I’ve been reading a lot of comics that use mythology and folklore as a springboard the past few months, rediscovering old favorites and learning about a lot of new creatures, personalities, and stories I want to get to know better in the coming year (#goals2021). The more I’ve explored, the more I’ve come to realize how much even mainstream comics draw on bits and pieces of religious doctrine, morality tales, sacred texts, oral traditions, myths, legends, fairytales, fables, and folklore. And I’m not talking about casually borrowing the name of a culture hero or god and some of their obvious attributes—that’s cultural appropriation, and cultural appropriation is A Problem.
Which isn’t to say deeper dives don’t result in cultural appropriation. It’s something both readers and writers need to be aware of and something that should be called out when it happens. Sensitivity readers have become highly prized collaborators in this business of ours for a reason. Hire one. Pay them well. Listen to what they advise. Do what they tell you or find a different way to make your story work.
That said, there are certain archetypes that seem to spark a response across various cultural lines, language divides, and international borders. No character, or type of character, is ever going to be universally applicable or interesting, but there are some who have endured or been reborn in different bodies (we call those legacy characters), or lived on different worlds or in different dimensions and that happens when there’s something about them that holds interest (AKA sells books, AKA makes money). When we see those types of characters in different forms, in books published by different companies, it feels sort of like looking at different people doing the same job different ways.
More often than not those jobs are of a unique variety such as, say…the Incarnation of Vengeance.
Here are three of my favorites:
The Spectre (DC)
The Specter is the embodiment of god’s Avenging Wrath. He incarnates in a human host, often a member of law enforcement, including: Jim Corrigan (detective), Hal Jordan (space cop), and Crispus Allen (also detective). Later in the Spectre’s history, it was revealed that he was an angel named Aztar who participated in Lucifer’s rebellion but later repented and would be allowed to return to Heaven on the condition that he do penance as the embodiment as God’s wrath (heavenly cop).
The Spectre’s alignment most closely approximates lawful neutral: he views actions as either good or evil according to a set morality, and those actions are punished accordingly. While in a human host, he is able to view crimes on a spectrum from minor to serious (e.g. petty theft to murder) and to view them in context (e.g. when confronted with a woman who had murdered her abusive husband, the Spectre judged the man’s crime of abuse to be worse and the woman be justified in murdering him). When the Spectre lacks a host, he loses nuance and context, treating all purse snatchers with equal impunity and brutality as he would serial killers.
Once the Specter does decide a person deserves punishment, he exercises his right to the full extent of his power; the Spectre does not adjust the punishment to fit the crime, and his punishments can be brutal as he has the same powers as God, including: the ability to manipulate space, time, energy, and matter, which allows him to do virtually anything he wishes to those who earn his wrath. He also has superhuman strength and endurance as well as near invulnerability and powerful magic, though he can eventually exhaust his reserves with continuous or large spells. The Spectre can be limited only by extremely powerful magic, Will of God, and Divine Law.
Ghost Rider #5: Robbie Reyes (Marvel)
Like the Spectre, Ghost Rider is a legacy character, though unlike the aforementioned, more than one Ghost Rider can be active at a time and the various heroes bearing the name can, and have, interacted with one another. Robbie earned his flaming head after being murdered during a drag race he had entered to earn money he intended to use to move himself and his disabled brother out of their less than savory neighborhood. The car Robbie had “borrowed” from the garage where he worked was possessed by the ghost of one Eli Morrow, who went on to possess Robbie’s corpse and brought him back to life. The two struck a deal: Eli would help Robbie clean up the neighborhood and Robbie would help Eli avenge his death. Turned out Eli was actually family—the bad kind you definitely don’t want to show up unannounced to Thanksgiving—and the two spirits battle it out over Robbie’s body; Robbie wins by striking a second deal: he’ll slake Eli’s bloodlust, but only by killing people with evil souls (which Robbie can determine using one of Ghost Rider’s most powerful tools: the Penance Stare, which is the ability to look into a soul and force it to feel the weight and pain of all its sins).
Unlike other Ghost Riders, who are possessed by Spirits of Vengeance or other demonic entities, Robbie has to make nice with an ex-Satanic serial killer Russian mafia hitman. I’d argue that’s still a vengeance spirit. From a certain point of view. Good thing Robbie has determination on his side. He’s also strong, fast, and durable, wields chains, and, in a departure from his forebears, his flaming metal head is attached to his body. He does have to fight Eli for control from time to time, and when he’s very angry Robbie evolves into an even stronger, demonic form that, while more powerful, is more difficult to control. His car, a Hell Charger, can teleport, and its trunk is a portal through Hell.
Screw the Supernatural Impala. I want one of these.
Emilia Justina/Emi Yusa (Yen Press)
It was the half-angel, half-human Hero Emilia who defeated Satan’s generals and forced Satan himself to retreat through the portal to Tokyo, and the Hero Emilia who gave up all she had known to follow him and make certain he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone in the realm on the other side. It was Emi Yusa who forged ahead alone, who made a new life for herself, found an apartment and employment, who tracked King Satan down and promised to finish wreaking vengeance upon him for murdering her father and destroying her home on Ente Isla.
After spending time with Sadao Maou, Satan’s (mostly) human alter ego on Earth, however, Emi realizes that he may not be the one deserving of her sword, especially after one of her former allies from the Church should his soul to Lucifer, one of the King’s former generals, to forge an alliance in the hopes of killing not only Maou but Emi as well, without any regard for the safety of innocent bystanders. That single question leads Emi to doubt everything including whether or not the job she spent her life training for is the one she wants or the one anyone should have.
Plenty more where those came from. Stay tuned for more Weird Jobs in Comics.