Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a man with superpowers, a closet full of skeletons, a chest constricted by anxieties and a diagnosis of PTSD from saving the world against death demanding destruction!
Whether we’re stuck on a train with the brakes cut, in a fiery building we can’t escape out of or have a bomb strapped to our chest from an evil supervillain; I think we can all agree the superhero we want saving us isn’t the one who might be as dysfunctional as we are.
No, we want someone else. Someone invincible, impermeable to the pain, sin and law we are burdened with on the daily. We like our superheroes unrealistic with a strength unmatchable. We want the alien from Krypton who can shoot heat vision from his eyes and bears an untattered ‘S’ on his chest, whose weakness is an element conveniently rare and difficult to find. (Unless you’re Batman, in which case you most likely have some stored somewhere on your utility belt, just in case.) We want the high school kid who is somehow hormone free and unaffected by mood swings to web sling us to safety. We want the rich man to use his gadgets and tools to keep our city safe, without hearing about his trauma left over from Crime Alley. We want something greater than us to save us.
This perhaps explains the recent backlash within the comic book community of famed writer Tom King. He is currently the writer on the main Batmanseries, soon to be replaced by James Tynion IV. King’s Batman is one who is, well, relatable. He doubts himself, he is weak at pivotal points and he is conflicted by the love he has for Catwoman. In the story arc ‘City of Bane’, which the whole series has built up to, Batman has lost total control of his city and is forced out. He leaves it unattended and run by criminals like Bane, Two Face, Joker and his father Thomas Wayne who is actually Batman from an alternate universe (long story). He hides away with Catwoman, who helps him gain his strength back. This links them together so much so that King is leaving the series to begin a Batman/Catwomanstandalone series. Because of these traits King has implanted into the Batman lore, many comic book aficionados have decried the growth of King’s popularity in the industry.
But this isn’t the only controversial work King has done. He has also written other stories including The Vision, Mister Miracle and most recently, Heroes in Crisis. The Visionpaints a picture of an android who just wants to be normal and can’t fit in. Mister Miracle is focused on an escape artist who seems to be able to get out of everything besides the trauma from being raised by a supervillain god and the fact that he recently attempted to commit suicide. Then there is Heroes in Crisis, which includes a host of superheroes with deep trauma and weight on their shoulders from the heavy law of superherodom.
Batman, keenly aware of these issues, creates a safe haven for the troubled heroes. The Sanctuary. It is a place where one can have anonymity and confess to an A.I. program. This is where they will find freedom, where they will come to grips with where they’ve fallen short as heroes. Where Superman is free to say things like:
“God, this is embarrassing even talking about this stuff. I never talk about it like this, I can’t. To be a…I guess a hero, you have to be perfect. This is not perfect. I don’t say these things. We can’t say these things. I just…what if it got out?”
Clark Kent, the man, wonders the same things we do. What if so and so found out about this, what if who I really am came out? What if everyone knew I wasn’t as put together as they perceive me to be? Or there’s Batman who is overburdened with guilt:
“I train…partners to work with me. They become…my…family. I’ve watched…so many of them…die.”
The comic is full of paneled pages where the heroes stand like a mugshot and confess. Some confess their tendency to want to fall back into addiction, some release the guilt they’ve felt for the lives lost because of the mantle they’ve chosen to assume and others confess how they haven’t saved as many lives as they wish they would’ve.
This is where King shows us the power of the law, it finds us all and crushes every last one of us. Even those we look up and cling to in hopes that there really might be some way to achieve a moral status higher than we currently possess, we find out their souls are searching for a place to be known and accepted just like the rest of us.
King’s pen hits the paper like a gavel but on the flip side he’s also scribed mercy and absolution in the freedom to confess safely at The Sanctuary. Incidents happen there, including a troubled Flash who has a deadly PTSD outburst, yet the hope still remains in The Sanctuary. Heroes in crisis all over the DC Universe come and confess, finding open arms to greet them at their arrival.
While of course I love me some confident, night ruling Batman and web slinging, sarcastic Spider-Man, I do enjoy a version of heroes that are relatable. It’s not far off from the heroes of the faith we have in the Scriptures. Often times religious communities, not unlike the comic community, want the heroes of biblical faith to be moralistic mentors, exemplifying a state we too can achieve with good works and faithfulness. We don’t want drunk Noah, naked in his tent. We don’t want Abraham abandoning his wife and laughing at God’s plans. We don’t want King David’s adultery and plots for murder. We don’t want them broken, weak or sinful because if they can’t meet the demands of the law, then can we? Can anyone?
Thankfully, we too have a sanctuary like the heroes in crisis. We too have a sanctuary where we can come and confess. We too have a place where we can be accepted as we are, baggage and all. However, our sanctuary isn’t found in a place or location but rather in a person and a good word. One that whispers to us, even in our worst crisis, “all is well.”