I just wrote a paper about the genre of Apocalyptic Literature, and one of my conclusions was that we need to continue producing apocalyptic literature. I think that if we kept writing in this style, we’d understand it a lot better. Then I realized that we’ve been writing apocalypses for most of the past century: they’re called “comic books.”
Perhaps I should explain a bit about apocalyptic literature, to give some context to that statement.
An “apocalypse” is a revelation (“apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”), and the entire genre of literature is named after the New Testament book, the Revelation of John. The genre of literature began to be written sometime around 250 BC, and we have apocalypses that were written in the Middle Ages, but the only two that still get much attention are the canonical apocalypses, Daniel and Revelation. Apocalypse has been defined by scholars:
“Apocalypse” is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world. – Semeia 14
Strangely enough, none of those things are really like a comic book. Sure, a comic book has a narrative framework and often features a somewhat supernatural world, but that’s not really what makes it like apocalypse. Let me give a further description of apocalypse, and if you read comic books you may start to see the similarities.
An apocalypse is usually written for a group of people in crisis. It describes historical events in fantastic, otherworldly ways that don’t make a lot of sense unless you know what they’re talking about; this is because it uses symbols and imagery to represent those events. By using those symbols and imagery, it makes it possible for the themes of their story to stand out, without getting caught up in the historical details that a more straightforward description might focus on. You see, we have a habit of reading a story – particularly a historical account – with an eye for specifics: we want to know who did what, when, to whom, and why. Unfortunately, when we read under a microscope like this, we often miss the more important themes that lie behind the details. But when you use metaphors for all of your characters and events, the microscope falls away: without details, we can see the big picture, and the true significance, of events.
A central strength of Marvel Comics, and a reason (in my opinion) that they’ve fared so well vs. their rival comic giant, DC Comics, is that they understand the power of metaphor to describe things that we can all relate to. For example, take Spider-man – possibly the biggest name in comic books (though Superman and Batman have greater brand recognition, nobody sells comics like Spider-man). A regular, awkward, nobody high-school student, Peter Parker suddenly gains physical coordination, strength, and super-powers. He gains confidence, and eventually, the girl of his dreams (Mary-Jane Watson). Aside from the obvious hyperbole of the super-powers and their source (a radioactive spider bite), Spider-man’s tale is one we can all relate to: puberty. It’s just bigger and more spectacular, like everyone wishes their life could be. But it also has a timeless message: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” If there’s a better method of giving a pre- or mid-pubescent kid a sense of power and responsibility than giving them a Spider-man comic, it couldn’t be this much fun.
But apocalyptic doesn’t just give people hope in a time of crisis: it also is a powerful tool of social criticism. Roman emperors are depicted as terrible beasts that demand worship and enslave the masses, slaughtering their enemies mercilessly. Rome itself is depicted as a whore, greedy for more money. And that’s just a few chapters out of Revelation!
Comic books, or “graphic novels” as they’re now more respectably called, are incredibly powerful tools for social critique. In the mid-60’s, Marvel came out with the first X-Men comics. The running storyline in X-Men is one of segregation, prejudice, and racial violence, mirroring the scene in the American South in the years f0llowing the end of segregation. The difference is that X-Men isn’t about white vs. black, but about the trials faced by mutants, human beings who have genetically mutated, in some cases granting them special powers. There’s still the whole message about using your unique power for good, as many mutants join either the good X-Men, or the aptly named Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, but the theme of racial tolerance and the brotherhood of all humanity, of all colours and mutant abilities, is what drives the series and all of its spinoffs. If we’d just read about Martin Luther King Jr., we might have been very inspired; but once you start bringing up historical specifics, you get caught up in the details, and the arguments, that can easily serve to dull the message. By using symbolic portrayals – mutants instead of people of other skin colours – we can distance ourselves from the details to let the themes shine through. No matter where you stand on racial issues, it’s difficult to read an X-Men comic and not see the mutant characters as human beings.
Another fantastic example is V For Vendetta, which was an independent comic eventually released through DC, and made into a film a few years back by the Wachowski brothers (I highly recommend it). It portrays an alternate future, in which the US is a wasteland in the midst of civil war, and Britain is ruled by a totalitarian government much reminiscent of Nazi Germany. The similarities are blunt and obvious. What’s a bit more subtle is the similarities between this Nazi-like state and our own – subtle, but still apparent. The themes of resisting oppression are empowered by the similarities to Nazi Germany, but they are aimed at a third target: the situation we find ourselves in, whatever that situation may be. No matter where we live, and what party governs us, as soon as we see a similarity to V for Vendetta, our alarm bells start going off, and we know we must resist oppression before it starts.
Apocalyptic does this very well. 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, two Jewish apocalypses written in the first century AD, are both set around the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC to the Babylonians. They use this setting of terrible destruction by external oppressors to comment on their real-life situation: the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD to the Romans. In doing this, they create a “type,” a literary term we’re probably more aware of in a film context: when an actor is especially well known for a particular role, we say that they’ve been “type-cast” – because no matter what role they play next, we’ll always think of that first role, because the association is so strong. The image of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is so strong that all subsequent attacks on Israel are compared to it – but most especially this attack by the Romans in 70 AD. Similarly, no oppressive regime in modern history has made more of an impression than the Nazis; so when V for Vendetta (or even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) uses imagery that reminds us of Nazis, we’re immediately plunged into a sense of oppression and the need to resist.
I suppose all of this is also true of the genre of Fantasy novels, but though they have very wide followings, they don’t have the mainstream appeal of comic books. I think that comics can be a powerful tool, and one that we ought to continue to develop. After all, the main point of ancient apocalypse is to give the people a message from God – and though our contemporary audience isn’t much interested in hearing from God, in their defense we haven’t exactly been delivering. The apocalyptists didn’t deliver new messages from God, but reinterpretations of the prophets. Let’s continue this tradition, delivering timeless messages in a modern way.