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March 2, 2010

Comics Are My Religion: X-Factor & Anxious Times

Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialogue about religion in this column. Be warned, if you haven’t read the series discussed below, you might want to go read it and come back, as this column may contain spoilers!

Last month, I was invited by one of my bishops (I am an Episcopal priest, remember?) to give a meditation at our clergy retreat. The theme of the retreat was “Pastoral Care in Anxious Times.” I had never been asked to do something like this and had no idea what I was going to say. I’m a relatively new and young priest, so what would I know about pastoral care in anxious times compared to the years of experience accumulated in such a room? I pondered for a while and decided I needed to talk about what I know. And what I know is comic books.

There are no greater anxieties as the ones displayed in comic books. People who have the power to destroy or protect the very fabric of our world–our reality, even–are among those who display the most amount of fear and dread and hope and blessing. What could be more terrifying than stopping a villain from blowing up the sun? Or what could inspire more anxiety than being thwarted by a hero time and again? The characters in our beloved panels know about anxiety. So what better window through which to peer?

The depiction of clergy in comic books is no new thing. Usually, clergy in comics play only a handful of stereotypical roles. Either they are creepy child molesters, or they are narrow-minded bigots out to destroy the so-called demon-spawned protagonists. You may see the conflicted, brooding type of preacher or pastor who is losing his faith, contrasted to a more “faithful” non-believer, who show him the way. Lots of times, clergy in comics are played specifically against type, wearing the clothes of a clergy person, but displaying a personality that would curl the collar of any bishop or pontiff. Every once in a while, you might get a caring priest or a loving nun, but overall, the role of the clergy person is not one that evokes warm fuzzies among the superhero community or the readers of such comics.

Typically I roll my eyes whenever I see a William Stryker or a Jesse Custer or a Church of Universal Truth clergyman because, like a doctor who watches House and scoffs, I’m just too close to the source material. None of these clergy types know anything about pastoral care in the midst of anxious times. If anything, they teach us how to be more anxious in anxious times. Then along comes Peter David’s X-Factor.

X-Factor (the current book, not the original book from the ’80s about the original X-Men) is about a group of super-human private investigators, led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man. Jamie’s power is that he can make duplicates of himself, but each duplicate represents a different aspect of Jamie’s personality. Only, he can’t control which aspect comes out. He might need someone really reliable and creative, and instead, create a duplicate that’s sociopathic. However, once Jamie reabsorbs a dupe, he absorbs their knowledge, and any physical harm that might have come to them.

At one point, Jamie decided to create a bunch of dupes and send them out into the world to learn everything they could. This is John Maddox. He’s one of Jamie’s dupes that went off into the world in search of enlightenment. We all know what the quintessential life of enlightenment is, don’t we? John became an Episcopal priest. He serves as the rector of a small, rural parish. He’s married and has an adopted son. John is the one dupe that writer Peter David visits frequently. The X-Factor team runs into him from time to time, and since John is a pacifist, and a peacemaker, he usually finds the members of the team, including Jamie, in times of complete disaster, sometimes of the super-villain sort, but most of the time, because of personal trial and tribulation.

Case in point. This is Theresa Cassidy, also known as Siryn. She’s a long-time member of the team. She’s an Irish Catholic spitfire and the co-leader of X-Factor. She and Jamie have a love/hate relationship, which started when Theresa fell in love with Jamie, or who she thought was Jamie, but turned out to be a dupe.

Theresa has had a number of personal tragedies, including the death of her father, who was a super-powered member of the X-Men, and recovery from alcoholism. Her most recent tragedy, however, involved Jamie intimately. In a one-night stand relationship, Theresa got pregnant. She carried the baby full-term, which was interesting because she’s a super-hero. She delivered a healthy baby boy named Sean, whom she named after her father.

However, in a heart-breaking plot twist, when Jamie came to visit Theresa in the hospital after the delivery, upon holding the child, he reabsorbed him. Theresa’s son Sean was an infant dupe of Jamie’s and was not ever a “real” baby. This spirals Theresa into utter depression. She leaves the team, and heads back home to Ireland.

In the back-up story in the recent X-Factor #200, entitled Matters of Faith, we find Theresa visiting the grave of her father. As fate, or the Spirit, would have it, she is met by the Rev. John Maddox, whom she mistakes for Jamie. She clocks him, then realizes that he does not have Jamie’s facial tattoo. Realizing her mistake, she helps him up and immediately is defensive, wanting to know why Jamie has sent John there. John says he’s there for a conference only and happened upon her in the cemetery.

Theresa turns to walk away, but is drawn into conversation with John. She asks him, “What does [God] want from me?” She relates all the things that other clergy have said to her, “It’s all part of God’s plan,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and “God loves you,” the usual platitudes. John offers a different angle. “God hates you,” he says sarcastically, “He looked down and said ‘Theresa Cassidy has really pissed me off and I’m going to keep battering her until she breaks, because I really have nothing better to do.'” He goes on to explain that bad things just happen and it doesn’t really matter if it’s God’s plan or not. Instead, God gives us one another to bear the burdens together.

We all know that the old platitudes don’t work. In the midst of anxious times, talk of “God’s plan” and “God’s love” doesn’t hold true, if it ever did. John’s pastoral sense is to meet Theresa where she is. To confront the fact that her life really is painful, to be present within her pain, and to remind her that she is not alone.

The life of a superhero is tough. So is the life of a clergy person. We are surrounded by anxious circumstances and anxious people. And there will be times when these anxious things will make us anxious, as well. We cannot lead a completely non-anxious life. Yet God gives us one another. We never have to share anxiety alone.

As clergy, as we deal in the business of anxiety, our job isn’t to come up with the perfect answer or the next brilliant and pithy statement. Our job is to remind people that they aren’t alone in their pain and anxiety.

Peter David nails good clergy leadership in X-Factor every time he writes the Rev. John Maddox. I’m struck because this is the kind of priest I want to be. For once, there’s a honest-to-God role model for even the comic-collecting priest. And that’s the beauty of X-Factor, and comics in general. In simple reminders like these, we realize that no matter if we are a believer or not, a Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Jew, or whatever, we are never alone in these anxious times. When we feel that God has abandoned us, we still have one another.

And that is incredibly comforting.

Jeff Jackson



  1. “The depiction of clergy in comic books is no new thing. Usually, clergy in comics play only a handful of stereotypical roles. Either they are creepy child molesters, or they are narrow-minded bigots out to destroy the so-called demon-spawned protagonists.”

    I highly recommend Peter David’s “Fallen Angel” to you Jeff. I don’t want to give anything away, but it lets a priest shine in a totally different light that you may find bad ass. I know I do, and that’s saying something! Oh, and have you checked out “Haunt”? Not quite the same thing, but a take you may dig.

    And yeah, that dupe baby thing was f-ed up!

    “She relates all the things that other clergy have said to her, “It’s all part of God’s plan,” “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and “God loves you,” the usual platitudes. John offers a different angle. “God hates you,” he says sarcastically, “He looked down and said ‘Theresa Cassidy has really pissed me off and I’m going to keep battering her until she breaks, because I really have nothing better to do.'” He goes on to explain that bad things just happen and it doesn’t really matter if it’s God’s plan or not. Instead, God gives us one another to bear the burdens together.”

    I think you know what I’m going to say, but I have to say it anyway: That’s no excuse. God is supposed to be an all empowered being, and in being so, can change the world for the better without the loss of free will. Getting rid of sins like murder, rape, disease, etc., etc., isn’t restricting Free Will- it’s ending suffering. God should really consider doing that.

    “When we feel that God has abandoned us, we still have one another.”

    Exactly…so why do we need God in the first place when we have each other?

    : )

    Great article Jeff!!

  2. Great article! I think Peter might appreciate so I sent him the link.

  3. Thanks JK! I’d love to hear from Peter about his thoughts on this. I’m a big fan of his, and it sounds like I need to pick up Fallen Angel. I’ve heard great things about it, not just on Comicattack.net, but everywhere.

  4. Billy

    Good stuff J.

  5. @Andy-I think God is considering doing that. I think God is trying desperately to make things work right without all that sin and suffering. But I also think that God is using us to fulfill that work. However, human beings constantly choose our own selfish ambition rather than looking outward to fulfill God’s good work.

    Could God snap God’s fingers and restore everything? Certainly. But would that be free will? I don’t think so.

    I believe God works through each of us when we love, when we are compassionate, and when we serve one another. That’s why it’s so important for us to help one another. As it has been said many times, “God has no hands but our hands.” We do the work of God, or we do the work of ourselves. Most of the time, the work of ourselves includes seeking our own needs rather than the needs of others. This leads to a broken world.

    So that’s why I think Peter David does a great job of illustrating this point in this issue. Instead of glossing over our pain with pleasantries, God gives us one another to share the burden of pain and suffering. And that’s how God relieves it.

    Why do we need God? Because without God enacting this compassion and love within us, we will certainly fall back into our self-centeredness.

  6. Chance Saver

    I find the depiction of John Maddox as a priest quite fascinating, because it brings up a certain aspect of Multiple Man’s powers that I’m not sure Peter David has addressed when it comes to John’s character.

    John Maddox is a dupe. He is not a whole man. He is an ASPECT of Jamie Maddox. Props to Peter David for exploring this dynamic to begin with, since it was for the longest time just a given that Jamie’s duplicates were exact copies of Jamie. PAD came along and wrote that that is not the case. Certain dupes have certain character traits…certain slivers of Jamie’s psyche…that differentiate one dupe from another. Some differences are pronounced, some are so subtle as to not be noticed at all.

    Now we come to John. He has gone out into the world and he is now a priest. But what does that mean? When a priest or rabbi or pastor or imam or anyone else comes to preach in front of his or her flock, the idea is this person is possessing some moral authority based on knowledge or experience…the knowledge and experience of a WHOLE person. A complete person who lived through and learned from the trials and tribulations of, well, LIFE.

    John cannot say this. He is an aspect of Jamie, not the whole. His dupe personality might have been geared to more trascendent subjects while another dupe might just want to go get drunk and have sex. Neither represent the entirety of Jamie’s character. In that case, is his spiritual outlook on life hold any legitimate claim? He cannot preach of overcoming any spiritual trials because HE NEVER HAD TO OVERCOME THEM. He was just a dupe who had the luck of being created with a more spiritual outlook on life. (Actually, I’m speculating here. Perhaps the John Maddox dupe IS a more direct copy of Jamie, or maybe he isn’t….we’ll never know until PAD spells it out.)

    Just a thought. Talk amongst yourselves. Peace.

  7. Jeff Jackson

    Good points, Chance. While John may be an aspect of Jamie, he is still a whole person, though, I believe. I don’t see the dupes being paper dolls that Jamie creates, but real life forms. That is an aspect of Jamie’s powers that PAD hasn’t touched on. Is this really LIFE that Jamie is creating? I see it as Jamie creates a clone of himself which has a dominant attribute of himself. Therefore, with John out in the world, Jamie himself has lost his religious/faithful attribute. It’s an interesting concept.

  8. Chance Saver

    Interesting outlook…and actually a step beyond the point I was trying to make! But later…

    First, when I said Jamie’s dupes weren’t a whole person, I was talking in a more psychological sense. Of course, they are whole people (I guess…I mean, it is a weird freakin’ power) in the sense they have mass, weight, two arms, two legs, a brain, and a heartbeat. I was talking about the idea of the “whole” person when talking about John, who, being a priest holds himself up as an example of spiritual authority. I’m not questioning his position because I don’t think he’s ALIVE, I’m questioning his position because, as a dupe, he cannot claim to have the ying/yang, light and dark sides that make up a human psyche the way Jamie does.

    Let’s take an extreme case. Make that VERY extreme. Let’s say some boy gets castrated, and then grows up to proclaim the evils of premarital sex and how joyful a sex free life can be. (Like I said, this is a whacked out example, I know) Would his testimony bare ANY weight whatsoever. No.

    Well, same for John (theoretically). His psyche MAY have been created without the more, shall we say, “spicier” elements that make up a whole human psyche. In that case, isn’t his spiritual position undermined?

  9. Chance Saver

    (cont’d….since for some darn reason the reply box wouldn’t let me go further…..Huh?)

    Now, I know no one else can walk in someone elses shoes, but to continue the metaphor…John didn’t have shoes to begin with.


    Let’s get back to YOUR point. You know, I never really viewed Jamie’s power as something that took anything AWAY from Jamie like you suggest. Does that mean if Jamie makes a dupe that is a jerk, does that make Jamie any less…um….jerky? I’m not sure that’s how it works. I don’t think a Xerox copy of a document takes anything AWAY from the document itself.

    But if that IS the case, what does that say of John? I mean, he seems like a gentle soul and he has seen Jamie in pain several times. In that case, shouldn’t he want to get absorbed by an “incomplete” Jamie and help ease his pain? I mean, how’s this for a twister…if John’s psychic elements were in Jamie and subsequent dupes, the incident with Jamie and Syren’s baby might never have happened.

    Of course, there are a lot more emotional elements at play, I realize. Perhaps Jamie feels he doesn’t “deserve” to have John’s psyche back with him. Maybe John isn’t as confident in his spiritual outlook as he lets on, and feels Jamie would be better off without him in his head. I dunno. It’s confusing.

    Anyway, just something to chew on. Discuss.

  10. I wish PAD would pop up in here and give us the lowdown from his point of view.

    So from your angle, John equally doesn’t have the other aspects of Jamie? I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes sense.

    However, I don’t think him being less than “whole” takes away his authority on spiritual matters. He certainly has Jamie’s more “spicer” (haha) memories from before he was created. I don’t think John is completely “pure” with a blake slate. It’s more like taking fingerprints. If I make a fingerprint, that fingerprint can be altered, drawn on to make a sheep or bunny rabbit, used to wipe my nose on, or whatever. But it’s still my fingerprint and has all the aspects of my original fingerprint.

    I see John as the fingerprint of Jamie, which has a certain inclination toward priesthood, but containing the original print.

    Good discussion!

  11. Chance Saver

    Good discussion, eh? Well, let’s throw down some more!!

    I got to call you on the fingerprint analogy. I don’t think it holds water when you look at how PAD has run the character so far. The way you seem to view Madrox’s power is his dupe is a direct copy of Jamie, and then the dupes memories are added on from that dupes perspective. However, due to the way some dupes have acted, I don’t think that’s the case. They are just wired differently AT THE MOMENT OF THEIR CREATION.

    And if it looks like I’m coming off like I’m trying to jump on John for “cheating” his way to a spiritual path, let’s remember we don’t know every detail of this dupes life. For all we know, the guy could have started off as a serial killer who repented. Heck, it WOULD explain his reluctance to go “back home” to Jamie. He figures Jamie might have enough to worry about. (That would just be like PAD to do that, too. Have you read his Supergirl? Makes an Earth born angel out of murdering devil worshipper.)

    I am saying that maybe (and I stress MAYBE) we shouldn’t view the actions of these dupes as “real” as the original Jamie Madrox, and their perspective might be incomplete and questions of that imcompleteness should be addressed….ESPECIALLY if one of them claims to be a man of God.

    Or PAD could just chuck it all and write another Star Trek novel. It’s his baby.

  12. So do you think the dupes have none of Jamie’s memories? If that’s the case, wouldn’t they, upon being created, stand there and ask, “Who the heck are you?” They are not blank slates. They contain memories, but have a dominant aspect of Jamie’s personality. Jamie can dupe himself on a whim in battle and send one on a mission. The dupe automatically knows the situation and what needs to be done. Jamie doesn’t have to spend time explaining everything.

    Therefore, John MUST have Jamie’s prior knowledge and experience.

    And why must he have prior experience in order to hold authority on spiritual matters? Does one have to smoke in order to know that smoking is unhealthy? Does one have to murder in order to know it’s wrong? Does one have to lose a child in order to know it hurts?

    The fact that John pastors the way he does, without judgement or condemnation but with compassion and love, tells me that he has experience dealing with issues and can help people deal with them.

    I think it’s the experience post-creation that these dupes get that makes them more than just mere copies but real people in their own right.

  13. Chance Saver

    My take on James Madrox’s power is his dupes have his memories. However, I think its been shown that for some reason certain dupes (or maybe even ALL dupes if they stuck around long enough for a psychological profile)are just wired to act differently INDEPENDENT of the shared memories each dupe shares.

    That being said, is John’s compassionate, nonjudgemental attitude “earned”, or is it just because he’s a dupe and got the lucky straw when it comes to Jamie’s psyche?

  14. Jeff Jackson

    I would say both. I think he got the “lucky” straw of the religious aspect of Jamie’s psyche, but also went out to gather more information about that aspect, thus probably going to church, being a part of the community, discerning a vocation to priesthood, going to seminary, and being called to pastor a church.

    Obviously, Jamie’s psyche contains innumerable aspects that gain more sentience upon gathering more information. That’s why one dupe comes back a priest, another comes back a Buddhist monk, and another comes back a SHIELD agent.

  15. Chance Saver

    Ah, but it isn’t the innumerable aspects of Jamie’s psyche that makes having one of his dupes preaching morality problematic, its the aspects he (arguably) DOESN’T have.

    It’s one thing to not smoke because you know its unhealthy. It’s another thing to not smoke because you don’t know what a cigarette is.

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