When he was growing up, Mike Mignola had two great loves -- monster movies and superheroes. So when Dark Horse Comics offered him the chance to write and illustrate his own comic book, Mignola decided to combine the two.
The result is Hellboy, a wisecracking, good-hearted, old-fashioned superhero with one small problem: He’s a red-skinned, cloven-hoofed demon summoned by the Nazis to bring about the end of the world. When the Nazis’ plans are foiled, the then-infant Hellboy is taken in and raised by human beings. He forsakes his demon heritage and pledges to fight for good.
But can he really escape his destiny? Mignola, who has been writing Hellboy comics since 1993, isn’t sure. “It’s the ultimate question of predestination versus free will,” says Mignola from his home in New York. “It really is a quandary.”
Hellboy reflects one of the untold secrets of the comic book world -- it’s the characters, not the costumes and secret identities -- that matter most. From Superman to the recent Pixar film The Incredibles, comics have served as social parables, with superhuman characters revealing insights about the human condition.
Fighting on the side of good
In The Incredibles, superheroes are forced into hiding when public opinion turns against them. Mr. Incredible turns in his costume and “Incredible-mobile” for a Yugo-sized commuter car and a desk job at an insurance company. But he can’t give up the desire to save people, no matter what it costs his family.
“It’s not about super powers,” says H. Michael Brewer, lifelong comics fan and author of Who Needs a Superhero?, a new book about finding “virtue, vice and what’s holy” in comics. “It’s about finding your place in the world and, dare I say, family values.”
Brewer, pastor of Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church in Kentucky, has been weaving comic-book stories into his sermons for 25 years. He says that The Incredibles, like classic comics Batman and Superman, shows characters who find meaning in suffering. “Batman has a choice when his parents are killed,” Brewer says. “He can be crippled for life or deal with tragedy in a way that makes the world a better place. Superman loses everything -- his world, his family, his home. Instead of remaining a stranger, he decides to adopt these people of Earth as his own.”
Suffering as a theological issue
Another example can be found in the pages of the Green Arrow comic. Green Arrow recently took on a sidekick named Mia, once a teen runaway. During her days on the street, she contracted HIV.
“Having faced the trouble in her life,” Brewer says, “she wants to make a difference in the world. I can’t think of a more heroic thing to do.” It’s a pattern that Christians would do well to follow. The problem of suffering is “a real theological issue” Brewer says, one that “we don’t get much of an answer for.
“Instead of pondering the meaning of suffering, comic books ask a more challenging question: Given the reality of pain and suffering the world — what are you going to do about it?” Hellboy decides to answer that question by fighting monsters. “If he doesn’t do it, who will?” asks Mignola.
While some may wonder at the connection between comic books and Christianity, others believe some of the best superhero stories are found in the Bible itself. Moses performs superhuman feats — like parting the Red Sea—to rescue his people from Pharaoh, while Jesus walks on water, turns water into wine and escapes from an angry mob trying to toss him off a cliff.
Then there’s Samson, who tore a lion in two with his bare hands and gets into trouble when he reveals his secret, Kryptonite-like weakness to Delilah. According to Greg Garrett, author of Holy Superheroes, all Samson needs is some “long underwear” and he’d feel right at home in a comic.
“Any man who could slay huge numbers of foes with the jawbone of an ass, burst ropes by expanding his chest and push apart pillars to collapse a temple on his enemies is pretty close to prototypical superhero status,” Garrett writes.
Risking all to save one
That doesn’t mean that comic books can substitute for sermons, says Chris Yambar, a pastor who also writes for a comic-book series based on The Simpsons. “I never sit down and write a comic and say, ‘Here is the message I want to push.’ I say, ‘Here is a story I want to tell.’”
In one of Yambar’s stories, Bart Simpson is transformed into a superhero who uses his powers for his own benefit. That leads to a showdown with his sister Lisa, which Yambar uses to slip in a point about what it takes to be a hero.
“Greatness comes from within, Bart,” Lisa says in the comic. “Not from a freak accident with a radioactive spider, a gamma bomb or from finding a magic lantern.” “What are you talking about?” Bart asks. “I can make people do whatever I want them to now that I’ve got all the control. That makes me great.”
Lisa replies: “That makes you powerful. Being great comes from doing great things at your own risk.” When aliens invade the Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield, Bart decides to use his powers to come to the town’s rescue. At their best, Yambar adds, comics relay stories about important virtues: duty, compassion, courage.
“The real hero,” he says, “is the one who will risk everything to save one kid trapped in a building, regardless of the cost.”
The big-screen version of the Fantastic Four comic opens this month. Brewer hopes that many Christians will see it because he believes it is a model for the church. The Fantastic Four’s origin follows a common comic-book pattern — peril, power, and promise. After the crash landing of their experimental spacecraft, four astronauts emerge with superhuman abilities and vow to use them for good.
Christian life follows a similar path says Brewer: sin, salvation, service. Christians are saved from sin and given the power of the Holy Spirit — not for their own benefit — but in order to serve humanity.
“A great many Christians remain stunted in their faith because they accept Jesus and then stop, as if that completed things,” he says. “There is a world out there that needs saving, that needs Christians to act as God’s hands and feet.”