Comics involve wild cosmic beings and people who somehow get powers from radiation, rather than health problems. But comics get even weirder when you consider the characters who got their powers from actual religious figures. How do demonic bikers and spirits of divine vengeance coexist with Norse gods and Olympian warriors?
Comics history is full of simple events that made Marvel and DC’s Heaven and Hell such a strangely convoluted place. A laissez-faire attitude towards using religious motifs ran headlong into a period of industry censorship, and writers and artists were left holding the pieces, with the job of fashioning them into the continuity we know today.
In the beginning...
When the Golden Age of Comics started in 1938, using Heaven and Hell was totally fair game. The first character to use the name “Black Widow” was recruited by the actual devil after her murder, and assigned to return to Earth and take down sinners. When police officer Jim Corrigan died, his spirit encountered a brilliant light and a voice that told him he was to return to Earth as the vengeful Spectre. Elsewhere, a young boy died prematurely due to a clerical error by Mr. Keeper, who managed the passage of souls to Heaven. To rectify the error, St. Peter told Mr. Keeper to mentor the boy in his new career as a hero called Kid Eternity. Meanwhile, the wizard Shazam drew power from both the Jewish figure Solomon as well as deities from Pagan pantheons.
But the audience’s taste for placing real beliefs alongside fantasy elements changed. After World War II, US society had an increasing belief that society was delicate and in danger of subversives, and that meant that narrative media was under deep scrutiny. In 1954, the Comics Code Authority was created to monitor comics before they were delivered to the public. There was nothing illegal about publishing a comic without the Code’s seal, but most newsstands and many printers wouldn’t risk getting involved, for fear of angry parents.
Under the Code, criminals weren’t to be sympathetic or glamorous, legitimate government authority was not to be put in a bad light, and “deviant” sexual behavior was prohibited. The Code also blocked the depiction of demon worship, witchcraft, and “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.” Still, who got to decide what wasn’t acceptable sometimes depended on who was working at the Comics Code Authority office that day, and some creators realized that as long as you didn’t offend the beliefs of the Code employees specifically, you could get your story through.
Amazing Fantasy #15, the same anthology comic that introduced Spider-Man in 1962, featured “The Bell-Ringer,” a short story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in which a religious, elderly man was saved from painful death by a shaft of heavenly light. The next story, “The Man in the Mummy Case,” shows a mummy tricking a thief. The story’s mummy could’ve been an undead monster or simply a man, disguised. That ambiguity was key to getting past the Code.
That same year, Lee and Jack Kirby wrote the first Dr. Doom story, which shows the maniacal villain with two books: Demons and Science and Sorcery. Later, we’re told of his long fascination with “black magic.” But since Doom was clearly a bad guy, it was fine for him to be interested in such topics.
Kirby was fond of Arthur C. Clarke’s idea that any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic, and he enjoyed depicting gods as science fantasy rather than purely magic. Stan Lee agreed with this approach, preferring the Marvel Universe not validate any specific belief too strongly. In college lectures, Lee said he had no problem showing Thor encountering beings from Olympian and Egyptian mythology because the universe was large enough to hold many such entities and their respective pantheons. If some of those entities believed they had helped the creation of humanity, well, maybe they did and maybe they didn’t.
And so Lee and his collaborators populated the Marvel universe with a wealth of Satanic stand-ins. Dr. Strange’s early stories involved the beings Nightmare and Dormammu, who seemed to be demonic in nature, but inhabited other dimensions rather than the afterlife. And Lee and John Buscema created Marvel’s most famous “devil” in the pages of Silver Surfer in 1968. Mephisto was named after the demon dealmaker from Dr. Faustus, and his realm, where souls were tortured, was said to exist beyond the physical universe. Lee remarked that this helped to paint the Surfer as a science fiction version of a flawed Messiah resisting temptation. Mephisto was the New Testament’s Satan in all but name.
Comic book superheroes had their devils, but also their angels, and even god. The Marvel universe’s cosmic entity, the Living Tribunal, was introduced in 1967. This three-faced being served as a judge over various dimensions and realities, possibly all, and would later refer to his creator and boss as “the One Above All.” The same year the Living Tribunal showed up in Marvel, DC brought forth a new ghostly hero simply called Deadman. Boston Brand was a murdered acrobat who was given a chance to return to Earth and fight evil. In his case, it wasn’t a voice but a goddess called Rama Kushna (similar to the actual Hindu goddess Krishna). As Kushna was an original creation and her nature ambiguous, and since Boston was a ghost acting almost as an angel rather than a zombie or vampire, the Code had no problem with this. In later years, Boston said he believed Kushna was one of the many faces of God.
In 1971, the Comics Code finally relaxed their rule on certain demonic and undead characters with the following run-on sentence: “vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.”
Along with allowing vampires and others to return, this opened the door for DC Comics to directly reference Judeo-Christian ideas again. The demon Etrigan, created in 1972, was not from a realm that resembled Hell, he simply came from Hell. But DC was more nervous about putting Jesus Christ in a comic. A major Swamp Thing story arc was meant to end with the titular character meeting the Nazarene carpenter, but editorial decided later the issue would be too controversial, so it wasn’t printed.
The Marvel universe continued to sidestep the issue, however. Originally, Ghost Rider — like Etrigan, created in 1972 — was a man who’d made a deal with Satan, but readers were later told it was Mephisto in disguise. Later still, Satan and Mephisto were said to be rivals in different realms, with possibly neither being the Devil of Christian lore. But the House of Ideas felt similarly to DC in one respect: When Tony Isabella wrote a Ghost Rider story featuring an appearance by Jesus, it was rewritten by editor Jim Shooter at the last minute to say it was only an illusion.
By the 1990s, things were changing yet again. The Comics Code Authority had lost most of its teeth, and its seal now only meant a story wasn’t any more adult than a PG-13 movie. The Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover had rebooted much of DC Comics continuity, and creators were still debating what rules and canon still applied, which allowed for many new and contradictory ideas to emerge. Series such as Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and Sandman — in which the dead were sent the different realms according to personal belief rather than universal law and all gods owed a portion of their existence to the series protagonist, the Lord of Dreams — showed that readers could handle modern religious topics in stories without necessarily being offended. On the other end of the tonal spectrum, in 1991’s The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special the titular bounty hunter was hired by the Easter Bunny to kill Santa Claus. In 1997, an angel joined the Justice League.
And one of comics’ oldest divinely-connected heroes was linked up to Christian religious figures more than ever. John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake’s 1990s run on The Spectre delved deeply into morality and religious mythology. Their Spectre was the wrath of the god of the Old Testament, bonded to a human soul, and they implied that Jesus was God’s forgiveness given form. Angels like Michael would show up, and change their forms, names, and personalities when appearing to people of different beliefs.
Marvel still flirted with science fantasy to explain its demons, even having Mephisto claim his origin was due to the creator of the cosmic Infinite Gems. But as TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and later Supernatural consistently showed audiences were willing to accept fiction mixed with religious symbolism, Marvel finally followed suit. Spider-Man saved a Christmas Angel from Mephisto, who later made direct reference to the Anti-Christ in a Daredevil story. Angels, Hell, Satan, and God were directly referenced and presented at face value in various comics. In 2004, the Fantastic Four even journeyed to Heaven and met God — he looked a lot like Jack Kirby.
But don’t get it twisted: The Marvel and DC comics universes may include angels and demons, but if you ask who created those universes, the answer isn’t “the god of Abraham.” Marvel’s setting is full of shaggy god stories, where technologically advanced aliens and cosmic beings indirectly inspire human mythology. Over in the DC Universe, we know that existence didn’t begin with light on the first day — but with a giant blue hand cradling a speck that would become the entire cosmos — in part because an alien scientist made a machine that let him observe the very first moment of time.
The cosmology of superhero universes is a patchwork quilt made by the contributions of many people over many years. But ask a historian about how a major world religion came to be, and they might tell you exactly the same thing.