Sequential Art-icles is the place to find writings on the subject of comics. From discussions about the major headlines, to reviews of particular issues or storylines, to think-pieces encouraging dialogue around life and worldview, all drawn from the pages of comic books.
© 2013 – Warner Bros. Entertainment
When Warner Bros. released Man of Steel a few years back, they (very intentionally) sparked quite a bit of discussion around the movie’s presentation of the world’s first super hero. Specifically, it was the filmmakers’ emphasis on the idea of Superman as an allegory for Jesus. They even went so far as to hire a faith-based marketing company to hold special screenings for pastors where they would highlight these allegorical elements and moments from the film, encourage they be used as sermon fodder and bible study topics.
Personally, I’ve always loved Superman. As a small child, I would run around the house in my Superman costume, fighting the powers of evil and injustice wherever they may lurk. My love for the character hasn’t really dimmed at all as I’ve grown older, in fact I’d say that it has grown. I remember seeing all the hype for the movie around the time of its release, and seeing as I was in bible college at the time, I definitely sat up and took notice. It genuinely warmed my heart to see people looking to bridge the gap between comics, one of my favourite pastimes, and faith, the central facet of my life and studies.
The problem that I’ve observed with allegory, especially those drawn from pop culture, is that they can often be a bit…forced. People draw the loosest of connections to anything that even remotely resembles a vaguely biblical concept and then play it off as though these things have a lot to teach us about the Bible. Never mind that the team behind it was made up of stone-cold atheists, or that the actual message of the thing is actually fundamentally anti-biblical. On the other side, some people allow allegory to shape theology, rather than the Bible itself, and so you have otherwise orthodox believers accidentally spouting heresy!
Don’t get me wrong, I love comics, movies, games, etc. And I often find that they will lead me to thinking about the things of God, though not always necessarily in a direct or positive way. Sometimes I’m lead to thinking about truth in contrast to what I’m watching or reading, which only happens when you are sure to be investing your time in what the Scriptures say directly. But I’m sure I’ll talk more about my overall approach to entertainment some other time. My point here is that I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the question of whether Superman really can be seen as an allegory for Jesus. My answer is YES!
… but also no.
In this first article, I want to elaborate a bit on what I mean by this answer by taking us back to Superman’s beginnings. Let’s cast our minds back to the late 1930s. Two young men, both the sons of Jewish immigrants, had been working for some time trying to make a name as storytellers. They had tried being published in science fiction magazines, self-publishing, and then trying to break into the world of comics. One of their previously unsuccessful stories, first as an illustrated sci-fi story and later as a comic book, was called “The Reign of the Superman,” which was really more of a sci-fi spin on Frankenstein, and which featured the titular “superman” in the role of the villain, not the hero. Later, after having gained some success with other comic book characters and properties, they decided to revisit this “Superman” idea, but flesh it out some more, and make Superman a hero, not a villain. They found a home for their story with a publisher, who would later come to be named after their already successful comic series “Detective Comics,” who was looking to create a second title called “Action Comics.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
In developing the origin tale for their new super hero, the two young Jewish men took inspiration from one of the most important Biblical figures. No, not Jesus. We’ll get to that. I’m talking about Moses. Think about it, being confronted with impending tragedy, parents make the decision to send their child adrift where he winds up being adopted. Then later, upon discovering his heritage, embraces said heritage and goes on to become a great hero in saving multitudes. There are some other Old Testament influences as well, such as Samson as a root for the idea of Superman’s tremendous strength. Other elements, such as being bullet-proof or being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound all have other roots and influences as well. At the end of the day, however, there is one figure that can never be truly said to have influenced Siegel and Shuster in creating Kal-El: Jesus Christ.
In his truest, most original incarnation, then, Superman had no direct parallels to Jesus in any way. At least, none intended by the original creators. However, there are two things to keep in mind at this stage:
The first is that we’re talking about a character now has over 80 years of history in media, including a multitude of comic books and series, as well as movies, tv shows, video games, novels, and more. I’d hazard to say, though I’m not sure I’d be able to definitively prove it, but my guess is that there is no medium known to mankind where Superman has not appeared. His stories have been told by literally thousands of different people coming from all different backgrounds and walks of life. So just because Superman wasn’t originally a Jesus allegory, that doesn’t mean those elements didn’t eventually get introduced.
The second thing to keep in mind is that Superman was originally rooted in Old Testament figures such as Moses and Samson. And while it may not have been fully grasped by the original authors, the divine author of those books, not to mention the author of the histories they record, was always directing to the Messiah, the one who would come to save the world. As such, many of these Old Testament figures, Moses included, serves as a prophetic type, a historical foreshadowing as it were, of Jesus.
Tune in for part 2 of this article where we’ll explore the parallels between Jesus and Moses in further depth, thus drawing out those same parallels with Superman. Then, in part 3 I’ll explore some of the other elements in the character and lore of the Big Blue Boy Scout that aren’t rooted in Old Testament typology, whether intentional or not, and whether by direct comparison or instead by contrast, can lead us to deepen our thinking about Jesus when compared with the Scripture’s presentation of Him.