Fans far and wide have celebrated comics’ most heartfelt and poignant satirist, Mark Russell! Comic Watch’s own Matt Meyer recently got the opportunity to talk with the author of Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles and Wonder Twins from DC about his recently-concluded Second Coming from Ahoy Press, his thoughts on deities with feet of clay, and his upcoming project, Billionaire Island!
Comic Watch: Hi, Mark! Thanks for taking time to speak with me. I just wanted to start by congratulating you on not only Second Coming’s success, but even the minor miracle that it was published in the first place after being dropped by DC. I know you’ve spoken before about the circumstances surrounding DC parting ways with this miniseries, but can you elaborate on what that transition from DC to Ahoy looked like?
Mark Russell: Thanks! It’s a little like having landed a burning plane. Any landing is a good landing, but I’m especially pleased with the fact that we landed at AHOY and the job they’ve done with Second Coming. They weren’t the only place we looked at, but my mind kept coming back to them because of the good experience I’d had working with them on Edgar Alan Poe’s Snifter of Terror. It helped that DC was so graceful, letting us keep the money they paid us and giving me the rights back without any tussle. So the transition was probably a lot smoother than it had any right to be.
CW: Without necessarily comparing the apples of a huge publisher like DC to the oranges of a smaller one like Ahoy in a negative way, what was it like to work with the latter?
MR: One advantage of working with a smaller company like AHOY is that they don’t have to worry about how a controversial title will affect the sale of lunch pails and t-shirts. As a result, they’re less risk-averse.
CW: Let’s get into the subject matter of Second Coming a bit. Obviously, it’s a bit controversial anytime someone decides to utilize the Christian Bible for a work of fiction – there’s always backlash from someone who decries it as blasphemous. Knowing that on the front side, how did you prepare yourself for Second Coming’s reception?
MR: The Bible is sort of like a celebrity at a party. Everyone’s so in awe of them that no one actually gets to know them. Which is tragic. People revere the Bible so much they’re afraid to even talk about it, to ask questions about what it means. So, in some ways, I knew it’d be a little gauche, being the one person at the party who’s willing to not only talk to the celebrity, but to tell them they’ve got bean dip on their jacket, but it’s something that had to be done. Especially if we’re to come to terms with the Bible’s grip on us and our culture. In my naivete, though, I imagined that people would actually read the comic before getting angry about it.
CW: And yet, upon reading Second Coming, it’s not an angry indictment of Christianity nor even a sarcastic one. (Well, maybe a little sarcastic, but with the best of intentions.) Instead, you’ve chosen to humanize God, Jesus, his followers, and Satan in ways that are relatable and down-to-earth. How did you decide that would be your chosen creative path? The connecting through-line of all these characters seems to be that everyone has feet of clay to one degree or another.
MR: It’s impossible to know someone and revere them at the same time. If you want to explore someone’s motivations, to get to know them, you have to do it as a person, not as an icon. Even if that person happens to be a deity.
CW: Speaking of feet of clay, Sunstar is initially presented as a Superman archetype but pretty quickly shows he has some very human failings. What was that process like, breaking down the superhero in a way that was at once identifiable but also something that hasn’t quite been done in such a manner before?
MR: To me, the scary thing about superheroes is that they have all these superhuman powers strapped to the mind of a human being. The only reason most of us have any empathy at all is because we are, or have been at some point, utterly powerless. So somebody without the ability to understand what that’s like is incredibly dangerous to humanity, even if they don’t mean to be.
CW: I have to say I really like Sheila. She has a lot more patience than I think a lot of people would in her situation. The dynamic between Sunstar and her feels very real and lived-in, despite their relationship’s unique situation. How did you approach that relationship, to make it feel as real as it does with its ups and downs? Was it based on any couple in particular, or was it an aggregate of different inspirations?
MR: It’s not based on any specific relationship, but on my experience in relationships in general. About how people have different needs and different things to offer each other and how you can build a life out of the areas that overlap, even if they don’t totally match up.
CW: Sunstar and Sheila’s inability to conceive is particularly heartbreaking, yet also extremely humanizing. What led you to include this subplot?
MR: Every person, even if they’re a superhero, is a world unto themselves. It’s easy to focus on their role in saving our world from that which threatens it, but often it’s what threatens their world that tells you what that person is made of, not their role in ours.
CW: Back to the larger subject matter of Second Coming at hand, I think that going in, given both the premise and the fact that DC shied away from it, a lot of people were expecting more of a Garth Ennis-style anti-religious screed (myself included). But instead what we got was a very nuanced look at the Bible, God, Jesus, and the Christian faith as a whole – more comparable to Kevin Smith’s Dogma than Preacher. In your note at the end of issue one, in fact, you made it clear on no uncertain terms that you yourself are a Christian. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you landed at this unorthodox view on your faith, and how that informed the inspiration for this miniseries?
MR: I don’t consider myself to be a Christian, though I am someone with a deep admiration of Christ. If I had to define my faith, I’d say I’m a pantheist, in that I find divinity all around me and in places I didn’t expect to find it. I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian and part of what drove me to write this comic was the need to explain to people of that faith that they can keep the Christ while ditching the fundamentalism. In fact, they’re more likely to discover the meaning behind behind Christ’s life and teachings once they do.
CW: Second Coming doesn’t shy away from pointing out some of the inconsistencies in the Bible, especially when it comes to the depiction of mankind being made in God’s image. Were you nervous wading into those waters?
MR: No. There are a ton of inconsistencies in the Bible and that’s okay. The Bible was written by sixty-six different authors, so it would be weird if there weren’t inconsistencies. It’s a book, not a mob trial. Not everyone has to have their story straight. In fact, for me, part of the real profundity of the Bible is that you have all these different people asking themselves “What does God want from me?” “What is my place in the Universe?” and coming up with different answers.
CW: Of all the Biblical characters in Second Coming that are more grounded and three-dimensional than they are traditionally portrayed, there’s perhaps no bigger humanization than the Almighty himself. God starts off being portrayed as a bit of a frat bro, for lack of a better term, then it is gradually revealed that despite his personal failings, he’s a father who loves and is scared for his son. Taking what could be charitably described as a controversial rendition of the Christian creator and giving him room to breathe as a person in such a way – how did you know that would work?
MR: While the God of the Old Testament is sometimes presented as this abstract, unknowable force of nature, more often than not he’s shown to be this person with an incredible capacity for both love and wrath. A sort of Spencer Tracy of the spirit-world. So I wanted to explore what would make him that way and the answer that we find most often in the Bible and which makes the most sense to me, is that he both loves people but is continually frustrated by them. His exasperation with the human race causing him to periodically walk out on us or give us a good plague or drowning from time to time.
CW: Similarly, Jesus is portrayed as flawed, human, and even a bit of a naïf. Yet despite that, he never loses his faith in humanity. What can readers take away from that?
MR: That we may not be able to control what the rest of the world is, or how it treats us, but we always have control over who we are and how we treat it. That is the real power of Christ. His power to retain his love and divinity in the face of pettiness and cruelty.
CW: Sunstar and Jesus are, to a certain degree, opposite reflections of one another: Sunstar uses his fists to solve his problems without much other thought to it, and Jesus uses his words and physical passivity to do the same. Yet by the end of the series, both are closer to meeting in the middle, having learned the inherent strengths and failings of both approaches. Was that deliberate, or am I reading too much into it?
MR: That is entirely deliberate. Sunstar represents the use of violence to force people to change their behavior due to the threat of punishment, whereas Christ represents using compassion and empathy to change people’s behavior from the inside out. I think the take away from the end is that both answers are limited and prone to failure, but that if we come up with enough solutions, we can solve every problem by using one or another. That we should be open to more ways of approaching the world, flawed and naïve though they may be. Because they just may be able to solve some problems that our traditional answers of bribery and punishment cannot.
CW: By issue six, faith itself is described as “just another form of Stockholm syndrome,” and Jesus has had to resort to violence to save himself from Satan. With that in mind, what is Second Coming’s ultimate message regarding Christianity, religion, faith and the nature of man?
MR: To clarify, Christ is referring to faith as something we’ve just been taught to believe. His point is that if you believe in something just because you were raised in that faith, or because you’re afraid of what will happen to you if you DON’T believe it, then you don’t actually believe it. He only wants people to follow him whose convictions are behind that belief. And if yours are not, you should look for meaning elsewhere. If you follow Christ only because of the treats you think you’re going to get or because you’re afraid of going to Hell, than his actual teachings are secondary to you. But it’s those teachings of how to live and dealing with the empires that would control you that he came here to give us.
CW: Your body of work has always used satire to bring shed light on particular social or political issues of our times. With that in mind, what can readers expect from your upcoming project, Billionaire Island? Reading the preview pages in Second Coming #6, I have to say I had absolutely no problem imagining this scenario happening in real life. Which is scary.
MR: Well, I never write anything thinking, “This oughta depress them!” But, as a writer, I tend to write about the things that occupy my mind. And one of the things that troubles me deeply, so much so that I can’t go a single day without thinking about it, is that we are destroying our ecosystem at such a prodigious rate that the only way the human race will be able to survive the 21st century in large numbers is if we start devoting a big chunk of the resources we’re pulling out of the planet toward fixing that damage. Toward creating infrastructure that will allow us to adapt to the changes we’ve already caused. But, instead, we seem content to spend the planet’s resources on golf resorts and private islands for billionaires.
CW: Beyond Billionaire Island, there’s a sequel to Second Coming in the works. When can readers expect to see that, and can you give any hints to its plot?
MR: Second Coming, Season 2, the Second Second Coming comes again, will come out in March, 2020. It slows down the plot a little bit, becoming more character-focused. And it tells the story of Sunstar’s background and how he is preparing to be the father he never had. And Christ building his church one follower at a time, being there for people, trying to become the father he never had.
CW: Mark, thank you so very much, again, for taking time to answer these questions. Best of luck with everything going forward!
Second Coming arrives on shelves in collected edition March 10, 2020. Billionaire Island #1 ships at local comic stores everywhere March 4. Both are published by Ahoy Comics.
“Knowing Deities as People:” A Conversation With Second Coming’s Mark Russell
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