Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Superman, Canon, and Gospels

Greetings, AFB!  That's Avid Fan Base, to those of you not in the know.  And if you are a part of the Avid Fan Base, then you absolutely know what I call you because the Avid Fan Base exists totally in my head.  It's all imaginary.  But just because it's imaginary doesn't mean it isn't real.  I mean, here I am, writing about the AFB.  And there you are, reading about the AFB.

Anyway, let's talk about stories about Superman.  And let's talk about stories about Jesus.  And then let's talk about how Superman can teach us to value stories about Jesus that were not written down by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

This may get a tad heretical.  Consider yourself warned.

DC Comics has the label "Elseworlds" for certain stories.  Elseworlds stories don't take place in the official or accepted continuity of a given character.  They are usually just one-off stories told for fun and not intended to affect the greater story line and history of the character.  This allows creators to explore some wild ideas: What if Batman was in the 19th century and fought Jack the Ripper?  What if Superman's spaceship originally crashed in Russia and he was raised by the Soviets?  What if Bruce Wayne was the Green Lantern of Sector 2814?

What if Superman was dying and needed to save the world one final time?

Yeah, I'm talking about All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.  If you love stories or just have the faintest interest in Superman, you ought to read this 12 issue series.  Now, I'll come right out and say it can be difficult to read.  Morrison draws on the wealth of Superman history and includes an unbelievable amount of references and even the most ardent Superman fan would fail to catch them all on the first read through.  

Not only that, but Morrison's writing on this series is very compressed.  A recent trend in American comics is decompression: using multiple panels to cover a short period of time which aides in setting a mood and allowing room for character development.  Decompressed comics tend to move at a much slower pace.  Compression is the opposite of this: packing a lot of information in one panel and then jumping to another packed panel.  Because the story is moving so quickly, there can be quite the gap in the gutter (the space between two panels).  Now, as any good comic fan knows, it's the responsibility of the readers to fill in the gutter.  They do this by participating in the act of storytelling and inserting actions and events that would potentially occur to get from one panel to the next.  In decompressed comics, this can be rather easy.  Compression in comics, though, can be quite demanding on the readers, requiring them to fill in the gutter with a multitude of their own content in order to arrive at the next panel.  It might be said that in All Star Superman, Morrison takes compression even farther and engages in hyper-compression.  Sometimes the book can get confusing when it seems there is barely anything to connect one panel to the next.  But they are connected.  The reader just has to be actively engaged with the material to follow along.

A good example of this appears on the very first page and tells the story of Superman's origin.  But this whole series is about Superman's end, so Morrison wastes no time or space telling the well known story of Superman's beginning.  1 Page.  4 Panels.  8 Words.  Beautiful.

Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.

Hollywood could really learn something from this page.  While Superman Returns didn't strictly retell the origin, it covered it some.  I'm disappointed that it currently looks like Zack Snyder's upcoming Superman movie will yet again tell the origin story of Superman.  Look, it's a great origin story.  I mean, it worked great for Moses and Jesus.  But we know it.  Everyone knows it.  Superman is probably the best known messianic figure in western culture since Christ.  Even Let's Be Friends Again notes the eloquent brevity of All Star Superman's origin is sufficient.

As beautiful as that first page is, the following pages only get better.  This book is simply a beautiful story about Superman's selflessness, self-sacrifice, and ultimate compassion for humanity and his adopted planet of Earth.  It's a story of hope in the face of hopelessness.  It superbly captures the essence of the character.  But since the story isn't even in proper Superman continuity, it isn't even "real."  For me, though, it may be the most true story about Superman I have ever read.

And here, in a truly roundabout way, we finally arrive to something theologically related (I don't know, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the possibility of hyper-compression in the sacraments.  Give me some time on that one).  Even stories that aren't "real" or "true" or canon can still serve a purpose and do some good.  Will All Star Superman ever be included in the official Superman continuity?  Probably not.  I actually hope not, for that would mean an end to Superman.  But I still learn a whole lot about who Superman is from the story.

Can the same be said for stories about Jesus?  Though our gut reaction may be "NO!" I think that yes, yes we can find value in non-canonical stories about Jesus.  Even thought All Star Superman isn't canonical, I know the character is an accurate representation of Superman because he fits the mold established by canonical Superman stories.  Nerds know when one of their favorite superheroes is being written out of character, and they usually don't stand for it.  Likewise, as Christians it would seem reasonable that we could read stories about Jesus (or even tell our own stories about Jesus) that aren't found in the four accepted Gospels and still learn a lesson or two.  If we know those Gospels well, then we would immediately know when another story is deviating from the character of Jesus as we know him.

However, I don't think most would agree with me there.  We tend to get in an uproar whenever anyone tries to tell a story with Jesus that isn't canon.  A great example would be The Last Temptation of Christ.  I've never read the book, but I've seen the movie.  Honestly, I didn't care for the movie that much until it got to about the final half-hour of the movie.  I really like that part.  Interestingly, that part is, I believe, the most controversial part of the whole movie.  It's when Jesus is allowed to come down from the cross and live out a normal life with a wife and family until he's about to die of old age.  And then he comes to realize that, as much as he wants this normal life, he should have died on the cross.  He needs to die on the cross.  And he begs to be able to go back and do it over and die on that cross, fulfilling his mission.

 I love that!  Because I've always seen in my head the tortured prisoner dragged to the cross against his will.  Though I still see the "take this cup from me" as Jesus desiring to avoid the suffering, I also view the "but your will" as him recognizing the necessity of his death.  A recognition where he would beg for the chance to fulfill God's will and die upon the cross.  I like it.  I take it to heart.  Do I think Jesus really had a temptation induced hallucination of his life if he survived the cross?  No.  But that doesn't mean I disregard the story because I don't think it really happened.

That's our problem.  We shun anything about Jesus that's not in the four Gospels.  But there's so much that isn't in those books!  They're not comprehensive and make no attempt to be.  They offer a glimpse of the character of Jesus and a sampling of his works.  They could be seen as an outline, but instead we take them as the be-all, end-all of Jesus stories.  The rigidity of our literalness deprives us of the wealth of storytelling opportunities about Jesus that the myth-making framework of the Gospels provides us.

Granted, I recognize the authority of canonized scripture and don't intend to imply that additional stories can supplant them.  Nay, I suggest we might tell stories about Jesus to supplement the canon.  Fictional stories about Jesus can still carry true messages.  What I mean is that, at a certain level, the veracity of the story becomes irrelevant.  Truth, fiction, it doesn't matter.  Sometimes the story just is.

I love All Star Superman and think it's a very true story about the character of Superman, even if it isn't included in the "real" continuity of Superman.  What if we told stories about Jesus with similar passion and ingenuity as Grant Morrison did with Superman?  Could we still recognize true stories about Jesus even if they didn't historically or canonically happen?  Maybe if we slapped an Elseworlds label on them?

Have I dug myself a deep enough hole yet?

I will leave you, faithful AFB, with the obligatory picture one must share whenever talking about All Star Superman.

"It's never as bad as it seems."

Dang it.  I tear up every time I see that.

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