The Bible and Superhero Comics : The Retcon

August 5, 2010

I’m a student of religion and philosophy and I’m also a medium-grade comic geek. These two loves rarely overlap in my writing, but this particular article unites the two interests (which means fewer readers are likely to be interested!). In this particular article, I’m not even talking about the big, literate, “artsy” comics either– a lot of religious parallels can be found in the work of Gaiman, Moore, Ennis, and the like– read my Preacher book review for a stab at that. No, this is continuity-traversing, in-universe superhero comics here: Max Lord, affiliated with the Justice League International in the DC comics universe to be precise.

The retcon (“retroactive continuity” to be precise)  is a common tool in the mainstream superhero comic medium (I wager that it is in daytime soaps as well). Basically, the retcon takes a character that has been around and used in various prior ways and starts them on a new path with a different past– a famous modern example is what’s going on over in Marvel comics with Spider-Man. In the pages of “Amazing Spider Man,” Peter Parker made a deal with the devil of the Marvel universe (Mephisto) to save his aunt’s life and as a result his past marriage to Mary Jane Watson never occurred. Thus, the story recast Parker as a single guy juggling dating with all the other facets of his life to make him more relatable to unmarried readers, I presume. Currently an arc in “Amazing” is dealing with just what did happen on the what-would-have-been-wedding-day and filling in the gaps of the changed history in the Quesada-penned “One Moment in Time.” In many ways, though, what’s occurred in “Amazing” is incongruous with most ret-cons. Most ret-cons would have simply started off with a new story arc, possibly with a new numbering system, and have Peter single, never having been married, and nothing would be mentioned about this glaring change– readers would simply shrug and move on with the story if the writer did his job well enough. Of course, Spidey’s a bit of a big-name, his history was to in-depth and prominent for such a move. But that’s not the case for Maxwell Lord over at DC.

See, Maxwell Lord has had a quite twist-and-turny sort of history; he started the Justice League International and caused the death of a villain he had set up in the first place to publically prove his new groups mettle. Then he shifted from being outright evil to simply being an unscrupolous and greedy businessman. Later, he was a cyborg–then he came back and the turn to cyborg was written out as if it never occurred. His back story gradually became one that played all of his past motives in a much more sinister light to set him up as the villain in the OMAC debacle which resulted in Wonder Woman snapping his neck, an event that had ill effects on her public reputation to say the least, but it was a move she felt had to be made to save the world. Now, the glaring retcon is the cyborg issue–seriously, a character becomes a cyborg, operates as a cyborg, then returns later and the whole cyborg thing is neglected to be mentioned?

….I do realize I’ve lost most rational people at this point, but hey.

All of this fails to matter for what we have with Max Lord now, other than these few facts: A) He was/is evil  B) He formed the JLI  C)Wonder Woman killed him…but now with this only-in-comics-or-daytime-soaps addition…D) During a DC mega summer event (“Blackest Night”), Max was resurrected and only the members of the team he formerly created have any idea who he is.

That’s the premise of “Justice League: Generation Lost,” a bi-weekly title from DC that is entertaining, funny, exciting, and a worthy read twice each month. JLI was originally penned by superhero yet comic (in the humor sense) writer Keith Giffen, who appears now only in the breakdown department. Judd Winnick is the current scribe, pulling out the humor touch he employed so well in his creator-owned career-starting work “Barry Ween Boy Genius” (non comic fans might know Winnick from MTV’s “The Real World,” some early season of it) as well as his knowledge of the DC Univese gained from writing dozens of its titles over the past couple of years. JLI was fun in that it was the b- and c-listers who populated its ranks–the Justice League had always been Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. JLI gave readers Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom…and it worked in unconventional ways that was fun to read. Now, JLI: Generation Lost,” under the “Brightest Day” banner gives readers a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, and with issue 6 (the best so far), a futuristic Twilight Zone-esque tale.

So what does this have to do with the Bible? I’m certain to offend all sorts of folks by drawing any comparisons from the pop-stew mess above to scripture, but when thinking about the retcon I thought about the Bible.  I remembered a paper I worked on about King Sennacherib of the Assyrians in my first-year OT Exegesis course. There are three major sources on Sennacherib: the book of Isaiah, the book of 2 Kings, and the annals of Sennacherib which Assyria recorded. Taking just the Biblical text, since that is the focus here, there are three conflicting accounts of  King Sennacherib’s military siege of Judean land. Dating the text is a debated issue–some scholars posit the story to have first been in 2 Kings and then recounted in Isaiah, tweaked to reflect the theological position of that particular author(s). Others posit that it was first written in Isaiah and then retrofitted into later versions of 2 Kings.  If the story was first written in 2 Kings (and that account matches closest with the Assyrian version) King Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrian King Sennacherib to halt the siege of Jerusalem. The author of Isaiah retcons the story– Hezekiah does not pay tribute to Sennacherib and instead trusts in God for deliverance. In Isaiah, this works, and Sennacherib suffers for his siege.In the context of Isaiah and for the reason this story was being recounted, this version works. Readers of “Isaiah” might have been well aware of the earlier version but understood the reassurance this “tweaking” served in their context and under the oppression they found themselves in.

So yes, I think scriptural scribes might have been some of the earliest employers of the retcon tool. If you’re like me, a geek with an interest in religion and comic books, I recommend reading “Justice League: Generation Lost,” as well as Isaiah Chapter 36 and the book of 2 Kings. All 3 are good reads–tell me what you think.

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2 Responses to “The Bible and Superhero Comics : The Retcon”

  1. Sentinel said

    Speaking of comics and scripture, have you seen or heard of the Manga Bible?

    Because it is awesome. 🙂

  2. Simba said

    I’m not a Christian, neither a fanboy-leveled comic geek but I think than we could advance some lucidious hypothesis about the lot of retcon in both comics and Bible :

    – Comics – it’s just because Barry Allen/The Flash races so much time through Time that he’s simply finished by causing some ginormous shockwave of Butterfly Effect ripple within the fabric of reality, so provocating an powerful energetic intrication (a bit like the same process used in real life by physicists for ” connecting ” an atom with an another in playing and could theorically realize teleportation experiments) via the Speed Force with some etherical remnants of the vanished-in-the-reality Barry Allen/The Flash from Crisis Of Infinites timeline multiverse, generating at their turn an more powerful Butterfly Effect typhoonesc shockwave through the truly essence of the omniverse, blasting its way especially through former as future spacetime or extradimensionnnal tunnels opened or open once future days by some characters towards the whole both DC & Marvel Multiverse… whom Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2099, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers, a Old One but freaking giant fish with tentacles… and even a so-called Last of The Timelords (see H.P. Lovecraft and DW references) .

    However, logically that omniverse cataclysm used to rationnally vanish ANY reality too ;

    – The Bible : according the second-centurieth A.D. Roman writer Senecus, Christians had often for habit to thrown before as argue to anyone who debated with them about why Christianism seems so much to the Roman religion[s] , they simply responded than the Devil, defeats by Jesus during his own Passion then Ressurection, travel back in time to the Antediluvian then Post-Diluvian times, spread with some changes the story of Jesus towards nations anteriors to Israël so that everybody trust and mitrust Jesus in same time and believes in heretic lies.

    Maybe that’s explains the unumerous retcons in the Bible. However, the power to travel back in time into a linearist-biased timeline where only God used to have both Omnipotence, Omniscience and reality-bending took that weird.

    Conclusion : everything is the fault of the red one. I mean Barry.

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