In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. A. David Lewis of Merrimack College explores what the depiction of the afterlife in comic books says about how we view human nature.
A. David Lewis is a graphic novelist, comics studies scholar, and adjunct professor of humanities at Merrimack College. He is the co-editor of Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels and an Editorial Board Member for The International Journal of Comic Art. He has been writing and lecturing on comics for more than a decade. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston University.
Dr. A. David Lewis – The Afterlife in Comic Books
Comic book superheroes like Green Lantern, Wolverine, Thor, so frequently venture into the afterlife – call it Heaven, Hell, Limbo, Sheol, Valhalla, Paradise, the Fire – that the recurring conventions of such tales constitute its own superhero subgenre. These recurring generic elements help ensure that the stories still ‘make sense’ to the Western reader. It makes sense when one’s soul continues separately to function after the death of the body; it makes sense, at least narratively, that existence after death is its own reality, separate from the everyday world and not some illusion.
The new superhero afterlife subgenre can support these readings, sure--however, can also be regarded as masking an alternate understanding of narrative character and suggesting an alternative model of selfhood to readers. When we read, we tend to identify with characters, and, conversely, we tend to recognize characters in terms of how they resemble the way everyday people act. Often, though, our model for characters in our fiction and people in our lives is as complete, whole selves. This, though, may not be accurate; many cultures recognize a wide variety of facets constituting an individual – many, many elements or energies constituting an umbrella “soul.”
The comics subgenre offers a lens for integrating multiplicity into particularly American religious practices and considerations of the afterlife. Green Arrow’s soul can have a conversation with his body, Green Lantern can spread his essence across many realms at once, and Hercules can square his godly self against his mortal self. Don’t absently buy into the popular belief in having one single soul when the ‘outlandish’ idea of a multiple self works just as well in stories. And, if it works in stories, why not also in our lives? And in our faiths! This spandex thanatology and these superhero sojourns into the afterlife better matches with the goals of religious pluralism and healthful self-understanding.