Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate Deity, Pleas’d as Man with Men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”
Writing this review of Justice League of America #6 on Christmas Eve eve, I’ve naturally immersed myself of late in a continuous chorus of Christmas carols, holiday hymns, seasonal songs, and jolly jingles. My favorite of these has for years been “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings,” particularly the second verse quoted above. It’s the antithesis to shallow adage taken up by evangelicals that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” or worse, framing for children Christmas celebrations as a birthday party for 6 lb. 8 oz. baby Jesus. Hark is a call to contemplate a claim far more audacious, even absurd: Incarnation, the idea of an atemporal, Necessary Being, the cause for itself and the First Cause of everything else extant, eternally being the Theanthropos, by his essential nature fully Man, whose humanity causally precedes the naturalistic processes by which hominids developed; that His mother Mary was not merely Virgin but Theotokos.
The opposite of incarnation is theosis, the ascension of man into godhood. In the Eastern Orthodox theology under which it developed, such is a sempiternal process subsequent to the General Resurrection in which all redeemed men move continuously closer in nature to God, made possible by the natures of Manhood and Godhood meeting in the one Person of Christ. The term has since been appropriated in popular parlance to mean any man acquiring superhuman powers by which they stand on the level of the gods of ancient mythologies. 2015 has been particularly rich in regards to such tales, from reprintings of Gaiman and Buckingham’s Miracleman to The Darkseid War in the main Justice League book.
In Hitch’s story, hero and villain alike have previously undergone the process of deification, receiving not only the power but the prayers and petitions, worshippers and supplicants, subsequent to such. But for both Rao and Diana, the addition of divinity comes at some loss to their humanity. It is an essentially humanist philosophy, in our modern age in vogue, wherein man is the measure of all things, and any divergence from the baseline, even the removal of foibles and failings, is regarded as a perversion. Such is the reason why Hitch takes pains to portray Diana, standing in the ruins of Olympus, as uncomfortable in her own divinity, that the reader may empathize with her, secure in the knowledge that she still empathizes with him in kind.
Rao is the reverse side of the same coin. He did not “make himself of no reputation, taking upon himself the form of a servant,” but rather “thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Php 2:6-7 KJV). The story of his ascendancy here in issue six is, appropriate to the season, in ways an inverse of the Nativity narrative, replete with celestial visitation and a new star shinning in the heavens. Proudly Rao with his army marches upon the great citadel of Argo, scores of his own men having martyred themselves to tithe a portion of their own lives to extend their lord’s. His is a kingdom very much of this Krypton, the paradise he promises paid for not by his own blood but by that of his disciples. He is, to quote The Other Guy, a “puny god.” Moreover, in standing in opposition to Superman, the quintessential Christ-figure of American culture, Rao becomes a type of antichrist, his halo hiding horns.
Script aside, Hitch is first and foremost an artist; the visuals should be the primary reason to purchase Justice League of America. Such is hardly the case. While his backgrounds remain the most detailed in the industry, the landscapes portrayed in the story take less advantage of such than the cityscapes of his past work. Furthermore, while he’s a master of modernizing superhero designs, by adhering to the New 52 uniforms, universally inferior modernizations to his own, his artistic style clearly clashes with the costumes. Worse yet, of the two splash pages taking up valuable story-telling space, only one is momentous enough to earn such, and both lack the cornucopia of characters characteristic of his previous works, particularly Ultimates and Real Heroes.
Nevertheless, as The Poet once wrote,
Here Phaeton lies, who in the Sun-god’s chariot had fared, Who even as so greatly failed, he still more greatly dared.”
Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America has been thus far a failure. The story is convoluted, reliant on convenience, contrivance, and coincidence, and lacks strong character arcs, epic set pieces, or other sources of emotional depth. But all of this is largely forgiven on account of the ambition and scope of his story and it themes, tackling theology and time-travel both, even if such exceeds his execution. Hardly exciting, Justice League of America still proves intriguing, and I’ll absolutely be there next issue to see how it all concludes.