Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Origin stories

The Season's Finest

… [T]here were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

– Luke 2: 8-14 (King James Version)

If you are inexorably compelled to top off that passage with “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” join the club. As well, if you’re wondering how this relates to DC Comics’ superheroes, fear not — we’ll get there. (And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, don’t worry — I’ll try not to prosletyze.)

* * *

Each of us, as we age, edits our tastes; revising and, inevitably, revisiting them. For me, it came down to “I liked this before — why shouldn’t I like it again?” Over the years I have been through this process with pretty much everything which entertained me as a youngster: comics, music, D&D, even the big things like Star Trek and Star Wars. (While my Star Wars sabbatical only lasted from 1984-87, it still felt like an eternity.)

Naturally, when I decided I was going to get serious (relatively speaking) about religion, I took a second look at how I’d been celebrating Christmas. Along the way I winnowed down the number of Christmas specials I watched — not quite in an ideological-purity way, but by and large that’s how it turned out. The cuts were pretty brutal, especially on the animated side, because most of them dealt with the more secular aspects of the holiday: Santa, reindeer, snowmen, and a non-denominational “attitude of gratitude.” Nothing wrong with any of that on its own, of course; but to me it didn’t seem particularly Christmas-y. In fact, for a number of years only “A Charlie Brown Christmas” made the must-watch list, mostly for Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke. Again, I wasn’t condemning Rudolph and Frosty to the fiery pit — I just didn’t feel like I was missing out on any lessons about Jesus’ birth if I failed to watch ‘em each year.

Accordingly, since then I have tried hard to set aside twenty or so minutes for the simple, affecting tale of an alienated boy struggling to find his place in the confusion of the Christmas season (and not, I should mention, seeking solace in a Red Ryder BB gun). Not only does it point the way to a key Scriptural lesson, it also reminds me of Charles Schulz’ singular view of the world, and how he was able to communicate that vision so skillfully for almost the last fifty years of his life. Of course he did it through the modest medium of comics; and of course his work both elevated and transcended that medium. When I watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (which I realize isn’t comics, but close enough for our purposes), I see the genius that was Peanuts; and it warms my heart almost as much as the holiday sentiment does.

* * *

Lately, though, part of me wants to see a more baroque, retro-gonzo, Morrison/Quitely-esque Nativity account. Page One: a handful of silent, dark panels show shepherds keeping watch. Open up pages 2 and 3 for an eruption of radiance, as the angel makes ‘em sore afraid for three-quarters of the splash and calms ‘em down in inset panels running along the right side. Pages 4 and 5 up the ante even more with another two-page spread: the Heavenly Host exploding with light and fanfare over the dark desert, praising God and singing the most beautifully unearthly music any human had ever heard. I know the music is a tall order for print, but sometimes you just want to go all-out.

Sometimes, too, you want to make your pastimes fit where they might not ordinarily go. Hearing Luke’s account, it’s hard for me not to be reminded of the Kents finding baby Kal-El on the bleak Kansas plains. In John Byrne’s 1986 revision, the Kryptonian pod landed just before a Snowstorm of the Century conveniently trapped much of Small County in their homes, and gave Martha time to explain why no one saw her pregnant. Moreover, the ‘86 origin included an outer-space battle between the Green Lantern Corps and the Manhunters, the latter trying to claim Kal-El for their own. I like to think they fought close enough to the Earth that the green Oan energy could be seen from the ground, not unlike the angels’ display over Bethlehem.

That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, though. In terms of Biblical parallels, the Superman legend tracks closer to Moses than Jesus, and it’s only superficially similar at best. Superman may come “from above,” but his mission is based squarely on terrestrial ethics. In fact, Wonder Woman is more of a messianic figure, since it’s pretty much her job to bring Amazonian values to Patriarch’s World. Her classic origin is both mythic and poignant, but if one is looking for Christian parallels, the New-52 revisions are certainly helpful (besides being “in character” for the Greek gods, of course). The Christian Nativity is its own thing, just as Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s origins are largely their own, regardless of the connections we readers try to make.

Nevertheless, we make these connections, because we want our pastimes to be meaningful beyond their escapist thrills. When Superman died and returned, it wasn’t to save DC-Earth from its sins. (Instead, it helped propagate the sins of ‘90s excess.) However, those storylines helped reinforce those easy, familiar parallels. What, then, does that make the New-52 Supes? Is he “Buddy Christ,” the user-friendly Jesus for the 21st Century?

Actually, if we’re talking about periodic revisions, Superman is closer to Santa Claus. Snopes.com describes the latter as

a hybrid, a character descended from a religious figure (St. Nicholas) whose physical appearance and backstory were created and shaped by many different hands over the course of years until he finally coalesced into the now familiar (secular) character of a jolly, rotund, red-and-white garbed father figure who oversees a North Pole workshop manned by elves and travels in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer to deliver toys to children all around the world every Christmas Eve.

Thus, one was inspired by a real person — a wealthy orphan, as it happens, whose fortune helped him do good — and one sprung from the imaginations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but the intervention of “many hands” shaped both irrevocably. While the illustrator Haddon Sundblom drew iconic images of Santa for the Coca-Cola Company, and pencillers like Wayne Boring and Curt Swan set the style for Superman for decades, the looks of both characters had already been fairly well-established. We don’t see too many revisions to Santa’s look these days, and I suspect that before too long, the New-52 Superman will revert to a more classic appearance as well.

* * *

In a way, this is what puzzles me about people who say they don’t “get” Superman and Wonder Woman. I understand that it’s easier to grasp the ideas behind Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Under their abilities and gear, they’re just guys, driven by relatively mundane mindsets. Superman and Wonder Woman are allegedly more obtuse because they represent higher ideals. Well, what about Santa? His mission of omniscient compassion and annual rewards (coupled these days with a dollop of economic stimulus) is just as lofty, but no one looks to relaunch him every few years.

Now, you may say that Santa is hardly as complex as either the Last Son of Krypton or the Amazing Amazon, and there is some truth to that. However, with Superman and Wonder Woman, it’s possible as well to go overboard on complexity — to bend over backwards to make them “relevant” or “realistic” at the expense of what made them appealing initially. And this, too, is part of the reason no one looks to relaunch Santa — because Santa’s audience is self-renewing, and never really goes away.

Similarly, there will always be an audience for Superman, and that audience will know, deep in its collective heart, when Superman is done right. When that happens, whether it comes from Siegel & Shuster or Morrison & Quitely or Christopher Reeve, it’s one of the most special things on Earth. Superman is one of those rare creations of fiction which, like Charlie Brown and Santa Claus, has transcended its original state to become an icon of something pure and true. After that point, tweaking tends to yield diminishing returns. We “know” Superman like we know the others, because he speaks to the best parts of ourselves.

Accordingly, this time of the year it doesn’t take much to trigger my sentimental impulses. For me, the best trappings of Christmas are the most primal, the most elementary: the dark desert, the angels, the shepherds, and of course the Child. The primal Superman elements do the same: the costume, the transformation, the powers. Adding too much else threatens to obscure them.

Introducing his ultimate Superman story, Alan Moore referred to “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.” Whoever that is for you, I hope this season inspires you to do the same. After all, that’s what Christmas is all about.

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Comments

21 Comments

It’s a good thing DC and Marvel don’t publish the bible. Because if they did, we’d see Jesus re-booted every few years, with ret-cons to the old testament, all in a misguided attempt to market to younger audiences.

And with today’s decompressed storytelling, the DC/Marvel bible would have to be spread out over six volumes — to be collected later in an Omnibus edition.

Merry Christmas, Tom!

This was a trippy article, man

happy holidays.

Jesus has had many reboots. They are called the Gospels. Each one offers a little different slice of Jesus, while the synoptic gospels (Mk, Mt, Lk) agree about much, it is the subtle differences that say a great deal. Also, I think you could argue that Superman is a reboot of Jesus, Jesus a reboot of David, David a reboot of Moses, and on it goes…anyway, Merry Christmas for those of you/us who celebrate.

Actually, I’d argue that Santa HAS been relaunched every few years. Some of the reboots have had elements that have stuck more than others. The stories from Washington Irving and Clement Moore are early versions. L. Frank Baum (of Oz fame) had his origin story for Santa. Generations later, there was the Rankin Bass “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” TV special to explain his backstory. The Tim Allen movie, “The Santa Clause,” had it’s own mythology, and there are many others. Like Superman, certain featrures didn’t change, but each story tried to present him for a new generation.

Agreeing with Marc C, there have been many reboots throughout the Bible. There have also been chapters pulled and chapters added over the course of history.

Someone agrees with me…what a Christmas gift.

That was an enjoyable article, Mr. Bondurant. Thanks for writing and posting it.

While not a “baroque, retro-gonzo, Morrison/Quitely-esque Nativity account,” Bill Tucci’s “A Child Is Born” was published last month. It’s well researched and beautifully done.

A happy Christmas and blessed New Year to all!

Santa actually was relaunched many times and I don’t see the point of bringing up the reboot …all heroes are rooted in doing good. It is a huge conceit some are better than others. Merry Xmas to you too.

Like Jesus Christ and Santa Claus, Superman is definitely one of the most enduring superbeings in all of fiction, so it’s definitely a reasonable comparison to make.

“Jesus has had many reboots. They are called the Gospels. Each one offers a little different slice of Jesus…”
Does this mean the many biographies of Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, JFK etc, each with a different slant on things, are reboots as well?

“Also, I think you could argue that Superman is a reboot of Jesus, Jesus a reboot of David…”
Does this mean Elvis is a reboot of Jesus? (http://snapshotsofgod.com/Elvis-Jesus.htm)

“Like Jesus Christ and Santa Claus, Superman is definitely one of the most enduring superbeings in all of fiction, so it’s definitely a reasonable comparison to make.”
Jesus Christ was historical. And even Santa Claus seem to have been a badly distorted memory of the real-life Bishop/ St Nicholas.

The New-52 Superman is a call back to the original myth and that sort of Santa reboot might not be so bad.

PS- I loved this article.

I watched those animated shows when I was a kid. I still enjoy hearing some if the songs. But, they are seriously messed up when it comes to history or the meaning of Christmas. That makes it all the more meaningful when charlie Brown says, “I guess I don’t know the true meaning of Christmas. Can anyone tell me the meaning of Christmas?!” And that’s when Linus says, “Sure, I can tell you, Charlie Brown…” I highly recommend the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” app. It tells the story with the original voices and you can interact with it by tapping items onscreen.

People have tried to retcon the Old Testament for centuries. The gospels aren’t the retcon. They are historical records from different eye witness testimony. The retcons are people saying that the gospels are retcons, so that they can add or take away from the Bible as they see fit, making it mean what they want it to mean.

I don’t believe Superman represents Jesus or Moses, except in the sense that he is a deliverer, or Messiah-type. So, maybe your Santa comparison is pretty good.

Great article!

“Jesus Christ was historical. And even Santa Claus seem to have been a badly distorted memory of the real-life Bishop/ St Nicholas”.

Really?… Do you study Jesus in History classes?
Cause we don’t…

There’s a lot of reasons we don’t study Jesus in history classes that have nothing to do with Jesus’ historical validity.

Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it.

Man, could I ever go on a tangent about the historical canonicity of Jesus… all about the Jewish act of using Midrash to tell parts of different stories as part of a new story to draw comparisons. For example, when the Bible says that Jesus fled a murderous king to Egypt with his mother Mary, that’s not literally true, that’s an allusion to Moses and his sister Miriam (the only other Mary in the Bible) sending him down the river to escape the Pharaoh’s wrath. Actually true? No. Metaphorically resonant? Yes, definitely. Jesus was so important that Jewish writers attempted to explain him but turned him into a walking allusion instead. It’s really fascinating.

Of course, most people get stuck in the trap of thinking that literal Angels literally jumped out at shepherds and sang to them about a baby. That didn’t happen. It was just a storytelling device.

@Christine…and RMW…I think the difference is in our perspective of what the “historical Jesus” means. I do believe there was a man named Jesus who did and said much of what is reported in the Gospels, but I cannot think of the Gospels as literal or as “eye-witness” accounts…because they are not. There are not many NT scholars who believe these documents are “eye-witness” accounts except for a few “literalists.” The closest account to Jesus is from Paul and he was writing about Jesus about 1-2 decades after the death of the historical Jesus.

Superman isn’t a reboot of Moses and to a lesser extent Jesus! Really?!! Jesus is a stretch I admit it..but Moses is bang on…placed in a basket (spaceship), sent into space (down the river), adopted by foreigners Jewish Moses adopted by Egyptians, Kal-El by humans….still don’t see it?

Adekis…nice pulling on the historical threads and context. No one ever seems to notice that the genealogy presented in Matthew (I think near the beginning) is patrilineal and then comes to Mary and all of a sudden it isn’t. Many would argue this is evidence of the divinity of Jesus, but likely conceals an uncomfortable bit of history.

Adekis, I’m guessing you’ve never read the Bible, because there are several Marys in it.

Marc, there are two genealogies in the New Testament, one with Mary’s line and one with Joseph’s. They were both descendants of David. Before you say Jesus was not really Joseph’s son, it’s not unusual for adopted kids to acknowledge their adopted family as well as their biological one.

“It’s a good thing DC and Marvel don’t publish the bible. Because if they did, we’d see Jesus re-booted every few years, with ret-cons to the old testament, all in a misguided attempt to market to younger audiences.”

The Book of Judas was translated back in 2006 which told the story of Jesus from Judas’ perspective. It’s Jesus as he would be in the Ultimate Universe.

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/_pdf/GospelofJudas.pdf

Christine, I urge you to read that passage again…NRSV from the original Greek–later editors monkeyed with this passage to make it “fit.” I still have a hunch that you may be more of a literal reader than I. I hear you, but cannot understand you–my brother is a literalist too–I hear him, but don’t understand him and cannot dialogue with him because the gulf is too great. I cannot argue with someone who believes a guy built a large boat and put two of every creature on it (I do no dispute the flood story–it is universal–almost). The Western Wall at the Temple has now been shown to have not been built by Solomon as the story goes (according to latest archeological evidence), but will this ease tensions between Christians, Jews and Muslims? I very much doubt it because the literal readers are not interested in anything but their “stories.” Furthermore, Matthew was writing with an eye, I think, of solidifying the Judaic tradition that Jesus came from–trying to bridge Jew and Gentile through Christ–he isn’t really practicing Judaism (for Gentiles), but he is (for practising Jews). I try to keep my mind open to what the story may tell me the next time I read it. Anyway, as I already said, I think the gulf between our two Christian perspectives may be a bit wide to bridge.

There are 7 mentions of a Mary in the NT–some scholars believe that some of these Marys may be the same person. For example, the Apostle James (bishop of Jerusalem at the time of Paul–epistle by him is my favourite) has been thought to be the brother of Jesus. Anyway, ’nuff said about this. Anyone interested in these things should check out Bart D Ehrman…an interesting scholar who was raised as a Baptist–literal reader.

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