By Matthew Brake
I was talking the other day to a friend, and the topic of our spiritual journeys came up. This person told me about the burnout and discouragement they felt, not only being involved in different churches, but in the whole “Jesus thing” in general. I then relayed my own story: involvement in multiple churches over the years, from age 12 until age 35. I have seen pastors try to control their people through moralistic legalism, nepotism, and “prophecies.” I have tried to join the pastoral teams of churches where I was told I needed to “dress cool in order to attract people to the church.” I have been in churches where the people gossiping and causing interpersonal strife blamed me for that strife and got me kicked out. I have suffered crises of faith, crises of vocation, and mental and emotional breakdowns. (Disclaimer: I want to acknowledge the ways that my own emotional immaturity exacerbated some of these situations and earned me no sympathy in the process. Conversations have been had. Apologies have been given to the relevant parties, as much as they and I were willing to be honest with each other.)
But still…I believe there is a There…”There.”
I don’t go to church. It would probably take a lot for me to re-engage in that ritual. But I still believe in Jesus and have remained surprisingly orthodox, give or take a few things (we’re all entitled to two good heresies, as some may say).
I’m not here to provide a defense or an apologetic for Christianity, so if that’s what you’re looking for or how you choose to engage this post in the comments, that’s your prerogative, but that’s not what this is about.
This is about me (selfish I know). And this is about articulating my own current position in my journey, giving words to a position that others may find themselves in as well.
I call this position “the Post-Traumatic Christian.”
I have to acknowledge that this term is borrowed and adapted from one of my favorite comic book writers—Grant Morrison!
One work of Morrison’s (and artists such as Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, and Chris Burnham, among others) that I continually return to and read at least once a year is their (Morrison uses they/them pronouns as of 2020) seven-year run on Batman. It was an intriguing experiment by Morrison, partly because of their decision “to treat the entire publishing history of Batman as the events in one man’s extraordinarily vivid life” (Batman: The Black Casebook). Rather than ignoring some of the sillier elements from Batman’s publishing history, Morrison incorporates even the silliest sci-fi stories from the 1950s and 1960s and gives them a fresh modern update.
Another thing Morrison decided to do was to rebuild the character and bring some hope into Batman’s life. The decades preceding Morrison are full of stories about Batman being broken and torn down and brought to the very edge (a result of some of the gritty violence inherited from certain trends in comics beginning in the 1980s). The first issue of Morrison’s run, Batman #655, is entitled “Building a Better Batmobile,” which could just as well read “Building a Better Batman,” which Morrison did over the next seven years (Walker, 130).
Batman was the perfect character for Morrison to take on during this time. Morrison has indicated that 9/11 exposed them to the realities of evil in the world (they mention this in the documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods). The optimism of Morrison’s 90s work gave way to work informed by the trauma of 9/11 and their work with what they describe as “Post-Traumatic Superheroes.”
Batman had been torn down for decades, having seen it all and been through it all, betrayal and the death of friends, colleagues, and protégés. His back had been broken, his trust had been violated, and his attempts to come to grips with these things led to even more mistakes that almost cost him the life of one of his surrogate children in Infinite Crisis, DC’s sequel to their classic crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Morrison’s Batman begins by seeking to rebuild himself, wanting to purge the darkness from his soul and be made whole (events that take place during a Morrison-penned sequence in the event comic 52). Morrison’s Batman is the Post-Traumatic Superhero, “a guy taken to the limits, over the edge” (Meaney, 292), “the man who’s seen it all, done it all, who’s come back, and still, somewhere in his soul he’s dragging out this little last iota of hope” (Talking with Gods).
That’s where I’m at, and I have to thank Grant Morrison for giving me the language to describe how I feel—I’ve seen it all and done it all, but my soul is dragging out an iota of hope.
How does Morrison’s Batman series end, you may ask? Does their attempt to build a better Batman succeed?
They do succeed…for a while. But eventually, the demands of serial storytelling meant that Morrison returned Batman to the place they had found him, beaten down and heartbroken, ready to start the cycle again.
Perhaps that’s part of the human cycle. We experience moments of wholeness and beauty, only for those things to fall away, feeling like we’ll never see such beauty again and wondering whether it’s worth it to continue hoping and seeking.
At the end of Morrison’s run, Batman once again finds himself with a hole in his life, and while this theme of there being “a hole in things” is present throughout Morrison’s Batman run and usually represents evil, deprivation, and loss, Morrison gives readers a positive spin at the end of their run. The hole in things can remind us of the loss, betrayal, and wounds we’ve suffered, but the hole also reminds us of the openness of life, the unknown future, and that there is room for more of life’s surprises.
And my hope, as a Post-Traumatic Christian, is that Jesus still has a few more surprises up his sleeve and that my life will have the openness to receive them.
Matthew Brake is the founder and editor the Pop Culture and Theology blog. He is the series editor of the Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture book series and serves as the co-editor (with A. David Lewis) of the forthcoming Religion and Comics series from Claremont Press.
***Note: These are works that I don’t directly reference but have nevertheless played a role in shaping my view of Morrison’s works, and their Batman run in particular.