How Comic Books Became Religion

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I am specifically interested in the way comic books reflect—and sometimes shape—culture and politics. And I can take an esoteric step even beyond that and say that I’m very interested in the way comics reflect, shape, and even seemingly “predict” the elements of our very reality.

Case in point: the 2012 mass shooting during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises…by a man who allegedly styled himself after Batman’s nemesis, the Joker.

There was a disturbing, uncanny “meta” quality to that tragic incident…which the TDKR movie itself, once viewed, only looped back around to accentuate. It was almost as if there was some sort of “dialogue” between the fantasy and reality. I shouldn’t have been that surprised, however…

I. WHO IS THE MASTER WHO MAKES THE FLASH RUN?

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from Animal Man #19

Sometime around the start of the 1990s, comic books became Self Aware—due in large part to Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man and, more particularly, the famous “I CAN SEE YOU!” scene where Buddy Baker turns around and addresses the reader.

But such a “meta” approach had been teased for many decades— with occasional “creators meet their creations” storylines such as “The Day I Saved The Life Of The Flash” in 1974, where real-life comic writer Cary Bates appeared as himself to help the Scarlet Speedster.

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The Flash thanks the writer of The Flash, who is a character in The Flash

The tagline on the cover of that story read,

Who is the mystery man that controls every move of the Flash’s life?

And that caption made me think of when Robert Anton Wilson asked this Zen Buddhist question:

Who is the master who makes the grass green?

In both cases, that Master is ourselves (or, in the case of Cary Bates, the person who wrote the comic book). These stories and heroes are not created, maintained, and presented in a vacuum; we—and our world—are always a part of it. And the color of grass is dependent on how our senses and brain interpret it. Everything is dependent on our perception.

There is no absolute.

But don’t tell a Fan that.

II. BAT-MITE, THE ANGRY FANBOY JEHOVAH

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Bat-Mite finds heresy that must be addressed

Some fans get really psychotic over changes to, or “wrong interpretations” of, their beloved characters; because in their perception, Batman or Spider-Man or whomever truly is—in some timeless, objective sense—the way they perceive him or her to be. And a challenge to their personal experience of this character—a challenge to their personal reality-tunnel, which they see as an objective reality—is taken as an act of “blasphemy” or even war.

One of my theories is that comics=religion to some people, even to those—and sometimes especially to those—who consider themselves “free” from religious belief. These individuals are fine with bashing the yokels who tie their spiritual wagons to this or that ancient holy book…but heaven help anyone who messes with their own (stapled down the middle, collector’s edition first printing holograph cover with trading card) sacred tomes.

Bates really got the ball rolling on the whole “metafiction” idea in comics, but Morrison wove it into the very heart and soul of Animal Man—and, by implication, into the entire DC Comics universe as well, leading to such myriad self-referential elements in their comics such as the DC memorabilia-themed diner in Kingdom Come, the Bat-Mite/Mxyzptlk one-shot Superman and Batman: World’s Funnest, and a large portion of the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

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The “church” of Nostalgia

But whereas Morrison was getting at larger questions regarding the nature of reality and the totemistic qualities of these very familiar heroes, the “meta fad” in comics which started in the late 1990s and sort of slouched through almost every aspect of The Aughts, was obsessed and entranced with Nostalgia.

In fact, “ultimate fanboy” Bat-Mite— whose two appearances on the Brave and Bold cartoon pushed the “meta” button almost to unwatchable lengths—became sort of the patron saint not only of transgressing the Fourth Wall, but of this whole period in comic book history.

Constantly fixating on and rehashing your Sacred Cows and favorite “gods” can be quite decadent—and I see the last decade or so’s obsession with nostalgia in both the comics industry and comics fandom as being the direct result of the anticipation of massive change on the horizon, the aging legions of fanboy Osirian priests defending the fort against the impending heresies of the new Aeon.

Every aspect of the Beloved—heroes, retro-cool, key scenes, landmark issues, primal moments of adolescent pleasure—needed to be honored and embalmed in the most elaborate and exclusive of limited-edition action figure sets of all time. You know, before the impeding cataclysm (bad economy, corporatization, a changing demographic) wiped them away from the active stage.

Huh. Sounds a little like the world outside of Geek fandom as well, doesn’t it?

III. WHO IS THE MASTER WHO CONTROLS THE COMICS?

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From Action Comics #8

Though these meta stories by Bates and Morrison posited the comics creator as the master who made the grass green and The Flash red—increasingly the Artist’s sovereignty was getting pushed to the side, as the Ultra Fanboy (as personified with our dimension-hopping Bat-Mite) duked it out with what was revealed to be, if not the true Creator of these heroes and worlds, then certainly its Master: the Company.

In the war between Fan (consumer) and Company (owner of the consumed), what is the role of the Artist?

And further: in such an environment, what becomes of the comic book hero itself, his or her soul, the essence of the character? These are the modern gods and goddesses—for better or for worse—of our time. Is it no wonder that people fight so bitterly over them? What more is at stake than just corporate profits and a fanboy’s ego?

What exactly is the power of these icons, these images?

These questions—and their answers —are key to not only Understanding Comics in the present period, but the wider cultural, ideological, and political movements that impact our world–

Morrison: “It’s only a comic.”
Animal Man: “It’s not! IT’S NOT ONLY A COMIC! IT’S MY LIFE!”

–because everything, as we will see in other posts on this site, is interrelated—the influence of these iconic characters extending far beyond the borders of their panels and movie screens.

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