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Between the Panels: Religious Subtext in Comics
By Lance Victor Eaton (February 2008)

It's irrefutable that popular culture contains a great deal of subtext relating to social morals, values, norms, and fears. This has been implicit in comics since the 1950s when Frederic Wertham - in his infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent - argued that Batman and Robin played out a homosexual fantasy in comics every month. While Wertham's assaults were regressive, his methods and points were certainly recognizable, especially in a world of deconstructions. Much meaning can be derived from these cultural icons and for some, our superheroes - those demigods of impeccable pecks, envious abs, and tight buttocks - do indeed represent different aspects of religious identity.

Disguised as Clark KentFingeroth's Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero attempts to make solid connections between the creators, the characters, and Judaism - something to which comic scholars over the years have made reference. It is well known that many of the earlier comic creators - including those responsible for Superman, Batman, Captain America, Namor the Submariner, and the Spirit - were Jews. Fingeroth attempts to connect both conscious and subconscious elements of Jewish identity that these (and many other Jewish creators) injected into the narratives of their superheroes - many of whom are still with us today.

Though he makes interesting arguments, at times he seems to be overreaching. He pushes hard to find threads of Judaism in every piece of work, regardless of how unsubstantial those threads are. For instance, discussing Captain Marvel, he states, 'the closest to a Jewish concept that the character emobides could arguably be the appearance of the name Solomon (cited for his wisdom) in the SHAZAM acronym that young Billy Batson has to utter in order to transform into Captain Marvel.' At times like these, Fingeroth stretches unnecessarily, often bringing up points that weaken his overall argument. Similarly, he identifies aspects of characters and situations that are not singularly Jewish, such as when he explores bickering among the Fantastic Four.

That's not to say the book is without its merits. Where there is a strong connection, particularly with the iconic Superman and Batman, Fingeroth certainly makes a variety of social and cultural associations. As well, he has done his homework and uses great primary and secondary sources to prove his points.

By contrast, Our Gods Wear Spandex isn't as academic. Instead, this light read connects history and precursors to today's pantheon of comic book superheroes. One section of the book deals with a selective history of societies, religions, cultures, organizations, and individuals that in some way or shape contributed to a world that would embrace Superman and the like. This is followed by a literary history of the 19th and 20th centuries that created a certain mindset for readers to appreciate the new comic book gods. The next section looks at the different comic book types to arrive over the years.

While a history of sorts, the book also feels rather like a catalogue. Knowles excels at categorizing the many different characters into their narrative boxes - such as Messiah figures (e.g. Superman, Captain Marvel), Science Heroes (such as Spiderman, Silver Surfer), and Amazons (Wonder Woman, Electra). However, this 'Secret History of Comic Book Heroes' is hardly secret and much of this work has been produced elsewhere. Knowles does do a decent job of providing a primer on comic book heroes and their origins. Linsner's drawings can be entertaining but for the most part feel superfluous and distracting. Actual comic book excerpts and drawings would have suited this book much better.

Superheroes and GodsThough Knowles does make the age-old connection between ancient epic heroes and the caped heroes of today, his methods are very basic. On the other hand, Don LoCicero, in Superheroes and Gods: A Comparative Study from Babylonia to Batman makes explicit connections between ancient Sumerian, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, and European mythological heroes and today's comic book pantheon. LoCicero's approach is two-fold. For each cultural icon, he spends the first half of a section detailing the hero's narrative and persona. In the second half, he uses the precedents for the birth of a hero set forth by Otto Rank to assess the quality and archetypes present in that particular hero. He makes decent arguments, ranging from good old Gilgamesh up through today. With the exception of India, LoCicero follows a typical Western path of epic heroes - the majority of Middle Eastern and European descent.

Overall, LoCicero juggles a great deal of material and delivers it in a mild-mannered - sometimes even humerous - tone that guides readers to make big and small connections with comics today. His chapter on US icons will prove challenging for some. His emphasis on The Gladiator as a cornerstone for Superman does have its merits, but he doesn't seem to look elsewhere for cultural icons who are or were influential to our superheroes and gods - which arguably extends beyond comic books. In the end, Superheroes and Gods incorporates the detailed research that Our Gods Wear Spandex lacks, and presents solidified arguments that are sometimes lacking in Disguised As Clark Kent. However, all three provide unique insights into the cultural presence of superheroes.
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