National Edition

Superheroes and faith: How religion plays a role in the comic book industry

Published: Friday, Nov. 29 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Even the most avid comic book reader might not know that The Thing, that orange and bulky hard-hitter from the Fantastic Four, was Jewish, or that at one point Batman was raised Christian.

In fact, religion has played a part in a superhero's character development for decades.

Now, religion is becoming the story itself where biblical tales told in the comic book format have been on the rise in recent years. And with the introduction of the new Muslim Ms. Marvel, who is poised to hit comic stands this coming February, religion has become a drawing point for readers of more mainstream comics published by Marvel and DC, rather than just a subtle reference within the pages.

Kingstone Comics, started by Art Ayris in 2010, is a new brand in the emerging field of faith-based comic books and graphic novels, which are books presented in comic book format. Joining Kingstone in publishing religious comic books is HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which recently decided to offer graphic novels and comics, and Zondervan, an Evangelical publisher.

“Comics have been a fairly reflective medium," said Preston Hunter, founder of ComicBookReligion.com, which keeps a database of all comic book characters’ religions, as well as a count of what stories have religious themes. “It’s representative of pop culture in general."

And with the new Ms. Marvel preparing to hit the comic stands in February 2014, attention to comics and graphic novels with religious themes and characters has increased, experts say, as comics help people transcend past the pages and delve deeper into their own faith and religions they don’t understand completely.

Kutter Callaway, an affiliate professor of theological and cultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, said comics are extensions of religious learning.

“It’s really something that appeases people’s imagination and hearts more so than a sermon ever could,” he said.

Religious background

Religion has long influenced comic books, said A. David Lewis, a comic book writer and scholar in religion and literature. He authored “Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels" (Bloomsbury, 2010), where he detailed the role religion plays in comic books.

He said many of the popular superheroes of today, like Batman, Captain America and Superman, were created and colored by writers and artists of Jewish immigrant descent. These writers also penned themes and stories based on Jewish immigrant ideals of being a hero in disguise, Lewis said.

Religion has also played a crucial part in character development, Hunter said.

Hunter said some heroes, like Marvel’s Kitty Pryde, who has the power to make objects intangible and is of Jewish descent, was written with her heritage in mind. It was planned ahead.

Writers will “fill in the blanks” in later stories if they don’t give a character a religious identity to begin with, Hunter said. Marvel’s The Thing (also known as Ben Grimm) was given a Jewish background decades after he was first published as writers wanted to explore his history a little deeper, Hunter said.

“People wanted to explore how hard he can punch, and then where he grew up, and then his background, and then his religious affiliation,” he said.

Similarly, Superman/Clark Kent’s Methodist background was included in later works and characters like Batman — who was originally written with a Christian upbringing, but recently has been identified as a lax Protestant or atheist — are continually being explored from a religious standpoint, Hunter said.

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