So Jesus and a Superman walk into a comic book store...

Cover of Second Coming #3, Art by Amanda Conner & Paul Mounts

So Jesus Christ and Superman walk into a comic book store…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. 

Your local comic shop may not be the first (or second, or third) destination that pops into your mind when you consider where to go for a deeply thoughtful, profoundly humane, and — dare we say — holy reflection on the intractable suffering of the world, religion's role in both alleviating and causing it, and how bowling might be a metaphor of hope. But, Mark Russell’s latest work, Second Coming just might fit that bill. 

Russell is one of the most talented writers working in comics today with a gift for witty satire using the most unlikely subjects to provide profound cultural analysis. To date, he has explored our life together through the lens of the Flintstones, Snagglepuss, the Lone Ranger, and most recently the Wonder Twins, the tagalong teenage side kicks from the 70s’ Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon show. But writing a satire with Jesus as a central character? Well, that takes a special kind of artistic daring.

In Second Coming, God leans on earth’s most powerful superhero, Sunstar, to take Jesus under his wing in the hopes that Jesus might see the value of coercive power to address the world. As you might imagine, the son of God has his own ideas, especially in light of how his message has been received and twisted. Hijinks ensue but before we know it, we are drawn into some pretty deep self-reflection.

If the whole idea sounds a bit uncomfortable, it’s working. There is a transgressiveness to satire that can yield new insight or disorienting vertigo, maybe both. There is a destabilizing undercurrent in most religions — and certainly within Christianity — that warns us against taking our ideas about the numinous as if they were ironclad containers within which the mysteries of the universe were hermetically sealed by the force of our insight. Yet we often forget that.

Be warned. This is a graphic novel for adults, not a Sunday School lesson. God is not shy about using foul language and seems capricious. Satan is sympathetic. But if we approach the book asking what these characters say about us more than how they capture the divine mystery, we might find paths to both questions opened up. 

The genius of Russell’s writing here can be found in his portrayal of the characters. If his characters of God, Jesus, and Satan are accurate, it is in the sense that he accurately renders the way these characters have taken form in popular religious imagination. They are caricatures, to be sure, but caricatures that were ossified because we chose to read the texts like a seamless continuity from beginning to end instead of as a series of conversations, attempts to give voice to the inexpressible within the liquidity of language.

The comic leads us to consider that perhaps we have believed that omnipotent power will force the world to be a better place and, absent seeing this occur from forces outside ourselves, we ape the projected ideas and oppress others to deny our vulnerability.

Near the close of issue #1, Jesus makes this remark to Sunstar, “You think punishment is what brings salvation to the human race?! It isn’t. People don’t believe in God so much as they hope for a witness to their suffering.” As America approaches 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 this weekend, there is particular depth to these words. Second Coming is worth a careful read. Or two. It isn’t the gospel, but it may help you hear it with fresh ears again. - Rick Quinn 

This is Ordinary Riff #3, a weekly online column, commenting on music, movies, and other media. In addition to reposts from print additions of Ordinary Space, this is a new feature of OrdinarySpace-dot-org.