Introduction: Comics, Culture — and Religion?
by Joshua Warren of NoApologiesAllowed
content © 2012 Joshua Warren
Comic books used to be called “funny books”. In fact, my dear ol’ Mother still calls them that. But even a quick, careless glance at any comic rack would provide proof enough that comics have grown up. While some “funny” ones are still around, these days the medium deals with “mature” themes and hot issues. While we fanboys have always taken comics seriously, the rest of the world had once relegated comic book reading to the awkward period of puberty and pimples. After landmark graphic novels like Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, even non-fanboys started taking notice. Readership now may include as many neurosurgeons as nerds.
And rightly so. Culture and comics are intimately related. And religion, too! Think not?
Once, when trying to come up with new ideas, comic book legend Jack Kirby first turned to the Bible. Noteworthy characters that resulted were Galactus, his take on a god, and the Silver Surfer, his version of a fallen angel. Afterwards, he began to survey the culture and the myths and legends that infused it. It was then that he came up with The New Gods, Mr. Miracle, and The Forever People (fanboys can reference “The Fourth World”). Note for the non-fanboys among readers: Kirby’s collaboration with fellow comic book legend Stan Lee is what gave birth to the most popular comic books today. Thor. Iron Man. The Hulk. Captain America. The “uninitiated” may know the names from movies, but before they were movies they were the target of a mother’s spring cleaning wrath for many a boy. Yes, Hollywood quickly caught on and caught up. After finally getting the technology to show off the incredible powers and worlds of comic book superheroes, the movie-consuming public stopped laughing (we forgive you, Matt Salinger) and started clapping (thank you, Chris Nolan).
While the definition of “mature” is open for debate, movies highlight just how much comics have changed over the years. If you were to compare modern comic books stories to their counterparts from even just 20 or 30 years ago, you’ll see that these ain’t your mama’s comics. Controversy, sex, and killing span its pages. And rest assured that where there’s controversy, sex, and killing, religion is never far behind.
Enter living comic book legend Erik Larsen, an incredible comic book artist and writer. His distinctive drawing style has been seen on the pages of just about every famous comic book superhero you can think of: Spider-Man, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four and an assortment of others. He left Marvel back in the early ’90s (not alone, mind you) to form the hugely successful, creator-owned company known as Image Comics. (For those of you who have been living in your parents’ basement, you know the story. But for the rest of you who have been living under a rock, now you know, too.) There he continues to write, illustrate, and publish, working mainly on a character that he created when he was just a kid, the Savage Dragon (TSD).
TSD deals with the aforementioned “mature” themes. Two-page spreads of violence, gore, and blood are frequent. Half-naked men and women in skin-tight suits call its pages home (nothing new there). And once Erik Larsen even did what few have done or dare to do: he brought “god” into the comic world in an obvious way — as a character in TSD!
But are comic books the place to deal with religious issues? You wouldn’t think it would be a question. After all, “good and evil” is the quintessential comic book theme. (Consider Batman and the Joker. Superman and Lex Luthor.) But just where do those labels come from? What distinguishes them? Isn’t it a question of actions? A moral question maybe?
The following are some questions I was curious to ask a living legend in a field that deals with good and evil on a monthly basis. I submit it to Erik Larsen fans as a unique glimpse into his thoughts on things outside of comics that you may or may not care about. And I submit it for consideration to fellow apologists who take history, thinking, reality, and interaction with other humans seriously.
Please do enjoy!
NoApologiesAllowed Interview with Comic Legend Erik Larsen
1) Religion is the common target of a lot of criticism inside and outside of the comic book field. But normally we expect people to aim before they shoot. With that in mind, I’d like to know: How would you define “religion”?
A belief system, often embraced by people too lazy to think for themselves. That’s not a nice answer but an honest one. Often people embrace religion because it provides answers to troubling questions and church can provide a sense of community and solace. And while I do appreciate community and solace and I do encourage people to seek peaceful solutions I question embracing a belief system simply because it’s the path of least resistance.
2) One fundamental mistake is to assume the words of any given comic character represent those of its author or artist. So, instead of wrongly assuming that the words of Savage Dragon represent your own thoughts, I’d like to ask you how you would describe yourself. Religious? Atheist? Agnostic? Buddhist?
Agnostic with leanings toward Atheism. I think we’re all agnostic whether we want to admit it or not. We can’t know the answers and we don’t know the answers and anybody that pretends to is kidding themselves.
3) What evidence do you find most compelling about your current position? (Give as much or as little detail as you’d like.)
I exist. That is about as far as I know. The origins of mankind I trust to scientists but even that is taken on faith to some degree. I am familiar enough with the Bible and its teachings to find it both implausible and archaic.
4) Is there any definitive religious experience of your past that really made you consider it in a different light (whether positive or negative)? If so, would you care to share that?
There have been none. I have participated in a Bible study group in high school because a close friend who was dealing with drug issues attended meetings and I accompanied him but none of it took. My mother is a Unitarian minister but became one later in life. When I was growing up our family did not attend church regularly (although I did attend some services when I was quite young).
6) In the story “A Talk With God” (TSD Vol. 7, #27-33), the character “God” appears as a bearded, white-haired old man. What inspired that imagery?
Common depictions. My God in Savage Dragon was an idealized one. It was an answer to the question “if there was a god–what would you like him to be like?” My God character in Savage Dragon was created to be one that answered questions, sure, but was all-encompassing. It was an attempt to create a divine being and an afterlife which could work for everybody.
7) What sort of reaction did you have from different readers to that story arc?
It was pretty uniformly positive.
8) How would you describe the “God” you don’t believe in?
God is a simple answer to a complex question. It’s a way of putting that question aside and moving on to other concerns. “God will sort things out” is a nice way of saying, “I can’t be bothered to think about that.” And “God works in mysterious ways” is a way of covering for an imaginary being that isn’t acting in a consistent or sensical manner.
9) When someone says “Jesus”, what comes to mind?
Somebody must have had a negative surprise. I don’t think of it in a religious context.
10) For better or worse, people with any strong convictions seem to react strongly when those are challenged or ridiculed. Before this short interview you mentioned that you thought your answers might possibly alienate some people. While I hope that portion of your readership will have the maturity to not let any potential differences alter their enjoyment of your work, it wouldn’t be unusual. What do you think makes religion such a sensitive subject and, more importantly, what would you say to anybody attempting to discuss religion — any religion — with another person?
People don’t like to have to think. They prefer pat answers and don’t like having to think about complex issues. It’s the same reason people will embrace a political party–often one that is doing things at odds with their own self-interests. It’s easier to say, “I always vote Republican or Democrat” than to study the complexities and platforms of the various candidates. If God is your answer–you’ve made a choice–and you don’t want to have to defend it or have it questioned. That part of your life is settled. It’s time to move on. Often questions lead to doubts and uncertainty and people don’t want their beliefs challenged because that part of their life has been settled and they don’t want to have to think about it and make other choices.
And now just two unrelated questions:
11) You’ve drawn and/or written for nearly every major character at Marvel, DC, and Image. What do you hope to accomplish next in your career?
I hope to continue. Doing this for the rest of my life was the goal. I’m doing what I set out to do.
12) What’s the best film adaptation of a comic book?
Scott Pilgrim was pretty good, I thought.
First let me say this: For years, one thing that always interested me was to hear the artists speak for themselves. Maybe this interview will find the like-minded of you out there. So, know that it was a genuine privilege to present this interview with Erik Larsen to you all for your consideration. He didn’t have to do it, but he was kind enough to take up a sincere inquiry from this nobody (me). Thanks so much, Erik!
The most immediate thing that stood out to me was Erik’s candidness, which was appreciated. He said exactly what was on his mind using the words he wanted. Erik did rightly emphasize the cultural practice of letting other people do our thinking for us and that even some “scientific” propositions have to be taken with some level of faith (i.e. the origins of mankind). He also highlighted the ditto-disease that plagues not just the political world that he mentioned, but the religious world, too.
Interestingly, he sees God as merely a figment of people’s imaginations. He regards belief in God as just that, an unchallengeable thought that, apparently, people he has encountered come to use as an scapegoat for reasonable inquiry. The Bible was judged “archaic” and “implausible” (no specifics were given). Jesus was dismissed as an idiom.
So, of course, it should be no surprise to learn that there are many of us who disagree with all those conclusions. There are many of us who maintain a belief in God and the reliability of the Bible because of evidence, not emotion, just as many don’t use “God” as an excuse to end all inquiry. I was surprised by the response to the Jesus question given that his life, death, and resurrection have been the subject of intense research and historical inquiry / debate for nearly 2,000 years. And I would like to think that Erik would hardly toss the likes of G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, William Lane Craig, and many, many others into the “people that don’t like to think” bin, were he familiar with their work (and I’m not saying he isn’t). Religion does have its share of people content with being told what to do, wear, think, and protest, but it certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on it (spend a year in the teaching profession and see).
But a challenge I would pose to Erik and those who would support his point of view regarding “religion” is this: It’s quite easy to put all religious claims under the same umbrella and dismiss them than it is to study the many mixed motivations of mankind. (As Erik correctly noted, people do the same thing with political candidates and their positions on various issues.) Study competing religious claims. Examine the evidence. You owe it to yourself to not be guilty of not wanting “[your] beliefs challenged because that part of [your] life has been settled and [you] don’t want to have to think about it and make other choices”, if I can use Erik’s quote in this context.
A great time for a Snoopy cartoon as any, since he asks us each a question that we should honestly consider:
Not all religions are the same. Not all religious claims are equal. And all religions certainly don’t put the same emphasis on truth and logic. In fact, there are some (Zen Buddhism, for example) that laugh at logic. Bottom line, if we’re not going to listen to or even allow to speak anybody except those that agree with whatever we think, feel, or believe, then nothing is going to get any better. It’s equally disingenuous to lump all religious claims together and discard them, since one, maybe just one of them might turn out to be true…
Note to rabid fanboys: Erik Larsen’s appearance on this site doesn’t in any way mean that he agrees or likes anything on it. In fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.
Note to comic book readers among the readers: If you liked this interview, let Erik know! More importantly, if you like to hear what comic artists and writers think about issues outside the comic field, say something about it to them!