God is in the comics
Our tendency as humans is to make God in our image. If you look across the world, depictions of the divine are reflections of their worshipers or objects close at hand. So you end up with lots of male and female gods, usually reflective of some ideal beauty (Zeus or Kali) or as amalgamations of animals familiar to the culture (Horus, Ganesh or Quezacotl). But in the modern era, our ability to imagine gods has dwindled. In the West especially, our conception of the divine tends to manifest in the body of white men. There are some exceptions in popular media (Alansis Moriesette in Dogma, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty or Whoopi Goldberg in It’s a Very Muppet Christmas Movie) but even those exceptions tend to play as a Meta commentary which makes the viewer very aware that the creators have made a choice not to present God as white or male, almost an inside joke of sorts. So the exceptions end up proving rule.
If we look to the comic world, we see a lot of the same thing. Walk backwards through the MU or DCU representation of God figures, and you’ll see a lot of homogeneity. Galactus, the Watchers, Spectre — all white guys. If they’re not white guys, they’re most likely non-human — Thanos, the Oans or Dormammu. Even with newer characters, like Neil Gaimen’s Endless, we see a lot of white skin, though possibly with some suggested sexual fluidity. (Mr. Gaimen — should you ever read this, please don’t be offended by my minor critique. I love you — so much).
Now we can probably write those trends off as a function of the major God narrative, that of the old white man, spilling over into the zeitgeist and manifesting in all God-like characters. For the most part, we in the West are best able to imagine God or God-adjacent as white guys. But that causes two problems.
First, it negates our historic ability to imagine God in our image. Certainly in the United States, we are less male, less heteronormative and less white every day. The number of ethnic minorities and women in national politics should at least attest to the fact that things are changing. And second, it refuses an opportunity to people who are not white men to see themselves reflected in the divine. By manifesting divinity only through a single trope, we ostracize people who can’t identify with that character.
But thankfully, there are notable exceptions where the counter cultural nature of comics has allowed artists to again jumpstart the process of imagining divinity in our image. Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles essentially throws existing God concepts out the window, reimagining the divine as some reflection of our own self. Warren Ellis’s Supergod quite literally details what might happen if man attempted to create gods of our own (hint: it doesn’t go well).
But my favorite take on reimaging the divine is still taking place in the pages of The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. I just finished the recently released third volume and have been blown away by the effortlessness with which the title recasts historical divinity into modern characters. In this world, gods are male, female, transgendered, straight, gay, varying ethnicities and sometimes just assholes. The gods are themselves reflective of all of the variation that can exist in a modern human population, which is to say they’re reflective of who we are. Even down to the gods arguing about the nature of cultural appropriation. Let a young black kid read this book and see an ancient Babylonian Sky God teach him that it’s ok to be gay. Or let someone who’s always felt out of place in their own body meet the transgendered character, who is ostracized from the experience of the divine throughout the first two volumes only to discover that she’s integral to the manifestation of the divine in the third. (spoilers?)
With regards to The Wicked + The Divine, I could hem and haw with the best of them about how conveniently some of the plot points work together. I could comment on the how the art in the third volume changes the overall feel of the story. But you know what? None of that matters. The critical acclaim and awards that have been heaped on this title are well deserved, because the authors have trod a path that few have dared. Not only does the book perfectly encapsulate the experience of today’s America, from interracial relationships to fan culture to fears about political correctness, but it also paints a picture of gods unlike anything I’ve seen before. The characters are deep and complicated, neither good nor bad — simply human. Human on the deepest level. The gods may be male, female, gay or straight, but they’re so much more. Like real people, this all important characteristic is only a single part of who they are, delicately layered into a million other defining aspects.
In this way, The Wicked + The Divine accomplishes a goal that mankind has been after since we started saying prayers in the darkness. We want to understand a divinity that is familiar to us. One that we can relate to and can be assured will relate to our experience. Gillen and McKelvie have done this in a beautiful way. Appropriating everything from everywhere, thrusting it into the 21stcentury and daring to imagine gods who act like us. I’m not saying we hold vigils together on high holidays to worship these new creations, but surely such imaginings can help to color our mental picture of God in a new and exciting way. It gives us (and I say “us” as a white, heterosexual male who sees a little bit of the divine in everyone) permission to dream a little bigger, to feel better about who and what we are and to face the gaze of others confident in knowing that God could be a lot of you.