Of God and gods
Last week in Guardians of Knowhere, Angela and Gamora debated the divinity of Doom. The topic of godhood and who has it is being explored at large out across Secret Wars and its tie-ins. Similarly, a more focused exploration of the same issue is playing out over on the DC side of things in the pages of Bryan Hitch’s Justice League of America through the character of Rao.
Neither title is either publisher’s first exploration of the concept of deity, though neither shows much improvement over previous attempts. Like first year philosophy students, characters argue past each other without first defining their terms. To judge whether they should trust his claims, it makes a world of difference whether Rao is claiming to be God or a god.
Though the English words “God” and “god” are homophones with a shared etymological history, their differing definitions are the result of distinct philosophical and religious traditions. The former refers to a necessary being and comes to us from Aristotelian and Neoplatonic speculations on a First Cause or an Unmoved Mover. The latter refers to a set of contingent beings, albeit powerful ones, akin to the Greco-Roman pantheon. In fact, the English word “deity” derives from the Latin “deus” and ultimately the Proto-Indo-European name “Dyēus ph2ter” (literally meaning “sky father”), from which we also get the English word “day.” Dyēus ph2ter was the earliest known inspiration for later Zeus and Jupiter, and shares far more in common with sky-spirits than modern theist conception of a Creator.
That Bryan Hitch has failed to have Rao clearly position himself as either God or a god directly hinders the story. Lower-case gods are clearly established in the both the DC Universe and this Justice League title specifically. The moniker is applied to beings like Izaya and Orion without any religious upheaval. Wonder Woman is herself the goddess of War, and with this issue travels to Olympus, former home to the rest of the Greek pantheon. Even Superman, a powerful being who comes from the sky, qualifies under this definition. Even if Rao is quantitatively more powerful than Superman or Wonder Woman, they are all categorically the same. If the denizens of Earth regard this to be the case, why is Rao’s coming being treated as qualitatively different than Superman’s? Why would Hitch choose to write a story about a god if a hero would work just as well?
Alternatively, there is a poignant scene in this issue where Rao implicitly compares himself to the monotheistic God of Abrahamic religions. A group engaged in ministry, led by a clergyman, laments their unanswered prayers to the Christian God. Instantly, Rao appears before them, performing miracles that answer their prayers, the implication being that petitions directed to God are properly received by him, and that their religious reverence should be redirected to Rao.
Doom is at least a bit more clear regarding his claims to godhood: He is omnipotent, but not omniscient, the creator of everything else in existence (as far as nearly everyone knows). While he doesn’t offer, and his subjects conveniently and unfortunately never inquire, whether he is self-extant and causa sui, the inhabitants of Battleworld for the most part know the theology they’re being asked to place their faith in. The ambiguity surrounding Rao makes the Justice League members and the citizens they protect come off as unintelligent for failing to ask the pertinent questions.
I don’t mean to come off as overly negative regarding Hitch’s story; surprisingly, his writing in Justice League of America is in many ways better than his art here. But I do have one additional nitpick: few of the characters display much agency, especially in regards to their location, magically being transported to wherever the plot requires them. Green Lantern inexplicably finds himself on ancient Krypton, Flash at the Infinity Corp laboratory, and Wonder Woman at Olympus. I trust future issues will reveal the plot threads which set such in motion, but until such it comes across as (forgive the pun) deus ex machina.
Hitch is one of my personal favorite artists. After the dark days of the industry in the mid-to-late ‘90s, it was his run on The Ultimates that re-solidified my passion for the medium. Yet the gorgeous visuals their were achieved at the cost of several month delays between issues. That’s a price I’d gladly pay for Hitch at his best, but unfortunately DC is unwilling to pay the same. The results are never bad, but sometimes reach just short of the heights he’s capable of, the expressiveness of the faces and the endless detail to his backgrounds.
The real lost opportunity, however, was in getting to see Hitch redesign the Justice League costumes as he did for the Avengers (his will always be the definitive Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man for me). Across his work on The Authority, The Ultimates, America’s Got Powers, and Real Heroes, there was a uniform and signature design philosophy. The New 52 costume designs are such a departure from that (and failure on their own right) that Hitch’s talents are wasted on such.
Alex Sinclair’s colors are serviceable; for the most part a bit too flat, never quite fleshing out Hitch’s line work as it was on The Ultimates, but definitely cause for notice whenever a lighting effect is at work, such as Green Lantern’s constructs or Rao’s radiance.
My criticism for JLA #3 comes from a place of love; not just for the pre-existing characters and world, but specifically for the story Bryan Hitch is telling, the theme’s he’s playing with, the mysteries he’s building, and the flair with which he’s presenting such.