“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
– Nietzsche, The Gay Science
The sixth issue of Thor (written by Jason Aaron, regularly drawn by Esad Ribic but in this case by Butch Guice) ends with the torture and crucifixion of Volstagg “the valiant, Lion of Asgard.” This is, in terms of the story’s chronology, the first premeditated deicide we are shown committed by Gorr the God Butcher, a creature who “has vowed to kill all deities across the cosmos” and whom “gods have wrought” through their apparent hubris and neglect.
Aaron and Ribic’s Thor revolves around the across-centuries struggle between Thor and Gorr, who is on a mission to exterminate all the gods populating the Marvel Universe. What makes the sixth issue of this comic so interesting is that the moment of representation of Volstagg crystalizes its narrative’s logic so perfectly: Marvel Universe is killing God.
Part I: Abstract/Form
Volstagg, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965, was modeled both in name and in character after Shakespeare’s Falstaff, and is as such a thoroughly pagan creation. In Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, Falstaff is a personification of a kind of jovial, carnivalesque spirit that refuses to take the established order and its institutions of power (the monarchy and the church) seriously. He is a jokester, a trickster, a drunken lout, and a bumbling (but wise) fool who both mocks and tries to profit from figures and institutions of power. As such, he is a creation in the tradition of what the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has called grotesque realism. This tradition celebrates the materiality of the body, its “fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance” (19), by creating a “second life of folk culture” (11) in opposition to the ‘first life’ of the official culture represented most often by the Christian churches. In other words, grotesque realism reaches into a pre-Christian past in order to reactivate and celebrate pagan rites and rituals that are often seen and imagined as sensual and materialist, in opposition to those of Christianity which are imagined as spiritual and austere.
Aaron and Guice’s representation of Volstagg, however, negates this opposition by combining Christian and pagan motifs and elements, bringing into sharp focus the formal and representational strategies of the Thor narrative so far.
Volstagg’s Falstaffian, jovial, pagan spirit, for example, comes through even in the scenes of torture in Thor as he jokes, “What? No more whipping? Back to eating worm poop in the mines for old Volstagg, I sup—.“ This line is interrupted when Volstagg’s hands are nailed to a saltire, or St. Andrew’s Cross, which is today famous for both being on the flags of Scotland and the United Kingdom (the birthplace of Falstaff), and for being a common piece of equipment in BDSM dungeons. Christianity’s most sublime moment – that of Jesus’s crucifixion – is here visually aligned with a fictional pagan god and a common device in the practice of BDSM.
The more general representational strategies of Thor work toward the same goal of fusing pagan and Christian motifs. Issues one through five are drawn, as I already noted, by Esad Ribic, whose work on Thor clearly and powerfully evokes that of Frank Frazetta. In Frazetta’s obituary on May 10, 2010, Dave Itzkoff described him as “an illustrator whose vivid colors and striking brushstrokes conjured up fantastic worlds of musclebound heroes fighting with broad swords and battle axes to defend helpless women from horrible beasts.” Associated most famously with the world of heroes like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, this style of illustration suggests pagan worlds – material, sensual, filled with sex and violence. On the other hand, issue six is drawn by Guice, whose work here is more realistic and austere, resembling more the tradition embraced by versions of the illustrated New Testament.
Most importantly, Guice’s Volstagg – the embodiment of pagan, carnivalesque energy – is illustrated resembling the traditional representations of Jesus Christ. As such, on the very last page of issue six, Jesus Christ crucified is represented as one of the many gods tortured and crucified by Gorr the God Butcher. Here, finally, we witness a merging of a Christian narrative about the one and only God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – with the pagan narrative of a proliferation of deities. Here, also, on the level of visual narrative we see the meeting of pagan and Christian conceptualizations of reality.
Part II: Negative/Content
This fusing of Christian and pagan iconographies on the formal/visual levels is echoed in Thor by the relationship and contrast in the Marvel Universe between Marvel’s typical superhero – Iron Man, let’s say – and Thor as a Marvel superhero. This relationship/contrast is highlighted in Thor by the almost complete absence of other superheroes, and even more so by a brief appearance of Iron Man with whom Thor has the following exchange:
Thor: I thank you for your help … but from here I must go on alone.
Stark: You sure you don’t need the Avengers with you on this one?
Stark: Right. God business. I got it. It’s okay, I’ve got plenty of boring old mortal problems do deal with. I’ll be on the moon if you need me.
Thor: Stark, wait. All those years ago, I came to this place alone. Out of stubborn pride. … Now gods are dying because of my silence, because of my foolishness. I cannot make that same mistake again. You are as much a god as any immortal I have ever known, Tony Stark. Please … I could use your help.
This exchange underscores the interesting relationship Thor has with the rest of the Marvel Universe. On the one hand, he is one of the Avengers, one of the superheroes united in the struggle against evil, in the struggle to protect humanity. On the other, he belongs to an entirely different plane of metaphysical reality – Asgard, rather than Earth.
This fact is reflected in Thor’s background as a Marvel hero. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1962, Thor’s origin story started off in a somewhat typical Marvel fashion as the “lame physician Don Blake was vacationing in Scandinavia and found a walking stick that, when struck against the ground, became the hammer of legend – and transformed Blake into the long-haired titan with a winged helmet, weather-controlling abilities, and an Old English patois of verilys and methinkses” (Howe 40). In the beginning, then, many of the typical Marvel traits are there: Blake is an everyman and a scientist/intellectual; he is somehow – physically or emotionally – maimed; he is changed accidentally. Over the years, however, Thor has become ‘purified’ of these Marvel birth-scoria; he is now seen primarily as the god of Thunder, Odin’s son, originating from Asgard and, hence, only a visitor on Earth (this is clearly delineated in the recent Thor film, directed by Kenneth Branagh).
This metaphysical difference is in Aaron and Ribic’s Thor utilized to focus on a more general characteristic of the Marvel Universe. Heroes like Spiderman, Iron Man, and Captain America are saviours of humanity. Their role echoes that of Christ the Saviour, as they are most often the ones who must pay for human transgressions. Thor, on the other hand is pagan through-and-through. The first issues of Aaron and Ribic’s Thor highlight precisely Thor’s pagan nature: his relationship to pre-Christian tribes of barbarians, his love of the material: of drink, sex, and violence (witness, below, the first page of issue one).
Thor’s main challenge has thus always been that of becoming just one of the Avengers – a saviour of humanity; his challenge has always, in a certain sense, been that of becoming less than he is.
Part III: Concrete/Thor
The Christian God has always been defined, functionally, in relation to His role as the saviour of humanity. As Ludwig Feuerbach noted in his The Essence of Christianity, God is nothing more than a projection of this humanity: “It is simply impossible for man to get beyond the true horizon of his being. It is true that he can imagine individuals of a different, and allegedly higher, kind, but he cannot conceive of himself in abstraction from his species, from his mode of being. The essential determinations he attributes to those other individuals must always be determinations emanating from his own being – determinations in which he in truth only projects himself, which only represent his self-objectifications.” Christian God – Jesus Christ – is the epitome of this objectification: He is God-made-Man and his functional role is that of taking on all the sins of humanity
The purest expression of this (human) logic in Thor is Gorr the God Butcher: he, a kind of monster, is also strangely the highest representative of humankind, because it is ultimately he who sees divinity only in relation to his own and his family’s survival (as we learn in Gorr’s origin story, his mission is launched after his entire family dies and gods remain indifferent to his suffering). His extermination of the pagan pantheon in the comic is thus analogous to Christianity’s extermination of the pagans and their pantheon through colonial and missionary expansion, outside comics, in the name of (a kind of) compassion for the abstract ‘man.’
Thor’s narrative thus expresses an amusing paradox of religion: pagan gods, by being explicitly open to human passions and faults – drink, sex, violence – rise above the human principle through that very openness. Their natures are rooted in human passions, and as such they are allowed not to be concerned with humans’ concerns. By removing God’s nature completely into a realm beyond that of the human realm, and by re-contextualizing human passion as sinful, Christianity (and, before it, Judaism; and, after it, Islam) root God’s nature in an understanding of reality inaccessible, at least formally, to the human mind. At the same time, however, Christianity redefines divinity as explicitly concerned with human redemption. As such, it functionally reduces what God is capable of while, theoretically, granting God omnipresence, omniscience, and absolute perfection. As has been observed before, however, this combination of qualities, which should have given God the ability to do all He wishes, functionally limit His capability to act, making Satan as the embodiment of ‘otherness’ a necessity. Thor’s struggle to become a saviour of humanity, a Marvel superhero, is thus a struggle against his expansive nature.
Part IV: Addendum/Remainder
Christianity’s reduction of divinity’s function necessitates one God: if there is one humanity to be saved, there must be only one God as a function of that one humanity. Hence, the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” This commandment, however, is quickly followed by the second: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” In other words, there is to be no duplication, no copying, no imitation, no mimesis of God.
This observation has a general relevance for comics.
“The very act of visual representation,” writes Ella Shohat in her essay “Sacred Word, Profane Image,” “has [from the beginning, in the Judeo-Christian tradition] been enmeshed in taboos and prohibitions.” She continues:
The prohibition of graven images condenses a number of theological arguments having to do with interrelated anxieties circling around God’s image: (1) the fear of substituting the image itself for God, and thus committing idolatry – worshipping the object standing in for God, rather than God; (2) the fear of portraying God inaccurately in a kind of failed mimesis or wrongful representation; (3) the fear of embodying an infinite God in finite materials; (4) the fear of portraying God in shapes and forms made by finite humans; (5) the fear of giving “flesh” to God; and, ultimately, (6) the fear of representing the unrepresentable, that which is above and beyond representation. The prohibition of graven images, furthermore, linked the religious condemnation of representing deity with the assertion of the epistemological impossibility of actually knowing the deity. … Any attempt at representation thus amounts to a sacrilege, precisely because it would force God’s invisible abstractness to “descend” into the “bad neighbourhood” of the visible and the earthly.
The comic book industry is one of the prototypical capitalist ventures: it produces a product that is quickly and easily consumed, carries a significant cultural capital, can be adapted to and support other industries (film, toys, etc.), and must continually be replenished. As such – for better or for worse – comics are doing what someone has argued capitalism, generally, has done from its beginnings: “It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. … In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”
Capitalism’s/comic book industry’s proliferation of images has killed God. Why do the iconoclasts of the Judeo-Christian tradition fear graven images, or what Jean-Francois Baudrillard has called simulacra? –
[P]recisely because they predicted this omnipotence of simulacra, the faculty simulacra have of effacing God from the conscience of man, and the destructive, annihilating truth that they allow to appear – that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum – from this came their urge to destroy the images. If they could have believed that these images only obfuscated or masked the Platonic Idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the image didn’t conceal anything at all, and that these images were in essence not images, such as an original model would have made them, but perfect simulacra, forever radiant with their own fascination. Thus this death of the divine referential must be exorcised at all costs.
Representation of God and representation of gods do many things, one of which is that they highlight the fact that God never was. He was dead long before Nietzsche. God is dead; Long live God.
I had studied to be a pastor when I graduated from college for a bit, so from a theological perspective your analysis of the ten commandments jogged my memory a bit. I realized that my wanting to be one may have been misplaced, so I’m still christian, just not taking that life direction anymore.
If you read the Volsungs and Prose Edda side by side with DuBois’s Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, you can see the interesting parallels and cultural interactions between Christian and Pagan origins, unfortunately because Sturluson was culturally reclaiming pagan myths under the guise of christian pretense, what little we have of intact Nordic paganism is irrevocably tainted with christian undertones. Everybody loves to quote the Prose Edda, but I’ve never heard someone quote the introductory note that explains that the people of Scandinavia invented the Viking Legends after walking away from God as a means to explain their existence. What we have today could very well be analogous to a Syncretic Fan-Fiction in which Odin Hangs on a tree, and his beloved Son Baldur dies only to later redeem man post Ragnarok.
However if you read Dr. Hilda Davidson’s commentary on the Prose Edda, and her attempts to reconstruct ancient cultures proliferating Germany and Scandinavia along side, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton, you can actually reconstruct the original, non-Christianized ambiance. In fact, while Sturluson’s work largely parallels Christian archetypes and symbols, the much older legends, that are less than glamorous, actually reflect very ancient Near Eastern beliefs. Midgard being a flat disk that surrounds the World Tree is a culturally common cosmological construction of ancient Near East cultures in Sumeria. Not only that the non-material ontology of the ancient world is present with the birth of the Nordic cosmos between a chasm of fire and ice. Ymir appears in the Ginnungagap between the cold ice of the North and the Fires of Muspelheim to the south and finds his origins like the Egyptian and Sumerian Gods: an entity of Order crawling out of the chaos of the functionless abyss. YHWH reveals himself doing the same thing in Genesis only he exists outside of the material universe.
God may be dead, in the idea that the idea of Christendom has relinquished it’s sway over humanity as the predominant worldview, but I personally feel that people search for God constantly. I say this from a DC reader perspective. If you look at the grand continuum of DC I feel that characters endure so much longer in substance and style because of their archetypal significance. Marvel on the other hand is killing “god” by making their heroes simple mortals with dangerous temperaments and powers, and look at their turnover!
But I agree with you though, with qualifications. I think Marvel in “paganizing” their Thor have brought him back to the good old days as the son of Odin, but this is ironic (sorta) because Sturluson’s Nordic Pantheon was highly Christianized, and heavily contextualized in a dominant christian culture of the time (writing about pagan myth was heresy then). I would recommend consulting Davidson’s book Gods and Myths of Northern Europe for her valiant reconstruction of ancient paganism, as well as pay attention to the coda sentiment. She says:
“In many ways the old religion had pointed forward to the new, but while much of the pattern was the same, the Christian conception of the relationship between God and man was immeasurably deeper. When we lament the passing of the old faith, it is largely a lamentation for a simpler way of life, doomed to be lost when a more complex and organized society replaced the old one. As the way of living changed, and new vistas opened before the eyes of the young, the old deities could no longer satisfy, and men had reached the point of no return.”
It’s a great read though! That’s just my two cents.
Hey Stuart –
Those are some well-informed, carefully thought-out two cents. I never even considered the possibility that I was romanticizing the past — perhaps because I was so focused on thinking through concepts as they function today rather than seeing these concepts as embedded in a particular tradition different from the Judeo-Christian. Which, I agree, may be a wee-bit naive.
But still, there is an argument to be made that when “the new” overcomes (in the Hegelian sense) “the old,” that very same “the old” takes on a new function in relation to “the new,” within the context of “the new.” I’d like to think that that new function of “the old” could be taken into consideration without necessarily romanticizing some imagined “concrete, actually-existing” past — a rhetorical move which I generally find distasteful myself. But you may be right in pointing out that I am not entirely successful in doing that here.
That’s an interesting point you make about the difference between DC and Marvel — and I think you are right. I am generally more sympathetic to the Marvel approach, though, and when I read DC comics, I generally do so searching for the ways in which they work against the archetypal image (which is maybe why I found Bryan Singer’s Superman so interesting, unlike most people). But that could have something to do with the fact that I am an unabashed humanist with a fascination with the concept of God.
In any case, thanks for your comment. I’ll look up those titles you mentioned as soon as my crazy schedule lets up a little.