Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impressions and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
“I’m hyperventilating right now,” my 12-year-old son whispered to me and gripped my hand hard. He was waiting excitedly (and obviously breathlessly) for Marvel’s newest superhero film, Thor: The Dark World, to burst onto the screen in all its glorious action.
It’s no secret to anyone who knows our family that the Marvel heroes are preferred to the DC group and that my son measures time by when the next film, Lego set, or Nintendo game is scheduled for release. Thor was autumn’s happy milestone and now he has set the April release of Captain America as his spring marker. Not only does he spend countless hours reading his classic comics digests, lost in imaginative fantasy and wrestling with hefty issues of good and evil, but he hones his memory skills by memorizing intricate plot patterns and character details, regaling us with various character back stories, correcting egregious errors in the film or cartoon adaptations, while also filling in weak or missing elements in those same story lines. (And no, concerned reader, my son’s literary diet is not confined to comics. He gets plenty of classic literature, so have no fear. Also, consider how memorizing intricate story lines via the comics preps him for memorizing long passages of Shakespeare to rival Kenneth Branagh and you will see there is a method to this seeming madness.) Read more. . .
Art and Faith, Authors, Books, Comics, Faith, Film, Free Comic Book Day, Heroes, Inspiration, Marvel comics, Reading, Shakespeare, Spiritual lessons, Stan Lee, Superheroes, The Avengers, Virtues, Writers, Writing
Yesterday two unrelated events unexpectedly converged and got me thinking….always a dangerous enterprise.
Event 1: It happened to be Free Comic Book Day, an event my 10-year-old son, Skippy, has been waiting for since LAST year. We went as a family to the local comic store, which we visit periodically throughout the year, and all received a free comic book — there were many to choose from and we all chose Marvel Super Heroes. Skippy was outfitted for the event in a new Avengers tee-shirt from Old Navy and afterwards was treated to the big surprise — a trip to see the new Avengers movie at the local cinema. We all had the BEST time and if this film isn’t the equivalent of Star Wars for this generation of kids, I don’t know what is.
Event 2: It also happened to be Cinco de Mayo, which we celebrated with a fiesta dinner with friends at their home. While there, I was introduced to and chatted with a woman who is also a high school English teacher, though at a private academy where students must test in and are exceptionally brilliant. Somehow during the conversation, my son’s tee-shirt was noticed and I mentioned the comics and The Avengers and … was met with a completely blank look. This woman affected to know nothing AT ALL and merely said to me, “What is that? Some kind of super…thing… or something…?”, persisting all the while in a horrifically blank stare. Now this woman seemed nice enough and I’d like to believe that this was not the insulting slight I was beginning to perceive it to be — that she knew all about the comics and the film, but that it was all beneath her notice and completely devoid of any intellectual value. How could you NOT know, assuming you do live here and not in a cave in the Antarctic? I mean, my husband and I haven’t had television for over 20 years now, and while we missed out on the whole Seinfeld, ER, and Friends crazes, we did know about them…..sooooo…what was really behind the woman’s feigned ignorance?
The fact that this woman might have been silently calling me on the carpet for allowing my son to stoop so low as to be exposed to things that couldn’t possibly have any redeeming value in her eyes got me thinking, and not for the first time, of the potent and powerful message the right super heroes can send to a young mind, and in fact, to all of us, if we’re open to listen. I was unable and unprepared to articulate any of this in my conversation last night, but next time, I’ll be better prepared with an adequate defense for why I allow my son to read comics and watch his favorite characters coming to life on the big screen or in various animated series. (Note: This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. However, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied).
Super Heroes teach us:
2. Weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because it teaches humility;
3. Temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle, even for the best of men;
4. Compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;
5. There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, oppression and brutality, and saving one’s friends and loved ones. Super heroes revive the nobility of martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;
6. That each individual is possessed of unique gifts, some of which don’t always count for much in the eyes of society or those in power, but with which the individual is particularly charged — as a debt of honor — with perfecting and using for the greater good;
7. Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences — it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done through their pride and self-serving ambition;
8. About evil in its many guises, another reality and truth which a world without faith is apt to forget exists. Shakespeare reminds us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth — he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero, where evil is often masterfully disguised and played out under subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;
9. Evil within is ultimately manifested without — one becomes what one is on the inside.
10. That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that is achieved.
The Ultimate Lesson
The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a spiritual one. Yes, you read that right — a spiritual lesson. Cap’s line in the new movie when he’s told the bad guy is a “god’ is confident and quite clear: “There’s only one God, m’am, and I’m certain He doesn’t dress like that.” If you know anything about Steve Rogers/Captain America, you’ll know this statement is quite in keeping with his character and it points to a larger truth in the genre, (perhaps especially with the Marvel characters, whom we are partial to in this house) and that is that while not every super hero believes in God or even has any direct faith at all, every super hero believes in something higher than himself, a higher power, a greater good which points towards truth. In general, they operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth — and this truth is not relative. Watching them wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.
It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility” — and Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.”
I rest my case…..
But come to think of it, the Avengers and the X-Men and the Green Lantern Corps don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories — both in words and actions — speak for themselves.
Daniel McInerney recently sent me a link to his thought-provoking piece considering the role and aim of the Catholic writer on his High Concepts blog. It’s a subject to which I continue to give a great deal of thought and have written about here. This topic is also one around which Persephone Writes was conceived and is one of its reasons for being.
Because of this (and because Blogger refused my repeated attempts to post a comment to Daniel’s site), I have decided to provide links to Daniel’s article here, along with my intended comment, in an effort to open up the basis for discussion on this very important issue in Catholic arts and letters today. Please do visit Daniel’s site and read both his article, and this piece by Emily Stimpson which he references, in their entirety.
“I agree with your point about the dearth of great Catholic literature having much to do with the ways in which Catholic writers today approach their craft and you are right in saying we need to choose mentors to whom we can apprentice ourselves in the learning and mastery of our craft — this is essential. Devotion to and growth in the practice of one’s craft is of absolute necessity. The great Catholic writer is simply a great writer. The greatest works of fiction are great because they deal with the truth of the human condition, because the writers of great literary works practice their craft to the greatest depth and breadth possible. The greatest Catholic writers do not need to rely on pious subject matter or overt references to their Catholic faith. They rely instead on something much deeper — this devotion to the perfection of the craft of which you speak, and the assurance that their faith gives them a clear perspective from which to work. It is in this way we can see Sophocles, Keats, Chekov, and George Eliot stand in community with Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, O’ Connor, and Tolkien. Faith does not separate them; devotion to the craft and their common search for truth bring them together.
Great writers write from a world view that looks at the whole of human experience, both the good and the bad. The Catholic writer cannot shy away from difficult topics, characters, or issues. To do so would be to ignore the very great impact these things have on real human beings every day. But the Catholic writer who truly tries to live her Catholic faith and who tries to view the entire world, events, human experience, and history through the lens of that faith, will see God moving and working in every event, will see light and beauty amidst the darkness. This vision and world view will imbue the work, regardless of the difficulty of the topic at hand.
To walk through this interplay between light and darkness and to examine it in truth is a huge responsibility. But it is arguably the responsibility of the Catholic writer in all cases, because the Catholic writer is possessed of a faith which is the fulness of truth. Thus, the problem confronting the Catholic writer is certainly one which reaches beyond craft, to deal with issues of faith and world view and how to articulate these without alienating modern sympathies. To be successful in this endeavor, the Catholic author today must be fearless, as Flannery O’Connor was, in venturing into the darkness to name and expose it. But she did not do this unarmed. And to your point, Daniel, we need to make a commitment to be devoted to our faith first, live and breathe our faith first, educate ourselves and make ever stronger attempts to practice our faith first, before we can even begin to realize what it is to be fully devoted to the practice of our craft. O’Connor and other great writers in the Catholic literary tradition serve, then, as both mentors to the craft and the lived practice of the faith, without which we cannot practice our craft to the fullest extent intended. It is the project of a lifetime and the two — devotion to the lived practice of the faith and devotion to the right practice of the craft — must walk hand-in-hand.
I have no answers, but I believe conscientious purposeful dialogue on this topic is absolutely essential to any revitalization of the Catholic arts. Quite simply, there is no excuse for dropping the baton handed off to us by the generations of mentors who have gone before. There is a sense in which we have betrayed and abandoned our tradition and our history. For my own part, revitalizing change has to begin with me: I must make a daily commitment to grow in my devotion to my faith and my craft and to bind myself ever more closely to those great artists who have gone before, both Catholic and secular, who will teach me to best use the gift with which I have been blessed. And secondly, I have a duty to participate in the conversation and be an active member of the community of which I am a part. It is not a coincidence, nor is it insignificant, that this is an issue now, today, at this point in time. It is a clarion call to action. What are we as humans without great art? We need to ask ourselves what we are going to leave behind us for the generations to come, and what message those works are going to send.
Thank you so much, Daniel, for this post, for raising awareness, and providing an impetus to deeper thought and discussion.”