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B. J. Oropeza: Comics, Archetypes, and Superheroes

In my recent readings in religion and popular culture I checked the endnote references for an article and noted the name of B. J. Oropeza. This was somewhat surprising in that I was familiar with his work in the areas of theology and apologetics, but was unfamiliar (and pleasantly surprised) with his interests and work in religion and popular culture. Dr. Oropeza is associate professor of biblical studies at the Azusa Pacific School of Theology, and while I share with him a desire for good scholarship in religious studies, it is his work in comics and pop culture that caught my attention. For example, he presented a paper in 2004 at the annual conference of the Popular Culture Society on the topic of “Spiderman, the Silver Surfer, and Jesus: The Interaction Between Superheroes and Religious Figures.” He also served as editor of The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture (Peter Lang, 2005), which includes a foreword by Stan Lee. The book is positively reviewed by ImageTexT, Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, and is described as a collection of essays which shows “a genuine interest in exploring the theological and ideological implications of superhero comics from a decidedly scholarly perspective.”

I tracked Oropeza down to his scholarly lair in southern California and asked him a few questions on the interesting topic of comics, superheroes, and religion.

TheoFantastique: B. J., thanks for your willingness to share some of your thoughts on this topics. To begin, how does a theologian develop an interest in comic books, and a scholarly one at that?

Oropeza: I was interested in comic books long before I became interested in theology. As a child, my brother and I were avid comic book readers. In fact, apart from children’s books teaching me how to read, “See Jill Run, Run, Jill, Run,” I learned how to read by reading comic books!

TheoFantastique: What role did your Ph.D. studies play in your perspectives related to this?

Oropeza: I studied for my Ph.D. at the University of Durham in the U.K. The focus of my study was related to New Testament Theology. It did not play a significant part of my pop culture development, but of course, it did play a major role in my theological development, which I have integrated with my views of pop culture. My interest in popular culture has developed throughout my lifetime. I did not grow up as a Christian, but I do have popular culture to thank for contributing to my becoming a Christian. Two movies in particular made an impact on my spiritual beliefs when I was growing up, one about Christ, the other about the Antichrist: Jesus of Nazareth and Damien: The Omen, Part II. The first introduced me to the person of Jesus. The second introduced me to the Bible. In one scene, Damien (who is supposed to be the Beast in the Book of Revelation), reads about the number “666″ from Revelation chapter 13. This scene so intrigued me, that I began to read the Bible for myself. The very first book I read was the Book of Revelation. Then reading this book sparked an interest in reading more, so as a non-Christian, I started to read the Bible from cover to cover.

TheoFantastique: Comics seem to be developing greater popularity in the U.S., providing the inspiration and storylines for many successful Hollywood films. And while graphic novels seem to be on the increase as well, the popular stereotype among Americans is that comics are the stuff of adolescence and adults stuck in adolescence, unlike their great popularity among adults in other cultures like Japan. Why do you and the contributors to your book take comics seriously as a cultural and religious artifact for exploration?

Oropeza: Many of us have a firm conviction that comic books, in particular the superhero variety, often have a subtext, or sometimes a main text, that interacts with theological and mythical ideas. The stories of superheroes often portray a spirituality that stimulates the reader to ponder God-type questions. Such questions address religious, philosophical, and ideological issues, and there is nothing juvenile about such thoughts.

TheoFantastique: Do you think that comics still tend to be neglected by scholars working in the area of religion and popular culture or is this starting to change?

Oropeza: I do see a positive trend in which scholars are beginning to take comics more seriously. In 2005, I attended a conference at the University of Melbourne, Australia entitled “Holy Men in Tights.” The entire conference focused on academic papers related to superheroes. I believe the interest has to do with the rise of popular culture as a respectable academic discipline in universities such as the University of Michigan and religious schools such as Fuller Theological Seminary. It also has to do with the unprecedented success of recent blockbuster movies that have adapted comic book characters and stories.

TheoFantastique: Why did you choose superheroes as a theme in comics rather than another?

Oropeza: I love superheroes! Perhaps some of it is nostalgia, and then again some of it has to do with the fact that such comics have interesting characters with super power who often engage in macro-battles with the forces of evil. The stories frequently echo the Book of Revelation and apocalyptic literature; in fact, DC’s graphic novel Kingdom Come literally cites Revelation.

TheoFantastique: In your book you wrote a chapter titled “Superhero Myths and the Restoration of Paradise.” Can you tell us a little about your thoughts in this chapter?

Oropeza: The chapter is too long to unfold here, but in essence, I compare themes related to the monomyth of Yearnings for Paradise (e.g., the religious phenomenology of Mircea Eliade) with superhero origins and major stories in their comic book series. I also describe the development of the three ages of superheroes, from their beginning in Action Comics in the 1930′s (Superman) to the present age.

TheoFantastique: Your chapter seems to be similar to the notions of universal archetypes and myths as culturally formative stories across cultures and noting their commonalities and then connecting this to where these ideas dovetail with biblical stories. Is this a correct assessment? If so, what types of mythic elements do superhero comics tap into?

Oropeza: That is correct. Again I cannot go into the various themes, but one that I have noticed that has been especially important for the “post-modern” age of comics has been the idea of the Battle of Armageddon. This concept became especially popular in the 1990s, right before Y2K. It looks like not only certain Christians, but also popular culture writers, are obsessed with the end of the world.

TheoFantastique: Why do you think superheroes in comics, especially when translated i
nto movies, continue to be so popular and powerful among American audiences? What does this tell us about ourselves?

Oropeza: A lot of it has to do with better technology. Just compare the latest Batman movie with the campy television series of Batman in the 1960s, and you’ll know what I mean! What do comics tell us about ourselves? We see a better picture of ourselves through superheroes, at least the traditional ones.

TheoFantastique: How might Christian reflection on elements within some comics inform Christian spirituality?

Oropeza: We see an image of Messiah through a lot of superheroes, even if it is somewhat distorted and out of shape. Watch, for example, the latest Superman movie, and see how many parallels you can find between Superman and Jesus. You can do the same with Neo from The Matrix, and others (And yes, I do believe Neo is a superhero! There is a chapter about him in my book, The Gospel According to Superheroes). Through these heroes, an unchurched audience hears echoes of Jesus that they might not otherwise hear because they will not step foot in a church or read the Bible. Great dialogues between Christians and non-Christians can come out of talking about the latest hot comic book or superhero movie.

TheoFantastique: Do you plan on continuing your research in this area, and what other research trajectories in religion and popular culture can we look forward to from you?

Oropeza: I recently proposed that my university (Azusa Pacific) provide a class on Theology and Popular Culture. The proposal was recently accepted, so I plan to teach this class in the near future. I also very recently did a seminar here on campus entitled “A Matrix of Messiahs,” which focused on Neo and Superman. In the future I would also like to focus on popular music (i.e., rock music) and theology. Along with movies and comics, this is another area of pop culture that fascinates me.

TheoFantastique: B. J., thanks again for sharing with us. I hope we have given adults, scholars and non-scholars alike, a renewed appreciation for other facts of comics.

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