Comparisons between Christ and Superman are as inevitable as they are obvious. The Messianic motifs in Superman stories are a subject I’ve personally written and spoken on extensively, in my editorials on The Christology of the Superman and The Secrets of Superman’s Identity, in my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and in appearances on the Wisecrack’s Show Me the Meaning podcast. Superman’s practical omnipotence and practical omnibenevolence, combined with his humility in “becoming” a mere mortal as Clark Kent, intrinsically invite the comparison, irrespective of the character’s Jewish roots. Even a direct contrast of the two is fruitful soil for study because of their similarities, and an unpublished piece of mine from earlier this year explored exactly that. Given all that, Second Coming, a comic which stars both Christ and a Superman analog (Sunstar), seems equally inevitable as it is obvious, leaning into the two’s similarities in order to juxtapose those differences which writer Mark Russell has chosen to emphasize.
Despite its obviousness, or perhaps even because of such, it’s a brilliant premise, certainly one deserving of better execution than Russell was able to perform. He attempts to strike the same irreverent tone as genuinely humorous heretics such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in Good Omens, but instead of being witty and insightful, Russell comes across as petty in almost every panel of every page. There’s a mean-spiritedness and scathing contempt towards believers that’s so frothing that Christians cannot possibly be a part of Russell’s intended audience. They certainly will not after this inaugural issue.
Which will leave Russell preaching to the choir of those non-Christians already in agreement with his critiques (albeit a choir and preacher that never attend a church). And preaching is indeed what Russell is doing. Second Coming is didactic to the point that the message gets in the way of solid storytelling. It has the sophistication and entertainment value of those crude cartoons in leaflets distributed by fiery fundamentalist congregations which depict characters suffering hellfire for seemingly innocuous sins. Regardless of whether they or Russell stand on the more solid theological grounding, neither is producing art that is in anyway nuanced or enjoyable.
But what truly perplexes me is why Russell should have chosen to write a comic comparing Christ and Superman at all. The similarities which make for a meaningful comparison of the characters are between Superman and the specifically orthodox understanding of Christ. It’s that both show us an individual that combines perfect power and perfect goodness. It’s that both walk among us in the guise of mild mannered men when they are in fact much more than that; practically a god with respect to Superman, and Truly God according to the orthodox understanding of Christ. Contra Russell’s Jesus, who amounts to little more than a swell fellow and all around nice guy. He shows people how to treat each other better, but he is not the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He gives a somewhat solid Ethics 101 lecture for a second rate community college, but he’s not the savior of souls or the firstfruits of the New Creation.
Russell excuses this license by preemptively labeling himself a blasphemer. As an apostate and a heretic and blasphemer myself, who dropped out of seminary and left Christianity, becoming a Theist who believes in the God of the Philosophers instead of the God of the Bible, I don’t regard this defense as holding water. Not because I think Christians have an exclusive right to speak as to the identity of Jesus of Nazarath. Rather, it’s because unless Jesus is God, then he’s just some dude whose opinions hold no more weight or authority than any other individuals. Less so, considering that if the historical Jesus was not God, per his claim, then he was a blasphemer way worse than either Russell or myself even.
Yet it has become vogue for non-Christians and nominal Christians to invoke the name of Jesus in support of whatever personal philosophy or political position they happen to support, engaging in the most pained eisegesis of passages so cherry-picked out of context that they’d come closer to the original meaning by never even opening a Bible and instead picking actual cherries. I respected Christianity enough to leave it when I no longer believed it true. having recently finished G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy,” I could not help but think of this quote while reading Second Coming:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered… it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
The virtues of Christianity have indeed been separated from and set against one another. Egality is treated as a Good above all other Goods, such as Beauty, chastity, civility, justice, or Truth. But these Goods have also been separated from their metaethical grounding in God. Despite the Jesus of Second Coming ostensibly being the Son of God, it is an all too human and imperfect “God.” And as this deity falls clearly on the horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma wherein “what is holy” precedes God, the divinity of Jesus in the comic gives no weight to the morality he espouses.
At least Jason Aaron, as a misotheist, truly hates God qua God, as abundantly evident in The Goddamned, Thor: God of Thunder, and Avengers. Mark Russell is like the Laodiceans, lukewarm. He kinda likes his sad simulacrum of Jesus for some reason or other and kinda dislikes his stale parody of God for some other reason. And as such, like Christ’s response to the Church in Laodicea, I want to spit Second Coming out of my mouth.
But as much distaste as I have towards the title itself, I’d be remiss not to mention my deep respect for Ahoy Comics for publishing it in the face of such public controversy. DC, in capitulating to such and cancelling a book they previously believed had sufficient artistic merit to publish, has horrendously dishonored themselves. I won’t boycott them for such; that’s far too illiberal a weapon. But despite disliking Second Coming, I’m nevertheless glad I was able to instead purchase it from a publisher that did not sycophantically cower before a mob of twitterati.