My faith and geek lives are converging. Small wonder, since the same well waters both: imagination. After all, what is a geek but someone who enjoys imagined worlds as much as the real one? And what is the life of faith, other than enjoying a real world that comes from a bigger imagination than my own?
I know that’s perilously close to Hallmark, but bear with me. There’s a big difference between active imagination and empty sentimentality. One is often lost in the noise of the other, especially at this time of year. So I’d like to set the record straight.
For those of us living in calendar time, the end of the year is coming soon, and that can mean only one thing: Christmas!*
[*Insert culturally appropriate solstice festival of your choice.]
For those of us living in Christian liturgical time, however, the year ended on November 29, and that can mean only one thing: Advent!
Chocolate-filled countdown calendars aside, Advent is not “a time to get ready for Christmas.” It’s not about decorating and cocoa. If you haven’t darkened the door of a church in a while, you may be surprised by what you hear at this time of year. You probably expect readings anticipating cozy manger scenes and snowy silence, newborn babes, peace on Earth, and gentle, soothing hope for a jaded world.
If so, keep looking. No room for that in this inn.
No, when Advent began last Sunday, the first words of the religious year were:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.” -Mark 13:33
In the religious imagination, Advent is the time to get ready for a new world, made perfect by God. The season is its own spirituality, not an adjunct to another holiday. These four weeks are marked by all the wonderful, rich, destructive/creative language of the prophets of Israel, calling impatiently for God to send his chosen among us, to unmake the unjust and broken world and fashion it again according to his own imagination.
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be?” -2 Peter 3:10-11
So, Merry-freaking-Christmas! Grab the emergency kit and pile into the Winnebago!
Surprisingly, Advent is the holiday of the Apocalypse, preparing oneself for judgment and the unmaking of the world. We just celebrate it immediately before Christmas to close the emotional loop. Ordinary time comes to a fiery end in darkest November, so that everything can start fresh in a stable as the days grow light once more. When all that fierce yearning on the page finally culminates in Christmas, the readings shock us with their sudden silence. The practice of Advent is a literary adventure, its narrative dissonance a thing of beauty. The Christmas candlelight that strikes so many now as cloying becomes something else entirely once the stars have melted from the sky.
In a world where Christmas and religion itself has been emasculated with sweetness, I long for a faith that dares to be more powerful than worlds. I suspect I am not alone. Like any child, I yearned for Christmas. Now, like any geek, it is Advent I look forward to all year. Religious or not, geeks are especially attuned to the spirit of Advent. We are used to the end of the world, after all. It’s the signature theme in our chosen vice: genre fiction. Thirty years ago, for instance, worlds lived, worlds died, and nothing was ever the same.
DC Comics was turning 50 and having a late mid-life crisis. They had published the monthly adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest for decades. Their stable of characters, now hundreds deep, had been created or acquired through World War II, Viet Nam, and the Cold War, somehow surviving each cultural shift, yet struggling to connect with each subsequent generation. To remain relevant, the publisher had created a complex fictional multiverse to house their vibrant cast of spandex-clad characters. The original Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had emerged before the Manhattan Project. Their old four-color adventures seemed quaint to the modern geek of the Atomic Age, but were cultural vanguards that couldn’t simply be abandoned.
The solution seemed simple: give them their own fictional world. By the 1970s, the Superman I read each month wasn’t “the same” Superman that my father had read as a boy. Though there was no official transition, it was just understood that my adventures took place in the current publishing line, deemed “Earth-1,” while my father’s had been relegated to a parallel universe simply called “Earth-2.” The line stayed fresh without jettisoning heritage. My Clark Kent, after Christopher Reeve, grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, lived in an apartment at 344 Clinton Street and worked as a television news anchor. Dad’s Clark Kent, the original intrepid news reporter, grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, continuing to age and have unpublished adventures there. Occasionally a story would cross between worlds, the characters would meet, and we’d be treated to a nostalgic little update on the thrilling days of yesteryear.
However, as DC continued to acquire intellectual property from other publishers, they brought them into the fold on their own fictional, parallel Earths. Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel (Shazam!) now took place on Earth-5. American Comics’ Plastic Man and the Freedom Fighters? Earth-X. Blue Beetle and the entire Charlton Comics catalogue of characters now comprised Earth-4. By the start of the 1980s, it was a bit of a mess. DC Comics had invented the superhero, but was bleeding market share to upstart Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, The Avengers). Moreover, the newsstand was dying, and independent publishers captured more and more of the direct market that replaced it. So they did the unthinkable: they destroyed their worlds and started over.
Fans who had read for decades, and kids like me, were transfixed by a year-long epic called “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In it, all of DC’s characters in all of DC’s worlds band together to stop the Anti-Monitor, an all-powerful cosmic force that feeds on the death of one fictional dimension after another. A convoluted, fan-driven story that doesn’t always hold up to modern scrutiny, it can still pack quite a punch. Gone is the original universe of the old Superman and Batman stories. Both Supergirl and the Flash sacrifice their lives to stop the Anti-Monitor’s plan. In the end, only five alternate realities remain and avoid annihilation by merging into a single reality, sharing a single history. In one stroke of the pen, the publisher combined all of its far-flung properties into a single world rich with new storytelling potential. Characters that before could never meet, now could team up… or had even been friends for years. Fan-favorite alternate versions of characters from the 1930s could still stick around as legacy characters, inspiring younger heroes by the same name. Characters could be relaunched entirely for fresh takes on familiar stories. Some could be written out entirely.
Though there have been minor tweaks throughout the years, the latest in 2011, the “Crisis” of 1985 brought the advent of a new trend in imaginative fiction. Shocking in 1985, the idea of demolishing stories and starting them over now permeates popular culture. Everywhere you turn in genre fiction, stories are getting retold, rebooted, and reformed for new audiences. No longer a Victorian, Sherlock Holmes is now a fixture of modern London on the BBC. Thirty years and five series of Star Trek were effectively unwound in 2009 through a time-travel plot eliminating every episode and movie ever filmed, and replacing every character except for Leonard Nimoy. The 1970s sci-fi camp of Battlestar Galactica became masterful television drama in 2004, sharing only the names of the original characters. This summer, Godzilla rose again for the first time, but on the American side of the Pacific. A new take on Planet of the Apes is breathing new life into that old franchise. Director Bryan Singer patched up his flawed and popular X-Men series with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Like Star Trek above, a time travel plot removes past entries in the series… only this time, just the bad films! James Bond took a mulligan in Casino Royale and although time travel wasn’t involved, it may as well have been. Judi Dench had just replaced “M” for Pierce Brosnan’s seasoned Bond, only to have the series rebooted under her, playing the same character for Daniel Craig as a Bond in his first adventure. Even Scooby-Doo is about to be rebooted next year.
UPDATE 12/15/14: Looks like the Scooby Gang isn’t the only one getting a do-over makeover. After 73 years of unbroken publishing history, Archie Andrews and the Riverdale High Gang are being rebooted for modern sensibilities. An epic combination of creators Mark Waid and Fiona Staples will start readers afresh with a new Archie #1 in 2015, going back to the “origin” story of the classic Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle and getting the gang together for the first time… all over again.
In a way, this is nothing new. Folk and tall tales are meant to be reinvented with each retelling. Until now, however, media properties have not. We tend to look at them as snapshots of their time, moments frozen on film that rerun with our own memories on the late night cable of our lives.
It’s tempting to see this merely as a lack of creative imagination, a crass cashing in on worn-out franchises and middle-aged male nostalgia. After all, the list above reads like the contents of a fourth-grade boy’s bedroom floor in 1980. That would be true, if only the properties proved inferior to the originals. As a fan, however, it’s painful to admit: the results are often amazing. Where the originals may be “classic,” the re-imaginings are “powerful.” More than just remakes, they offer a depth of characterization and plotting the old versions aspired to yet simply couldn’t contain.
Instead, I see a popular culture that’s making favorite fiction into oral tradition, a kind of urban renewal of the imagination. Similar to the religious imagination, geek culture must move beyond the collector stereotype of “sealing the past in plastic.” Like prophetic faith, it is learning to let go of the idols it’s made of its playtime. If favorite worlds are going to live, and become the best versions of themselves, then they must die and be recreated in love. It’s not “another Hollywood remake.” It’s geek evangelism.
Kind of exciting really. Like a rebuilt engine in a classic car. Like old wine in new wineskins. Like Advent.
“Behold, I make all things new.” -Revelation 21:5
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