American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion by A. David Lewis:

A Review

One of the markers of modernity is the concentration on, as well as the definition of, self. How the self is created, defined, and the limits of this identity are all modern questions that seem tied to identifications with culture and larger questions of humanity.  Lewis’ time frame for the argument of the book, 1985-2011, provides a look at how modern comics rewrite the reality of the self, much as Crisis on Infinite Earths rewrote the history of our favorite characters. It is also during this time that we, as readers, saw a redefinition of self with both the rise of computer use and the advent of social media. As more and more people question the purpose and definition of self in the modern world, Lewis’ work is particularly timely. As a scholar of popular culture and religion, particularly the devil and the work of Jeffrey Burton Russell, I was looking forward to Lewis’ examination of how religion, particularly the afterlife and the self as displayed in the afterlife, is seen and displayed in American comics. The introduction, I have to admit, was harder to get through than I thought it would be, mostly due to the fact that it is theory heavy, which could be an obstacle depending on the reader. For use in a college course, this is not an issue, but the more casual reader, or fans of comics who are interested in reading more about their favorite comic or comics in general, may have a hard time with the references to theorists. I will say that Lewis’ conversational writing style mitigates this for the most part, and I did not notice this issue apart from the introduction.

Chapter one offers some interesting ideas about the sacred and the figure of Alastor, as well as the concept of using Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities as a basis for thinking of the self and the sacred. The layout of the six elements (set in an alternate dimension, featuring a demon/adversary, depicting a heroic reversal, engaging in a familial encounter, allowing for a liberated character, suggesting that some sort of hallucination or dream state may have taken place) provides a clear guide for reading the rest of the texts Lewis examines, his argument about the description of the afterlife, and the importance of these descriptions as they relate to self. As Lewis states, these elements serve as “safeguards against narratives unraveling in such posthumous settings.” This quote was a touchstone line for me, mainly due to the questions it raised. Why do these narratives need to be safeguarded against unraveling? Is this an issue of control within comics, or an issue of controlling the narrative? Is this a larger narratological issue or a genre specific issue? In examining these elements, what stands out to me is how comics seem to deal with the afterlife in a way that skirts some of the main identifiers of the Judeo-Christian afterlife. In one way this can be read as appealing to the broad audience and readership of the comics. On the other hand, and perhaps key to the importance of self in comic book characters, is that comic characters are not meant to die. Death and the afterlife is simply another quest or adventure, and therefore does not follow the same rules as characters dealing with death and the afterlife in other mediums, such as novels or films.

Chapter two was one of the most tightly constructed chapters with a great balance between a summary of the comics examined and an analysis of the afterlife in these comics. The strongest part of the argument was how the representations of heaven, hell, and purgatory, as well as how characters act in these places, are described as “roughly similar to ordinary life” (13). This would seem to emphasize the self-centeredness of the modern self; we define everything in relationship to our own selves, so of course the afterlife would be familiar to us. This also seems a damning piece of evidence in condemning the modern self. But it also speaks to a long visual tradition of trying to make the afterlife accessible to people; for understanding, but also as a way of making peace with mortality. Lewis’ connections between these topics serve to situate his argument within a greater tradition, which is what makes this work valuable.

Chapter three’s discussion of the Fantastic Four is probably the most accessible to general fans. I think the concept of narrantology, as well as Reed’s interaction with and understanding of self and soul are also very accessible.  It speaks to Lewis’ work as an example of modernity that Reed, a scientist, is the main figure used as a focal point in discussing the afterlife and the soul or self. If the modern man is one defined by a scientific, or rational, view of the world, how do we reconcile this with our need to define, illustrate, and come to terms with the afterlife and our own mortality?  Even fans who are only familiar with the Fantastic Four movies can find touchstones in this chapter.

The walkthrough analysis of the subgenre elements in chapter four is clear and easily understood, which is important due to the choice of comics Lewis uses in his examples, as readers may not know them as well as Lewis’ other examples, so the clarity is necessary in order to follow the argument.

For myself, and I’m sure for many other scholars, it is the conclusion that made the most connections. The argument for multiple selfhoods, and how this relates not only to how we view characters (in relation to reboots, revisions, and retcons), but also how we understand characters through the ever growing intertextual connections such as movies, cartoons, fan fiction, etc. It is also this concept that I think fans of comics will most identify with: the ability to not have to reconcile or retcon the characterization you grew up with, with the first movie adaptation you saw, with the reboot, with the television show, with the next reboot… The idea that all of these versions of the characters can simultaneously exist is a truly modern concept that most fans will not only understand, but recognize as something they already do.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karra Shimabukuro is a Ph.D. student in British and Irish literary studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on how folkloric characters (especially the Devil) are represented in literature and popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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