Do Superheroes Read Scripture? Finding the Bible in Comic Books
Do superheroes read Scripture? In the fictional world of mainstream superhero comic books, what meaning does the Bible have? In a world where walking on water — assuming that you can't just fly over it — is simply a matter of moving your feet fast enough; in a world where you don't need faith to move mountains as long as you have a power ring; in a world where death is often temporary and even the most annoying sidekicks can be resurrected; in such a world as this, what purpose does the Bible and its stories of the magnalia dei serve?
Here I offer a preliminary answer by identifying categories of the use of the Bible in comic books, where the Bible is a symbol of ecclesiastical identity at religious services and a source of quotations and allusions, and where it provides vocabulary for superheroes to describe how they understand themselves and what they do. In this way, the new myths represented by superhero comic books connect to the older traditions represented by the biblical stories. What emerges from my examination is a picture of a world in which the characters of the fictional DC and Marvel universes — whether heroes, villains or civilians — know and quote the Bible and in which varying degrees of biblical literacy are required to understand those quotations.
One of the ways the Bible appears in comic books is as a physical book, without any reference to its actual content. If there is a wedding in the DC or Marvel Universe, such as that of Sue Storm and Reed Richards, a clergyman will be there, Bible in hand (Marvels TPB, 97). This is the case even when the weddings are less traditional; for example, when, despite having been turned into infants, Superman and Lois Lane try to get married and are wheeled down the aisle in strollers to a waiting, Bible-holding, minister (Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #42, 1 and 9).
The Bible is the clergyman's accessory of choice at comic book funerals. At the funeral of Jason Todd, the ill-fated second Robin, a clergyman with a book is present (Batman #428). The Bible appears in the hands of clergy at the funeral of Gwen Stacy (Amazing Spider-Man 123, 4) and of her father, Captain Stacy (Amazing Spider-Man 91, 1). In all but the last example, the clergyman is silent; at Captain Stacy's funeral, the priest says "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," echoing Gen 3:19, "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
When Larry Lance, the husband of the Black Canary of Earth 2, is killed, Superman presides over the graveside service (Justice League of America #74, 17). Surrounded by members of the Justice League and Justice Society, he holds a book in his hand and says, "Into thy hands we commend his spirit," paraphrasing Jesus' last words (Luke 23:46).
Outside of the traditionally religious contexts of weddings and funerals, the uses of the Bible in comic books can be characterized by the degree of biblical knowledge needed to understand them. At one end of the spectrum are biblical quotations that require little understanding of their original context. In the spectrum's center are references to biblical names and stories that require some familiarity with biblical literature in order to be understood. At the far end of the spectrum are complex appearances of biblical themes and images that represent significant plot points within the comic books, requiring even more biblical knowledge. There are also examples of comic book characters reflecting on their abilities in what we can recognize as biblical terms.
Biblical quotations often appear in the mouths of comic book characters as the comic book equivalent of "Make my day" or "Hasta la vista, baby." When the villain The Magician momentarily bests the golden age Atom, he quips, "How the mighty have fallen" (All Star Comics Achieves Volume 8, 33). In the Bible, this quotation, from 2 Sam 1:19 and 25, is not a taunt or a quip, but part of David's lament over Saul and Jonathan. In the comic books, the quotation is used in a way that requires no knowledge of its biblical background.
When the Justice League finds itself in the position of having to keep an eye on the "Superbuddies," a team of second and third string heroes, J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, expresses his complete lack of confidence in the Buddies. Batman responds, "Oh ye of little faith" (Formerly Known As The Justice League TPB, 120). This sounds like a rebuke, which is how Jesus uses the phrase in the Gospels (Matt 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20; Luke 12:28). However, J'onn's response to Batman, "You're enjoying this, aren't you?," suggests that Batman is using the quotation in a sarcastic manner that does not reflect its biblical origin.
The saying "Pride goeth before a fall," a truncated version of the King James rendering of Prov 16:18, "Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall," is quoted by both heroes and villains. The villain Landor uses it to taunt Hawkman, who mistakenly believes he has gained the upper hand (All Star Comics Achieves Volume 7, 7). The Flash offers it as some very literal advice to a tripping and stumbling Johnny Thunder (All Star Comics Achieves Volume 7, 173). Again, it is not necessary to know the biblical context of the quotation to understand its comic book use.
The abbreviated version of Prov 16:18 is not the only example of slightly mangled Scripture to appear in comic books. Comic book superheroes will occasionally observe, "There's no rest for the wicked." This paraphrases Isa 57:21, "There is no peace — said my God — for the wicked." In Isaiah, this lack of peace is contrasted to the peace that will be granted to the faithful. The comic book versions of the quotation suggest that evil and villains never rest, so those who fight evil can never rest. After a long night of crime fighting, Batman tells the heroine Thorn to get some sleep. She responds, "No rest for the wicked, Batman. None for us either. I won't be able to sleep until I can count down all the wolves in sheep's clothing from 100 to zero" (Batman & Superman: World's Finest TPB, 142). In addition to the reference to Isaiah, she also makes reference to Jesus' warning about false prophets who come "in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matt 7:15). Her meaning and the picture of relentless evil preying on the weak is clear, even without knowing the biblical source of these expressions.
Sometimes the actions of comic book superheroes duplicate events from biblical narratives. In the first Justice League of America story, Flash hunts for Starro's starfish henchmen by parting the waters of a lake with the vibrations from his feet (The Brave and the Bold #28, 21). In a similar fashion, the Human Torch uses his power to create a path through the waters of Dr. Doom's moat, so that the Thing and Sue Storm can escape (Fantastic Four #5, 22). The powers of these heroes are depicted in ways that echo the biblical story of the Exodus, at least for those who have eyes to see. However, one does not have to see the biblical allusions to recognize and appreciate the heroic action.
Turning from biblical quotations to biblical names, we find that, unlike the quotations, understanding the references to biblical names in comic books often, although not always, requires knowledge of the biblical text.
Sometimes the reference gives enough information that even if one is not familiar with the biblical story, the reference can be understood. When Hawkman knocks out a German spy, the spy proclaims that Hawkman is "a Samson for strength" (All Star Comics Achieves Volume 2, 143). It is not necessary to know the details of the Samson story to understand this reference.
This is not the case in the reference to Solomon found in a scene set in a post- earthquake Gotham City. Batman encounters two women who each claim an infant as their own (Batman: No Man's Land TPB). Batman proposes cutting the infant in half, taking in his words, "a page from the wisdom of King Solomon." However, Batman's decision is met with a far different reaction from Solomon's. One woman indignantly tells him, "That's murder! You'll burn in hell!"; the other warns him not to "play games with my baby." Stymied, he is forced to conclude, "What worked in the kingdom of Solomon doesn't apply in Gotham." Without familiarity with the biblical story, Batman's reference to Solomon is not clear, and his proposal sounds like a villain's plot.
Due to the combative relationship among many characters in comic books, references to the story of David and Goliath are not uncommon, especially if one of the combatants is superhumanly large. As Wonder Woman attacks Giganta, she responds to the concern expressed by her non-superpowered colleague by saying, "After all, when David slew Goliath, all he had was a slingshot" (Wonder Woman #1, 14). Presumably she means that since David was able to defeat his giant with minimal firepower, she is at an even greater advantage because she has a sword, super strength, and the ability to fly. Even if she does not mean all of this, her confidence is puzzling unless you know the story of David.
References to David and Goliath are not always about the size of the opponents. When Spider-Man pretends to kidnap Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy, she tells him that when a law-and-order candidate for district attorney is elected, "he'll finish you." Spider-Man retorts, "Sure he will — just like Goliath finished David!" (Amazing Spider-Man #92, 2). This reference makes sense only if one knows that in the biblical fight David was the one who finished Goliath.
If recognizing the biblical references prompted by name dropping, verbal or visual, requires more knowledge of the biblical text than most of the biblical quotations, even more knowledge is required in those stories that weave biblical elements into the plot.
In Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #79, Jimmy goes back in time and befriends the hero "Mighty Youth," who turns out to be Samson wearing a turban to hide his hair and protect his secret identity. Maintaining a secret identity is not a concern of the biblical Samson, but apparently putting on a turban is the biblical equivalent of slipping on a pair of glasses. Samson is presented as a hero in the image of Superman rather than the other way around; even so, the story assumes familiarity with the biblical story of Samson. Like Superman, Samson has his problems with a "double L" woman — not Lois Lane or Lana Lang, but Delilah. Although Jimmy, who apparently knows his Bible, notes the trouble she will bring Samson, in this story she seems, like her Metropolis counterpart, most interested in getting a date. Samson's strength is not enough to keep Jimmy out of trouble, but fortunately Superman arrives and saves the day by pushing down the columns of a building to stall the guards who are chasing Jimmy. When they return to their present time, Jimmy suggests that Superman's actions may have been the inspiration for Samson's destruction of the Temple of Dagon, although Jimmy's description of Samson's "famous super-deed, pulling down the pagan temple" seems to gloss over the fact that Samson was in the temple at the time and that it was his last super-deed.
In Kevin Smith's Daredevil story, Guardian Devil, a young girl with a child comes to Matt Murdock and asks him, "Do you study your Bible?" (Daredevil #1, 21). She tells Murdock that her baby is the result of a virgin birth, that her child is the biblically promised redeemer, and that an angel has told her to seek out Murdock to protect her baby. She leaves the baby in Murdock's care and is killed shortly after. Murdock is then visited by a man who tells him that the child is in fact the anti-Christ and must be destroyed. Noting Murdock's religious background, this man, who calls himself Macabes, encourages Murdock to "reach back to the days of your religious instruction and recall the Book of Revelations" (Daredevil #2, 8).
Under the influence of a drug that heightens his sense of paranoia, Daredevil confronts the Black Widow, who has been watching the child for him. When she refuses to accept his claims that the child is evil, he turns on her. In an interior monologue, he says, "Who's to say she's not betraying mankind? But betrayal is a woman, isn't it? They birthed it in the garden and have passed it down from generation to generation ever since — teaching their successors the art of the untruth . . . the beauty of deception. Satan's their father . . . and the Black Widow is daddy's little girl" (Daredevil #4, 6). This reflection weaves together imagery from the story of Eden and Jesus' statement that the devil is the "father of lies" (John 8:44).
In desperation, Daredevil turns to Dr. Strange, who summons the demon Mephisto. The demon first mocks them, asking, "Why is one so mighty as myself brought here to instruct as a Sunday school teacher?"; but then tells Dr. Strange, "Have your Christian friend read his Bible — more specifically, the apostle John's Book of Revelations. When the so-called son of God returns . . . it won't be as he came originally. In a rare fit of good sense, he is prophesied to return not born of a lowly woman, but as a judge, jury, and executioner — as a lion, not a lamb." Hearing this, Daredevil thinks to himself, "My God . . . He's right. Biblically, the savior is to come back as he left — a man" (Daredevil #5, 10).
Biblical literacy pays off: once he realizes the child can be neither the savior nor the anti-Christ, Daredevil is able to unravel the mystery of the child to find the villain Mysterio pulling all the strings. Because he is dying, Mysterio has decided to end his life and career on a supervillain high note by manipulating Daredevil into killing an innocent infant. As Mysterio describes his plan, a flashback shows him pouring over the Bible and he tells Daredevil, "I decided some of that old-time religion would make for the best approach with an old altar boy such as yourself" (Daredevil #7, 12). Using his skills at creating illusions, Mysterio crafts the whole scenario by drawing on biblical imagery to ensnare Daredevil. Without knowledge of this imagery, the story makes little sense.
Another way comic books allude to the Bible is with images of a hero willing to give his or her life to save others or even the world, such as the Flash in DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths. As he runs faster and faster around the Anti-Monitor's antimatter cannon, destroying it, Flash says, "I know what's going to happen to me if I'm successful. But I have no choice. More than my life is at stake" (Crisis #8, 20). As he crumbles to dust, Flash repeats, "time to save the world . . . we must save the world . . . we must save the world" (Crisis #8, 23).
When Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred apparently dies saving Batman and Robin, Batman says, "He gave his life so that we might live! No friend could do more" (Detective Comics #328, 14). This echoes Jesus' statement, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" in John 15:13.
It is not only in the face of death that the heroes of the DC and Marvel universes refer to the Bible to describe themselves. When the second Robin asks if Batman considers himself "religious," Batman, with just a hint of a smile, replies, "It's been said I have an Old Testament outlook" (Batman 412, 2). This is a reference meant to evoke images of divine justice and an eye for an eye, but it only makes sense if one has at least a limited understanding of the popular perception of the Hebrew Scriptures.
As the first Green Lantern uses his ring to restore power to a blacked-out city, he comments, "Let there be light" (All Star Comics Achieves Volume 1, 205). If it were left at this, this would be a simple quip; appropriate to the situation but not particularly meaningful. It is Green Lantern's next statement that reveals a deeper biblical connection, "I have never realized how great my strange powers were until now!" The connection between the Green Lantern's powers and biblical imagery is also evident in the oath of the first Green Lantern, "And I shall shed my light over dark evil! For the dark things cannot stand the light, the light of the Green Lantern." This echoes John 3:19-20, "The light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed."
Others within the DC and Marvel Universes also speak of their resident superheroes in biblical terms. In the Justice League of America (JLA) story, A League of One, the Justice League receives a present from the Pope, a monument engraved with their names and a quotation that purports to be from Ps 72:7, "In their day, the righteous shall flourish and prosperity abound"; in fact, it is in fact a modified version of the Psalm, which in the Bible reads, "In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound." "His days" in the Psalm refers to the anointed king, whose righteous reign will bring peace and prosperity. If the Pope in the DC universe knows Scripture and the change is deliberate, the change to "their day" in the comic places the Justice League in the role of God's anointed leaders who are charged with preserving justice and righteousness.
In conclusion, this brief examination of the Bible in superhero comic books demonstrates that the Bible is known and used by the heroes, villains, and civilians of the fictional DC and Marvel universes. The Bible is a symbol of ecclesiastical identity at religious services and it is a source of quotations and allusions. It also provides vocabulary for superheroes to describe how they understand themselves and what they do. In this way, the new myths represented by superhero comic books connect to the older traditions represented by the biblical stories.
G. Andrew Tooze, Winston-Salem, NC
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Citation: G. Andrew Tooze, " Do Superheroes Read Scripture? Finding the Bible in Comic Books," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=614