Raised in the Catholic Church, I appreciate what it means to grapple with one’s faith and spiritual understandings long into adulthood, like most people raised in any religious tradition. Faith, religion, and all of their related concepts are simultaneously universal in their scope while being deeply personal relationships that vary widely even between members of the same church. Perhaps one of the reasons that past comics that tackled religious traditions directly, comics like Buddha, Maus, and Preacher, is that they bridge that gap between the creator’s personal understandings and the universal sense of import placed on the religious (albeit with very different tones). It is in that act of bridging that Second Coming #1 falls short; the story provides a clearly defined, personal understanding, but often fails to consider how it connects to the wider world.
Second Coming #1 has traveled a long road to reach that wider world largely due to the sensitive nature of its premise. The first issue presents a pair of protagonists, Jesus Christ of Nazareth and Sunstar the Superman homage, both seen as saviors to humanity and now roommates (at God’s request). Even in their earliest encounters the primary conflict of the story is clear: Jesus is interested in saving the world through the forgiveness, good works, and humility taught in the New Testament, while Sunstar is a representative of modern morality, embracing violence and the carceral state.
It’s a very compelling concept, one rife with possibilities for exploring big ideas in a didactic while amusing fashion. There’s also less inherent cynicism to the concept than something like Preacher and many lesser variants of comics creators taking on religion. Writer Mark Russell displays the many positive traits that have brought him a cult following throughout the issue. Brief asides and bits of dialogue are packed with jokes featuring an impressive quality-quantity ratio. Conflict is clear from the start and the story engages with multiple ideas without losing its plot. Most importantly, there’s an overt willingness to go big, never settling for subtlety when there’s a big point or joke to be made. This results in an issue where many, short individual sequences turn out much better than the creation read as a whole.
The big questions of Second Coming #1 are all about what actually lies at the heart of Christianity, what provides the world’s largest religion with its moral bona fides. Russell and artist Richard Pace’s answers are jumbled, at best. Almost the entire first half of the issue is composed of a summary of the Bible, both testaments. There’s a tone of smugness to the entire narration that reads like a bit of standup on open mic night. While lots of individual jokes may land in this extended narration, many of them have the dark ring of someone who recently discovered Sam Harris and none of the warmth or humanity that generally permeates Russell’s character work. This section of the comic also buys into a narrative in which the Old Testament is defined by a spiteful and capricious God who leaves all of the “good stuff” for his son to teach in the New Testament. There’s a strong Christian underpinning to this narrative, one with anti-semitic tones that go entirely unexamined. That lack of self-examination or clarity is the problem here and in multiple other aspects of the issue’s big picture work. While this vision of the Bible might be common among many Christian factions, it is far from universal and passed off as a mainstream understanding here. This segment of the comic reads clearly as the voice of a snarky narrator, but is framed as being Jesus’ own written recounting of events despite not matching Jesus’ voice throughout the rest of the issue, casting a further element of ill-considered projection onto the whole affair.
That sort of issue is repeated in the presentation of both God and Jesus as two white men roughly resembling the mainstream Christian depictions similar to their depictions in the Renaissance. There is a possibility for commentary in that choice, but none is given. Even though several pages are set in Jesus’ historical home in the Middle East, including a digression about his childhood family and friends, he remains firmly a part of white Christian hegemony in his appearance. The lack of consideration present in this choice is only highlighted by the choice to use two distinct styles for the biblical sequences and those set on modern Earth. Biblical drawings do not feature the finishes of artist Leonard Kirk, leaving a greater proliferation of lines and the tone of a story more engaged with the complexity and grittiness of life’s trials (including Jesus’ torture before crucifixtion). That this “serious” look at the Bible’s stories and meaning is unwilling to push back on the racial politics grafted to the religion over the past several centuries makes it seem ignorant of the context that makes narratives critical of religion necessary to begin with.
Second Coming appears much more self-aware in its depiction of Sunstar. Kirk’s finishes provide the superhero setting with a modern sensibility using clean, powerful lines, even if Sunstar’s costume design leaves something to be desired. There’s a strong critique of the superhero concepts inherent authoritarianism in Sunstar’s introduction, tearing apart a group of large robots begging for mercy. His subsequent endorsements of the police state and a willingness to protect property rights before human lives drives that knife as far as it will go. Everything here is clear and the commentary of featuring heroic figures who are entirely white at least seems aware that this is the status quo of the massive Marvel and DC film projects which dominate the zeitgeist.
This presentation is effective in a few brief sequences, but loses its impact when confronted with Second Coming’s depiction of Jesus Christ. Jesus, despite being characterized by God as a naive know-nothing, is an affable and kind individual who speaks to the best of humanity in great parables. This version of Christ is idealistic and, when set side-by-side, makes Sunstar and every other perspective in the issue appear to be something of a strawman. Any criticism of Christ’s peaceful, turn-the-other cheek attitude pales in comparison to the consistently fallible ideology presented by every other individual who speaks. Rather than reasserting the value of a specific Christianity or updating Christ’s message for 2019 and its most popular media, this transforms the issue into something of a lecture. Cruel jokes about unconcerned adoption counselors become a welcome reprieve from a genuine message of brotherhood; that’s a very big problem for a story like this.
Second Coming #1 is an issue defined by good intentions: the urge to redeem Christ’s meaning in modern, American culture and genuine expression of creators’ personal connection to that very meaning. However, it falls far short of providing a meaningful or original commentary on those ideas. There are multiple instances in which the presentation of such a nuanced set of themes seems ill-considered or poorly defined. Even in seeking to rebut problems with the white Evangelical movement, Second Coming reinforces problematic narratives regarding race and other Western religions. Even the craft is below par in places, especially considering the excellent reputation earned by those involved. The most controversial about this story isn’t its depiction of Jesus, who is consistently benign, but the lack of complexity in considering that depiction. Second Coming is a disappointment, a comic bound to stir up far more engaged dialogues than the one it actually presents.
Published by Ahoy Comics
On July 10, 2019
Written by Mark Russell
Art by Richard Pace with Leonard Kirk
Colors by Andy Troy0comments
Letters by Rob Steen
Cover by Amanda Conner