Individualistic Identity in Comic Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell are widely familiar concepts, manifesting often in both popular culture and religious practice. Comic books have not shied away from their depiction, and in modern graphic novels both realms seem to portray an idea of selfhood that is distinctly individualistic.

The variety of comic books that depict heaven and hell is impressive. We see these depictions ranging from traditional DC superhero comics such as Green Arrow to more postmodern offerings, such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. In these comics, we see individual heroes travel to, and interact with, these two fantastical realms in ways that are extremely telling for how comic books understand and portray the heroes’ identities as notably individualistic. Ultimately, both heaven and hell, despite occasionally bizarre depictions of their landscapes and denizens, portray an idea of selfhood that preserves an individualistic identity. As I argued in my previous post, this individualistic identity is unique to the modern world, and comic books are centrally involved in the presentation and preservation of this understanding.

Gaiman’s critically acclaimed and incredibly popular Sandman series creatively illustrates this theme through the adventures of the eponymous demigod protagonist, Dream. Throughout the series, Dream journeys to hell twice – once to retrieve one of his talismans of power in the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, and again in the fourth volume, Season of Mists. In both cases, there are depictions of time, place, and a variety of characters. These two depictions of hell are highly notable for how they portray Dream as an individual, based on his actions, thoughts, and interactions with others in his environment.

In Seasons of Mist, Gaiman consciously deconstructs classical ideas of hell as manifesting some type of clear, binary, moral punishment. When Dream meets with Lucifer, we find that Lucifer is not some demonic, wrathful, fire-and-brimstone dispenser of justice, but a somewhat weary individual, who is defined by his desires and beliefs instead of his institutional role as lord of hell. Indeed, it is the latter, more structured identity as “lord of hell” that Lucifer specifically rejects in favor of an existence lived according to his preferences: an extremely individual view of selfhood. Dream, while perhaps a bit taken aback by this Lucifer, nonetheless accepts him and his choices, reflecting his own acceptance (and Gaiman’s, by extension) of an idea of selfhood based on individual preferences. Lucifer’s individual identity, in other words, is more central to his selfhood than his institutionally-structured role as keeper of hell.

We see a similar view of individualistic selfhood in Preludes and Nocturnes. In this episode, Dream travels to hell and finds his talisman of power in the possession of a certain duke of hell. To regain it, he concocts a game and wager, negotiating with the demon on individual terms, looking not to any sort of social or institutional obligation.

This type of negotiation would have been nearly impossible for someone in the ancient or medieval world to conceive. For the Greeks and Romans, Fate was not something that could be bargained with, much less avoided. The Fates were mythological beings who had power over humans and gods alike, and negotiation of any kind was inconceivable.

Likewise, in the medieval Christian world, the dominant religious motif was the inevitability of sin dooming humanity, who could only be saved through the intercession of God. For many areas of Europe, this could only take place through structured participation in the institution of the Catholic Church. One’s individual desires, thoughts, and beliefs were less important than institutionally defined actions, such as sacramental penances. Indeed, one of the linchpins of the Reformation itself was a shift toward a more individual relationship between humanity and God, removing (or at least reducing in importance) the role of the Church as institution and strengthening the focus on one’s interior, individual state.

Movements like the Reformation edged us closer to this individualistic ideological control over destiny: not only is it something to be negotiated with, but something to be written by the individual as well – something to be seized and developed based on one’s own choices, beliefs, and hard work. Gaiman’s hell, its central characters, and the mode of interaction therein, all conform to a distinctly modern identity focused on individual selfhood instead of the structured selfhood we find in the ancient or medieval worlds. But, this depiction of identity is not only found in Gaiman.

A. David Lewis’ recent American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife explores a variety of comic book depictions of heaven and hell and how these depictions support a multivalent understanding of individual identity.

Analyzing comics such as Alan Moore’s Promethea and Ellis/Cassaday’s Planetary, Lewis argues that comic books, and in particular the subgenre that he identifies as the “superhero afterlife,” are a highly effective medium for expressing the complex, non-unified nature of self instead of a highly unified and consistent self. This ability stems from several factors: the constant tension between word and image, the former linear and the latter simultaneous, whose co-appearance on a page implies unity within difference; the multi-panel layout of comics, which encourages readers’ eyes to play across the page and thus bring together several iterations of the same character; and the serial nature of comic books over years or even decades, which involves the same, single character being re-cast, re-branded, and re-imagined in a variety of contexts, crossovers, and under the influence of a shifting cast of writers, illustrators, and editors.

Lewis sees evidence for a multivalent, divided self in the “superhero afterlife” subgenre in stories of comic superheroes like Green Arrow and Captain Marvel. In examples such as these, we see characters existing in some form in their earthly bodies, while they simultaneously also exist in some other type of “heavenly” or “perfected” body.

But, in these cases, while the heroes find themselves in contexts of dislocated time, place, and/or awareness, they continue to operate in a generally normal fashion – dialoguing, planning, explaining, striving, and seeking to forward their particular, individual goals. The identity of certain heroes seems to remain quite “normal,” even when displaced in an entirely fantastical realm. Characters maintain all the elements of an individualistic identity, in other words, while being largely unaffected by the highly bizarre environment of the afterlife.

Gaiman’s Sandman seems to support Lewis’ point about this multifaceted identity. Gaiman uses innovative paneling and protagonists with identities diffused across time and place, which are characteristics central to Lewis’ “superhero afterlife” subgenre. But, what struck me the most when reading Lewis’ analysis was how well it tied into my own argument about modern, Western readers tending to have an idea of selfhood that is highly individualistic – based on personal preferences, desires, and beliefs – instead of what I called a more structured ideal of selfhood – based on ties to institutions, tradition, and formal social relations.

The modern graphic novel, in other words, uses ancient myths, such as the realms of heaven and hell, but does so in ways that radically depart from ancient depictions. This change reflects both the medium of the graphic novel itself (which Lewis describes well) and modern understandings about selfhood and identity.

Yet, a question still remains: do graphic novels merely reflect a modern, individualistic sensibility, or do they also help create it? Future posts will continue to explore the direction of this influence, as well as comics that do (or do not!) speak to this question.

Discussion and Comments

  1. If there is a definitive version of Heaven and Hell in the comic book genre, how can we relate that to real-life? Say Gaimen’s version of the Devil; a highly self-centered fallen angel. I would propose that a lot of Comics are a look inside American society and how individualistic we are. I know, I’m one of’em. Being a Real-life Superhero whose been operating for the past 5 years I’ve become more self-centered and conscientious of peoples perceived notions of me.