Spider-Man gives his views on faith and religion? What could possibly go wrong? How about everything.
Over the years, Marvel has never been one to shy away from topics about religion. Comic books such as Daredevil, The Punisher, Uncanny X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and, of course, The Amazing Spider-Man have attempted to tackle such theological questions such as can a just God exist in an unjust world? are human beings inherently good or evil? and why do bad things happen to good people? Stories about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and the persecution of religious minorities have been a frequent go-to subject in their comics, as well. There was an entire crossover during the 1990s called The Infinity Crusade which was none too subtle about where it stood on the issue of faith and reason, as it’s all the “religious” heroes who get brainwashed by the main antagonist. Superheroes from a variety of different faiths and religious backgrounds are depicted such as Jewish characters like Ben Grimm/The Thing and Kitty Pryde, Catholic characters like Matt Murdoch/DaredMarvel even once published a comic about the life and times of St. Pope John Paul II.
Rare, however, is the superhero comic which looks at the question of miracles, whether there’s a rational explanation behind them when none seem to exist, or whether it’s better, as the Iris Dement song says, to just “let the mystery be.” Clearly, Jose Molina and Simone Bianchi’s “Amazing Grace,” the current Amazing Spider-Man “point one” series, is ambitious in this regard. Now that it’s half-way through, it also serves as an example of how real world issues about religious beliefs doesn’t always translate so well into the fantastical world of superheroes.
Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #1.3 picks up with Spider-Man still in Cuba, in which during his investigation behind Jose Rodrgiuez being brought back from the dead, he encounters someone else who appears to have returned from beyond the grave, none other than Uncle Ben. Meanwhile in New York, the Santerians are doing their own investigation by questioning Mr. Rodriguez themselves and obtaining a DNA sample from his saliva. It’s also the issue in which writer Jose Molina reveals outright the real reason Spider-Man is so determined to solve the mystery behind Rodriguez’s resurrection: because Spider-Man doesn’t believe in God, miracles or the supernatural. And already, I imagine some of you saying, “Well, of course he wouldn’t! Peter Parker’s a scientist, isn’t he?” while others are saying this a load of bull. Then again, considering how Spider-Man is so quick to label the Santerians as a bunch of superstitious crackpots despite their showing him how their powers really do come from their faith just a mere issue ago, continuity isn’t exactly this story’s strongest point.
Spider-Man’s skepticism is also why he doesn’t believe Uncle Ben is who he says he is, even as Uncle Ben address Spider-Man as Peter and gives him sage advice worthy of Dr. Phil. It’s in this scene where Uncle Ben suggests the reason Peter is unable to find peace is because not only does he refuse to forgive himself over his part in Uncle Ben’s death, but that he chooses being alone to avoid getting hurt by others while also trying too hard being their “perfect hero.” He also tells Peter how “God helps those who help themselves” by rewording the famous “with great power comes great responsibility” catchphrase into “with great power comes great accountability,” adding Peter can only “save the world” once he stops believing he must sacrifice his own happiness in order to save and protect others. It’s a valid interpretation behind Spider-Man’s constant struggle to balance his own life, but it doesn’t even fit within the context of this particular story. Nor does it even end up advancing the plot in any significant way. Thus what would otherwise be a noteworthy reunion between Spider-Man and Uncle Ben becomes unnecessary and pointless.
Molina’s depiction of Spider-Man as a skeptic and atheist is even further underscored during his conversation with Dr. Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast, from the X-Men. Here Beast, who himself is a scientist and an agnostic, argues that religious people aren’t necessarily “ignorant” simply because they believe in a higher power, pointing out how he, Spider-Man and other superheroes would themselves be considered “gods” or “demons” by other cultures and ancient civilizations. It’s a take off on Issac Asimov’s third law which states “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” one in which Beast uses in challenging Spider-Man on why he’s so uncomfortable and passive-aggressive about matters of faith. This is all well and good, except Spider-Man lives a universe (albeit a comic book one) where real magic, gods, ghosts and demons do exist. He’s talked with Uncle Ben’s ghost before, courtesy of Doctor Strange, in Amazing Spider-Man #500. He’s knows people who have come back from the dead, himself included. He’s teamed-up with the likes of Ghost Rider and Thor, the later whom Beast even mentions in his theological debate with Spider-Man. He even had a lengthy conversation with God Himself in Sensational Spider-Man #40. And don’t even get me started again on his run-ins with Mephisto, who is the Marvel Universe’s version of the devil. Spider-Man has always been a scientific rationalist and his own religious upbringing is rather generic if not ambiguous; but the notion he would reject any supernatural explanation, or that he’d be so dismissive of those who subscribe to religion, faith or mysticism, is outright laughable and disingenuous given the character’s own history.
The relationship between science and religion is a worthy topic to discuss and explore in both fiction and in life. Some of the best stories ever written are those in which a person’s beliefs or lack thereof are directly challenged as part of the plot. Yet it’s quite another matter when such a debate is all but settled within the context of the story’s own setting and cosmology. By casting Spider-Man in the role of the “doubting Thomas,” Molina has turned him into a “Hollywood Atheist” trope at best and intolerant fool at worst. It’s like having a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings declare that elves don’t exist and that people who believe in them are idiots, when there’s not only loads of evidence to the contrary but said character has seen and talked with them first hand. Even when the issue’s cliffhanger suggests Spider-Man was right in his suspicions, that there’s something nefarious and diabolical behind Jose Rodriguez’s resurrection, it’s too little, too late.
Spider-Man’s characterization within the context of his own fictional setting isn’t the only problem this issue has. There’s awkward and jarring transitions between panels, sometimes occurring within the same scene. A plot point about the people connected with Julio Rodriguez resurrection also wanting Spider-Man’s powers just comes out of nowhere. Despite having a lengthy sequence showing how Spider-Man got to Cuba, there’s no explanation in this issue how he was able to get back to New York. Also, if the Santerians are the other heroes in this story, it’s really hard to root for them when their chosen method to talk to Julio Rodriguez is to set a fire inside his house–thus putting his entire family in danger–and then kidnap him by impersonating the police and emergency respondents, complete with a stolen cop car and ambulance.
And once more, we get another issue with some inconsistent artwork. This time, however, it isn’t just that the comic has two different colorists (though at least it’s better having four of them like the last issue did). Nor is it how some of Simone Bianchi’s panels look highly-detailed, polished and dynamic while other panels appear as if he and colorists slapped on some extra India ink to cover up how unfinished the scenes look. Nor is it how Bianchi’s figures are randomly proportioned. It’s not even how, during the main action sequence, sound effects of gunfire are depicted even though no one on panel is shown firing their guns. What really makes this comic inconsistent is the scenes of the Rodriguez family home are illustrated in a completely different style and appearance compared to the rest of comic. Turns out that these pages may have been illustrated by (Raymund?) Bermudez, who gets listed as a contributor on the front cover but not in the credits page. Congratulations, Spider-Man editors, for failing to notice such an obvious oversight before going to print yet again, along with failing to properly acknowledge your own comic having a secondary fill-in artist.
So if you couldn’t tell, “Amazing Grace” is falling apart in terms of its story, its art, and even its central themes. The sad thing is the makings of good, thought-provoking Spider-Man story are there, but with two more issues left, it will take a miracle itself to turn this story around. Especially since it depends so much on Spider-Man being a stereotypical non-believer who learns, as one character says while paraphrasing William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that “there’s more in Heaven and Earth that are dreamt of in [his] philosophy.” Ironic, considering how Spider-Man in The Infinity Crusade is depicted as being one of the more “religious” superheroes.
Stillanerd’s Nerdy Nitpicks (spoilers ahead)
- Okay, if the opening two-page spread depicts what Spider-Man’s “learned” is “wrong,” how does medicine, farming, mathematics, going to work and boating figure into this? He did think Heaven was a combination of Jesus, Krishna and Vikings? Or that Anibus, the Egyptian god of the dead? Not exactly something you’d learn in your average Sunday school.
- When did the Cuban seafood restaurant Spider-Man found himself in last issue suddenly transform into an outdoor cafe in this issue? And wasn’t it night just a few moments ago? And why did the mysterious man and woman who attacked Spider-Man last issue with sea life decide to leave alone in the restaurant then return with a bunch of armed goons?
- Spider-Man, if Uncle Ben is really a “figment of your imagination” as you say, then he wouldn’t have anything to do with what happened to Julio Rodriguez, now would he?
- Did the Rodriguez family really not smell the burning stack of papers in the next room? And why do have emergency sprinklers but no smoke detector in their home?
- So do Nestor Rodriguez, a.k.a Eleggua, and Julio Rodriguez know each other because they share the same last name?
- “…without a penny’s worth of damage to their house!” Well, except for the papers that burned up and the smoke stains caused by the fire, of course.
- Okay, so we know how the mysterious bald man got away, but what about the woman Spider-Man also webbed up? Did she disappear like the bald man, too?
- Wait, so Julio Rodriguez after coming back from the dead didn’t regenerate his internal organs which removed during his autopsy? Um…okay, that was a crucial piece of information which got glossed over in the first issue.
- “Quoting Shakespeare doesn’t automatically win an argument.” But only when you quote Shakespeare (in this case The Merchant of Venice to make your point, right Spider-Man?
- “Hopefully something more down-to-earth than what the Harlemites think.” Way to go, Web-head! You’ve just made an insulting, hasty generalization about entire group of residents in your own hometown. Some “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man you are.
- “[Thor’s] people have been calling him a god for centuries.” That’s because not only do the comics flat-out declare that Thor is a god, Hank, but so are “his people.” You know, the other Asgardians like Odin, Lady Sif, Heimdall, Loki, etc.?