Even Superheroes Need Superheroes

Comics can be Catholic.

Dark Horse Comics
Dark Horse Comics )

When it comes to comic books and science fiction, I am not alone when I proudly say I am a geek of the first order. That geekdom has become magnified now that we are seeing a steady stream of our favorite comic book heroes in cinematic adaptations.

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy II is a case in point.

When Hellboy II came out this past summer, we could barely contain ourselves. That, and its 2004 predecessor Hellboy, are, without a doubt, the most action-packed Catholic movies ever made.

With all deference to The Robe and The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood hasn’t made movies as authentically Catholic as the Hellboy series since The Bells of St. Mary’s. Okay, maybe it is a bit of hyperbole.

The lead character, for whom the movies are named, is a denizen of another dimension who is pulled into our world through the machinations of the evil sorcerer Rasputin in order to bring about Armageddon.

This would-be destroyer of worlds is rescued from that horrible fate and raised by a Catholic FBI agent who recruits him to help defend the world from ultimate evil.

Profoundly Catholic

Both films, directed by Guillermo del Toro with Ron Perlman in the title role, are not merely a nod to Catholicism with hackneyed accoutrements poorly slapped together just to move the plot along.

On the contrary, the movies are profoundly Catholic with a clear Christian message of the importance of faith, hope and love, forgiveness and the eternal struggle between good and evil.

Hellboy’s faith is the driving force in his life. It offers him structure and guidance in times of moral confusion.

In fact, in the first movie, in a moment of moral indecision, he was reminded of his duty to God by the sight of his rosary’s crucifix searing into his otherwise flame-resistant hide.

In fact, like many Catholics, Hellboy carries a rosary with him at all times. In Issue No. 3 of the comic, while fishing through his pockets for an appropriate weapon against his adversary, his beads fall out of his pocket.

Hellboy II, released July 11, reminded me of how much Hollywood is indebted to Catholicism. We stand as a symbol of hope in the struggle against evil. When flocks of vampires attack your town, who are you going to call? Filmmakers know the presence of the Church, whether portrayed positively or alas, negatively, as has been the case for a generation or more, adds weight to a plot.

This convergence of art and faith is a rich and fascinating one, especially in our secular times. Hellboy shows us a way of making Catholicism accessible to the unchurched.

Many of us might remember how Marvel published comic-style biographies of Pope John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa in the 1990s. British artist Rich Johnston’s “The Flying Friar,” a graphic novel about St. Joseph of Cupertino, was an immediate financial and artistic success. The Daughters of St. Paul published a 10-part comic series on popular saints including Joan of Arc, Martin de Porres, Maximilian Kolbe and Thérèse of Lisieux.

Growing Trend

Even Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan, understanding the power that this art form can command, had himself redrawn in a comics-style character that greets young readers to the kids’ page of his archdiocesan newspaper the Catholic Herald.

Sean Pryor, a graphic novelist in New York City, spoke recently on the topic of religion in comics.

“A growing trend in graphic novels and comics is to portray spirituality, which is something that was largely avoided in the early days of comics,” he explained. “Religion is all the vogue in the graphic novel and comics medium and is definitely here to stay.”

In the comic book multiverse, you can find nearly 140 Catholic superheroes, 17 Muslim superheroes and approximately 120 Jewish ones. Consider some of the well-known Catholic superheroes:

n Erasmus possesses the most powerful mind in the world, and his Catholic spirituality directs him as to how to best use his gifts to fight against those who subvert justice and terrorize the innocent.

n Daredevil (aka Matt Murdock) is the blind superhero played by Ben Affleck in the film adaptation.

n El Gato Negro is a Neocatechumenate.

n Nightcrawler (aka Kurt Wagner) is a demonic-looking, blue-skinned superhero with fangs, pointy ears, a forked take and crooked dog legs. He also had studied for the priesthood.

Nightcrawler’s devotion to Christ and the Blessed Mother, his heroic understanding of love and justice, and a keen understanding of the difference between good and evil, make him an excellent Christian superhero. He even prays for his enemies.

n The Punisher (aka Frank Castle) is a former Catholic seminary student. It’s understandable where and how he got his unshakable sense of justice.

n Both the Hulk (aka Bruce Banner) and his wife, Betty Ross, are Catholic. In fact, Banner almost became a priest.

And on the list goes. You can find an unofficial listing at Adherents.com/lit/comics. Parents take note, however: These movies and their comic book counterparts are often geared for teens and older.

In order to make the fictional characters who artistically represent our deepest hopes and struggles appear more human, they are frequently depicted as being seekers of religious truth.

If not, it would be difficult to explain the characters’ certitude as to the true nature of good and evil and how they fit into the grand scheme of things. How else does a hero identify the source of his knowledge of good and evil?

Angelo Stagnaro writes from New York City.