little uncomfortable with Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor, but as a comic fan, I have no doubt that he will do a better job than Kevin Spacey, the worst Lex Luthor of all time. My favorite Lex so far? Either Clancy Brown or Anthony LaPaglia.

Honestly, I might be more excited about the Son of Batman animated movie that was recently announced more than the Man of Steel sequel.

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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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