‘Sorcerers and Supermen’ in James’ McGrath’s Religion and Science Fiction

Let me say that I am impressed with this book. James McGrath has done an awesome job pulling together different scholars to examine the interaction between science-fiction and religion.
Check out my previous posts:
From Dr. Frankenstein to Topher Brink
Mis-Reading Star Trek? Exploring Danna’s Chapter in ‘Religion and Science Fiction’.

Today, capsule we’re looking at C.K. Robertson’s essay, “Sorcerers and Supermen: Old Mythologies in New Guises.”

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Rev. Robertson gives us an overview of the birth and rise of comic books in North America. Looking at the origins of heroes like Superman and Batman, Robertson tells of how they evolved over the years, including how their morality changed in later incarnations. For example, early Superman was somewhat callous and had no problem throwing a bad guy to his apparent death.

A large portion of his essay is spent discussing the Marvel ‘verse, and he includes information from private interviews with Stan Lee. Rev. Robertson looks at the glory days of the 1960’s when Marvel introduced a bevy of new heroes including: Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Avengers, Thor etc.

In light of the renaissance of Marvel movies in the past couple of years, the author also looks at the genesis of the comic book movie, which even the most hard-core comic geek has to admit, wasn’t very pretty. (David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury anyone?)

Rev. Robertson presents a basic synopsis of the history of the comic industry. Unfortunately, where he begins by framing the essay by suggesting that modern comic heroes are like the King Arthur legends retold as epic myths for each generation, he doesn’t go far enough in exploring that angle.

There are many parallels that could have been explored more in-depth between modern comics and the Arthurian legend of Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

Some versions of the Arthur tales gave super-powers to certain knights. Sir Kay, for example, had the ability to hold his breath for nine days, increase his height (much like the Avenger known as Giant Man, and the Super-Friends cartoon character Apache Chief), and radiate heat from his body (though not at the same level as the Human Torch). Sir Gawain’s strength increased and decreased with the rising and setting of the sun, reminiscent of the solar-powered mutant Sunspot.

Arthur’s opponents also had enhanced abilities, the most obvious example being the Green Knight, who calmly reattached his own severed head.

Does this persistence of super-powered heroes and villains across the centuries reveal some sort of persistent cultural fascination with the possibility of humans becoming more-than-human? Does it mean anything that super-powered characters stand equal with (and are sometimes defeated by) non-powered characters whose abilities are the result of lifelong training (such as Lancelot and Batman)?

Much has been made of the semi-egalitarian nature of the Round Table, with a clear leader (Arthur) but a cadre of knightly equals. How do current super-teams compare? The Fantastic Four are a family, with Mister Fantastic as the patriarch, the Invisible Woman as his strong-yet-nurturing helpmate, and two squabbling siblings (the Thing and the Human Torch). The X-Men could be compared to a team of activists guided by the moral vision of Professor X. The Justice League seems to be run by consensus, with no official “leader.” The closest equivalent might be the Avengers, which is led by an elected Chair, but has no hierarchy beyond that. Is there a “best” organizational structure for a team of super-heroes?

Rev. Robertson concludes his essay with a call to embrace our imagination and to delight in the supernatural and magic offered in the coloured squares of comic books:

…from 1938 onward the mythology of comic books has been ‘unfettered by the confines of realism,’ and remains now, as then, something best accepted and appreciated by those whose childlike imaginations continue to soar, by those who still dare to believe that a man can fly. (pg 58)