Saturday, July 28, 2012

How comics made me an atheist

My dear departed father could not have known what he had set in motion that day. All he did was bring was give his son his very first comic book. And had he known the consequences of his actions, he would probably never have given me that copy of Dreadstar #4. After all, he was a devout Catholic, he went to mass every weekend -- with or without his wife and kids. Little did he know that he wasn’t merely turning his son into a comic nerd, an obsessive collector and scholar of useless lore. He was setting the stage for unbelief.

That’s right, comics made me an atheist. Well, technically an agnostic. But that word is so weenie.

It didn’t happen right away. Suspension of disbelief isn’t something that kids bother with. What do the laws of physics, simple rationality, and giant plot holes matter? All I knew was that X-Men and Superman were awesome. Who cared that they made little sense? Sure Lois Lane should have recognized that Clark Kent without his glasses -- I’m sure at some point Clark had taken them off around the office -- but is there a single prepubescent kid who bother questioning such flights of fancy? When you spend two-thirds of your day immersed in fantasy, whether playing Thundercats during recess or reading Detective Comics in a tree, the thin line between belief and disbelief is no line at all. 

My parents sent me to Catholic school. Soon enough, belief became an all too important issue. Creation, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Trinity, Transubstantiation, the Resurrection of the Dead: that’s a lot of consequential and scary stuff for a kid to absorb. But belief came easily.

My parents weren’t hardcore Catholics by any means. In retrospect, they were quite liberal. My mother always claimed that all religions were basically the same, but we were Catholic more as a cultural matter, i.e. Basque = Catholic. (And because other religions, in her view, sucked.) Her own religiosity involved decorating the house with rosaries and Virgin Mary figurines, as well as making us drink holy water from Lourdes when we got sick. My father, whose political views were steeped in French socialism, was always rather dismissive of anyone in authority, especially those “goddamn priests.” He was adamant that we not go to confession after our First Reconciliation. "Tell God you sins," he'd say, "not no goddamn priest." He did like our parish priest, because Father Mike talked about football and baseball during sermons. That’s probably why he went to mass every week, though he would later claim he had to “pray for his son who doesn’t believe in nothing.” 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Being a Catholic primed me in many ways for becoming a comic nerd: there was a whole universe of superpowered characters to obsess over and the eternal struggle of good vs. evil, not to mention objects to collect, all of which was mysterious and wondrous. I often felt sorry for my few Protestant friends, whose religion seemed hokey, unimaginative, and boring. We had legions of angels battling demons, saints with superpowers, sacred talismans and statues that cried blood. We had mystery, we had magic, in our religion. Beat that with your sola fide and lame-ass Christian rock.

By the time I was ten, I was devouring not only comics, but religious books as well. Not complex treaties on theology, but The Lives of Saints. In fact, I even had religious comics. Not the schlock that Jack Chick produced -- though I would become a fan of those in high school in an ironic manner -- but actual Marvel Comics biographies of Jesus and Pope John Paul II. The local library had books on angelogy and Jewish myths that augmented the Church-sanctioned tomes available to me at school and at St. Mary’s Catholic Supplies.

Soon, I was a learned believer. But I had yet to learn how to suspend disbelief.

My comic reading eventually involved systematizing Marvel's and DC's mythologies into my religious worldview. It was easy for the most part because Catholics get to believe in science -- and 99% of what I read was science based. Gamma rays, kryptonite, super serums. Like evolution, these were all perfectly compatible with the Catholic faith, which worked for me: X-Men were among my favorites. Magic was also readily absorbed, so I got to read Dr. Strange.

Granted, the Avengers counted a god among their founding members. But Thor didn’t matter: I never read the Avengers.

Then along came The Sandman. I was 12 years old and still a believer when I picked up Sandman Special: The Song of Orpheus at Waldenbooks. Though I don’t remember what caused me to buy it, the story was unlike anything that I had ever read. It was lyrical, magical, mesmerizing. Within a month, I had bought every issue I could get my hands on. Among them were the issues that comprised The Season of Mists.

Things changed for me after reading this storyline.

“The Song of Orpheus” didn’t affect me as profoundly as did The Season of Mists. Perhaps the D'Aulaires books on Greek and Norse mythology had prepared me for Orpheus's decent into Hades. But there was something deeply troubling about angels, Norse and Japanese gods, the personifications of order and chaos, and Dream conferencing together in hell -- the same hell I the priest talked about, the one that was real. What? There was only one God. How could Odin and angels -- God's angels -- exist within the same universe? How was I to come to terms with this scene, which I knew was awesome, into my religious worldview? 

Unless, maybe, just maybe, the Catholic faith itself was nothing but a set of myths like those of the Greeks and the Norse. Perhaps the Bible was nothing more than fiction -- and far less appealing fiction than Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece. 

Unable to suspend disbelief -- and unable to stop reading The Sandman -- I stopped believing. 

O.K. I think by this point in my life I was quite able to suspend disbelief. And, to be honest, I can’t quite remember why I felt the need to force Gaiman’s comic into the small spaces that Catholicism provided me. Maybe I was going through a unrelated and sincere crisis of faith and The Sandman allowed me to project my angst and questions into something more grounded, into something that truly mattered to me: comic books. Comics opened my mind and allowed me to discard all that which I had hitherto believed.

Over the next few years my questioning turned into outright rebellion. In high school I discovered Nietzsche and Camus, which provided intellectual rationales for my godless worldview. My disbelief was now grounded in existential and philosophical concerns, in indentifying the simple logical consistencies and moral incongruities that apostates of all types have grappled with. And I felt liberated.

It began with comic books. Not personal tragedy, failed hopes, the experience of war. It was comic books that turned me into an unbeliever.

Sorry, aita.