ny lingering doubt that popular culture has become acceptable was probably dispelled by the fact that in mid-2006 the U. S. Postal Service issued 39-cent stamps depicting Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and seven other DC Comics [publishers] legends. A year later, to even things up a bit, apparently, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and seven other Marvel Comics [publishers] superheroes were added in a set of 41-cent stamps.
It used to be that U. S. postage stamps celebrated heroes—literal, historical figures—who had in significant ways contributed to the enrichment of Western culture. These were personages who had actually existed and who had impacted our world with positive accomplishment in music, literature, art, and other endeavors in public life. We’re talking the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Cassatt, John Philip Sousa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. And we’re also talking of what is generally considered “high culture.”
This idea of high culture—as opposed to folk culture and what later came to be termed popular or mass culture—was introduced to public discourse in the nineteenth century by Matthew Arnold, who described culture as “the best that has been known and said in the world.”1
But scholars, philosophers, and other thought leaders have increasingly opened their view of culture as inclusive of high culture and popular culture. This has resulted at least in part from the realization that popular culture has also come to express—occasionally—“the best that has been known and said in the world.”
“The DC Comics Super Heroes have been a beloved part of America’s culture for almost seven decades as the most significant characters to emerge from comic books—a true American art form,” said DC Comics Publisher and President Paul Levitz. “It is both fitting and exciting for these heroes to be commemorated as stamps by the U.S. Postal Service.”2
Comic book heroes on postage stamps?
Whatever one’s position on this question, it is plain that what the creators of comic books began in the 1930s has resonated with such a wide segment of our culture that it has evolved into the creation of literally hundreds of superheroes. Superman wasn’t the very first of these, but he has proved to be the most enduring. His impact has spread to radio and television shows and even a Broadway musical.
Though there are a few exceptions to this rule, a superhero is a character who has some kind of supernatural capability (super powers) which he or she uses to fight evil. And the evil is often personified by an archrival who appears, also, to have supernatural powers. So even though the battle between these two characters ensues in the material world, there is a clearly spiritual—often apocalyptic—dimension to their conflict. Usually this conflict centers on the archrival’s intention to control the world.
And this begins to sound more than a bit like the apostle Paul’s description of the great controversy in which Christians believe themselves to be engaged: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12, NIV).
Many cultural critics have pointed out the analogies between, for example, Superman and Jesus—especially in the film versions of the Superman myth. As atrocious as this may sound to many Christians, is it possible that the positive response to the depiction of superheroes in the media may result from an innate but generally unacknowledged sense of need for a messiah—a savior? Could it suggest the unacknowledged feeling that we are living in a darkening world with forces that only someone with supernatural powers will be able to drive out?
This seems to be borne out by the surprising influence that superheroes have come to play in everyday life. Artist William Pope.L recalls a day when as a child he and his aged Aunt Jenny were sitting watching the Superman TV show and the broadcast was interrupted by the announcement that for the first time man had landed on the moon. All Aunt Jenny could say, he remembers, was, “Where’s my program?”
“But, Aunt Jenny,” the child said, “this is a historical moment!”
“If God meant for man to be on the moon,” Aunt Jenny grumbled, “He’d have put us there. Where’s my program?”3
The involvement of comic book superheroes in the spiritual realm has also occasioned discussion of some of the more material aspects of conflict. Some of those classified as superheroes, in fact, exhibit no supernatural powers whatever. Instead, their stories are told because they were heroic in a more human sense. Some comic books have depicted actual historical stories.
It’s interesting to note that one overzealous enthusiast of the comic book genre has taken it upon himself to categorize comic book superheroes by their religious affiliations. According to his classification, for example, Magneto is Jewish, Maya is Hindu, and the Green Genie is Muslim. The Christian denominations are included too: Electra is Eastern Orthodox, the Ghost Rider is Baptist, and Marvel Girl is Episcopalian.
And included in this system, the organizer has even identified two superheroes as Seventh-day Adventist: Desmond Doss (who has appeared in at least two comic book adaptations) and Cecilia Reyes (“maybe”).4
Most Adventists are familiar enough with the World War II account of Desmond Doss to know that if there were a supernatural aspect to his heroism it was only through God’s grace and not through anything in his inherent nature. He was a real, historical figure, decorated by no less than a president of the United States, not the result of someone’s imagination.
Cecilia Reyes, on the other hand, was one of the mutant superheroes in the Marvel Comics series on X-Men (and women, presumably). A Web site devoted to the religious affiliation of various superheroes designates Cecilia Reyes as possiblyAdventist for two very thin reasons: (1) Seventh-day Adventists seem to be underrepresented as comic book superheroes; and (2) Adventists are well known for their medical ministry and Cecilia Reyes is a physician. It makes no reference to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs.
Whether in film or television, comic books or postage stamps, in the past nearly three-quarters of a century superheroes have become a phenomenon, a surprisingly significant strand in the fabric of popular culture. That so many people resonate with their stories is a testament to our need for something—or someone—greater than ourselves to bring a sense of ultimate meaning to our lives. In fact, that is our only hope.
1Literature and Dogma (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1883), p. xix.
3PRI’s “Studio 360” podcast, January 5, 2007.
Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.