One of the great joys of searching for truth in unlikely places is that every once in a while you turn up a gem. Having already read and reviewed two “okay” books—Who Needs a Superhero? and Comic Book Character—that sought to extract spiritual insights from the world of comic books, I had pretty much given up on finding anything substantial on the topic. Then someone handed me a copy of Holy Superheroes! by Greg Garrett, co-author of The Gospel Reloaded.
The book sat on my desk for about a month before I finally picked it up, certain it was going to be “more of the same.” But twenty-six pages in, I began to suspect I had finally hit the jackpot. As it turns out, the world of books is not much different than the world of superheroes: Things are not always as they seem. Just as Lois Lane had no idea that behind Clark Kent’s mild-mannered visage lurked the greatest superhero of all time, I had no idea that Holy Superheroes! would turn out to be not just a great book about the spirituality of comic books. For me at least, it also turned out to be one of the most insightful books I have read on any topic in a long time.
Perhaps part of the appeal for me was that Holy Superheroes! also turned out to be the right book at the right time. The day before I read it, I had written a lengthy reflection on the film Kingdom of Heaven, wherein I discussed the futility of responding to violence with more violence. Seeing as taking such a stance has left me bruised and battered at the hands of my fellow believers in the past, I was feeling somewhat apprehensive, like a disobedient child waiting anxiously for his father to return home from work, not sure if he was going to be swatted or not. However, rather than upbraid me for my audacity, Holy Superheroes! actually affirmed and expanded upon what I had written—pretty surprising considering superhero comics are some of the most violent forms of entertainment around. Lest you think I only liked this book because it agrees with me though, let me share a few other things Holy Superheroes! has going for it.
What Garrett attempts in this book is a “philosophical reading” of comic books, a study of comics to see if they can offer wisdom on how to live our lives. Why comic books? Because they and the superheroes that populate them have become the primary mythology of our society, Garrett says. Even though not all of us read comics, we all know the stories and characters. Our society has chosen reason and empirical data as its primary source of truth, but the power of myth cannot be ignored. And if we do ignore it, it is to our peril. As Garrett says in the foreword, “We’ve gotten in the bad habit of thinking of myth as something false, or at best, untrue—like those old Greek gods and snake-headed monsters—rather than something that is supremely true; we’ve made the mistake of thinking that myth is untrue because it can’t be proven, rather than something that is supremely true because it’s a story that has to be accepted.”
Even though we have turned our back on myth, a part of us keeps reaching out for something to fill the gap that reason has left behind. Where this need used to be satisfied by reading the lives of saints, apostles, and other heroes of the faith, we now read about men and women who have secret identities and run around in skin-tight costumes doing battle with the forces of evil. These are the stories that move us, Garrett says, “the ones we most need to hear to be whole.” How and why these stories lead us closer to the sacred and inspire us in our own quest to do good is the main subject of this book.
Garrett starts by looking at the connection between comics and religion. In this chapter, he shows how comics are really the latest manifestation of the “American monomyth,” which goes something like this: “A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this thread; a selfless hero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity.” He goes on to show how the American monomyth is actually a retelling of the Judeo-Christian story of redemption, a.k.a “the gospel.” Thus, Garrett argues, superhero comics are to be taken seriously, “as seriously as we ought to take every kind of storytelling,” because they can teach us about what it means to be human. Comic books can actually change our lives, for good or ill. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to poke fun at the comic store owner on The Simpsons. Perhaps those seemingly trivial distinctions between Captain Kirk and Captain Picard are more important than you think.
Garrett moves on to discuss our need for heroes and the archetypal shape of the hero’s journey, as it is replicated across time, culture, and religion. The ongoing appeal of superhero stories, Garrett says, is that they are merely the most recent manifestation of this archetype, which seems to be hardwired into our systems. At the same time, he warns that even though these stories may tap into archetypal figures—such as Christ—we should not mistake metaphor for reality. Thus, while we can notice correspondences between Christ and Superman, for example, we should not seek to equate the two. Instead, we should merely ask how these correspondences can instruct and inspire us.
After these introductory chapters, Garrett turns his attention to a number of topics that are front and center in the world of superheroes. First up is the relationship between power and responsibility, a link made clear through the life of Spiderman in particular. Garrett concludes his study by pointing out how even though we aren’t superheroes; we all have power—especially those of us wealthy enough to afford such luxury items as comic books. The question is, are we using our power responsibly?
Truth is the next topic of discussion. Why Garrett failed to bring in Wonder Woman’s magic lasso I’m not sure (her lasso forced whoever was caught in it to tell the truth), but his discussion still bears much fruit. Most notably, he talks about the danger of certainty. “Oftentimes surety can be more dangerous than any enemy you face,” says Garrett. Shocking words, no doubt, for those who still believe in such things as "evidence that demands a verdict." By way of example, he talks about the Nazis and the Japanese militarists of World War II. Both groups were certain that what they believed was right—and the entire world is still trying to recover from the outcome of those beliefs. He shows how certainty inevitably leads to fundamentalism, which, if not checked, leads to holy war in defense of one’s doctrine or beliefs. Truth is far more complex than fundamentalists of any stripe would have us believe, argues Garrett, and our world would be a much safer place if more of us woke up to that fact.
From truth, Garrett turns to justice. In this section, he seeks to expand our definition of justice beyond retribution. While retribution may bring a temporary halt to crime or some other social problem, it fails to deal with the root causes of evil, and it offers no vision of the just society. Using Batman as a model of retributive justice, Garrett describes the price of going down such a path: “Batman’s success as a crime-fighter has come at the expense of his success as a well-rounded human being.” Instead of conceptualizing justice as punishment, a response to a negative action, far better, says Garrett, to adopt the view of the ancient Hebrews, who saw justice as, “an ongoing movement toward equal opportunities for all people, and support for the less privileged, aged, or infirm.”
Garrett’s take on patriotism is perhaps the most subversive section of this book. He describes the concept of “benevolent fascism,” which dominates superhero stories, saying, “The traditional superhero myth suggests that power in one set of capable hands is the surest way to achieve justice, that democratic systems can’t be trusted to perform their tasks alone, that anyway, the hero would never take advantage of those he serves, and that that the world requires American superheroism.” Sounds like something you might see scrawled on the bathroom wall at CIA headquarters—or on the doorplate to the Oval Office. Garrett goes on to offer a critique of American foreign policy, chastising the government and the American people in general for being so narrow-minded as to believe that Americans have a monopoly on truth and justice, that America is not only the last of the superpowers, it is also the most heroic. “Unquestioning acceptance of a truth—any truth—is dangerous,” says Garrett. He urges people not to swallow everything they’re told by the government, even it if means they are branded as unpatriotic or disloyal.
From here, Garrett moves on to only slightly less controversial ground by confronting the problem of evil. He considers what role evil plays in God’s redemptive story, where evil comes from, and how all of us share responsibility for the “evil that men do.” But Garrett doesn’t abandon us to the Dark Side. He also offers a way out, showing that all religious faiths agree that the only way to overcome evil is through unselfishness, compassion, and love.
As an addendum to his discussion of benevolent or “pop fascism,” Garrett also weighs in on vigilantism. After all, virtually every superhero is a vigilante on some level, because they take the law into their own hands. In this sense, heroes are often seen as outlaws as well, as the Batman knows all too well. One of the main reasons for this blurring of lines, Garrett points out, is that vigilantism involves a blend of “extralegal violence and personal vengeance.” Thus, vigilante justice is rarely selfless and, hence, open to suspicion. After all, if the heroes are using the same methods as the villains and are motivated by the same feelings of anger and retribution, are they really all that different? As Garrett says in relation to an incident from Alan Moore's quintessential 1980s classic, The Watchmen, “If you have to stop being a hero to accomplish your ends, then maybe they’re not worth accomplishing.” Or, to put it in terms of Kingdom of Heaven, if you feel tempted to commit a little bit of evil for the sake of the greater good, perhaps you should reconsider whether that “good” really is all that great.
Delving deeper into the root cause of evil, Garrett turns to superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, and Batman to show how the war against evil may often be a symbolic war against the self. He also wonders about our tendency to fear those who are not like us. “Is it part of our nature to try to destroy people who are different from us?” Garrett wonders. “How can we be aware of these feelings and stop genocide from happening again on such a grand scale?” He believes the answers to these questions can be found in, you guessed it, comic books!
Next, Garrett looks at what comics have to say about the apocalypse and how we should live our lives in light of this reality. Despair is always a temptation, but Garrett argues in favor of hope, which is much more than a vague desire for things to turn out right. True hope gives birth to action. “How the world ends up is not up to us,” says Garrett. “But what we do while we’re in it? That part most certainly is.”
Garrett concludes the book with a lengthy discussion on how to bring an end to violence. Garrett argues that, “we love violence as much as we love hatred.” However, even though retribution feels good at the time, it only leads to more suffering. “Violence can shock and awe someone, but it will never change an opinion, right a wrong, or save a soul.” Fair enough, but how are we to respond to our enemies then? Compassion is the answer, says Garrett. “We have to… see even our enemies—maybe especially our enemies—as human beings.” Compassion destroys any false sense of dichotomy between our enemies and us, making it much more difficult for us to hate and destroy. Thus begins the long, hard road to healing and reconciliation. It also turns our attention toward those whom Christ sent us to serve: the victims. Using Alan Moore’s short story "This Is Information" to illustrate this fact, Garrett shows that “the choice between good and evil, between us and them, may be satisfying, but it’s a false choice. Our hands need to be extended to those who are suffering, whoever they may be. But that can be a hard lesson for us to hold.”
Hard indeed, but this is the path that all of us must walk if we hope to be heroes in our world.