When I was a kid, my world was made up of stories. It didn’t matter the source; Superman was on par with Jesus and He-Man. Every story was all part of the same fantastical tapestry, interwoven narratives that taught the same morals: be strong for the weak, fight for justice, and have big muscles and a tiny weird man-bra (that last one is He-Man specific). My head was in the clouds, where superheroes flew and God existed somewhere above me.
Even as I’ve gotten older, both religion and comics have been present in my life. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman helped me unpack some of my fundamentalism. Craig Thompson’s Blankets helped me confront purity culture before I even heard that term. And when I heard that Mark Russell, the author of God Is Disappointed in You (a satirical re-telling of the Bible) was developing a comic series where Jesus returns to Earth to be roommates with a superhero, well, it felt providential.
The series is called Second Coming, and the first collected volume was released this week.
Second Coming didn’t have an easy path to comic stores. The book was initially scheduled to be released by DC’s now-defunct Vertigo imprint. However, as this New York Times article details, the comic was lambasted in conservative Christian media and an online petition was launched that garnered over 200,000 signatures.
In response, DC decided to cancel the series publication. Thankfully, Mark Russell & his co-creator Richard Pace retained control of the project and found a new publisher - Ahoy Comics. And I’m so glad Ahoy gave this story a home.
The setup is simple enough: God, displeased with how Jesus’ first foray on Earth went, decides to send his son back and live with a superhero named Sunstar. God hopes that maybe it’ll even toughen Jesus up a bit.
The cosmology and theology Russell creates feels, for lack of a better word, realistic. God is capricious, foul-mouthed, and difficult to please; he sets things in motion, but is more interested in moving on to the next thing than ensuring things on Earth are working as they should. He expects things to go a certain way, is cagey with information, and gets pissed when things don’t go as planned.
Jesus is, well, Christ-like. He sees things not as they should be, but as they are. He pierces the veil of the world’s systems and sees the flaws in both his father’s perception of humanity and humanity’s perception of itself. He wants to help people understand the shortcomings of power and violence.
This is is seen in greatest juxtaposition with Sunstar’s actions. Whereas Jesus espouses nonviolence and mercy, as a superhero Sunstar’s first and only recourse to deal with villains is through violence. It’s an incisive commentary on the popularity of superhero narratives that rely solely on fisticuffs to solve problems. (My own daughter has remarked that she doesn’t always like superhero movies, because so many people get hurt or die. She’s wise.) Jesus infuriates Sunstar by healing criminals he had just beaten up, simply because they needed it.
Over the course of the volume, Sunstar’s approach to crime-fighting changes. At one point, God intervenes and brings Sunstar to Heaven for a chat. They share a meal at Heaven’s food court, sampling from fast food franchises that have gone to The Great Beyond, and God makes this confession:
Sunstar leaves Heaven with renewed conviction and trust in his own physical power, that his might will make right. When his girlfriend receives a threat from a stalker, he goes off the handle and goes to confront the stalker at his home and intimidate him. Unfortunately, Sunstar was given the wrong address, and attacked an innocent man. Jesus consoles and pastors him:
In “orthodox” Christianity (those Christianities that affirm the Nicene Creed), it is believed that Jesus is fully-human and fully-divine. It is moments like this in Second Coming that make clear that we need Jesus’ humanity and challenge to authority and power today, even if we’re not personally convinced of his divinity.
These moments continue. Jesus is confronted by a street preacher after exiting a gay bar; in the confrontation he learns about the Apostle Paul and is aghast (he never met the guy, after all). He tells the preacher who he is, and is thrown in jail. While commiserating with his cell mate, he shares this:
These moments are healing. They reflect an earnest engagement with Christianity and its highest ideals and ethics, but acknowledge that it’s hard to square them with a chaotic, cruel world that often feels like it could only have been created by a capricious, absentee deity. To have the figure of Jesus give voice to these emotions is somehow rewarding.
There are other elements to the story told in this first volume: Satan has his own plans, Sunstar and his girlfriend want to start a family. The heart shown in the parts of the story I’ve shared here permeates it all.
Over the course of Russell’s published works, he has honed the ability to disarm his readers with satire in order to deliver powerful social commentary. It doesn’t feel like a setup, like an evangelical asking you for coffee or a college acquaintance sending you an unsolicited message about their latest MLM scheme. No one else does it as regularly or successfully as him, and he does it brilliantly in Second Coming.
The world of Second Coming is brought to life by the team of Richard Pace on art, Leonard Kirk as finisher, Andy Troy on coloring, and Rob Steen on letters. Commentary on art is a bit beyond me, but comics are a visual medium, so I will try. The art by Pace shows an incredible range of emotion on each character’s face; Pace and Kirk employs creative panel layouts even as the story pivots from action scenes to quiet moments of conversation, and Andy Troy’s coloring compliments his art perfectly. Rob Steen’s letters are subtle, and even as the narrator changes, the reader is never lost; this is harder than it sounds, and Steen does it very well.
I highly recommend Second Coming for anyone who enjoys social satire, but especially for those who (like myself) see something attractive about the teachings and ethics of Jesus of Nazareth even as their beliefs around theology continue to shift and change with time.
The first volume of Second Coming is available now.
I spoke with Mark Russell on Exvangelical in 2019. Listen here.
This week on Exvangelical
This week I spoke to Chrissy Stroop & Lauren O’Neal, co-editors of the essay anthology Empty The Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. They are both return guests, and we had a great time talking about their book.
“I’m Not Surprised, Just Disappointed”
PRRI published a new survey recently showing that Trump’s support stayed steady throughout 2019. No surprise, white evangelical Protestants were his most ardent supporters:
“Majorities of white evangelical Protestants view Trump favorably regardless of gender, age, education, marital status, or geographic region. White evangelical Protestant men (69%) are more likely than white evangelical Protestant women (59%) to say they have a favorable impression of the president. Trump’s favorability rises to about seven in ten among seniors ages 65 and older (70%) and middle-aged white evangelical Protestants ages 50-64 (68%). Fewer than six in ten white evangelical Protestants ages 18-29 (57%) and 30-49 (55%) have favorable views of the president.”
To the Left, to the [Religious] Left
Apparently Americans think Democratic candidates aren’t religious, according to a Pew study. This is indicative of both evangelical hegemony in religious media as well as the failure of major outlets to frame these candidates as religious in a meaningful way. Further, it is also a long-term capitulation to the Religious Right that religiously-motivated politicians can only be motivated by a single-issue (abortion) and that that motivation is anti-choice instead of pro-climate, prison reform, racial justice, or any other social concern.
To wit, there are at least two books coming out this year about the Religious Left: Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity by Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, and American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country by Jack Jenkins.
Culture Wars at the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court will hear a case that will have legal implications for LGBTQ rights. From Vox:
“The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will hear Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a hugely consequential case that could fundamentally change the rules governing when people with religious objections to a law may ignore that law.
Fulton asks whether religious organizations that contract with Philadelphia to help place foster children in homes have a First Amendment right to discriminate against same-sex couples. It is also the first case the Supreme Court will hear where a religious group claims the right to violate a ban on discrimination since Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation gave reliably conservative Republicans a majority on the Supreme Court.”
This will be one to watch. Expect more (and more fallout) from this story.
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