Once again I tainted the hallowed halls of Luther Seminary and brought shame upon academic respectability by rambling about comic books at the Upper Midwest joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. It was a really fun time had by all. Or, at least had by me, since I was rambling about comic books. Here, presented for your pleasure, or agony, is that paper.
Also, much gratitude to John S. Troutman for letting me bug him so much about The Gospel of Carol. If you want a fun read, you can snag all the issues from comiXology on the cheap.
The teachings of Jesus, both today and two thousand years ago, are inherently subversive. However, the Christ that originally challenged the status quo has long since been used to uphold the establishment and promote the continued subjugation of the disenfranchised. This may be most evident in the historical oppression of women in the church. But dissenting voices against this patriarchy abound, particularly in some comic books. Despite the format's recent claims of formal legitimacy and respectability, the comic book remains a cultural troublemaker, even in the realm of theology. Some titles, such as John S. Troutman's The Gospel of Carol and Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man, provide instances of comic books attempting to disrupt patriarchy in Christianity through their stories.
The resurgence of comic books in popularity, especially due to movies and television adaptions, have encouraged some, including myself, to champion the academic respectability of the format. However, Alan Moore, writer of such acclaimed comic books as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Batman: The Killing Joke, takes a different stance. In a multi-part essay, Moore writes that the medium was born in the gutter as a form of expression for the downtrodden, oppressed, and dregs of society. But instead of proclaiming that comics can be so much more, he instead asserts that the format has, and should, stay true to its roots.
Comic books have, according to Moore, "a grand tradition rooted in its healthy scepticism with regards to rulers, gods and institutions; a genuine art-form of the people, unrestricted by prevailing notions of acceptability and capable of giving voice to popular dissent, or even of becoming, in the right hands, a supremely powerful instrument of social change. It could even be said that, rather than such scurrilous and anti-social sentiments being a minor aberration in the otherwise sedate commercial history of comics, these expressions of dissatisfaction are the medium's main purpose."1
While the comic book industry survived the Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, the ensuing imposition of the Comics Code Authority restricted popular titles to mundane, childish themes. The more radical, dissenting voices went underground during the 60s and 70s before gaining popular acclaim in the most recent decades. Today, independent comics, especially those published digitally, are able to reach a wider audience with little to no restrictions on content or message. "Furthermore,” Alan Moore adds, “with women now comprising an increasingly important slice of both the comics audience and the roster of significant comics creators...the gender restrictions which applied within a comic business governed by white males whose attitudes were badly out of date even in the last century are lifted, and the huge power of the medium is now accessible by anyone, of any race or gender, any sexuality, any political or spiritual persuasion."2 Though comic books might appear more respectable in the public eye, many titles still maintain the medium's inherent culturally seditious voice. In Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us, Kester Brewin labels such voices as cultural pirates, for wherever “... the voiceless find their path blocked, pirates will emerge and raise merry hell - whether in parliaments or theaters or radio stations, or even on the printed page.”3
Some of these subversive, pirate voices on the printed comic book page are directed at the longstanding and troublesome male dominance in Christianity. In The Gospel of Carol, John S. Troutman challenges the argument that Jesus' gender sets a precedence for male authority by telling a delightfully absurd tale about the actual Christ, Jesus' fictitious twin sister Carol.
Carol is irreverent, sarcastic and, as the daughter of God, imbued with an omniscience that surfaces in many anachronistic references. Imagine if the Christ was a woman with the fourth-wall breaking humor of Deadpool. Sent to Earth from Heaven, Carol already knows the spoilers of the future that her deeds will be attributed to some guy named Jesus.
Why would such errant remembrance of history occur? Because Carol is a woman. Considering the prominent role of women in the Gospel account, Kester Brewin considers the church's dismissive attitude toward women odd. “Given this central place of one Mary at the nativity and another at the resurrection, it seems extraordinary that Christianity for so long rejected women in leadership and repressed their contributions to the growth of the faith.”4 In light of this, Troutman comments that a female Christ may not have actually had any effect on Christian history. “Female authority figures can't erase the bigotry that exists in many, many people, nor can they rewrite the Bible itself, which still oppresses women (or writes them out of the narrative entirely) at nearly every opportunity.”5
Despite all this, Carol initially doesn't appear concerned with people believing her messiahship. Perhaps referencing the “messianic secret” in Mark, Carol explains she doesn't claim to be the messiah when it is already “self-evident, broski.”6 While Carol is carefree and outgoing, Jesus remains quiet and content with a normal life. Jesus plays the straight man to Carol's wacky divinity, which follows the humorous tone of the book and leads to my favorite gag where Carol tries to teach Jesus how to play Magic: The Gathering.
When Carol's main ministry begins, she discovers that Jesus, her reluctant lackey, quickly assumes the spotlight simply because of his gender. As she opens her sermon on the mount, hecklers interrupt her, shouting, “You were explaining why some chick was trying to impersonate the Messiah?” The crowd also insist, “Girls were made to serve man, not to save them!”7 In her book In Memory of Her, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes, "The systematic androcentrism of Western culture is evident in the fact that nobody questions whether men have been historical subjects and revelatory agents in the church. The historical role of women, and not that of men, is problematic because maleness is the norm, while femaleness constitutes a deviation from this norm."8
When Jesus steps up to attempt to calm the crowd, he is received much more favorably for, among other things, he possesses prominent facial hair. Even though Jesus still tries to direct attention back to Carol, the people dismiss her as a messiah. They call her, “a jerk! And a woman! A woman jerk! Hardly "Messiah" material.”
As Jesus continues to impress the crowd with his manly characteristics, Carol sneaks away and sulks about the sexism of those she is trying to save. Her younger sister Miriam points out that if the people are still receiving the gospel message of God incarnate, “then who cares if Jesus is the one they're getting it from?”
But Carol does care, as I imagine most women silenced by religious patriarchy care. “I shouldn't have to make Jesus my messenger boy,” says Carol. “I shouldn't have to shut up 'cause I have a vagina.”9
Eventually, Carol resigns herself that speaking through Jesus is a cultural necessity, for “this is the only way they'll listen.”10 Ultimately, they both experience the inevitable result of messiahship, and Jesus and Carol are crucified together, here at the end of all things.
Throughout this comic, the reader encounters the theme that a marginalized messiah from an oppressed societal class is more likely to sympathize with and understand the plight of fellow oppressed and subjugated classes. She might even fight for them. Carol follows her mission of liberation to its conclusion as she descends into Hell and frees those who suffered both in life and in the afterlife. She insists on rescuing suicide cases and individuals eternally tormented for sodomy. She even finds and forgives Judas, her betrayer, because it's pretty much her thing.
The Gospel of Carol clearly is not historically accurate, and, in the end, the goal is not to rewrite history and cast Jesus as a woman. Elizabeth Johnson writes in She Who Is, "The fact that Jesus of Nazareth was a male human being is not in question, nor, in a more just church, would it even be an issue."11 Instead, stories like The Gospel of Carol can highlight and decenter our presuppositions about misplaced theological importance on the gender of Jesus. While the maleness of Jesus is important to his historical identity, it is not and should not be definitive of his messianic identity and mission. Further, this maleness shouldn't be given undue focus when so many other attributes also contribute to his historical identity. "It is shortsighted to single out sexuality as always and everywhere more fundamental to concrete historical existence than any of the other constants,” says Johnson. “Age, race, period in history, bodily handicap, social location, and other essential aspects of concrete historical existence are at least as important in determining one's identity as sex."12 Imagine how different the history of the church could be if we placed as much importance on other characteristics of the historical Jesus as his maleness.
And that imagination is the beauty of The Gospel of Carol and subversive stories in general. Fiorenza refers to this as an “exercise in historical imagination” and she assigned her students to engage in similar tasks, such as writing “stories or letters from the perspective of leading women in early Christianity.”13 Troutman wrote a story from the perspective of a female Christ.
Another comic book series also deals with the issue of male dominance in the church, or rather, the lack of it. In Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughan, all the males in the world suddenly die, save for one lone survivor, Yorick. As Yorick travels the country, he seeks refuge in a Catholic church occupied by its caretaker, a young woman named Beth.
Yorick desires some sense of solace in the church, but Beth informs him it is no longer functional without men at the helm. “Women can't consecrate the Host,” she explains, “Without a priest, it's not the body of Christ, it's just...stale bread.”14 Furthermore, Yorick's attempts to clear his conscience fail, for the Church only acknowledges auricular confessions. “You know,” says Beth, “sins confessed to a priest. And since God decided to have a penis when he became incarnate in his son, only men are allowed to hear” them.15
At first this critique appears targeted at just the Catholic church, but male domination affects most, if not all, Christian denominations. Even denominations that allow women to teach and preach would be crippled by the sudden disappearance of their male membership. Indeed, such language suggesting women are allowed to preach is indicative in itself of the inherent patriarchy of such institutions, as if the male participants are benevolent enough to grant such privileges and positions. This further forces one to ask if Christianity's discrimination against women was ever anything more than merely the desire to accumulate and maintain power. For what better way to preserve one's status and power than to eliminate half the population according to their gender from possibly competing for that position?
Finally, I wish to address the obvious shortcomings of this paper. I can wax poetically about oppression, but being a straight, white male severely limits my capability to fully understand the plight of the side that doesn't benefit from patriarchy in the church. Likewise, my two examples, The Gospel of Carol and Y: The Last Man were both written by white males. The risk also exists that I've simply read too much into these comic books. On the thematic intention of The Gospel of Carol, Troutman says, “Honestly, I just wanted to tell a funny story that makes fun of a piece of literature, as I'm wont to do. Social commentary was definitely intended, sure, but that's never my priority. It's just more of a bonus.”16
But that bonus can have far reaching consequences. Silly, little stories can have significant impacts. The subversive stories in these comics can inspire us to ask what Christianity would be like if the messiah was a woman or if all the men suddenly disappeared. These stories by these cultural and theological pirates hold the potential to disrupt the everyday attitude that patriarchy is the norm, causing one to question that just because Christianity is this way, doesn’t mean it has to be, or should be, this way, and that can be quite the bonus.
1Alan Moore, "Buster Brown at the Barricades Parts 1 & 2" in Occupy Comics #1 (Black Mask Studios, 2013).
2Alan Moore, "Buster Brown at the Barricades Parts 5 & 6" in Occupy Comics #3 (Black Mask Studios, 2013).
3Kester Brewin, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us (London: Vaux, 2012), kindle location 162.
4Berwin, kindle location 2035.
5John S. Troutman, email interview, March 7, 2016.
6John S. Troutman, The Gospel of Carol #5 (Troutcave Comics, August, 2014),11.
8Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1983), 42.
9Troutman, The Gospel of Carol #5, 20-21.
10John S. Troutman, The Gospel of Carol #6 (Troutcave Comics, November, 2014), 4.
11Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: They Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1992), 151-152.
14Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man #25 (DC Comics, August, 2004).
15Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man #24 (DC Comics, July, 2004).
16Troutman, email interview.