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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

There’s an atheist in the Oval Office!

While not busy expanding his federalist agenda, he sits at his White House desk with a razor, literally slicing the New Testament down to his own, non-“superstitious” edition. The miracles, the resurrection, any mention of Jesus Christ’s divinity, they’re all cuttings in his tax-financed waste basket.

I would demand Congress begin immediate impeachment proceedings, but God has already struck the sinner down. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and he died in 1826. To be accurate, deists aren’t atheists, and the Oval Office wasn’t built yet, but we still can’t allow this sort of wanton division of church and state to fester in our history books. I demand an immediate reboot erasing the author of the Declaration of Independence from all canonical texts.

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Jefferson was called a “howling atheist” and infidel even before he edited The Jefferson Bible (“Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion”), but the founding father was neither the first nor last to edit the gospels into personal coherence. They originally numbered in the dozens, until the Council of Laodicea officially razored them down in 363 AD. The Children’s Bible my parents gave me when I was two says the New Testament begins with four books, “but as they contain one message, they are combined as a single story.” The Golden Press advisory board included a rabbi, who I doubt agreed “the New Testament completes the Old.” According to the 1968 inscription, “from Mommy & Daddy,” it was a Christmas present. Jesus is drawn with blonde hair and beard inside, but a surprisingly dark-skinned, turbaned man walks beside a camel on the spine—an image my heretical imagination interpreted as a camel-headed man for years and years.

My imagination was more at home interpreting Marvel Comics. They were still being edited by Jewish heretic Stanley Lieber, AKA Stan Lee. His uncle, Martin Goodman, sold Marvel to another company in 1968 but stayed on as publisher till 1972, when Lee took over, handing his Editor plaque to a string of apostles. Though Lee’s Jewish parents immigrated from Romania, he “always tried to write stuff that would be for everybody. I never wanted to proselytize.” When asked about all the Jewish artists and writers he worked with, he ticks off the names of all the Italians instead. He had nothing to do with the Thing’s conversion to Judaism. He’s proud of Izzy Cohen though, the Jewish soldier he created for Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandoes, but only because Izzy was part of “the first fully ethnic platoon in comics,” which included a black soldier, an Italian, an Englishmen, and an American Indian—“everything I could think of! A full international platoon of all religions and people.”

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Though “not a particularly religious person,” Lee says he “read the Bible” and loved “the phraseology,” all those “Thous and Doths and Begets,” which were “definitely in my mind when I was writing things like Thor.” More than a little phraseology crept into Spider-Man.  When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him “with great power comes great responsibility,” he’s paraphrasing Luke 12:48 (“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded”) and Acts 4:33 (“And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all”). And the whole tragic twist of Lee’s Silver Age superheroes—that superpowers are both a blessing and a curse—comes down to one word from Job 1:5, “barak,” which can be translated either “blessing” or “curse.”

When asked if there’s a God, Lee answered: “I really don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Thomas Jefferson was more diplomatic. He names “Nature’s God” in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, men’s “Creator” in the second, and “divine Providence” in the last. Still, the U.S.’s 5th President and Marvel’s 4th Publisher have a lot in common. Like Lee, Jefferson kept religion out of his workplace, coining the “wall of separation between church and state.” As a deist, Jefferson believed God, like a clockmaker, manufactured human beings, wound them up, and watched them go. Stan says the same:

I gave them minds as I recall

It was all so long ago.

I gave them minds that they might use

To choose, to think, to know.

For the hapless weak must need be wise

If they would prove their worth.

And then I gave them paradise

The fertile, verdant Earth.

At first I found the plan was sound

And somewhat entertaining.

But once begun, the deed now done,

My interest started waning.

The seed thus sown

The twig now grown

I left them there

Alone.

Those are stanzas from Lee’s 1970 poem “God Woke” (first published in Jeff McLaughlin’s collection of Lee interviews in 2007). Lee never assigned the 8-page text to any of his artists, so The Lee Bible, unlike The Children’s Bible, isn’t illustrated. It describes our Creator waking up from a cosmic nap with a nagging half-memory of Earth and so returning to see how humanity has been faring without Him. He doesn’t much like “the man sounds everywhere,” but the one that sends him into despair is “The haunting, hollow sound of Prayer.”As Thomas Jefferson or any other good deist would tell you, God doesn’t answer them. Lee’s God laughs at all the “ranting” and then frowns and sighs with boredom. He doesn’t like all the hypocrisy, but its people’s yearning for Him that’s most baffling. Finally, the “carnage, the slaughter” in His name brings Him to tears as “He looked His last at man,” once again leaving us on our own.

Stan Lee might not be the most skilled poet in creation, but he is a bit of deistic God. Like Jefferson’s Grand Architect, Lee set the Marvel pantheon into motion, then stepped back and watched his bullpen spin the wheels of his multiverse. In addition to all those other miraculous godmen who self-sacrificingly save humanity once a month, he and Kirby crafted the perfect human being (via a group of sketchy scientists) in 1967. Known only as “Him,” the God-like super being destroys the evil scientists and abandons Earth. That is until Lee abandoned his Editor post and first apostle Roy Thomas resurrected “Him” as a Counter-Earth Jesus rechristened Adam Warlock. The super savior battles the anti-Christ-like Man-Beast, while beseeching Counter-Earth Creator, High Evolutionary, to spare the flawed world from his disappointed wrath. Adam Warlock became one of my favorite characters, though my pre-adolescent self never could interpret those subtle biblical allusions.

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The Roy Thomas Bible is probably no more heretical than The Jefferson Bible, though Jefferson would still object to the superstitious miracle-working. Gil Kane drew Adam Warlock as a homage the Golden Age Captain Marvel, but he later acquired force fields, teleportation, and lightspeed too. Marvel recently collected all of the multi-authored adventures into a single bible (the word just means “books”). It would take a Thomas Jefferson to edit Essential Warlock into coherence, but I’m still fond of all the nostalgically jumbled plots and missteps. I should give it to my son for Christmas.

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