- American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife by A. David Lewis
American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife is an expanded version of the doctoral dissertation of A. David Lewis. While Lewis is primarily a religious studies scholar who focuses on the overlap between religion and media, he is also a graphic novelist and comics author. In this work, Lewis takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring a broad cluster of literary themes that recur in American superhero comics. The central focus of the text is comic book representations of afterlives and those representations' implications for reading communities' conceptions and experiences of selfhood. While many religious traditions (especially Western traditions) affirm notions of selfhood that emphasize unity (Lewis cites Aquinas, for example ), superhero comic depictions of afterlives offer readers "nonu-nified versions of narrative character and, in turn, alternative models of selfhood" (2).
Through four chapters, not including the introduction and conclusion, Lewis explicates and applies what he sees as unique and relevant features of afterlife representations in American superhero comics. The first chapter, entitled "The Six Elements of the Superhero Afterlife Subgenre," lays the groundwork for Lewis's broader project by drawing on theoretical resources from Western religious studies and literary theory (for example, narratology). The six elements of the superhero afterlife subgenre are as follows: settings in alternate dimensions; presence of an adversary or demon; characters exhibiting heroic reversals; familial encounters; dreams or hallucinations; and characters being liberated by returning to life. These elements, Lewis claims, do more than only inform the relationship between individual readers and the narratives with which they engage. Rather, since the elements are paradigmatic of a subgenre, they help constitute "a space for both a community and its constitutive members to come to understand themselves" (20). Lewis, as per his religious studies training, understands these texts primarily as relating to reader communities and the meanings cultivated by those communities.
In his second chapter, Lewis uses specific examples to explore the advantages of the comics medium in representing the differences between afterlife conceptions and common earthly existence. Comics, he claims, are uniquely suited for the exploration of counterintuitive understandings of the afterlife that are common to religious thought. Lewis uses the decade-long run of DC's Green Lantern from 1994 to 2005, which he refers to as "The Trials of Hal Jordan" (53) as an example. During this run, "Jordan not only visits the afterlife at least twice, but he is transformed from a superhero to a supervillain, to a damned spirit, and finally into an instrument of God" (53). This serialized cluster of Green Lantern stories exemplifies Lewis's elements of the superhero afterlife subgenre clearly.
In exploring examples like the Hal Jordan storyline, Lewis argues that because the afterlife is commonly thought to be indescribable via verbal and textual language, comics have an advantage because they are multimedial. That is, the visual aspects of comics allow them to represent the afterlife more fully than textual novels. Additionally, the afterlife, being a [End Page 177] non-earthly existence, is thought to undermine or transcend common notions of space and time. The comics medium, Lewis claims, is uniquely formally equipped to represent afterlife conceptions in such a way because time is represented spatially (68–69). Lewis writes: "If we are to attempt visualizing the afterlife partly in mortal terms but also partly in ways beyond mortal experience, then it seems best done through a hybrid medium" (52). The author also criticizes religious studies scholars for their lack of attention to the visual arts in understanding how modern American culture conceives of the afterlife: "[Visual] art cannot be sidelined from discussions of the afterlife due to the ineffability of verbalizing the visual" (66). If the afterlife is ineffable, only a hybrid narrative medium that utilizes (ultimately ineffable) visual art and static representations of temporality can communicate such an afterlife experience to its readers.
Chapter three shifts the focus from representations of the afterlife as an environment that is anomalous...