“I wanted to show people something inside themselves worth believing in,” Jesus says at one point in Second Coming. “How to be the cure for each other’s pain. But all I did was make them feel better about being the source of the misery.”
Don’t feel so bad, Jesus. Mark Russell is here to argue for you, not against you.
At this point, just about everyone knows the story behind and the story contained within Mark Russell’s Second Coming but for those who don’t, Second Coming was originally slated to be part of a Vertigo revival from DC Comics, but it seemed to be canceled because pressure originating from an online petition decrying its content. The story of a self-critical Jesus Christ returning to Earth under the protection of a powerful, but also self-doubting, Superman-adjacent superhero named Sunstar was deemed “inappropriate” and “blasphemous.”
Actually, it was canceled because DC apparently requested some changes and Russell, in turn, requested the rights to the title be returned to him. He went on to publish it through Ahoy Comics without transforming it into a more tepid version of itself, and that is thankfully what we have with this release.
As it stands, Russell made the right choice. Second Coming is both a sharp satirical critique of the Christian religion in its organized form and a sweet comedy about the actual spirit of Jesus’ teachings coming out in small, personal interactions that speak much louder than any mega-church preacher.
It’s also a repository for literally dozens of wise nuggets that could be compiled into a modern secular New Testament, such as Jesus’ assurance that “Faith, like childhood, is just another form of Stockholm Syndrome.” or God’s that “Maybe the whole purpose of religion, like family, is to make people feel loved and inadequate at the same time.” Just based on those two sentences, I don’t think I’ve ever read a more directly wise comic.
In Second Coming, Russell winds through the history of humankind through the eyes of God, from before Adam and Eve onward, but he also offers other valuable vantage points that bring clarity what has transpired for the march of humanity through the ages. Part of these come from Jesus himself, a fable of good intentions amidst people who are determined to use them for their own ideas of how things should be, and Satan, whose entire existence boils all his actions down to the feeling of rejection and the need to be seen, understood, accepted.
But Russell doesn’t just approach the themes through the religious lense. Understanding that making his points through the comics medium demands addressing obvious commonalities, Russell uses Sunstar and his cohorts to play out concepts of the human need for a higher purpose as reflected through superheroes. This unfolds through the desire of the human superheroes without powers to become saviors — stumblingly, as it turns out — but also through the frustrations of Sunstar to walk a dual-line in which he becomes an actual savior for humans but grapples with the difficulties he faces in trying to be one of them.
The visiting savior figure from elsewhere has become an archetype that millions of superhero fans and Bible thumpers have embraced in a complicated attempt to find themselves within the savior, to strive to be like the savior, but also beat themselves up about it in their constant failure to achieve these heightened goals.
But as with his work on The Flintstones, The Snagglepuss Chronicles, and others, Second Coming isn’t bogged down by the heaviness of the themes, nor the piling on of the multiple themes it addresses. Instead, they are made buoyant by a form of frantic hilarity as the situation builds into madcap areas, made all the more absurd by the cast of confusion that circles around it. Richard Pace does a particularly good job at capturing this aspect, and at times makes the action seem like a colliding cavalcade of Mad Magazine scenarios.
And at the same time, Second Coming is ultimately sweet and just a bit corny, too. Corny in the right way. Corny in that when we are sincere, and when we express our sweetness accordingly, we tend to be corny. No amount of posturing can cover our inherent corniness. Being corny is what unites us all. Even the worst people achieve that in their most private moments with somebody or something who gets to the heart of them.
In Russell’s view, Christianity in particular and organized religion in general, and by proxy, any myth that is embraced as a guiding principle of life and history, may take advantage of that inherent corniness in us, but the good news is that the corniness exists, and that implies the potential for connection. So as long as the corniness exists, there is hope for us all.