Astro City: Samaritan #1, by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
This is the post that got me to hook up my scanner. I couldn't find any promotional images of the full cover for the Astro City: Samaritan special on the web; I'm wondering if that's coincidence or design.
This is the comic that introduces the archenemy of Samaritan, the Superman-archetype for Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City. His name is Infidel, and as you can see he draws on Muslim iconography even more openly than Samaritan draws on the Christian variety, transforming the hero's vaguely dove-like symbol into a crescent and star. I don't think Busiek and co-designer Alex Ross intend any cultural judgments with this juxtaposition; they're just following the logic of comic book antagonisms, distorting Samaritan's imagery and concept to come up with his opposite number.
It makes for good old-fashioned superhero comics and unsavory cultural politics. Pairing these two symbol systems as hero and villain implies that Christianity and Islam are locked in a combat as unending and, needless to say, morally stark as that of Superman and Luthor, Batman and the Joker, or Captain America and the Red Skull. I don't think Busiek and Ross intended their character design to fulfill that kind of propagandistic function, but at some point intention stops mattering--propaganda is what they've got. Interestingly, though, most of that propaganda isn't aimed at Islam.
Backstory. Infidel was a slave who studied astrology and alchemy until he unlocked the secrets of the universe. Retreating from the world to conduct his studies, and occasionally kidnapping human specimens for his experiments, he found himself hounded by every society he encountered. Here he is explaining his credo:
I believe in nothing but what I can see. I trust in nothing but what I can discover, what I can prove.
In other words, Infidel is a scientist--our worst fears of the arrogant, callous, unethical, elitist scientist. But he differs from most comic book mad scientists in that his espousal of this bastardized empiricism is part of what makes him Samaritan's opposite number. His very name suggests that he's a villain because he lacks faith, while his bevy of mindless, topless homonculi servants, grown "to serve [his] needs and warm [his] nights," read like a Christian conservative's nightmare-fantasy of the applications of cloning technology.
Looking back over the length of Astro City I'm almost suprised Infidel was so long in coming. Many of the heroes come in Christian trappings, from the vaguely muted (Samaritan) to the loudly trumpeted (Street Angel, the Confessor, the Crossbreed). Even the heroes who lack explicitly religious iconography are described as "angels" by their own enemies (Steeljack, in The Tarnished Angel, a story replete with religious symbolism direct from your high school English class). Individually these stories and characters have never seemed proselytizing (though the Crossbreed come awfully close) but the cumulative effect is striking. Now that the noble Samaritan can battle a villainous atheist scientist--sorry, a villainous atheist Muslim scientist--Astro City has edged from simply depicting Christian characters (or characters who can be read through a Christian framework) to animating one particularly xenophobic strain of conservative Christian ideology.
Again, I don't think Busiek and Ross set out to design Infidel as propaganda, especially not anti-Muslim propaganda. Busiek bends over backwards to paint Infidel in a somewhat sympathetic light by making him a former slave and, drawing on contemporary popular culture's easiest shorthand for moral authority, making him black. But because he applies the inflexible Manichaean logic of superhero iconography--and applies it quite well--he implies, however unintentionally, that Christianity and Islam, religion and science must forever remain antagonists. It's never unclear which side is the moral one.
All troubling iconography aside, the Samaritan special is actually a pretty entertaining story about an uneasy truce between perfectly matched enemies. Art is supposed to trawl the cultural unconscious, dredging up a society's beliefs and anxieties and subjecting them to catharsis or holding them up for examination. But there's little examination or catharsis here: this comic dredges one of the most paranoid lines of argument in our culture and provides a fantastic justification for its fears. Astro City can do better.