Thursday, January 5, 2006

Blasphemy for Fun and Profit

I discovered a few years ago that I have the same name as a writer of comic books, including Invincible and the inimitable Battle Pope (about which more in a moment).

This coincidence of names can sometimes be amusing. For a long time, recommended that anyone who would consider buying my book (a work of academic environmental philosophy) should also consider works by Neil Gaiman and other writers of fantasy novels and comics.

Last year a student asked me - with considerable hesitation - whether I've ever written anything outside academic philosophy, particularly in the realm of comics; he seemed more relieved than disappointed when I told him that I have not.

My family and I just spent a few days with friends in New Jersey, one of whom works at a comics shop. On New Year's Eve, she took me in to introduce me to her boss - with more of a flourish than was strictly necessary - and his jaw dropped when she told him my name. I immediately corrected any misimpression he might have had, lifting a line from Douglas Adams: I'm just a Robert Kirkman; we come in six packs. I joked, as I left, that he should still tell his customers that Robert Kirkman had dropped by, and I even offered to sign something for him.

My friend bought me the first trade volume of Invincible as a Christmas present, and bought herself the re-issue of Battle Pope. The former is much more engaging and enjoyable than any comic about a teenage superhero has any right to be. I have seriously mixed feelings about the latter.

The basic premise of Battle Pope, as far as I understand it based on one reading of the first issue, is that the world has become so corrupt that God has simply forsaken it; the Gates of Hell have burst open and, even though a treaty eventually closes said Gates, various infernal creatures now infest (and sometimes rule) Earth. At the time all of this happens, the man serving as Pope is power-hungry, lecherous, and self-indulgent but also, incredibly, trained in martial arts and other skills that will eventually come in handy. After being brutally murdered by one of the aforementioned infernal creatures, the Pope is resurrected by God and chosen for a mission to rescue St. Michael from Lucifer. The Pope is transformed from a rather dumpy middle-aged man to a buff and spandex-clad superhero, though he does get to keep the mitre. He is assigned a trusty side-kick: none other than Jesus H. Christ, portrayed as an ineffectual hippie wearing a crown of thorns and a tee-shirt with the motto "What would I do?"

God, it turns out, has nothing but contempt for his only begotten son.

In a gesture typical of the twisted humor of the whole enterprise, the re-issue of Battle Pope no. 1 is dedicated to the memory of Pope John Paul II.

In short, the comic is self-consciously, gleefully blasphemous, an insult to everything Christians (perhaps especially Catholics) hold sacred. This is what gives me mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I don't really go in for blasphemy of this sort: the fact that I don't share their faith does not mean that I think its all right to insult Christians or make a mockery of their core beliefs.

On the other hand, Battle Pope is a hoot.

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